People with strong opinions about nightlife in Bangkok usually have one trait in common: not one of them has set foot in the Thai capital. Needless to say, there are a lot of misconceptions about the scene in the vast metropolis of well over 10 million people.
Is there more crime, corruption, inherent danger and nefarious activity in comparison to other big urban centers in Asia? Perhaps, perhaps not. Bangkok is most definitely not as dangerous as some would have you believe and even if you go in a period of political unrest (November 2008 for example), most violence is pointedly directed at the government. Nonetheless, you do want to make sure your time in the fabulous city is safe, so as we wrote in a recent piece on crime in the city, take every sane precaution you would elsewhere.
First misconception about Bangkok. The city is rife with seedy sex tourists, pedophiles, child prostitutes and squalid bars. Well not exactly. No intelligent person would downplay the child sex trade in Thailand as a mere afterthought. It certainly is a profitable business for the amoral predators who exploit the innocent. Recent local and international efforts to crackdown on sex slavery and eradicate the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country and indeed, Bangkok, have led to some progress. In the grand scheme however, Bangkok is a diverse cultural city with a tiny, notorious minority of clandestine activity – we happen to know of several couples with small children who spent several weeks in the city in recent years with nary a report of illicit deeds.
Bangkok has a seamy underbelly, this much is obvious. If you want to find trouble, you can do so easily. Legal fun with local girls over 18 – while 15 is the age of consent, 18 and up is the strict legal limit for sex workers – is available at a wide variety of bars and clubs. If you want to spend some private time with a girl, a fee must be paid to the bar in order to leave the premises. Thankfully, recent estimates demonstrate that 90% of commercial sex workers in Bangkok now use condoms. If your company for the night is lax on the point, insist otherwise.
Another misconception about Bangkok nightlife is that it runs well past sunrise. Untrue. Most now close at 1 or 2 a.m. for reasons of safety and security. After-hours (and therefore illegal) joints do abound and often open as of 4 a.m. in random areas of the city. Although expats comprise the majority of patrons, unless you have a good mate in town with a hot party tip, be content with that 2 a.m. last call and head back to the hotel.
Normal rules of conduct apply in Thai bars. Have a drink in your hands at all times, behave yourself with locals, keep your passport close and your camera at home. The more aggressive people are, the more wary you should be. These standard procedures allude to go-go bars and beer bars. The difference? Go-go bars feature tame (in relative contrast to Montreal strip clubs for example) performers on stage in bikinis who try to snag potential clients. In beer bars the girls wear street clothes and use conventional tactics to hustle for business. Both of course, are fronts for prostitution.
You can have a great time at either in a state of total naivet? or treat the overtures of bar sex workers as a peculiar oddity. Whatever the case, the business caters to foreigners, so beware. Couples can have as good a time at a Bangkok bar as single men, despite the veneer of prostitution. The district of Silom in Bangkok is a famous hub of go-go bars, most notably on the Patpong strip, but more upscale establishments exist as well. If you have money to spend in Bangkok, there are scores of trendy, Western-style nightclubs ready to take your money. The Sukhumvit area is also very popular for nightlife spots but if you want to party with locals, head to Khao San Road and Ratchadaphisek Road.
Gay nightlife in Bangkok is extremely vibrant, with a slew of bars in Silom and Th Surawong. Ladyboys form a curious attraction in the city and transsexual cabarets can be found everywhere. Many remain quite covert and clever however, so be vigilant for laryngeal prominence (or Adam’s apples). Unless of course, you’re there under your own volition.
After a night out in Bangkok, when you do finally decide to head back to the hotel and hail a tuk-tuk to take you there, remember to agree on a price beforehand. And no matter what the circumstances, never, ever, get into a fight with a local.
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