Gilded temple spires, gleaming shipping malls, soaring skyscrapers, sidewalk and gourmet restaurants all jostle for space amidst market stalls of every description in Bangkok’s neon-lit capital. Liz Smailes returns to a city she called home for a decade and rediscovers what it is that makes Bangkok tick in just 72 hours.
Fearing a Burmese attack in 1782, King Rama I moved the capital from the west bank of the Chao Phraya River across to the east bank and a smaller settlement known as Baang Mawkok (Olive Plum Riverbank), for the namesake trees which grew there in abundance. Over the course of three years, master craftsmen designed and built several magnificent temples and royal administrative buildings for the new capital. Finally, in 1785 the city was given a new name; a lexical feat of 16 Thai words, that roughly translate to:
‘Great city of angels, the repository of divine gems, the great land unconquerable, the grand and prominent realm, the royal and delightful capital city full of nine noble gems, the highest royal dwelling and grand palace, the divine shelter and living place of reincarnated spirits’.
It’s little wonder that foreign traders continued to call the capital Baang Mawkok, which eventually became truncated to Bangkok; the Thais commonly use a shortened version of the 16-word title to Krung Thep, meaning ‘City of Angels’.
Frequent flights between Yangon and Bangkok invite for exploration of a city transformed from a small riverbank trading village into Southeast Asia’s most dynamic and colourful capital.
Classic Bangkok with a Modern Twist
For a refreshing take on old and new traditions, Hotel Indigo Bangkok – www.ihg.com -offers an original boutique stay that will surprise at every turn. Located on Wireless Road between the Vietnamese and American embassies, and a short taxi ride away from the Myanmar embassy on Sathorn Road, this hotel provides an ideal base for exploring the city. It’s a 10-minute walk to Lumpini Park with its impeccable, manicured lawns in one direction and an even shorter walk to the high-speed Sky Train (Bangkok Transit System) in the other direction.
After checking in, begin your Bangkok city adventure with an afternoon visit to Jim Thompson House – www.jimthompsonhouse.com.
This American silk tycoon revitalised the Thai silk industry after WWII, building his house in 1959 to combine Asian and European aesthetics. An enchanting blend of old and new, and an insight into the influence of Thai and international cultures on Bangkok. An early visitor, Somerset Maugham wrote in Jim’s guest book: ”You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste”.
Sadly, Jim only lived here for eight years; in 1967, he mysteriously disappeared while staying in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Of the numerous theories and rumours as to what happened, none have been proven and no body has ever been found.
To make the most of your visit, take the 30-minute museum guided tour (THB 150) and discover intriguing answers to curious design features, such as why every doorway in Thailand has to have a step!
Feeling peckish? The museum’s wonderful café overlooking a Koi pond is a tranquil setting to enjoy your favourite sweet, sour, spicy and salty Thai dishes. A refreshing favourite on a hot day is the Pomelo and Prawn Salad – Yom Som O.
If it’s modern culture you’re after, the nation’s new home for contemporary art is a 5-minute walk away from Jim Thompson house at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre – www.bacc.or.th. With rotating exhibitions, funky bookshops, craft and art material shops, restaurants and coffee shops, it’s almost a half-day out in itself.
For a pure retail fix, however, here begins the shopping mall mile. Hit the high street chain stores, the designer shops, the quirky vintage boutiques or the department stores in one of the numerous malls that line Sukhumvit road all the way from Siam Square to EmQuartier at Phrom Phong BTS station.
For dinner, avoid the temptation to grab a bite from any old food court or mall restaurant. Instead, go back to Ploenchit BTS station to Hyde & Seek – www.hydeandseek.com – on Soi Ruam Ruedi, just behind Hotel Indigo. This trendy gastro bar has an international feel with a part New York chic, part London reserve and an impressive drinks list. Whatever’s in the mix, this place certainly has the popular touch – stay for dinner and you’re sure for a fun night out. From here, it’s just a 10-minute walk back to Hotel Indigo.
A New Take On Old Memories
Nothing says you’ve arrived in Bangkok quite like a day exploring the intricate network of canals and waterways. However, if you have affairs to arrange at the Myanmar Embassy, attend to those first and beat the morning traffic with a taxi ride before 7:30 am to Sathorn Sois 10 and 12. Take breakfast at one of the growing number of worldly cafes that are opening up on these streets. If you find yourself here later in the day, Soi 12 is also home to renowned Chef Tim Butler’s new restaurant, The Bunker – www.bumkerbkk.com. The Myanmar embassy is just around the corner from here.
