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Nana BTS Station is your gateway to several different worlds in Bangkok.

For me, a large part of the allure of international travel is the ability to experience things that are exotic and foreign. The attraction is that which is different from what I’m used to, and then discovering the similarities of people regardless of how different they initially seem. The familiar and comfortable are not what I travel for, my eyes don’t light up at the sight of golden arches, my heart is not warmed by the babble of voices I understand. I travel to a foreign land to experience someone else’s world, not a mini-version of my own, even as more difficult as that becomes for an American these days. Sometimes that means opening yourself to someone else’s attempt at bringing their home with them to a foreign land. I have to admit Thailand, as exotic as it still is, is also familiar to me by now. As easy as it is to fall back on the tried and trued when visiting these days, I push myself to seek places and experiences that still remain strange and different to me. I pursue the unfamiliar and unexpected. Sometimes that can mean nothing more than taking a different tack in an area that you know well.

When I first discovered Bangkok I stayed along Sukhumvit. And I still head over that way often today. From around Soi 3 into the upper 20s, Sukhumvit offers a multitude of entertainment opportunities. Of course when you mention Sukhumvit and entertainment, most frequent visitors immediately think of the Nana Entertainment Plaza. At least the straight ones do. And that in turn means the Nana BTS Station, where as a single, slightly older man your fellow train passengers will always assume you have cheap sex on the mind. That’s because most touri who call the Nana Station home base do.

Nana Plaza, home to cheap straight sex touri.

The area around Nana has changed over the years, and not necessarily for the better. It was always home to Bangkok’s naughty boys on the prowl, but Soi Cowboy has quickly surpassed the Nana Plaza as the sex touri destination of choice, and the newer, brighter, slightly upscale bars all headed to that end of Sukhumvit leaving the tired, run-down, and less salubrious establishments to lend an air of depravity to Nana, the seediness that makes it such a draw to cheap sex touri. So I guess as much as the area has changed, its main purpose has remained the same.

Cheap straight gogo bars may not be much of a draw for gay touri (though the largest collection of ladyboy bars can be found at Nana too). Nor perhaps would a culture whose religion condemns homosexuality. But it is this latter group who congregate near the Nana BTS station that recommends a visit and that sets up the visual juxtaposition of naughty boys and the visibly devout. Often called Little Arabia – even though the majority of visitors in this areas are from the Gulf States – it may not be your idea of SE Asia, but if you’ve spent much time in Bangkok it is a great neighborhood for seeking out something a little different, an experience that may not be Thai, but that will provide a glimpse into a world you may be unfamiliar with.

Mini skirts make way for burkas along Sukhumvit Soi 3.

In the days before the Sky Train added another level of congestion to Bangkok’s world famous traffic, strolling along Sukhumvit’s sidewalks in the Nana neighborhood was always a chore thanks to gaggles of rude German touri blocking the way while one of their party tried to bargain for some cheap souvenir at one of the market stalls that already thinned the walkway to a single lane. Progress today is just as slow, but the fat German hordes have been replaced by fat middle-eastern women dressed in large swaths of black cotton. Burkas are a common sight from Soi 3 to Soi 11 these days, and while that native garb is supposed to help Allah-fearing Muslim men from the dictates of their hormones, I suspect the true purpose is to keep grossly obese bodies out of sight. It’s a mode of dress I think Americans should consider adopting. Why 300 lb. women think skin tight clothing is the way to go is beyond me. But I digress . . .

Little Arabia has been a fixture in Bangkok for decades. Originally, the neighborhood filled with businesses sporting signs in arabic script was hidden off the main road between Sukhumvit’s Soi 3 and Soi 5. It’s been slowly spreading out from the backstreets to encompass a large part of Soi 3 and more and more of Sukhumvit. Visitors from the middle east, most dressed in their native garb, make up the largest contingent of touri sauntering along Sukhumvit these days. But turn down the small soi that wraps around from Sukhumvit to Soi 3 and you’ll think you just stepped into Arabia; with the mingling aromas of exotic spices, grilling kebabs, and spits of roasting chicken and lamb permeating the night’s air, it’s easy to forget you are in Bangkok. The food alone is worth visiting Little Arabia.

Little Arabia’s restaurants are difficult to miss.

Shiny silver railings separate 24-hour restaurants from the street, shawarma vendors clutter the sidewalk, and apple-scented hookah smoke fills the air. You’ll find Arabian, Egyptian, African, Iranian, Lebanese, and vegetarian restaurants offering authentic food and reasonable prices. Most restaurants here don’t serve alcohol; this is the spot Muslim visitors to the Big Mango come to for halal food, as well as a taste of home. Al-Iraqi serves a unique blend of Iranian and Iraqi dishes, MehMaan offers a menu of Indian, Pakistani, and Arabic food served under a giant picture of Yasser Arafat, and at Petra you’ll find some of the city’s best and most freshly baked naan bread. And Nefertiti offers an encyclopedia-sized menu of Egyptian food; though its other speciality is the true draw here.

