Author: Kendall Hill
Photography: Christopher Wise
If you thought Bangkok was still a no-go zone after the riots of 2010 and last year's devastating floods, think again. The Thai capital is steaming hot right now, and not just in a climatic sense. The banks of the Chao Phraya river haven't seen so much action since King Taksin settled the western shore in the mid-18th century, with at least a dozen major developments - hotels, condos, malls - hitching their fortunes to the waterfront. Elsewhere in this 14-million-strong metropolis, hot spots such as Thonglor and Ekkamai cater to the newly affluent and expats with original bars and restaurants that marry global design DNA with an innate Thai style and flavour.
And then there's the Tyler Brûlé factor. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck "Pu" Shinawatra signed the Canadian trendsetter and magazine publisher to revamp her nation's image from one of natural disasters and rowdy locals to a disciplined land where industry and international trade thrive. The initial Brûlé pitch is relentlessly positive, focusing on the country's ambitious $73-billion infrastructure program - slated to include high-speed rail and solar-powered tuktuks - and talking up Thailand's world-beating production of hard-drives.
All of which makes the Land of Smiles sound a little po-faced, and as anyone who's been to Bangkok knows, this is not the case. The irrepressible city epitomises the national passion for sanuk - that urge to party, laugh and enjoy life to the full. And there's plenty of sanuk to be found in the Big Mango circa 2012.
A big part of the revitalised capital's energy - and a key reason why it makes such a compelling stopover city - is the abundance of exciting new accommodation. Half of Bangkok seems to be in the soft-opening stage, and many of the new arrivals are spectacular. The Siam, for one, is positioning itself as a landmark hotel in Asia, and there's considerable buzz about the W Hotel's imminent debut on Embassy Row in December. The bonus of all this activity is a glut of great hotel rooms at bargain prices.
Meanwhile, glossy new malls Terminal 21 and Central World have fashionistas enthralled, though perhaps not so much as the news that Vogue will launch a Thai-language version in 2013. After hours, wine bars and handcrafted beers are all the rage among the smart set, and the local food scene is going through a distinct indie phase. Unique dining experiences are cropping up in old shophouses, colonial mansions and upmarket "community" malls.
"The scene is really blossoming," says Australian chef Dylan Jones, one half of the culinary team behind the sophisticated indie favourite Bo.lan. "A lot of Thais who have been working overseas in kitchens are coming back and trying to put their mark on the city."
As if to emphasise life here is back to normal, the burning current-affairs issues during our visit were a brawl over broadcast rights to the UEFA World Cup, and a furore over a Thailand's Got Talent contestant who painted a canvas with her bare breasts. True, there was also considerable debate about whether enough had been done to safeguard the city against further flooding this wet season, but that threat hasn't dampened the vigour now afoot in the capital.
"The city always moves on," explains Krissada Sukosol Clapp, the
popular Thai singer and actor who, along with his hotelier family,
has just opened The Siam. The Thai people's resilience is a
combination of frustration and acceptance, he explains. "Here it's
Buddhist, so you are taught to accept more. We are very easygoing
people. We are not disciplined people… but that's part of our
"Thai people have an incredible ability to bounce back," agrees his Hong Kong-born wife, Melanie Giles-Clapp. "They recover quickly. It's that whole sabai sabai [easygoing] nature; they bounce back and they never give up."
Just like the capital itself. Bangkok is bouncing like never before.
