Bangkok's reputation for rowdy nightlife tends to precede it; however, it's not all raunchy sex shows and public debauchery. There are plenty of nighttime cultural events, such as music, theater, puppetry performances, and orchestral maneuvers. For the hippest nightlife updates, check out BK Magazine (free and available at bookstores and restaurants). Featuring weekly listings of events as well as up-to-date info about the club scene, it is the best entertainment source in Bangkok. Both the Bangkok Post and The Nation also offer daily listings of cultural events and performance schedules.
The Performing Arts
Most travelers experience the Thai performing arts at a commercially staged dance show in a hotel, sometimes accompanied by a Thai banquet. Bangkok, however, does provide much more appetizing slices of theater, whether it is the avant-garde choreography seen at the Patravadi Theater, traditional puppet shows by Joe Louis, or international music recitals as part of annual festivals.
The National Theater, 1 Na Phra That Rd. (tel. 02224-1342), presents demonstrations of Thai classical dancing and music, by performers from the School of Music and Dance in Bangkok, which are generally superior to those at the tourist restaurants and hotels. There are also performances by visiting ballet and theatrical companies. Call the TAT or check with your hotel for the current schedule.
The Thailand Cultural Center, Thiem Ruammit Road, off Ratchadaphisek Road, Huai Khwang (tel. 02247-0028), is the largest performance center in town, offering a wide variety of programs. The Bangkok Symphony performs here during its short summer season. Other local and visiting companies also present theater and dance at the center. Take the MRT subway to the Thailand Cultural Center stop.
Bangkok's unique contemporary dance theater, Patravadi Theater, at Soi Wat Rakheng, off Anamarin Road (tel. 02412-7287; www.patravaditheatre.com), occupies a laid-back arty corner of the Thonburi district, and can be relied upon to challenge cultural conformity by putting on inspiring performances that combine all manner of Thai and international dance forms, including dazzling likay (similar to the style of Broadway musicals). Overseen since its founding by Patravadi Mejudhon, a former Thai classical dancer now in her late 50s, the theater is well worth the trip for those fascinated by Thailand's performing arts.
The Joe Louis Theater holds entrancing puppet theater performances of stories from the Ramakien (the Thai national epic) at Asiatique, S13 2194 Chareon Krung Rd.. Complex puppets are manipulated by up to three masters, and their movements are chillingly lifelike. Shows are twice nightly at 8pm and 9:15pm. Visit www.joelouistheatre.com for full details. Tickets for foreigners are 900B.
Bangkok cinemas are almost always located in malls and show a small selection of Hollywood films—with most leaning toward action films, though occasionally you may catch an art-house movie(see below). Here's the scoop on some of the top movie theaters in town:
Century Movie Plaza---Near Victory Monument, this plaza has eight screens featuring the latest movies, plus restaurants, a shopping arcade, and a karao-ke zone.
15 Phayathai Rd. [tel] 02 247 9940. www.centurythemovieplaza.com. Tickets 120–260 baht. BTS SkyTrain: Victory Monument.
SF World Cinema---A modern cinema complex with 10 screens that feature all the latest blockbusters and plenty of animated movies. There are a dozen other branches around the city but this is the biggest.
7th floor, 999/9, CentralWorld, Ratchadamri Rd, Pathumwan. [tel] 02 268 8888. www.sfcinemacity.com. Tickets from 120 baht. BTS SkyTrain: Chid Lom.
House RCA----The city's first boutique cinema in town is a refuge for lovers of arthouse/indie films. It also has Thai movies with subtitles and at least three movie festivals a year.
31/8 Royal City Ave, New Petchaburi Rd, Bangkapi. [tel] 02 641 5177 8. www.houserama.com. Tickets 100 baht. MRT subway: Petchaburi.
Paragon Cineplex---This luxurious cinema in Siam Paragon shop-ping mall shows all the new releases from Hollywood.
5th and 6th floors, Siam Paragon, Rama I Rd, Pathumwan. [tel] 02 129 4635. www.majorcineplex.com. Tickets 140 baht. BTS SkyTrain: Siam.
Quartier Cine-Art at Emquartier----Four high-end cinemas here include one with bedlike seating with a blanket and a pre-movie meal from Dean & Deluca.
4/F, Emquartier, Sukhumvit Rd. [tel] 02 261 0199. www.majorcineplex.com. Tickets 1,000 baht. BTS SkyTrain: Phrom Phong.
The Club & Bar Scene
From cool jazz lounges in top-end hotels to streetside dives in the backpacker district, Bangkok's got somewhere for everyone to feel good after dark. Many bars feature live music, and decor ranges from Wild West Saloon to English pub to futuristic dance club. The city is famed for its go-go bars, which are clustered in Patpong, Nana Plaza, and Soi Cowboy, so this aspect of the city is easy to avoid if it offends you. For a sundowner to remember, head for one of the city's rooftop bars, such as Sky Bar, and take in the panoramic view of this restless metropolis.
By the Riverside -- If you'd prefer to unwind with an evening cocktail and avoid the sleaze, head to two of the coolest bars in town, both at the Dome at State Tower (1055 Silom Rd.; tel. 02624-9999). The low-lit, indoor-outdoor lounge bar, Distil, sits on the 64th floor, just above the equally vertiginous, wholly outdoor Sky Bar. From both venues, the views of the city are amazing, and occasionally musicians perform at Sky Bar. The Dome instigates strict (smart) dress codes at all its venues, but it's definitely worth dressing up for.
