WINE REVIEW APRIL 2017

STILL CHEAP BUT NOT FOR LONG

An evening out in Bangkok can run the gamut price-wise from a reasonable Bt1000 per person to multiple times that depending on one’s taste. A popular option in the lower price range with a steady following of those preferring conviviality to air conditioning is about to close after over three decades of unimposing presence. Cheap Charlie’s can’t even claim to be a hole-in-the-wall, in the vernacular of low-end joints, because it’s an awning on-the-wall of a completely unrelated business just off Sukhumwit Soi 11. No a/c, no kitchen, not even a proper hong-nam. It’s the vision of Charlie Butkajang who after working around U.S military forces stationed in Thailand following the Vietnam conflict learned that simple is often better when it comes to a place to unwind and enjoy a few drinks.

Not that Charlie was “cheap” in the sense of pinching pennies, but he was savvy in making do with a few slabs of hardwood for a bar, a makeshift foldable canvas awning and ready access to beer and liquor at true wholesale prices. The latter are rumored to have originated from various backdoor sources, at least at the outset. Add to that a collection of bird’s nests, signs, stuffed animals, a real caged owl—long since deceased—and a few barstools and you have Cheap Charlie’s.

Opened in 1982 when rules for bars were relaxed if non-existent Charlie parlayed his very cheap sources for alcohol—all drinks were originally 20 baht—into an early evening retreat for foreigners working in Thailand. As more farangs found the Thai style of living to their liking and retired here Charlie’s became a regular meeting place. Tourists and business people staying in the nearby Ambassador hotel also dropped by and returned home with stories about this unique pop-up street bar with the cheapest drinks in the city. 

Articles in the International Herald-Tribune and numerous other publications plus CNN, gave Cheap Charlie’s a global reputation as a “must see” venue in the City of Angels. Upon Charlie’s untimely death from a stroke in 1992 his brother Satit took over and with the same keen eye for minimalist pleasure added more stools and a few chairs plus a much appreciated, at least for men, single standup urinal wedged in a corner behind the bar. Prior to this the only bathroom facilities were in two adjacent restaurants where Charlie’s customers felt obliged to order take-away snacks.

With the passage of additional decades the bar, bird’s nests and signs are perhaps a bit worse for wear, much like the faithful cadre of steady customers who know everyone by name, but the camaraderie remains. Prices have definitely changed, now up to 80 to 90 baht per drink, but hard to find cheaper anywhere in town. The biggest change, likely underway as you read this article, is that the entire two block area is giving way to another high-rise building complex—just what the neighborhood needs!

Satit is looking for another wall on a corner, hopefully in the same area, to attach his awning, bar and assorted memorabilia so Cheap Charlie’s and its faithful tribe of regulars will still have a place to relax with their favorite libations. If and when it happens you’ll find it noted here. Meanwhile thanks for the memories!

Written by: R. James Mullen