While no longer the only place in Little Arabia to offer shisha smoking, it was one of the first and proudly displays the pipes out front where they can’t be missed. With plenty of outdoor seating and an amusement park-like ambiance brightly lit with a kaleidoscope of colors reflecting off its stainless steel walls Nefertiti is your best place to try a hookah on for size. Make it clear you are a novice and the strange dark men in caps hidden behind dense mushroom clouds of thick white smoke filling the tables near you will quickly take you under wing. A word of warning though: even of you are a smoker, you’ll be surprised at how much of the rich apple flavored smoke fills your lungs, and while it isn’t quite the high you’d get if the pipe was loaded with hashish, you will quickly get a nice buzz going. Which might just be enough to convince you to expand your horizons further and step up from the hookah to a hooker.

Try a hookah instead of a hooker for a change.

Little Arabia is anchored by the infamous Grace Hotel, now a favored spot for middle eastern visitors for their stay while in Bangkok. A mere 500 feet from Nana Plaza, it also draws sex touri from the west, though not quite up to the pull of the even seedier Nana Hotel. The lobby late at night is a perfect microcosm of the surrounding neighborhood, filled with women in burkas, men in flowing white robes, working local girls, and elderly Caucasian punters escorting their girlfriend of the hour back to their cheap hotel room having just visited one of Bangkok’s most sleazy red-light areas, Nana Plaza.

A visit to one of Nana Plaza’s neon-lit girly gogo bars could be a real eye opener for you, even if you aren’t interested in the same merchandise that draws the straight clientele. If nothing else it serves as a great comparison to the Soi Twilight bars you’re more familiar with. If that idea is a bit beyond the pale for you, try one of the five ladyboy venues at Nana. Obsession, Temptation, Casanova, Cascade, and Carnival offer some of the city’s most gorgeous ladies who aren’t and even if you’re not interested in taking one of them home, you’ll find any one of the bars a fun place to spend an evening. The girls do tend to have attitude, after all each is a true diva, but they are less aggressive than those you’ll find working the streets just outside Nana.

Nana is the closest station to a variety of gay massage shops, like Hero.

Not that Nana BTS only offers experiences that might take you outside of your comfort zone mind you. It is also a popular stop for gay touri looking for a massage with happy ending. The closest is Hero on Soi 11, one of Bangkok’s best gay massage shops. Soi 11 is also home to the Banana Club. Both are within walking distance of Nana Station if you don’t mind the hike, or grab a thankfully quick motocy taxi at the foot of the soi; you’ll arrive fresh, if not too relaxed, and won’t have to worry about finding the location. Uniman massage, formerly B&N, is between sois 10 and 12 inside the Sukhumvit Plaza, and the Guy Spa is on Soi 19. There are several other massage places along Sukhumvit too, including Albury Men’s Club on soi 26, but they are more easily reached from the Asoke or Phrom Phong station.

While sex is the main draw for many visitors, Nana station also lures those with a different addiction: shopping. Nightly the stretch of Sukhumvit from Soi 3 to Soi 19 is home to one of the city’s more popular night markets. Catering to the touri crowd, the merchandise along Sukhumvit is a bit more varied than you’ll find at Patpong’s night market, and priced at about half of what you’d pay there. Knock-off and pirated goods abound, but there are also cheap T-shirts, Thai handcrafts, and electronic gadgets that’ll bring out the kid in you. And if you’ve shopped ‘til you dropped, Sukhumvit is home to Bangkok’s fleet of mobile bars, converted vans turned into neon-lit backbars that set up along the boulevard’s sidewalks where you can kick back and have a few rounds without ever having to step off the street.

Sukhumvit’s sidewalks become a massive market at night.

Daytime the scene is less frenetic and the shopping opportunities less available, but if you are looking for a reputable place to buy jewelry, The Jewelry Mart on the corner of Soi 11 is a good choice. The stones sold there are all real and are of better quality; the deal you get will all depend on your bartering skills.

Nana BTS Station is a wonderful stop offering several conflicting worlds to enjoy. It’s also a good station to call home. There are dozens of hotels within a three minute walk of the station, some so close you can check out hot guys riding the trains as they zip past your hotel window. Every price range is represented, from the 4 star Landmark to the funky rooms above Narry’s Tailor where for $25 a night you can share your room with piles of laundry waiting to be washed.

You can get a drink on Sukhumvit without ever stepping off the sidewalk.

The small but hip Grand Inn on Soi 3 puts you right in the middle of the action for $35 a night, while over on Soi 11 the Swiss Park’s spacious marbled floored executive rooms run only $60, including an extensive buffet breakfast. Extend your boundaries to within a hotel provided free tuk tuk ride from the station and your choice of places to stay becomes limitless. This is one of the best areas in town to grab a decent room at a decent price, and while not in the middle of Patpong it is only 25 baht and 8 minutes away by train. You’ll get a lot more hotel for a lot less baht by staying around the Nana station, and easy access to the Skytrain to boot.

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