Thais are social people - very social. And you should not miss a chance to spend a night out with a group of newfound Thai friends. It will be fun, educating, and probably a lot more memorable than heading to another Irish pub with fellow international backpackers.
After the initial exhilaration of being invited out with a group of Thai people, the questions and anxieties start to pop up. Who pays what? What do you drink and how? Are there rules and customs to follow? After a massive body of “research” through a few decades, I am ready to give you some insights into the art of going out with Thai people.
You will be taken from start to finish to a night out with Thai friends, but first, it’s important to share a little information about the cultural importance of “community” in Thailand.
Eating and drinking is a social matter...
Rarely, do you see a Thai person eating alone. And if you do, you can bet your pinky that he or she is focused on finishing the meal as quickly as possible to get out of this uncomfortable situation. Never, do you see a Thai person going to a bar or a club alone if he or she is not expecting to meet friends. The social and cultural ties to sharing food and drinks are so strong that standing alone in a bar is like waving a big “I have no friends” sign.
In the following walkthrough of a night out with Thai friends, you will see that the importance of “community” is an underlying theme in Thai social life.
Before you go to meet your Thai friends…
Tuesday is as good as any day…
Your Thai friend’s birthday is on Tuesday, so she will celebrate it with her group of friends on Friday or Saturday, right? Not necessarily. Why celebrate a Tuesday event on a Friday? Any day of the week is a good day for a nice get together party. That’s why any weekday in Thailand will attract people to Thai bars and clubs. Yes, the next day is a work day, but bars close relatively early, and the standard excuse of “boss, the traffic was just horrible this morning” can buy most Thai people an extra hour of sleep.
Tonight is the night… right?
In Thailand an appointment is not always an appointment. It could be an attempt to secure a smooth and pleasant conversation between two parties. Additionally, something could come up to hinder the event from materializing. It could be sickness, weather, traffic, better offers, or issues with a partner.
The problem foreigners often encounter is that Thai people don’t always inform you of a cancellation. They will rather not be confronted with the sad task of handing over the bad news to you. Instead, they stay quiet, and expect you to understand this as a “silent” cancellation where everyone understands that the event is off, but no one has to deal with the open discomfort of disappointment.
So what do you do if you have agreed to meet Thai friends a few days later? On the day of the event, you check with them to confirm the appointment. If you get a confirmation, you should be safe. If you fail to receive any replies, the most likely is that the appointment is off. After a couple of annoying cases of showing up at the bar with no friends in sight and no one picking up their phones, you will learn to always confirm beforehand and to have a backup plan.
Will sandals, fisherman’s pants, and a Beer Chang wife-beater do?
The appropriate attire really depends on the chosen venue. Ask your friends first, if you don’t know what type of club or bar you are going to. It could be very Khaosan casual or it could be ironed shirts and pants, and “proper” shoes at clubs. The safest is to wear long pants, closed shoes (not your dirty travel sandals anyway), and a nice t-shirt. Thais are generally well-dressed when they go out unless it’s a casual meet-up with good friends at a small bar. In case you go to the more expensive bars, you may be required to wear closed shoes and long pants before they let you in.
Generally, bars don’t check ID. Night clubs usually do. It differs whether you will be let in without bringing id, so bring it to be on the safe side. You must be 20 years old to enter nightclubs - sometimes the bouncer will insist, sometimes not.
Going out Thai Style
Speaking of venues, the perfect place for Thai people to go out has live Thai pop/rock music, abundant tables, and a pleasantly cold aircondition. Don’t be put off by songs you don’t know in a language you don’t understand. The live music usually provides a great atmosphere with the Thai crowd singing along now and then on their favourite songs. The tables are usually arranged in islands that functions as the centre of each group. In bars there will be seats around the tables, whereas the clubs will tend to have tables only to stand around. You will rarely see a designated dance floor at a Thai bar or club. Instead, don’t be surprised if the guy or girl besides you suddenly rises up from the seat and starts wriggle-dancing on the spot. Seeing a whole room of people dancing from their spot in the bar is a fantastic sight. Since there won’t really be a dance floor, inviting someone for a dance is not common, and dancing is very rarely a two person activity in Thai style clubs.
Are you sure you want to order that one cocktail?
As you walk into a local Thai bar, one thing you will not see much of, is guests sipping individual cocktails or drinking beer from a bottle. You don’t usually order one by one, and you don’t usually sample different drinks.
Instead, a whole bottle of liqueur (or more if you are in a big group) is put on the table. 9 out of 10 times this bottle will be a whisky or the Thai rum, Sang Som. Depending on the preferences in taste, depth of pockets, and the eagerness to show off you will have either Sang Som, cheap Scottish whisky blends, Johnny Walker Red or Black, or Chivas. To go with the alcohol, there will be a big bucket of ice cubes and still water, soda water, and coke as mixers. Each person will have his or her favourite mix, and most likely everyone in the group will remember each other’s preferences. If you don’t like whisky, you will learn to. A glass full of ice, one third whisky and two thirds soda water will slowly become your favourite too.
At the slightly more fancy hangouts, a waiter will mix drinks for the guests. You may never have an empty glass as the waiter automatically refills everyone’s glasses. If you want a different mix with your whisky - say water topped with soda instead of soda topped with coke - be sure to let the waiter know, as he will remember your initial preference and assume that to be your preferred drink.
If there is no waiter, it is common that one or two persons from the group will be in charge of refills. If you see your mates glass empty, go ahead and fill it with his or her preferred mix. Now and then, you will either hear “chon gaew” (literally crash glasses) or “mot gaew” (empty glasses), and the group will clink their glasses and drink. When the bottle is finished, the group will order a new one.
