This is a clubbing story that starts at midnight and ends at 2 a.m. Where, you might ask, did my night out end so early — some sleepy, mid-sized city? But no: This is the story of my night out in Bangkok, one of the world’s top party destinations.
From massage parlors and go-go bars to high-end clubs, there’s no shortage of entertainment options in Bangkok. Collectively, Thailand’s nightlife industry was worth $6.25 billion in 2019. The city’s neon-lit nightclubs and fish-tank brothels have been immortalized — and exaggerated — in Hollywood films like “Only God Forgives” and “The Hangover Part II.”
Millions of tourists flock to Bangkok every year for the nighttime entertainment. There’s Khao San Road, a backpacking district with wild street parties. There’s Royal City Avenue, a clubbing complex where young Thai locals gather to drink, dance, and hook up. And then there’s Nana Plaza, the heart of the city’s red-light district.
I’ve lived in Singapore for two decades and have been to Bangkok several times. I’ve stayed in one of the city’s red-light districts, but never before had I really gotten to experience a night of partying. And so, on a reporting trip to Bangkok in late July, I decided it was time to see what it was all about.
I asked friends what clubs I should check out, and a club called Route66 kept coming up. Route66 is one of the biggest clubs in the city. It’s said to be one of the best places to party in the city, and to be popular among local and travelers alike. Friends told me the vibe at the club is “insane.” Someone described it as nightlife “on acid.”
My cab dropped me off at Route66 at midnight on a Wednesday. The club is in Royal City Avenue, or RCA, a complex dedicated to nightclubs and bars.
RCA is described as a “clubbing mecca” that’s known for house music and EDM music. I could hear the booming music before I even stepped foot inside.
On first impression, Route66 looked like a sports venue. The entire place was fenced up with grass panels and there was a giant LED screen with the words “Welcome to Route66.”
Groups of young people strolled in smoking cigarettes. Many of them looked to be in their early 20s. While 18 is the legal age to enter a nightclub in Thailand, most clubs set the age restriction at 20 or 21.
I had been expecting to find an air of excitement outside the club, but it seemed like it was just another night out for many people. The vast majority of people I saw were calmly tapping away on their phones while waiting to gain entry.
Everyone has to take a COVID-19 test before getting into Route66 — club rules.
There were a dozen people ahead of me when I arrived, but the process was efficient. I took the test and was through the club’s doors in a matter of minutes.
In parts of Thailand, including Bangkok, nightclubs had only just reopened in June, mere weeks before my trip. Some nightclubs still require patrons to take a COVID-19 test prior to entry.
Staff members wearing full PPE conducted the tests in open cubicles. Their blue scrubs struck a stark contrast to the sleek, black outfits many of the clubbers were wearing.
There were two dance floors at the front of the club. One was a small room with half a dozen people mingling inside. The other was a huge dance floor packed with people.
I headed for the larger dance floor. The scene was crowded and chaotic: Throngs of people were dancing along the tables that lined the dance floor, waving neon lights and taking swigs out of bottles of alcohol. The air smelled like cologne.
The DJ was playing a mishmash of hip hop and dance beats. A few b-boys joined him on stage and the crowd went wild. Couples were pressed together at the bar, making out and fondling each other.
I spotted a handful of women lying on the ground close to the edges of the room, their female friends hovering nearby and helping them sober up.
And that was just 1 a.m.
Feeling slightly out of place — I was alone and on a reporting trip, after all — I posted up at a bar near the back of the dance floor.
As I sipped on my mojito, I surveyed the crowd.
Many of the women I saw were young with Instagram-perfect makeup and body-hugging mini dresses. They struck me as being sandwiched between two different types of men: Fashionable college students in impeccably tailored clothing, and middle aged-men, some of whom looked to be accompanied by younger women.
At the bar, a man in his late 20s struck up a conversation with me. He told me he was from Singapore and that he liked going to Route66 because it had a “youthful vibe.”
“The music is a bit off but the atmosphere is great,” the man, who declined to be named, said. “Compared to other countries in Asia where people are more conservative, Bangkok is wild, and people love to dance.”
Basically, he said, the club is exactly what you would expect from a Bangkok nightclub.
After a short, chaotic foray onto the dance floor, I made my way to the outdoor lounge for a quick breather.
Food menus were laid on each table of the outdoor lounge.
The club served full Thai meals — local favorites like pad siew, or stir-fried noodles, and fried marinated pork were on the menu. I didn’t see anyone eating at the club. Most of them were busy smoking, dancing, and drinking.
At 1:30 a.m., I stepped back onto the dance floor, fully expecting the night to start to take off. Instead, at 2 a.m. sharp, the lights came on.
The DJ turned off the music and announced the club was shutting down the for the night. A few people yelled for an encore, but the DJ promptly left the stage. Under the harsh glare of overhead lights, party-goers were stumbling around and finishing their drinks. Others made a beeline for the exit.
As I stood around getting my bearings and trying not to feel too disappointed about a night that ended before it had really even begun, I found the Singaporean guy from the bar again. He, too, was disappointed.
“That was a downer,” he said. “I was just about to get another drink.”
Outside the club, I realized the night wasn’t over — it was just entering phase two. The people streaming out of the club were filtering into a long line of tuk-tuks and making their way over to street vendors for a post-party meal.
Later, as I did some more research, I realized Route66’s 2 a.m. shutdown isn’t even that early. Another popular club named Onyx, for example, closes at 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Even before the pandemic, nightclubs and bars in Bangkok were legally required to close by 2 a.m. With the exception of the famed nightlife areas of Nana Plaza and Royal City Avenue, clubs are required to close by midnight, according to The Bangkok Herald.
After-hours clubs were “made possible by corrupt police,” and operated until dawn before the pandemic, the publication reported.
At 2:30 a.m., roadside hawkers were busy peddling their dishes to partygoers. Yes, the club was emptying out, but the streets were fast becoming the night’s new party zone.
Maybe the other clubbers were better informed than I was and had better altered their expectations of the night, or maybe they were drunker — and hungrier — than me, but either way, many of the locals didn’t seem to mind that the party ended early.
I’m not here to tell you Bangkok nightclubs are a bad time. The city strikes me as a place where you can find just about anything you’re looking for, as long as you know where to find it.
For me, it was mostly a case of altered expectations. I thought it would be possible — easy, even — to stumble upon an all-night party in Bangkok, and that was certainly not the case.
That said, it was the evolution of the night, and the way a club scene spilled over into a night market scene, that made the evening memorable. The clubs might not want you until the wee hours of the morning, but the night markets certainly do.