To take in the heavy aroma of cigars mixed with the sultry sounds of jazz, the Bamboo Bar, at the Oriental Hotel (Soi Oriental, Charoen Krung [New] Rd.; tel. 02236-0400) is the place to go see and be seen -- it's popular with visiting celebs. Just across the river and upstream is the towering silhouette of the Millennium Hilton, Bangkok (123 Charoennakorn Rd.; tel. 02442-2000), whose rooftop lounge 360° is where night owls congregate to watch the city lights.
Silom Road & Patpong -- Patpong, which covers Soi Patpong 1 and 2, between Surawong and Silom roads, gets crammed with crowds, and is prime territory for pickpockets. Though the area is known for its go-go bars and sex shows, you don't need to visit for risqué entertainment -- there's a night market area to check out, too. The go-go bars are relatively modest, but if you venture into a sex show in an upstairs bar, be prepared to pay hugely inflated prices for your drinks. Web blogs recount vivid tales of how bars with sex shows sell overpriced drinks; when punters object, bouncers have been called in to "help." It can all end very nastily.
There are a number of bars just near Patpong. Molly Malone's on Convent Road (at 1/5-6 Sivadon Building; tel. 02266-7160) caters to Bangkok yuppies and foreign expatriates, with Irish pub style and live music after hours.
Head to Silom Soi 4 (btw. Patpong 2 and Soi Thaniya, off Silom Rd.) to find small homegrown clubs spinning great music, as well as the city's prominent gay clubs, Telephone Bar (114/11-13 Silom Soi 4; tel. 02234-3279) and the Balcony (86-8 Silom Soi 4; tel. 02235-5891) foremost among them.
Khao San Road -- Over on Rattanakosin Island, in Old Bangkok, the backpackers on Khao San Road still party on at Gulliver's, on the corner of Khao San and Chakrabongse roads (tel. 02629-1988). There are quite a few small dance clubs that come and go around here. You'll find lots of travelers in their 20s, and the atmosphere is always laid-back. In the middle of Khao San, look for Silk Bar (129-131 Khaosan Rd.; tel. 02281-9981), a dolled-up hideaway across from the Krung Thai Bank. Also don't miss Lava (249 Khao San Rd.; tel. 02281-6565), a popular basement dance club. For a more laid-back evening, head west of Khao San to Phra Athit Road, where there are any number of small cafes with live performances of folk, blues, and rock tunes. These small venues are full of Thai college students going "beat." Acts change nightly, so walk the road's length, and have a peek in each spot. Down the small sois surrounding the temple compound (on the river end of Khao San), look for lots of little open-air bars -- they're a good place to meet fellow travelers.
Sukhumvit Road -- As mentioned earlier, by sunset, the sois off Sukhumvit Road morph into a giant red-light zone, so don't venture off the main road here unless you are ready to be hassled by touts and hookers. Sukhumvit plays host to a wide range of pub-style bars as well as a couple of Bangkok's popular clubs. Q Bar (34 Sukhumvit Soi 11; tel. 02252-3274) is a great venue with cool decor and sounds, but has more than its fair share of working girls. Royal Oak (Sukhumvit Soi 33/1; tel. 02261-0665) is a fun local pub that draws crowds with frequent theme parties and a clubhouse vibe. Huntsman (at the Landmark Hotel, Sukhumvit Rd.; tel. 02254-0404) is a popular place for cold draft beer and big-screen sports. Barsu, at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, 250 Sukhumvit Rd. (tel. 02649-8888), offers soul, funk, rock, and plenty of '70s and '80s sounds in a hip setting. In a little alleyway off Soi 11 (near Suk 11 Guesthouse), there's a weird makeshift outdoor bar, known as Cheap Charlie's, where drinks are affordable and you'll encounter a young, after-work atmosphere. The Conrad Bangkok (87 Witthayu/Wireless Rd.; tel. 02690-9999) hosts one of Bangkok's hottest spots: the Diplomat Bar which, despite its name, is not filled with diplomats, but young Thais or cigar-puffing corporate guests in smart suits, enjoying the regular jazz performances.
The Sex Scene
Since the 1960s -- and particularly since the Vietnam War -- Bangkok has had a reputation as the sin capital of Asia. Its hundreds of saunas, sex clubs, bars, and massage parlors act as fronts for organized prostitution, drug peddling, child-trafficking rackets, pedophile rings, and people smugglers. First-time tourists are sometimes staggered by the numbers of septuagenarian gentlemen trawling these areas looking for teenage Thais of either sex. Of course, the clientele is not just foreign; Thai men frequently engage the services of hookers.
While prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, this law is rarely enforced, making foreigners feel it is therefore "safe" to pay for sex in Thailand. It is not. Too often, the people working this industry are doing this because they have no choice; and some are underage, though they may purport to be older than they are. Reports about poor families selling their children into prostitution are true -- many children are held in brothels against their will. Those adults seen making even the slightest sexual advances toward them, if caught, risk a heavy prison sentence and a subsequent, global media frenzy, and that happened numerous times in 2006 and 2007. The worst areas are concentrated around Patpong (off Silom Rd.), Nana Plaza (Sukhumvit Soi 4), and Soi Cowboy (btw. Sukhumvit Soi 21 and 23) districts.
A startling increase in HIV-positive cases in the past 20 years has encouraged the education of commercial sex workers about the use of condoms, but AIDS is still a major concern, as are other STDs. Occasional crackdowns in Patpong close some of the raunchier shows, but still, men and women in the clubs are all "for sale" -- clients simply pay a "bar fine." If this is your scene, be aware of the risks and play it safe.
Note that the city's smarter hotels will all stop you if you bring a hooker into the lobby. Other hotels require guests to register night visitors, and the client will have to pay the hotel for this privilege. Also know that, every year in Bangkok, hundreds of cases are reported of prostitutes drugging their customers and robbing them in their hotel rooms. If you believe this cannot happen to you, think again.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.