A whole bottle of whisky?
Ordering bottles instead of individual glasses may seem like a big mouthful. However, this is the cheapest, fastest, and most social way of drinking. If you can’t finish the bottle by the time you leave the club, don’t despair. The bar will just save the bottle for your group for next visit. One member of your group will have his or her name written on the bottle and receive a token.
But I really don’t like whisky!
Give it a try. Even two and three tries. If it doesn’t grow on you, it is perfectly okay to order a few beers to the table. You should expect to share the beer with your group of friends, so don’t drink from the bottle. The Thai way of drinking beer is with a couple of ice cubes. Don’t worry, you will quickly get used to it.
It does happen that your Thai friends prefer beer to whisky or Thai rum. In that case, big bottles of beer or even a beer tower will be ordered to share. It has become more common to drink red wine and craft beer, but mostly at upmarket and/or international venues.
What else is on the table?
Even in Thai night clubs, you will see plates of food on the tables. Anyone who is hungry can just order a dish of fried rice or pad thai. And remember, what is on the table is up for grabs. If you order a plate of fries, the dish belongs to everyone at the table, not just you. This is a great way of eating - you can sample different dishes, and experience the great feeling of togetherness from sharing drinks and food.
Where do we go next?
Bar-hopping is not common. Your party of friends will select a venue where everyone meets up and secure a table for the night. Besides, hopping from bar to bar does not work well with the shared bottles, mixers, and meals on the table. Only if the bar closes, a new option can be considered. In most cases, the group will be scattered after the selected venue closes as people will head home in different directions.
Is it time to go home?
The Thai authorities generally have strict laws on opening hours, but a rather muddy approach to effectuating these laws. Every year or two a new rule set of opening hours is given. The opening hours depend on the type of establishment, the area, and the venue’s relationship with the local police. At the time of writing, the official closing hours for Thai bars is 1 AM while a number of nightclubs are allowed to continue to 2 AM. There are venues that continue longer, and every tuk-tuk driver will know just where to take you, if you are out for more.
Thinking about an early sneak-out?
All people in your group will most likely not arrive at the same time, since they will be coming from different places. However, they will leave at the same time. It’s not considered appropriate to leave the group before everyone else leaves. So try not to pull a “I have to meet some other friends at 11” or an “I’m tired, I think I’ll head home”, unless you really have to. The party usually ends when the bar or nightclub closes.
Should the “rich” foreigner pay?
Anxious about the bill? If you are going out with a group of peers, the entire bill will commonly be split evenly among all members of the group. Don’t get caught up in who ordered this or that. They ate your fries and drank your beer, remember!? But you sampled the dish that Poo ordered, ate half of the peanuts that Ake brought, and quite enjoyed that Sang Som rum. If someone arrived late or drank very little, they will pay a little less. Most groups of Thai friends will have a person who takes on the responsibility of collecting money from everyone and do the accounting.
Seniors are sometimes expected to pay more. So if you are going out with a group of colleagues, the person most senior would often pay more. If you are on a date, the man will usually pay. At least officially, even though a better off woman may slip some money to the “paying” man under the table.
In most cases, who pays what is not tricky, and you certainly should not let payment anxiety get in the way of a good night out with new Thai friends, unless you have a really really tight budget.
Getting home from a night out in Thailand
Many Thais have a somewhat relaxed approach to drinking and driving. That’s one of the reasons traffic is the most dangerous thing you will encounter in Thailand. Suffice to say that you should let your common sense rule (and go by taxi).
If you are at a popular night spot, it can be hard to find a taxi that accepts going by meter (in Bangkok) or one that offers a standard price. You probably have to pay a little extra than usual. Alternatively, take a short walk away from areas where guests are spilling out from bars, ready to catch a taxi.
Tuk-tuk’s waiting outside nightlife venues will generally be more expensive, less safe, and more uncomfortable compared to taxis. They will also do what they can to convince you to go to other bars that are open into the wee hours of the morning, and where they happen to receive commission if they bring customers. If you want more partying this is of course an option.
Invited for a sleep-over?
In case your Thai friends want to continue the party at home, they will stop by a Family Mart or 7Eleven on the way for snacks and mixers. Note that stores are only allowed to sell alcohol until midnight. After that, open restaurants or family grocers can supply you. At your friend’s home, everyone will sit and enjoy for a few extra hours of drinking and chatting.
You are free to join, but at this point it is perfectly fine to retire for the night and go home. If you join your friends, don’t be surprised if you are offered a pink pair of Hello Kitty shorts upon entering the home. Suddenly, within the confines of a private home, you will be shocked to see how quickly everyone went from smart attire to the most humanly possible casual pyjamas and shorts. The party continues until people start falling asleep in weird positions on the floor, on the sofa, or in the armchair.
If you reach this stage, you have graduated from a night out with Thai people.
About the author: Peter Berg Schmidt is a beach fanatic to such a degree that he started a website to let off steam from his love of beaches. On Beachmeter.com he shares stories from the beach, sustainable travel insights, interviews explorers and tourism professionals, and gives you inside stories from the tourism industry. Peter has backpacked, lived, studied, and worked in Southeast Asia, and he has been responsible for numerous travel catalogues with tours and adventures covering the region. Other than beaches, he loves hammocks and drinking Thai style whisky/soda with his friends. Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
PHOTO CREDITS: The amazing Parking Toys club in Bangkok.