Bangkok Beer Garden

Over the last few weeks I’ve been spelling out a few (of the many) reasons why Bangkok should stay on your travel radar, including the tranquil early-evening hours at Lumpini Park and the fact that dreamy beach getaways are just a short, cheap bus ride away.

Discouraging headlines continue to trickle out of Thailand, but don’t let the inept government’s handling of the red-shirt protests earlier this year make you think twice about hightailing it over to Bangkok. Yes, there’s some lingering unrest amongst the most disgruntled elements, but tourists were not and are not a part of this conflict. Don’t forget, too, that over 95% of the Thai population are Buddhist: by nature, they are not a violent people. On the contrary, they’re silly, fun-loving, surprisingly conservative in many ways, and exceedingly welcoming to foreign visitors.

Mmhmm, in case you haven’t noticed, I miss my Bangkok.

Here are two more reasons why:

World-Class International Cuisine: Bangkok’s growing reputation as one of the world’s richest culinary capitals is well justified, but not just because of its mouthwatering array of exotic, insanely delicious street food. During my time living here, I was surprised by the amount of high-quality, yet affordable Korean and Japanese fare available—especially sushi. (I’d steer clear of the rolls hawked on the street in 90+ degree heat, though.) Coming back to NYC, home of the $16 “maki roll special” and the $15 bowl of bimimbop, was a predictable, if still unwelcomed, shock to the dining-out budget.

Most Westerners don’t traditionally think of malls as an ideal place to start a culinary tour of Bangkok—but that’s where they’re wrong. Bangkok “lifestyle complexes” feature all kinds of fantastic restaurants, and though Siam Paragon comes in a close second, my mall-loving heart is forever owned by Central World Plaza, which after a three-year facelift had developed into one of the city’s premier dining meccas.

Of course, earlier this year Central World, as well as the adjoining Zen department store, suffered heavy smoke and fire damage due to a few knuckle-headed red shirt protestors who aimed their ire at “corporate Bangkok” and set the mall ablaze. That unfortunate event closed Central World down for months, and most importantly cost hundreds of hard-working Thais their jobs. Last week, 80% of it was reopened for business (hooray!), reportedly with most of the same shops and restaurants from before. Zen is still being refurbished and will not reopen until next year.

There’s a good reason why Central World was my go-to dining out location, and why it should be at the top of your to-do list next time you’re in town. With over 100 restaurants, there’s no shortage of options offering both authentic local flavors and imported favorites that’ll please every palate. My favorites include Heiroku (for sushi served on a conveyor belt), Zen (upscale-leaning Japanese cuisine), Aka (amazing bimimbop), Kum Poon (addictive Isaan-style Thai food), and Kuu (tasty Japanese fusion).

(For the record, I’m not siding with the government over the red shirts—hardly—or the red shirts over the government, for that matter. Both parties are to blame, on different levels, for the complicated political and socioeconomical mess that still plagues Thailand.)

Beer Gardens Galore: Time your visit right—November to mid-February—and you’ll have your pick of some of the best (and rowdiest) outdoor beer gardens in all of Southeast Asia. Each year Singha, Chang, Tiger, and Federbrau take over Central World Plaza and draw hundreds of revelers every night: each mini-venue offers concerts, food, and, of course, as many towers of beer as you can drink. My New Year’s Eve in 2008 at the Chang beer garden was the most memorable one of my life. Other smaller, more intimate gardens can be found throughout the city, too, particularly in the Victory Monument area.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.