Is Thonglor About To Lose The Last Of Its Charm?

This is a guest post by Seb Scala talking about the close of Soi 38 in Thong Lor.

When I first visited Bangkok about nine years ago, I was captivated.

Like many, I found the contrast between new and old intoxicating; skyscrapers next to knock down concrete shacks, 5-star hotels surrounded by cheap and cheerfully delivered street food…

The net result was a heady mix of the most opulent luxury and practical moderation mixed to create an atmosphere unlike any I had experienced before.

Of course, this is only a snapshot in time.  The juggernaut of progress is not to be stopped in a City always striving to be named “the best in Asia”.

“Have we now reached the point of no return?”.

This is the question that I heard myself asking when I read the news on one of my friend’s Facebook feeds:

“All good things must come to an end, the lease in Soi 38 Expires in 8 months and won’t be renewed.”

What is Soi 38?

Sukhumvit Soi 38 is one the last bastions of authentic, old school, Thai street food to be found in the Sukhumvit area.

Frequented by locals and tourists alike this Soi boasts delicious, cheap and varied dishes every day of the week.

It’s packed every evening with people on their way home from work, on their way out to party and in the early hours of the morning – on their way home trying not to fall asleep in a bowl of noodle soup!

Google “Best street food in Bangkok” and you’ll find Soi 38 mentioned on almost every page that comes up.

soi 38 food

What’s the big deal?

“Calm down, you can still get street food everywhere in Bangkok!”.

Yes, you can.

But, for me, that isn’t the point!

Having lived in Thonglor for over five years, I have seen it change substantially and, in my opinion, not for the better.

It used to be an area that was somewhat out of the center of the action but still close enough to be easily accessible yet have its own charm and identity.

With a strong Japanese influence to a lot of the most exclusive restaurants and bars, the places that I would visit would be more accurately described as “local”.

Of course, there were places I could go and eat a relatively expensive meal, or get an imported beer, or splash out on a good bottle of wine.

But these were in the minority and I liked it that way.

Suk 38

I could go out and eat Thai food at any one of dozens of restaurants, I could sit in a dive bar with some friends and drink some cheap beers while being serenaded (ok, blasted) by some Luk Thung music and playing on the beaten up old pool table.

I was never made to feel unwelcome, unworthy or out of place by the locals who worked at or frequented them.

The cost of progress

Planning to go out for something to eat and a few drinks with a visiting friend the other week I realized that bit by bit this lifestyle had been chipped away into near oblivion.

Where can I go to get a drink and some food without having to get dressed up, pay well over the odds for food and drinks that are all style and no substance?

Where can I not have to top off the evening by getting irritated at the now ubiquitous service charge and VAT added onto every bill despite everything being distinctly average at best?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind paying for quality.  That isn’t what I’m getting though.

What I’m getting is a pretentious and over-engineered “trendy” location, frankly inadequate “Western food” and horrendously overpriced drinks.

I just don’t fit in there and I don’t think I’m alone.

I know what good food tastes like.  I know what good service looks like.  I don’t care who at the next table is sporting the newest luxury handbag.  I didn’t notice when the trust fund kid pulled up in his sports car.

There is an endearing lack of pretension in those old, long gone, local places. Everybody knew what to expect, everyone had fun and went home happy.

So with all of this in mind, I figured a good place to take my visitor to show them the “real Bangkok” was Soi 38.

The end is nigh

Now that I know that Soi 38 will soon close, probably to be replaced by another overpriced and mostly empty condo building, I won’t have anywhere in my area to take someone to show them what Bangkok is really like away from the tourist trail.

No, I’ll have to tell them to get all dressed up and remember to bring their credit card so we can go and spend the evening in one of the “trendy” places near where I live.

And at the end of the evening they’re going to ask me with barely suppressed disappointment:

“Is that really the real Bangkok?”

And I’m going to have to reply “Yes, it breaks my heart to say it, but I think it is.”

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