Brilliant Bangkok

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First published 14th January, 2005

Bangkok is evolving into a destination worthy of the adoration of more than just the tourist seeking tacky souvenirs and a cheap package holiday.

Let's start with one of Bangkok's claims to fame: its traffic. The stories prior to the economic collapse were legendary, and although those sort of epic days might be over, the city still suffers more than its fair share of jams. Things changed for the better, however, with the December 1999 opening of the Skytrain - a monstrous elevated train line that makes normal monorails look like children's toys. And the subway opened in early July, making a huge area of the city much more accessible.

Neither systems quite make it to Rattanakosin, the old city of Bangkok where many of its best cultural attractions lie, but this area is accessible by boat along the Chao Phraya, the coffee-coloured river that divides the city in two. Hordes head to the glittering Grand Palace - the spires will catch your eye from the river - but head to the more peaceful Vimanmek Mansion, the world's largest teak building, and constructed without a nail.

More attention is being paid to old Thai architecture these days. Check out the teak house of former prime minister MR Kukrit Pramol, incongruously situated in the heart of the financial district's sleek glass and steel towers; stroll through the teak houses of Suan Pakkard Palace and admire the fine antiquities on display; or visit the treasure-filled home of Jim Thompson, the former American CIA agent who saved Thailand's silk industry before disappearing in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands in the 60s.

Of course, shopping for Thai silk must be on your list of things to do. Any Thai will unhesitatingly tell you to head straight to one of the several Jim Thompson outlets - except for the tuk-tuk drivers who insist on taking you for a ride to their brother's shop for free. Jim Thompson is certainly a better bet.

You can mix a love of architecture, shopping and food if you head to Cafe Siam, a beautifully-renovated house built by the first governor of the Thai Railways in the 1920s located in today's financial district. French and Thai food are served downstairs, desserts and coffee in the lounge upstairs - and everything down to your teaspoon is for sale.

It's possible to eat out satisfactorily for years in Bangkok without ever having to go to the same place twice - but chances are you'd want to return to some of the best. For Thai food, there's elegant Baan Khanita or understated Lemongrass, located across the road from the gleaming department store, Emporium. Italian food is hugely popular at the moment, with the Regent's breezy Biscotti a favourite among the Thai hi-so (high society) set. Home-style Middle Eastern food is booming around the Nana area, while for contemporary try the space age Bed Supperclub.

The arts are finally coming into their own in Bangkok, with film festivals come and go, and irregular open-mike poetry readings are held at the hip About Cafe and Gallery, near Hualamphong railway station. Check out the installation art while you're there, and sip a traditional cool Thai drink while you finesse your sonnet.

The bar and club scene gets more sophisticated by the month. The Silom 4 area is popular among teens and the gay scene, but New York-style Q Bar, the younger sibling of the famed Saigon branch, shows that the Sukhumvit area can be classy too. One club worth checking out for its sheer opulence is Narcissus, where the classical Greek-style interior, disco balls and red velvet lounges scream "Bangkok boom years" but still attracts the masses.

The spa scene, too, has come of age. Even if you're not staying at the gorgeous Oriental, head to their spa across the river for some of their exceptional Thai or foreign treatments, or further downriver try the Mandara Spa at the Marriott Royal Garden Riverside for tropical treats at their best.

But if you can't make it here soon, don't fret; things are getting better by the day.

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.

Read 2 comment(s)

  • The Skytrain is a monstrance that has kind of grown on me actually. Seeing all that concrete infrastructure running down the middle of the road gives an extra big bad city feel to Bangkok.

    Posted by James Clark on 1st November, 2010

  • Incredible city! Forever bustling! One of the best highlights for shopping has to be the Platinum fashion mall! Boooming with hundreds of stalls! and of course the Grand Palace is worth a visit! Awesome destination!

    Posted by carmeblen on 8th May, 2012

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