The first thing you need to know about going out in Bangkok on a Saturday night is to never, ever trust Google Maps. While it’ll eventually get you from Point A to Point B, the city’s seemingly endless sprawl means you might as well add 30 minutes onto whatever Siri just quoted you. That’s a conservative estimate, too; over the course of my six months living in Thailand on a multiple-entry tourist visa, I’ve been early once.
Bangkok’s streets are laid out like a drunken labyrinth of dead ends and cryptic addresses. Take the neighboring high-society enclaves of Thonglor and Ekkamai: while they draw massive crowds of trend-chasing Thais and expats every weekend, there’s no point in bar-hopping unless you stick to a standalone complex like theCOMMONS.
That’s why backpackers stick to slamming buckets of Red Bull and rum on the 410-meter Khao San Road, while other transgressive tourists stroll along the 150-meter Soi Cowboy strip, soaking up neon-lit set pieces from The Hangover Part II. Aside from being compact, both are wallet-friendly and fit the unfortunate stereotype of Bangkok as the Sin City of Southeast Asia.
The characterization is accurate on some level, but there’s more to this bustling metropolis. If you’re looking for a microcosm of what makes Bangkok’s nightlife so special, it can be found in the walkable byways of Chinatown. While it’s seen a spike in notable restaurant and bar openings over the past couple years, the bones of Bangkok’s centuries-old district are as creaky and charming as they’ve ever been; it remains a mall-free master class in how to preserve the history of an area amid the crush of gentrification.
A prime example of this balancing act is the five-story FooJohn Building on Charoenkrung Road—one of Bangkok’s oldest streets, dating back to 1861. It’s split between three distinct spaces: a French bistro (FoudieJoie) where chef Romain Dupuy, also of SoulBar and Cho Why, serves delicate crepes and charcuterie; a middle level that specializes in classic cocktails (Amer); and a newly opened smokehouse (SpareParts) run by Texas native Caitlin Lee Chullasapya, also of the popular food truck Deli-Q. While these concepts are thoroughly modern they are housed in a restored 19th-century shophouse. Think of it as In the Mood For Love-meets-Amélie.
A Tour of Bangkok's Chinatown
Nearby is the craft beer bar Let the Girl Kill (LTGK), the second act of several partners from the short-lived Let the Boy Die. While LTGK serves the same cross-section of IPAs and stouts that any respectable craft beer bar in the States would, there’s one notable difference: a lot of it’s barely legal. Thai law requires breweries to produce 100,000 liters per year and pony up 10 million baht (nearly $300,000) to compete on the same plane as Chang, Singha and Leo. In other words, being craft is a crime.
While some entrepreneurs have skirted this law by contract-brewing in Vietnam, Australia and Cambodia, LTGK’s owners all have a hand in upstarts like The Circus, MickleheiM and GooseBeer and have found a way to toe the line of legality; LTGK is one of the few places where you can find nothing but local craft beer.
The rest of Chinatown’s rising bar and restaurant scene is concentrated around Soi Nana, a tiny alleyway easily reachable from Yaowarat Road. It’s home to street food staples like hoi tod (a crispy pancake studded with oysters and mussels), khao gaeng (DIY rice and curry) and kuay jab (a spicy soup heavy on pig parts and white pepper). No matter how young or old you are, many long Saturday nights begin and/or end here, perched on a plastic chair.
But first: a plan of attack for a perfect night out, from an aperitif at FooJohn to a heady nightcap at Ba Hao.
FooJohn Building | 831 Charoenkrung Soi 31
The scene: What it’d look like if Keith McNally (Balthazar, Schiller’s, Minetta Tavern) left downtown New York for a fresh start in Bangkok, with some design flourishes borrowed both from Prohibition-era Paris and the Chinese merchants who once ran their family businesses here.
Go for: Bourbon and barbecue or light French fare and a fairly priced (less than 200 baht, or $6) glass of wine.
Let the Girl Kill | 747 Charoenkrung
The scene: The name is a Game of Thrones nod, but the interior—cold, bare walls and a dragon-adorned, blood-red bar—is all Kill Bill: Volume 3.
Go for: Ask your bartender; Bangkok’s close-knit craft beer community is well-versed in what’s good locally.
23 Bar and Gallery | 92 Soi Nana
The scene: Dirt-cheap and dive-y meets teenage bedroom with hand-drawn art and pop ephemera plastered across the walls.
Go for: Well drinks and cheap beer from a friendly bartender that doubles as a post-punk/Brit-pop DJ, pairing The Stone Roses and Blur with Joy Division and Morrissey.
Teens of Thailand | 76 Soi Nana
The scene: In the words of co-owner Niks Anuman-Rajadhon, “Saturday night at Teens is pretty funky…” Just be prepared to wait for a table; the place is usually packed and there’s barely any room to stand between the front door and back bar area.
Go for: Well-balanced riffs on G&Ts served in goblets and spiked with Chrysanthemum or Thai tea.
Tep Bar | 69-71 Soi Nana
The scene: More civilized than any bar that serves house-made yadong (local white lightning steeped with seasonal herbs) could ever hope to be.
Go for: Traditional music from Central Thailand, performed every night but Wednesday, and approachable small plates like sun-dried beef stir-fried with crispy Thai basil.
Ba Hao | 8 Soi Nana
The scene: Co-owner Karnchanit Charoenyos likens Ba Hao’s spruced-up shophouse to Chinese acupuncture: “We found the spots that needed to be cured while keeping its existing structure, such as the high ceiling, steep staircases and wooden floor.”
Go for: A tightly edited menu of cocktails that lean on Chinese ingredients and bar snacks that channel the local team’s childhood memories, like cold tofu with a century egg and duck wontons doused in chili sesame oil.