Sukhumvit Road

Posted on August 18, 2013 in History by

The Sukhumvit Road is an exciting and diverse part of Bangkok. In many ways the Sukhumvit Road is the modern face of the City, and also it is emblematic of the modern face of Thailand and where the country is headed in the future.

The Sukhumvit Road starts in Bangkok and runs 400 Kilometers to just short of the Cambodian border. The route runs from the centre of Bangkok through Samut Prakan Province, east to Chachoengsao Province, then South to Chonburi Province, then east again through Rayong, Chantaburi and ending in Trat. The road is also known as ‘Route 3’.

The section of the road which is best known is the section within the boundaries of metropolitan Bangkok. This section of the road is packed with skyscrapers, office buildings, residential apartment blocks, shopping centres, restaurants, bars and more than 300 hotels, making the Sukhumvit Road one of Thailand’s foremost commercial centres.

Until World War II the Bangkok section of the road went through rice fields. The first development in the area was associated with the Klong Toei port to the north of the road. The boom in development started in the 1960s with the enormous numbers of American military personnel stationed in South East Asia. Large residential buildings were developed by Thai entrepreneurs to lease to the American government as ‘R&R’ hotels. Two early examples of these were the Windsor hotel on Soi 20 and the Rajah hotel on Soi 4.

Back in the 1960s Bangkok was a different place to what it is now. For the large number of American taking ‘R&R’ in the City the major attraction was the Golden Mile on the New Petchaburi Road – basically an unbroken stretch of go-go bars and massage parlors stretching several kilometers. Bangkok acquired a seedy reputation during this time which it has had difficulties shaking off ever since. During the late 1960s the ‘action’ started moving towards the Sukhumvit Road. At the time everything in Bangkok would close between 12 midnight and 2am because of the licensing laws. Two establishments on the Sukhumvit Road, the Nana Hotel Coffee Shop and the Thermae Bar (which is still open), got round the licensing laws by claiming that they were ‘coffee shops’ – although they served alcohol. With the opening of these two businesses the Sukhumvit Road started to become established as an entertainment centre.

In the 1970s the American service men gradually stopped coming to Bangkok. What they left behind was considerable ‘know how’ in terms of catering for western visitors and a large number of redundant residential buildings on the Sukhumvit Road especially. These were converted into hotels to cater for the tourists who were starting to come from Europe and America with the development of affordable areoplane travel. The Golden Mile quickly disappeared and the ‘entertainment’ centres started to appear on the Sukhumvit Road. The first proper Go-Go bar, the Gold Label Bar, opened on a side street between Soi 21 and 23 in 1975. On the back of the success of this bar a number of copy-cat businesses opened on the same street. In the late 1970s the street got renamed ‘Soi Cowboy’ after a entrepreneurial American bar owner who settled in Bangkok after the Vietnam war ended. Today this street has over 40 go-go bars. A second ‘entertainment zone’ then opened in the mid 1980s on soi 4 (also known as ‘Soi Nana’) this then grew and grew until becoming the Nana Entertainment Plaza which is still there today.

The Sukhumvit Road has carried on developing. The ‘hangover’ of sex tourism from the American military in the 1960s is still there, but is gradually being squeezed out both by the Thai authorities and by the general popularity of the area with a different kind of tourism based around families and older tourists looking for a luxury side to Bangkok.

The street numbers on the Sukhumvit Road are a bit confusing to the uninitiated. The odd numbers are on the north side, and the evens on the south. The northside, from Soi 1 to 63 is now the preferred residential area for ex-pats working in Bangkok. These foreign residents with a high disposable income have been the drivers behind the development of luxury restaurants and shops catering to foreign residents. This has worked hand in hand with the development of large luxury hotels along the road to turn the Sukhumvit area into a major commercial centre.

More recently, the Sukhumvit Road has become somewhere that well off Thai people have started to frequent. The Thai’s have tended to keep clear of the lower end of the road (Soi 1 to 21 and soi 2 to 12) and have congregated around the soi 55 area known as Soi Thonglor. This has become a major meeting place for Hi-So Thais (‘high-society’ in Bangkok parlance) with lots of high class shops, wine bars and restaurants catering to a sophisticated local crowd. New establishments are opening weekly in this area as are new shopping centres such as the Rainhill Centre.

The Sukhumvit Road is constantly evolving and the amenities and hotels are ever improving. It as moved on a long way from its early days as somewhere for American GIs to escape the horrors of war and let off steam. Tourists of all ages and sensibilities will find something to like about the Sukhumvit Road and we recommend it as the place to stay during your visit to Bangkok.

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