Innovative craft cocktails, hip vintage shops, authentic Neapolitan pizza, futuristic shopping centers, fourth-wave coffee, efficient sky rail and subway lines, and talented drag queens; we’re not talking about Los Angeles, Seattle, or London here: this is Bangkok!
I’ve been to this city at least a dozen times since 2005 and its evolution of late reminds me what happened to Shanghai: a proliferation of shiny modern buildings, developments, and efficient infrastructure, at the cost of heritage sites, old-time character, and historic districts.
Bangkok’s world-famous street food strip, Sukhumvit Soi 38 (a handful of Thai restaurants around the world, including in Washington D.C. and Adelaide, Australia, are named after it) saw most of its longtime hawkers forced to evacuate in March when a new condominium tower began construction. Pak Khlong Talad flower market, a centuries-old institution, was largely cleared out in April, and May signaled the end for night market stalls along famed gay nightlife destination, Silom.
“I have mixed feelings about the development,” admits Stuart, a college friend who moved here about 13 years ago when he fell in love with Thailand and a beguiling Thai lawyer. “On one hand, progress and modernization has its benefits, but I also miss the quirkiness, local ingenuity, and sense of community the old markets represent. Soi 38 was hot and sweaty, but it was delicious, cheap, and customers came from all walks of life, from movie stars to construction workers. Same for the now- demolished old Sam Yan market, which sat on top of a MRT subway station.”
Conversely, Bangkok’s new developments are largely awesome, plus the LGBT bucket-list destination retains enough distinctly Thai culture, temples, dirt-cheap street food, spicy flavors, bustling energy, spa culture, Buddhist Zen, and raucous gay night-life, including weekly/monthly events by party promoters G-Spot Entertainment (www.facebook.com/gspot.ent). You can also add to this a whole new, chic, international side, especially within the trendy districts of Ari, Sathorn, Ekkamai, and Thonglor. The latter neighborhood, a boutique-y, upscale enclave to the city’s southeast easily accessed by the BTS skyrail, is largely populated by creative and “hi-so” (short for “high society” and affluent) Thais and expats. It’s one of my favorite districts today.
Several times a week I visited Thonglor’s The Commons (335 Thonglor Soi 17, Sukhumvit 55, Tel: 89 152 2677. www.facebook.com/thecommonsbkk), one of several gorgeously designed, food-centric open-plan malls that opened in early 2016. The ground level entails a food hall with one of Bangkok’s best craft coffee spots, Roots (their cold brew with orange and tonic is supremely refreshing), and solid Neapolitan pizzas and Negroni at Peppina when a Western craving hits. Several landscaped, photogenic outdoor levels feature dessert spots Maygori and Brix, the latter being especially popular with the gay boys, while Roast on the top level is a Western brunch fave.
A block away, 72 Courtyard (Sukhumvit Soi 55 between Thonglor Sois 16 & 18. www.72courtyard.com) features an offshoot of Melbourne’s hipster Mexican restaurant Touche Hombre (www.facebook.com/touché-hombre-bangkok-767504770025112), slick coffee shop/bakery Rocket X (www.rocketcoffeebar.com), and speakeasy Uncle (www.avunculus.com).
In fact, Thonglor and neighboring Ekkamai are riddled with atmospheric, excellent speakeasies right now, including new arrival Rabbit Hole (125 Sukhumvit Soi 55, Tel: 98-969-1335. www.facebook.com/rabbitholebkk). Discreetly tucked between a ramen shop and Japanese bar, this three-level venue specializes in gin cocktails like a fat-washed Tanqueray White Truffle Martini and Mad Hatter with smoked-tea soda and passion fruit.
Ashley Sutton, an Aussie expat, designed some of Bangkok’s most cinematic cocktail and nightlife spots including The Iron Fairies, Sing Sing Theater, and The Book- shop Bar. He opened his own Steampunkish speakeasy in 2014, A.R. Sutton Engineers Siam (Park Lane Lifestyle Mall, Sukhumvit Soi 63. www.ironballsgin.com). Drinks are based around his small-batch Iron Balls Gin, also sold here in beautiful glass bottles. Admittedly, I don’t love his gin, which is light on juniper and heavy on coconut and pineapple, and each batch varies wildly in flavor, but the cocktails and cool little hidden perches, one lined with apothecary bottles, makes this worth a visit.
Also gin-centric, with a side order of racy artwork, rustic-chic Teens Of Thailand (76 Soi Nana, Tel: 81-443-3784. www.facebook.com/teens-of-thailand-390546624476692) opened in June 2015 within a dilapidated Chinatown lane, Soi Nana. So did neighboring Tep Bar (69-71 Soi Nana, Tel: 98 467 2944. www.facebook.com/tepbar), a two-level shop-house space that rocks it old school “lo-so” Thai with herbal rice whiskeys, aka ya dong (it’s basically infused Thai moonshine, and an acquired taste) as a band cranks out frantic ranat thum tunes. Quite an experience!
Probably the funkiest cocktail in Bangkok at present, however, is the Blue Cheese Martini, another fat-washed concoction fashioned with ghee, rosemary, honey, and caper garnish, at Smith (1/8 Sukhumvit Soi 49, Tel: 02-261-0515). A former warehouse space with a sort of London gastropub concept, Smith’s food is also quite solid, especially the creamy applewood smoked mashed potatoes.
Celebrity Iron Chef Ian Kittichai of excellent, accessible modern-Thai spot Issaya Siamese Club (4 Soi Sri Aksorn, Tel: 02-672-9040. www.issaya.com) is one of Smith’s partners, while Thailand’s other Iron Chefs have recently headed up kitchens to whip up inventive, TV-worthy fare. At Whale’s Belly (39 Boulevard Tower, Sukhumvit Soi 39, Tel: 02-1600-333. www.whales-belly.com), 2014 winner Mai Apirawit recreates his Yuzu Cold Capellini, a heavenly pasta creation with truffle, blue crab, tuna tartare, and caviar. Meanwhile, Chef Pu Theeraphong brings drama and seasonal themes to the glam Osha (99 Wireless Rd., Tel: +66-2-256-6555. www.oshabangkok.com), a must for its signature passion fruit cocktail, rich with pulp and served with a crown.
Silom finally saw the opening of a new gay bar and restaurant, Brother’s Bar (12/1-2 Silom, Tel: 80-905-3053. www.facebook.com/brothersbarbkk). It’s a sleek, long space with booths and tables of various sizes, a stage, and an equal emphasis on food, from breakfast to late-night snacks and drinks including international craft beers and cider. Live music and entertainment is also a staple. The venue’s name is a riff on Brother Bear, and while Asian bears make up a sizeable portion of the crowd, it’s quite a mix with twinks, ladyboys, and ladies too.
Closer to the Chao Phraya River side of Silom, the Ashley Sutton-designed Maggie Choo’s (Novotel Bangkok Fenix Silom Hotel, 320 Silom, Tel: 0-2-635-6055. www.facebook.com/maggiechoos), which could easily serve as location for a Baz Luhrmann Colonial era intrigue movie, has become a favorite haunt of LGBTs. Every Sunday is gay night, sometimes with performances by Bangkok’s incredible drag personality, Pangina Heals, aka Pan Pan Narkprasert.