Head further down Sathorn road to the Chao Phraya River and explore why it was that King Rama I feared a Burmese invasion back in 1782. It’s also where western authors such as Maugham, Conrad and Coward were singling out the Chao Phraya as one of their favourite spots in the Far East. Zig-zagging the city in all directions, these choppy brown waterways move cargo and passenger traffic, and provide a seemingly endless source of water for bathing, cooking, irrigation and recreation. They also conjure up a parallel universe in which 18th-Century Siam coexists with 21st-Century Thailand.
Five public boat lines, all operated by the Chao Phraya Express Boat company, ply the same 21km route: ‘local line’, ‘orange’, ‘yellow’, ‘blue’ and ‘green-yellow’. Operating between 6:00 am and 7:30 pm daily, each is identifiable by the coloured flag hanging off its rear. The Orange Flag Line, with its flat fee of THB 15 baht one way, fits the bill for most journeys. Alternatively, there is also a tourist line that runs all day with a one-day ticket for THB 150, allowing you to hop on and off as you please. Cross-river ferries operate at most major piers and will drop you to the other bank for THB 3 one-way.
It’s impossible to do all the sites here in one day. With many piers along the river, the following are four recommended stops:
Phra Arthit (N13) – Stretching from Phra Sumen Fort to Thammasat University, quaint shop-houses line the streets along with cosy hole-in-the-wall restaurants, bars and cafés with live music. This is where the artsy type convene at the National Art Gallery and National Museum – as well as being the pier closest to the backpacker mecca of Khao San Road and Banglampoo Clothing market.
Wang Lang (N10) – Wang Lang has a great local market, but you’ll also find interesting temples (Wat Rakhang Khositaram) nearby, as well as the Patravadi Theatre, and the unique medical museum at Siriraj Hospital, which is definitely not for the faint hearted with pickled bodies on display.
Tha Tien (N8) – A scintillating stop and must see when in Bangkok. People come here to make merit at Wat Pho’s Reclining Buddha and surrounding temples. Wander the whimsical grounds where author Lewis Carol would have had a field day, take a massage for just THB 300 at the first Thai massage school (name) and visit Wat Arun on the east bank (just take a small boat across the river for only THB 3).
Si Phaya (N1) – Hop off here to take a boat across to the east bank from River City Mall and take respite in one of the most modern and delicious Thai restaurants, The Never Ending Summer- www.the-never-ending-summer.chope.co – an architectural gem designed by Duangrit Bunnag, one of Thailand’s leading contemporary architects. If you like curry, try the Chicken Tumeric Curry with brown rice and the flavours will be dancing on your palate for hours afterwards.
Head back to the hotel to enjoy a sundowner by the pool on the 24th floor and take in the impressive skyscraper view. As the sun sets, this pulsating metropolis comes to life. Bangkok is home to culinary greats such as Gaggan, Tim Butler, Ian Kittichai and David Thompson, whose restaurants appear in the 50 Best Lists for Asia and the World year after year. Hence, it’s time to glam up and head out for a knock-out dinner.
New on the restaurant scene and creating a buzz is Suhring – www.bunkerbkk.com – the debut restaurant of twin German chefs Thomas and Mathias Suhring – located in Yen Akat Soi 3, just off Sathorn Soi 1 and Sri Bumphen roads. Having only opened in March this year they’re already taking the city by storm. Why? They’ve given German cuisine a thorough advancement…breaking it down, extracting the best flavours, textures and combinations to recreate the dishes like never before.
Reservations are highly recommended.
Explore Some Other Hoods
After last night’s gluttonous feast, start the day with a morning stroll around Lumpini Park. Open from 4:30am until 9pm, it’s one of the largest parks in Bangkok and takes its name from Buddha’s place of birth in Nepal. Between 5am and 7am every day, legions of Thai-Chinese practise Tai Chi and throughout the day the shady paths, a large artificial lake and manicured lawns are the backdrop for a running track, sports ground, concert hall, meditation and all round social meeting point for people of all ages. Watch out for the enormous monitor lizards chasing miniature turtles, providing amusement for the whole family!
After a refreshing breakfast back at the hotel, opt for a change of transport and explore the city from the back of a motorcycle with the folks from Best Bangkok Tours – www.bestbangkoktours.com.
The fun of buzzing through the city’s manic streets on mopeds with local drivers will have you craving for more.
Typically, their standard tours last three hours and the guides will meet you at your hotel lobby. With your helmet on and sitting comfortably, the guides talk into your headset while you cruise slowly on the back of a scooter through all the main streets as well as the hidden passageways. If there are certain attractions you would like to see, and also those you don’t want to see, let them know ahead of time and they will customize the tour around your preferences. Along the way they’ll share extensive information on the different neighbourhoods, lifestyle, history and customs.
Back at the hotel, if you have time before flying out, spend your remaining hours indulging in a traditional tea ceremony; a perfect way to round off a short break in this city of intoxicating contrasts.