Glamour has a new address. Bangkok's most remarkable new hotel commands more than a hectare of Chao Phraya riverfront in the historic Dusit district, where it is perfectly at home among the palaces and grand government piles. The Siam's 28 individually themed suites and 11 pool villas channel a monochrome, deco-inspired aesthetic decorated with Krissada Sukosol Clapp's phenomenal hoard of antiques. The delight is in the details - cabinets containing 1000-year-old Sukhothai earthenware and Tang dynasty treasures (from matriarch Kamala Sukosol's private collection); evocative antique doors in the basement spa; a surreal sculpture of sousaphones above the cocktail bar. This is an urban retreat, not a capital hot spot, so plan for plenty of spa time, sunset cocktails on the jetty and cultural excursions around the unsung Dusit neighbourhood. 3/2 Thanon Khao, Vachirapayabal, Dusit, +66 2 206 6999; suites from $505
Taiwanese hotelier Eugene Yeh brought boutique elegance to Bangkok with The Eugenia hotel and has reprised his love of colonial architecture and taxidermy at Cabochon, a hidden gem off Sukhumvit. The four-storey neo-colonial mansion blends 1920s detailing with safari schlock (mind the zebra in the bar) and a startling collection of turtle shells. The four suites are the pick of the accommodation; smaller studios suit short stays or can be booked in conjunction with the suites by family groups. The Joy Luck Club bar is cocktail central while in-house restaurant Thai Lao Yeh deals authentic Thai/Lao fare, from ant eggs and duck tongue to an excellent beef larb. A 22-metre rooftop lap pool is the jewel in the Cabochon crown. 14/29 Sukhumvit Soi 45, +66 2 259 2871; rooms from $118
Christian Lacroix's design flair is a highlight of Sofitel's hip hotel brand So - love his staff uniforms of balloon knickerbockers and box-pleat skirts - but this slick tower hotel's best asset is its dress-circle position above the glorious greenery of Lumphini Park. The four room themes (earth, metal, wood and water) have been executed by leading Thai artists; some styles might appeal more than others so ask to see a selection at check-in. Standout spaces include the ultra-contemporary lobby on level nine, the 29th-floor Park Society restaurant and bar, and the Red Oven buffet restaurant laid out like a fresh produce market. 2 North Sathorn Rd, +66 2 624 0000; rooms from $153
The future is now at this bold 32-storey hotel tower in the entertainment hub of Soi 11. Aloft, an offshoot of W Hotels, is pitched firmly at a young, tech-savvy crowd, so in its "touch" rooms it ditches keys and remotes for smart phones that control everything from room entry and entertainment to lighting and temperature. There's free WiFi throughout, from the neon-toned W XYZ bar with its molecular cocktails and resident DJ, to the casual Crave restaurant with its iPad winelists. A nightclub, Levels, is set to open on the sixth and seventh floors, but in the meantime, Aloft guests get free entry to the famed Bed Supperclub across the road, and to nearby Q Bar. 35 Sukhumvit Soi 11, +66 2 207 7000; rooms from $62
Anantara Riverside Resort and Spa
There's a new vitality to this 20-year-old former Marriott resort beside the Chao Phraya, which was rebranded as Anantara late last year. A $10million renovation of its south wing (the rest will follow) has resulted in fresh, stylish rooms with modern conveniences including iPod docks and DVD players. The vast, 108-square-metre Anantara premier suites in prime corner spots have wraparound river balconies, coffee machines and wine cellars. Families will appreciate the free entertainment, 10 restaurants and bars, and all-day activities at the supervised Chang Noi kids' club. About 60 per cent of this 4.5-hectare haven is tropical garden, plus there's a swim-up pool bar, so it really does feel like a resort at the edge of Bangkok. 257/1-3 Charoennakorn Rd, Thonburi, +66 2 476 0022; rooms from $161, Anantara premier suites from $329
Muse's blue-chip location and finishes reminiscent of a grand European hotel add some old-school glamour to the Bangkok accommodation scene. Interiors take their cues from the globetrotting King Rama V who embraced the West and its cultures - hence the parquet floors, Persian carpets and signature Italian restaurant Medici. Room décor is defined by fine fabrics and richly detailed interiors (etched mirrors, floral-patterned handbasins). The 19th-floor Su Tha Ros restaurant offers haute Thai with haute views, but the standout space is the rooftop Speakeasy terrace bar and attached Blind Pig cigar lounge, complete with smoking jackets for guest use. 55/555 Langsuan Rd, Lumphini, +66 2 630 4000; rooms from $124
The journey to the newly opened Bangkok Treehouse is as fascinating as the destination. Board a BTS skytrain to far-flung Bang Na station, take a quick cab to the pier, hitch a longboat ride across the Chao Phraya with a man called Uncle Piak, and you've arrived at this sustainable, recycled, green, community-minded and very unusual hotel. There are nine tree-top "nests" cantilevered above the river mangroves, each with alfresco showers, spare and comfortable air-conditioned bedrooms and rooftop sundecks among the palms. Sydney-born Joey Tulyanond conceived this eco-retreat on the Phra
