As I wrote the other day, I met a group of Thai campers who invited me out for a night on the town. Their goal? To show me the “real Bangkok”. The one bit of input I was allowed, was selecting our rendezvous.
Multi–storey Phra Nakorn Bar is part gallery, part venue, part rooftop restaurant. It is a short walk from where I’m staying, on Khao San Road. We agree to meet in the late afternoon.
This video has not aged well.
We relax on the rooftop, drinking iced beers and enjoying the sunset. Set in the northern reaches of Bangkok’s Old City, the bar is three or four floors, making it one of the taller buildings in the area. From the roof we can see the Golden Mount glisten along with many other nearby spires.
Light show complete, we make our way downstairs and, with the traffic in mind, hustle up motorbike taxis. We head south along the khlong till we reach a bend on the Chao Phraya. We turn, then after a short distance we come across a large shade tree.
Give the Flower market a wave. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Beneath it, spread over a grubby patch of earth, there’s some plastic chairs and aluminium tables. Beside them stands an old woman behind a food cart and about 68,000 crates of beer. We sit and the beers come fast. It is a weird sort of a spot—it feels like a building site—but they’re clearly regulars. Their custom being commonplace becomes more obvious when, unasked, the lady slings us bowls of jok.
Jok is a congee–like rice porridge dish, often garnished with slices of chicken and condiments. It is also, to my knowledge, a breakfast dish. I’ve eaten many things with beer, but never, ever, jok. My companions say it is good for lining the stomach—and also the best in town. I remain, to this day, unconvinced—on both counts.
We chat, eat and drink, and the longer we sit, the more the appeal grows on me. A few other groups have shown up, and while we can’t quite see the river, I can hear the boat engines trundling.
There are worse rivers to booze beside. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
We get another squad of bikes and continue east, along the river bank. I’m disorientated till I realise we’re somewhere behind the Flower Market. Further east and we’re into the back–blocks of Chinatown.
We pull up at a small bar. I know it is a bar only for the sound emanating from it. When one of my companions opens the door the iciness of the air–con it matched only by the racket. Seeking to redefine hole–in–the–wall, the place is so narrow there is barely room for the bar and a row of tables on the other side. The place is packed with young Thais, and we make our way through to a rear windowless area and a table.
A bottle of whiskey, glasses, a bucket of ice and a wheelie trolley of soda arrive. One of the women orders some food, and we continue drinking and talking. They explain the place is owned by the brother of the woman who ordered, and many of the guests are friends. I’m introduced to a stream of other patrons.
The sweet heart of the city. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
The food comes. Perhaps a dozen small plates of drinking food. Grazing dishes like pork ribs, sausage, chicken tendons, and a dish of sliced beef with an amazing dip.
Whiskey gone and food exhausted, we walk outside but can’t find bikes, so they decide to walk. We break the trip at another hole–in–the–wall bar, even more jammed than the previous. With a live band, it is too loud to linger, so we move on after one.
Perhaps ten minutes later we’re on Yaowarat Road, Chinatown’s main through-fare. We walk up its length, past the famous T&K Seafood to another cluster of food stalls, on the southern side of the road.
These places are even more jammed than the bars, and we bide our time waiting for a table. We order while we wait, and are delivered an amazing dessert dish of gingko with longan syrup on shard ice. In the oppressive evening heat, amongst the steam and exhaust fumes, the horns and the racket, it is a delicious respite.
A cup of delicious. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
We head east again, to somewhere on the periphery of the Si Phraya/Silom area. We pull up at a dated condominium, cram into the lift, and head to the roof.
It feels more like a private party than a bar. There’s a pool with a few people in it, lazy chairs scattered about. The hordes of people make the rooftop maze–like. We stand in a corner, drinking and enjoying the views. Like the earlier bar, this place is owned by a friend—they describe it as an “informal bar”. With hundreds of guests, it is anything but secret.
They ask if I’m still hungry, and I nod. Back down, into a cab and we head south, to around where the Chong Nonsi BTS station now stands. For the first time I’m on familiar ground and I know the strip of bars we’re at.
Eat everything. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
We settle into an open air garden bar. Another bottle of whiskey, more soda, more ice. By this stage I’m flagging, but a seat and a less hectic scene helps. More food comes. Seafood this time—it goes down as fast as the drinks. For the first time in the night I see a foreign couple. I point them out and laugh, suggesting their secret is out. They shrug and ask if I could find any of the places they have taken me. Aside from the dessert stall, I shake me head, then we all laugh.
It feels like the right note to finish on, and an hour later I’m back on Khao San Road. I make my way back to the guesthouse, passing by the still heaving backpacker bars on the strip.
Despite considerable effort, I never manage to find that first hole–in–the–wall bar again.