The legend of Wong's Place, a dive few leave sober

The legend of Wong's Place, a dive few leave sober

We take an intoxicating trip back in time to trace the history of this adored Bangkok pub
Wong's Place
From the outside, Wong's Place is an unremarkable little dive, one of many reasons for its unique staying power in a city where pubs come and go weekly.

On any given post-midnight day, tiny Bangkok bar Wong’s Place will be filled with drunken partiers hell bent on making sure the night’s not over yet. This hole-in-the-wall dive bar near Sathorn and Rama IV Road is a Bangkok institution, attracting everyone from the odd local celeb to curious backpackers looking for a late-night hangout.

Expat regular Stuie Matthews sums up the charms of Wong's Place best: "It's cramped, it's dark, it smells. It's the best damn place in the universe!" 

The bar’s origins are the stuff of Bangkok backpacker legend. Before Khaosan, Sukumvit Soi 11 and all the other tourist magnets, there was Malaysia Hotel, the center of the growing backpacking scene emerging in the 1980s. The only bar in the area was a tiny little hovel named Wong’s Place. Unlikely, improbably and through word of mouth alone, the wee backpacker’s bar became a meetup hotspot of Southeast Asia.

Wong's PlaceSam Wong raises a glass while enjoying a puff on his shisha pipe.

We asked owner Sam Wong, the youngest in a family of 12 children and born in the late 1950s in Southern China, to explain how it all began.

From Southern China to Yala and beyond

To escape the harshness of totalitarian rule in China, Sam says his family emigrated to Southeast Asia when he was a young boy. After drifting for a few years, they eventually settled in the southern Thai province of Yala, which is where Sam grew up.

“It was a small little town with Chinese, Buddhist and Muslims, but everyone got on,” he says, noting that of his 11 older siblings he was closest to his brother, who Sam simply refers to affectionately as "Wongsie," only a year older than he was.

“People used to say we were twins, I suppose it’s true though, we looked alike and thought alike,” Sam says.

The two brothers eventually traveled up the Thai countryside, arriving in Bangkok to seek their fortunes.

They settled in the area around Soi Ngam Duplee sometime in the mid-1960s and stayed there well into the 1970s. During this time the world’s eyes were transfixed on Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War was raging and terms like "rolling thunder," "Viet Cong," and "body count" became part of everyday vernacular.  This was the scene that Sam Wong stumbled blindly into, a scene that would open his eyes.

In those days the corner of the road opposite the Malaysia Hotel was the Blue Fox bar, says Sam.  “Everyone was there -- GIs, reporters; they would sit around listening to VOA [Voice of America] or the BBC.”

Wong's PlaceMany of the VHS music videos at Wong's Place were donated by travellers passing through.

It was the sort of watering hole where you could get anything for the right price; sex, booze and drugs sold readily alongside breakfast. Here Sam and his older brother tried to make a living selling t-shirts to GIs and other foreigners. It was during this time that the siblings were introduced to the sounds that would influence their bar, discovering everyone from the Beatles to Marianne Faithfull.

The birth, and rebirth of Wong's Place

Eventually the two brothers parted ways with Sam going to China and meeting up with a Thai senator who he “followed” around for the next decade serving as a bodyguard, secretary and translator. 

Wongsie opened Wong’s Place in 1987. Almost immediately, it was a hit, serving its first drinks at a time when the backpacker trail across South Asia was becoming more defined, with Bangkok forming a major stop.

Sam would stop in intermittently in the following decade but day to day operations were handled by his brother. In 2003 though, Sam got a call from his brother complaining of chest pains. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him and was soon hospitalised so Sam cut short his travels to attend to his brother.

“He was a really healthy guy too ... so it came as a shock," recalls Sam. With his brother in hospital, Wong's Place closed its doors.

Wong's PlaceWong's Place is small, which means that on many nights it's standing room only. During this period, Sam realised what the bar and his brother meant to a lot of people. Editors and writers from the Nation and Bangkok Post were among those that visited them in hospital and people constantly stopped Sam to wish his brother well.  Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse and his brother passed away.

As news broke, flowers began piling up outside the bars faded red exterior and people pleaded with Sam to keep the bar going.

“It was completely filled up, the front of the store, flowers and cards from everywhere, people offering to finance the bar, people passing on letters of condolences, there were messages from nearly every continent!” says Sam.

After a few weeks of soul searching, he took leave from the senator and restarted Wong’s bar, a process that required a lot of hard work. News of Wong’s Place's reopening spread and people as far as Stockholm booked flights to be there on reopening night -- around six months after it shut -- with over 500 people cramming into the tiny bar.

“It was definitely standing room only and people still couldn’t fit so they stood around out front," he says.

Fast forward seven years to today and the pony-tailed Sam is still there, telling stories and playing VHS music videos from an impressive collection to a packed late-night house, right down the street from the still-standing Malaysia Hotel.

For details on how to get to Wong's Place, visit our CNNGo listing.

Satrusayang is a part-time dragon slayer, part-time writer. When he's not defending fair maidens and tangling with mystical beasts he visits reality (never a permanent stay) where he writes for a living. Based in Bangkok, his work has appeared in myriad magazines and publications, and he edits his own literary and art ezine http://codsbeenhere.com.

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