Padaeng peninsula, a popular weekend escape, to showcase the good life among the green lungs of Bangkok. 60 Moo 1, Bang Namphueng, Phra Pradaeng, +66 82 995 1150; rooms from $117
EAT & DRINK
Nahm, which debuted this year on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, is Australian chef David Thompson's paean to Thai produce, cooking and culture. Take a seat amid the minimalist interior of the Metropolitan hotel and surrender to the full dégustation, an interactive and deliciously overwhelming journey through the flavours and traditions of Thai cuisine. Landmark dining at very reasonable (by Australian standards) prices. Metropolitan Bangkok, 27 South Sathorn Rd, Tungmahamek, +66 2 625 3388
This sharp izakaya-cum-tobanyaki-grill next door to Dean & Deluca is gaining a rep for quality Japanese snacks, sashimi and a five-page list of sakes, umeshus and shochus. Interiors channel a Scandi-Oriental vibe and there's a similar smart fusion to the menu - salted gingko nuts and lotus chips to start, grilled beef tongue with green tea salt to follow, and sake affogato to finish. Park Ventures Ecoplex, 57 Wireless Rd, +66 2 108 2255
When you tire of Thai and yearn for new food adventures, head to this chic boutique hotel downtown for a prix-fixe lunch of Yuya Okuda's rather precise French-Japanese fusion. His sole meunière with Niçoise risotto and beurre blanc is a revelation. 9/1 corner of Sukhumvit Soi 16, Ratchadapisek, Klongtoey, +66 2 615 6400
Issaya Siamese Club
Thai celebrity chef Ian Kittichai continues to set the fine-dining pace with this bold dining room and louche lounge club in a 90-year-old central Bangkok mansion. Kittichai, who apprenticed at Sydney's legendary Claude's, is renowned for his Massaman lamb shank, banana flower salad and theatrical petits fours. (You might also try Smith, Kittichai's riff on nose-to-tail warehouse dining at 1/8 Sukhumvit Soi 49; +66 2 261 0515.) 4 Soi Sri Aksorn, Chua Ploeng Rd, Sathorn, +66 2 672 9040
"Wholesome food. Honest cooking. Serious drinks" is the Mahanakorn mantra. And you'll find no shortage of diners ready to vouch for the virtues of food-scribe-turned-restaurateur Jarrett Wrisley's rocking cocktails and regional street-food specialties. The nam prik two ways - sort of a spicy Thai take on the crudité plate - is a highlight, and the tamarind ribs are a knockout. 56/10 Sukhumvit 55, +66 2 714 7708
Nahm London alumni Duangporn Songvisava (Bo) and Dylan Jones credit David Thompson for stoking their passion for Thai food and traditions. The two Slow Food enthusiasts fastidiously source all ingredients and then transform them into authentic plates such as salad of slow-cooked beef with new-season mangosteen and mint dressing. Dining in the fragrant herb garden on a steamy Siamese night is heaven. 42 Soi Pichai Ronnarong, Sukhumvit 26, +66 2 260 2962
The Iron Fairies
Pan's Labyrinth meets Peter Pan inside this singular Thonglo shophouse reborn as a wine bar and jazz club. Interiors evoke a fantasy blacksmith's forge, with a wrought-iron spiral staircase connecting the two floors of fun. A must-see. 394 Thonglor Rd, Sukhumvit 55, +66 2 714 8875
Upmarket "community malls" are de rigueur in the new Bangkok. The Grass is one of the grooviest with its central courtyard ringed by bars including Fat Gut'z - a hybrid fish-and-chip shop, whiskey saloon and bandroom by the same guy behind The Iron Fairies (expat Aussie Ashley Sutton). Top city restaurant The Water Library has a branch here with chef's table and set 10-course menus from $200. 264/1Sukhumvit Soi 12
These ethereal all-white tearooms with crystal chandeliers and French-accented furnishings are set in a garden oasis. Society types and snap-happy foreigners drop by for hot drinks and sweet treats such as scones and carrot cake. 20 Sukhumvit Soi 51 (enter at Boonchiradorn Building), +66 2 662 5857; open Friday-Sunday only
Ryan Gosling drank here. No, seriously, he did. When the Hollywood heart-throb lobbed in Bangkok to film Only God Forgives, his built-in cool detector led him to this hole-in-the-wall bar down a laneway off Thonglor. Great cocktails (try The Orchard), good drinking food (grilled chorizo buns) and a cutting-edge gallery upstairs attract an eclectic crowd of urban tastemakers. 7 Sukhumvit Soi 51, +66 2 662 6246
THE HIGH LIFE
No metropolis does skyscraper bars quite like Bangkok. Perhaps it's the apparent disregard for public liability, but the Thai capital has no qualms about assembling humans on low-fenced rooftops and plying them with alcohol. You might recognise The Lebua hotel's 63rd-storey Skybar from its cameo role in The Hangover II. Equally teetering is the shimmering Moon Bar on the 61st-floor rooftop of the Banyan Tree in the five-star Sathorn enclave. Hotel Muse's Speakeasy is a chic indoor-outdoor space with views over the city's poshest residential strip. The French Martinis are formidable.
