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Bending the elbow in Bangkok

A night-life tour turns up sleek clubs, hip vibes and a terrace view that can be appreciated even with a fuzzy head.

October 15, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

Bangkok, Thailand — I boost myself onto a stool along the oval of the Sukhothai Hotel's classic Zuk Bar, out of breath, a few frustrating minutes past the end of happy hour. In front of me sits a stack of blue matchbox-sized packets called "Wakies" that my Thai drinking companion has brought along for the evening.

Condoms, I guess. Can't a Western man come to Bangkok without everyone assuming he's a sex tourist?

But no, they prevent hangovers, says D, a Bangkok law professor. "They're organic. You can buy them at 7-Eleven."

I've placed my tomorrow morning in D's hands because I'm determined to uncover some of Bangkok's best drinking palaces. The plan is to hit places where people go strictly for the cocktails, bars where the main buzz is the one in your head.

Bangkok has a canon of travel literature on the other stuff: the temples and temptations. There's no need for another referral to pole-dancing bars frequented by men who can't get a date. There will be no obligatory stop to commune with Graham Greene's ghost at the Bamboo Bar of the Oriental Hotel.

No need to be alarmed by political unrest -- the recent coup was about as serene a military takeover as you get. And Thailand has a robust drinking culture, to the dismay of the moral guardians now trying to give the country's bad-boy image a scrubbing.

Bangkok is a place where whiskey is served by the bottle.

I swallow a Wakie.

I've recruited D and Noy, a Thai American journalist, to be my guides. Like most Thais, they have shortened their names to something more manageable for Westerners to pronounce. I later learn they privately call me "It," a name Thais sometimes use to refer to foreigners. They mean "It" with affection.

My original plan called for a solo drink at the Dome, a restaurant-and-bar complex atop the 67-story State Tower in the Bangrak district.

Never got there. Two of the Dome's three elevators were out of commission, and the mob for the only working elevator just kept getting bigger.

I had only an hour until I was supposed to be at the Sukhothai across town, where D and Noy had suggested sampling the $25 all-the-wine-you-can-drink happy hour, so I jumped in a taxi.

It hurtled into traffic on the expressway ramp and came to a dead stop.

After 10 minutes, the only things moving were motorbikes, weaving around the stationary cars like salmon avoiding rocks while swimming upstream. A Sky Train whooshed past on the rails overhead. I was sure I felt the breeze of its air-conditioning.

Cutting my losses, I paid the driver and walked to the nearest Sky Train station. For 40 cents, I was in the heart of downtown in eight minutes. But that first drink remained elusive.

The Sukhothai is set back from the road, a retreat from the madness of the streets and graced by beautiful gardens. I couldn't find the entrance. The security guard pointed me one way, a businessman the other.

Finally, I called Noy, and she guided me in the last few steps like air traffic control coaxing in a pilot trying to land in the fog. It was after 8 p.m. by the time I settled into the Zuk Bar, and the wines were back up to their usual $15 a glass.

I order a beer. And another.

D and Noy are already in the spirit. D's drinking a strawberry caipirinha made with cachaca, the sugar-cane liquor that is Brazil's hippest export after soccer star Ronaldinho. Noy has a vodka-base concoction called "Beautiful Kiwi" that has lime and honey.

"We invented it," says the bartender, a beautiful woman nicknamed Tip (really: a bartender named Tip), though it turned out after more investigation that the drink's creator was a visiting mix master from Bali.

D is trying to firm up the night's itinerary. He has about 10 places in mind: a few hotel bars, some old reliables and a smattering of new places.

A sight to sip by

"AND then there is the bar at Koi," D says. "It's a restaurant. There's one in Los Angeles too. That would be good."

Maybe, I think. I'm not really looking for L.A. connections.

"And tonight is Models Night," he says.

"Yeah, yeah. An L.A. connection would be good," I tell him.

First, though, D wants to stop at an artsy neighborhood bar called the Phra Nakorn Bar & Gallery, near the Democracy Monument. It's across the city, and D says a cab is the fastest way there.

"You sure?" I ask, but he and Noy are already in, giving directions. It's now 9 p.m., and the traffic flows as if we're on the autobahn.

The Phra Nakorn is on the rooftop patio of a building that looks like a student hangout: no band tonight but reggae on the sound system, framed black-and-white photos on the walls and a pool table on the third floor. The vine-rimmed patio is wonderful. From the terrace, you can see the Golden Mount, the glittering gold spires of Wat Saket lighted up in the distance.

We try to order Thai whiskey, but the bar doesn't carry it, so we settle for a bottle of Sang Som rum, a local brew.

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