(The once infamous Malaysia Hotel – now, nothing like it was before)
Soi Ngam Dupli and its adjacent lane, Soi Sri Bumphen, located just off Rama 4 Road near Lumphini Boxing Stadium was the backpacker haven way before the advent of Khao Sarn Road.While Khao Sarn has developed from a cheap 50 baht dorm gaff into a glitzy area packed with trendy clubs, traditional massage parlours and Kebab stalls, Soi Nam Dupli and Soi Sri Bumphen have hardly changed a darned bit.
Just last weekend, after having visited a buddy of mine in Bangkok along Sukhumvit Road I popped into a bar on the corner of Soi Nana to read the paper and have a quick bevvie. On looking at the bill planted in front of me, I was pretty flabbergasted at having to fork out an extravagant 95baht for a mini Singha Beer. Thinking where to go next, (somewhere a bit cheaper like…) it was by chance that I saw some Thai geezer walking past who I remembered from Soi Sri Bumphen a long time back. It was then that I thought that I would pop on a motorbike-taxi and check out this old area of mine which I hadn’t been for a decent year and a half or so.
Just as I presumed, nothing had changed the slightest and I was soon chatting away to old friends in one of the only few open-day bar/restaurants the soi has to offer – ‘Kenny’s Bar’. Whichever way you want to look at, Lonely Planet has had a huge influence on the area and for donkey’s years, the ‘Backpacker’s Bible’ advised travelers that Soi Ngam Dupli/Bumphen had gone way downhill, was over-priced and that Khao Sarn Road offered a much better deal. Times have changed though, Khao Sarn Road’s prices have sky-rocketed over the past decade while Sri Bumphen’s costs have hardly gone up at all. In fact, after having a quick ask around, some of the room rates haven’t changed in the past 10 years.
Soi Ngam Dupli and Soi Sri Bumphen first opened their doors to travelers in the 1960s and one of the first budget gaffs to stay was the Malaysia Hotel. If you are unfamiliar with this place (which is still there today) it became notorious for renting rooms by the hour to randy tourists as its 24-hour restaurant was constantly full off ladies of the night, rent-boys and ladyboys. Again, Lonely Planet, never had a nice word to say about this place. Over the years though, this place has certainly changed and most of the folk you will see hanging around the restaurant and lobby at 2 in the morning these days are just a handful of tame foreigners with their rent-by-the-week girlfriends and boyfriends. No different at all to most 2/3 star hotels you’ll find in any of the land’s tourist destinations. Nowadays, the place isn’t that bad at all.
Once upon a time, Soi Bumphen was infamous for its drugs scene and many a foreigner succumbed to a little too much of the white powder and left the country in a 7 foot box. (Khao Sarn is now much more well-known for such activity) The most notorious hotel in those days just had to have been the Boston Inn, which is still there these days but like the Malaysia it has quietened down enormously. In fact, the place is pretty dead quiet these days and at around 200 a night with a friggin swimming pool you could call it a bargain!
As I wrote above, my fave hang-out used to be Kenny’s Bar which was always full of tourists who had been coming to Thailand for years on end. After returning to the place after an absence of a good 18 months, the prices were still exactly the same and so were the Thai patrons/waitresses who had been living/working around there for the past 10 years or even longer. Til this day, most of them are women with their long-term foreign boyfriends/husbands while most of the friendly Thai guys are gay with foreign partners. (Actually, this area is a quite a big gay hang-out) Kenny’s is a decent place for a bit of a laugh, chat with foreigners (who have been here even longer than myself) and listen to a jukebox which is as old as the area itself.
Soi Sri Bumphen has plenty of budget accommodation and especially in terms of cheap guesthouses in the 150-350 baht range. Most popular over the years have had to be Freddy 2, Lee 3, Lee 4, Madame and Sala Thai, all of them still doing a thriving business with faithful customers who have been coming back and forth for decades (Stay well-clear of Freddie 3, that’s full of junkies). Very seldom, does the area get anymore newbie travelers fresh-off-the-boat who have never been there before.
There are a few great budget restaurants in the area, which is in contrary to what the Lonely Planet states in that you get less value for your baht than the Khao Sarn Road strip. Along with a couple of farang friends I caught up with, I found a lovely restaurant opposite Kenny’s which was dealing out huge cheeseburgers American-style for less than a hundred baht and an Italian gaff dishing out Pizza Hut size pizzas for a couple of hundred. Much better than some of the poxy, over-priced boring food on Khao Sarn Road, where a plate of chicken fried rice can set you back a hundred baht (20 baht on the street like).
One of the sois most famous bars is the nostalgic Wong’s Bar which has been there for around 30 years or so, unfortunately the original owner the super-nice Mr Wong himself died a few back (ironically from lung cancer) but the small cozy bar is still being run fine by a relative of his. Walking in that place is step back in time and I can remember Wong once telling me that he had the biggest collection of music videos in Bangkok. And I believe him, the whole bar is still full of classic concert videos which are super-hard to find anywhere in Thailand. Whatever your taste in old music, just ask the owner to turn it on. As for food in the place, I was always impressed, both Thai and Farang.
The area is really easy to get to, both from Sathorn and Rama 4 roads and if its Silom Road nightlife you are in town for, then the street is a 45 baht taxi ride away. If you fancy checking out the nostalgia of the area just ask any taxi driver (Soi Ngam Dupli) and most of them will know it no problem. Let them drop you off at the Malaysia Hotel and stroll the area on foot. I’d advise the place for a short stay, especially if you are fed-up with the commercialism and ‘full-in-your face’ antics of Khao Sarn Road.