Famous city addresses include Raan Jay Fai (327 Mahachai Rd, +66 2 223 9384), where the thick rice noodles scented with basil cost $10.50 (compared with $1.25 elsewhere) but the produce is the best. Krissada Sukosol Clapp likes the beef noodles at Nai Soey (100/2-3 Phra Athit Rd, +66 86 982 9042).
For Bangkok's favourite pink noodles, head to Yen Ta Fo JC (Sala Daeng Soi 2, behind Silom Complex, +66 81 919 1233) for spicy broths of pickled beancurd, crisp squid and tofu balls.
Sanjorn Chamnikpa, aka Uncle John (Suan Plu Soi 8, Sathorn, +66 81 373 3865), ran the kitchens at the flash Sukhothai Hotel for decades before opening a shophouse café with footpath kitchen where he plates up the same five-star fare - foie gras, beef tenderloin - at a fraction of the price.
Make your own street-food discoveries by quizzing hotel staff and others about where they eat. That's how I found a terrific pork noodle joint off Sukhumvit on Soi 26 (about 100 metres down on the right, past the massage parlours). The surrounds are basic but the garlicky porky noodles are incredible - the more you eat, the better they taste.
Mall crawling is quite possibly the second most popular pursuit - after eating - among fashionable Bangkokians. Asoke station is home to the spanking new Terminal 21, a quirky concept mall where each floor is themed after an international city. Mine the labyrinth of boutiques for offbeat Thai fashions and accessories.
BTS Siam is retail gold with wall-to-wall malls including Siam Paragon and the risen-from-the-ashes Central World, which burned down in the 2010 troubles. Inside the latter, Zen Department Store stocks original talent such as FlynowIII on its first-floor Thai Designers Gallery.
No market in the world rivals the delightful chaos of Chatuchak, the weekend bazaar peddling everything from fake Viagra to genuine antiques. The smart way to tackle this maze of merchandise is to grab a copy of Nancy Chandler's Map of Bangkok with its invaluable Chatuchak guide, and arrive early - preferably before 9am - to get your bearings, haggle for early-bird discounts, and be gone by noon when the hordes descend. Also visit the funky Talad Rot Fai or Train Market on Saturday and Sunday nights when vendors of vintage collectables and clothes set up shop beside a railway line (take the MRT to Kampaeng Phet station). The warehouses of the former East Asiatic Company are home to Asiatique, a new night market of arts and crafts, fashion and riverfront restaurants. Shuttle boats from BTS Saphan Taksin leave the pier every 15 minutes.
Locals like to run down the attraction of their ponging klongs but there's no better way to grasp the aquatic nature of the city and the unique life of the river and its myriad canals than on a longboat. Former klong-dweller Visanu Kidkarn leads Anantara Riverside Resort's new klong tours, plying the relatively gentrified waters around Thonburi with fascinating culinary, spiritual and cultural stops en route (book through Anantara).
It's not a bad idea to make merit and earn some spiritual kudos when you're in this Buddhist heartland. Give food to alms-seeking monks at dawn, visit a temple and leave a donation, or buy a bag of fluoro fish food to feed the voracious catfish that loiter by bridges and hotels along the river.
There are growing numbers of interesting commercial art galleries in Bangkok (agents from Sotheby's Hong Kong have apparently been snooping around at the artist-run V64 studios and gallery) but for a streamlined introduction to some of Thailand's major artistic talents, visit the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Thai operates 38 non-stop flights each week from Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to Bangkok.