Alleyway dive bar The Vagabond delivers homage to Bangkok beer bars of the past

Header photo: Harrison Martin. All others: Coconuts Media.
Header photo: Harrison Martin. All others: Coconuts Media.

At the end of a dark alley, in the far reaches of Sukhumvit Soi 11, a small oasis has popped up in the form of The Vagabond bar.

The outdoor drinks spot quietly opened for business six months ago and has gained traction purely by word of mouth. It’s drawing much of the crowd that used to frequent Cheap Charlie’s, the beloved al fresco expat bar that relocated several train stops away to On Nut.

The Vagabond celebrated their half-year anniversary on Friday with a party that drew dozens despite the fact that Bangkok had been in the thick of a dramatic thunderstorm for hours.

Arto Lappalainen, from Finland, said of the bar, “It’s a meet-up place. We don’t stay here all night, just meet for some early drinks. You can always find someone here to hang out and drink beer with.”

American Adam Gray said, “I come here three times a week and I never call anyone I know to see if they’re coming. I know there will always be someone here to talk to.”

The bar is run by American Blake Felder, who calls the place equal parts drinking establishment and social statement. On their Facebook page, he wrote, “The Vagabond pays homage to Bangkok’s nightlife past by offering an unpretentious, down-to-earth, ultra-affordable social experience. Every detail of our menu, pricing, and aesthetic has been carefully thought-out to be intentionally unrefined.”

Find the bar by walking deep into Soi 11 and hanging a left into the alley best known for housing Havana Social. From the top, you’ll see the bar’s purposefully lurid fluorescent sign guarded by a crowd of what could easily be mistaken for ne’er-do-wells sipping cans of Chang.

Walk straight past the serious guy that wants THB300 to enter Havana Social, that could be your entire night’s bar tab deeper in the alley.

The bamboo bar and neon lights provide a trashy tiki feel, while a playlist of eclectic choices, from Waylon Jennings to Luktung, would please locals, sexpats, and hipsters alike. It’s details like this that add a cool factor that Cheap Charlie’s never had. The place references the beer bars of Bangkok past, the kind you can still find when you leave the city. There’s something nostalgic and comfortable about it, like it’s been there forever even though it just opened. It’s exactly what Soi 11 needed.

The atmosphere is purposely lowbrow and the drinks unbelievably cheap. Sangsom can be had for THB50 (US$1.58) while standard spirits are THB80 (US$2.53), as are domestic beers. If you’re feeling spendy, San Miguel Light is THB100 (US$3.17).

Much like their upscale neighbors, The Vagabond also has a signature cocktail. The Klong Island Iced Tea (also cringingly known as “the klit”) combines Sangsom, lime soda, and a splash of coke for THB50 (US$1.58).

Felder, originally from Alabama, has run bars before in Bangkok, including an afterhours street bar on Soi 7 that was full of “rowdy ladyboys and Nigerian prostitutes. It was awesome, but the midnight to 7am hours make you a vampire. It’s unsustainable.”

Living in the city for five years, Felder has lamented the gentrification of Bangkok and the loss of character.

He said, “Instead of venting, I thought I’d put something here as a statement. It wasn’t so much a business idea, it’s more about me putting something back on Sukhumvit that you no longer see.”

The place is drawing lots of comparisons to Cheap Charlie’s, a parallel Felder appreciates. “That’s very much what I’m trying to do — create a dive bar with a sense of community, not a place to check in on Instagram and do selfies. It’s actually a place where you can meet someone across the bar and have a conversation.”

One way they improve on the Cheap Charlie’s model is access to indoor toilets in the building next door. Cheap Charlie’s had only a single, scary, outhouse-style facility with a sign that read: “Thank you for only pee, do not shit.”

With regards to his neighbors, the closest of which is Havana Social (but he’s also just steps away from Above Eleven, Apoteka, Insanity, Nest, and Brasserie Cordonnier), Felder said that he thinks they see him as nothing, a little upstart that might not make it to the end of the month, if they even notice him at all.

He’s never spoken to the owner of Havana but the club has, at times, acted as a lifeline for his bar. When people step out of the Latin spot to smoke or get some air, a handful of them will come over to The Vagabond and grab a drink before going back inside.

In stark contrast to his swanky streetmates, Felder told Coconuts that he intentionally created the raunchiest little beer bar to draw attention to the disappearance of the street bar from Bangkok. “Lower Sukhumvit used to be a procession of these little neon tube-lit beer bars. It’s changed so much.”

He noted that this culture is not really appreciated by anyone and that, across the board, the closure of these places is viewed as positive. Felder, however, sees them as evocative of old Bangkok and very much worth preserving.

“It’s a shame that the beer bars are disappearing entirely and no one is making a peep about it. But, if I’m able to put this right here in the middle of all these hoity-toity Soi 11 places — looking the way it does, having the kind of motley crew that we have on any given night — I’m very happy. It’s the most inclusive, interesting crowd,” he said of a place that celebrates something nearly lost in the ever-more-modern metropolis.

Header photo: Harrison Martin. All others: Coconuts Media.

The Vagabond
Sukhumvit Soi 11
Open daily, 8:30pm-2am
BTS Nana

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