"So, what's new in Bangkok?" I ask my friend Rungsima Kasikranund during a recent visit to Thailand's capital. "Spas, Latin dancing, and coffee bars," she replies offhandedly, as if to preclude any tiresome questions about good places for pad thai or upcoming temple festivals. Her answer—as well as her chic black outfit and the minimalist café in which we're sitting—tells me that Bangkok is, if not yet hip, then certainly on the cusp of hip.
A hip Bangkok would be only the latest in a series of reincarnations this Buddhist city has undergone in the space of a few decades. Over the last 30 years, it has tripled in population and metamorphosed from a drowsy Asian backwater (quite literally: only a few feet above sea level, it's often flooded in monsoon season) to a densely populated, plugged-in metropolis.
The Vietnam War was responsible for Bangkok's most notorious rebirth—as a city of pleasure for the American soldiers who poured in looking for R&R. Backpackers followed, then tour groups and high-end travelers. I started visiting in the mid-1980's, in time to witness Bangkok's next, decidedly tonier, incarnation, when Thailand was one of Asia's economic "tigers" and the expanding middle class suddenly had money to burn. The Oriental hotel opened a spa that set a new gold standard for pampering. And Ed Tuttle, who designed the Amanpuri and Amandari resorts (in Phuket and Bali, respectively), created the fabulous Sukhothai hotel in 1991—still my favorite place to stay.
But my enthusiasm for the city waned in direct correlation to its booming economy. Newspapers reported that the number of cars on Bangkok's overburdened roads was growing by nearly 500 a day. A friend told me she once abandoned her car on a gridlocked street to go off to dinner and returned an hour later only to find that traffic hadn't budged. The glut of construction projects made the congestion and air pollution even worse. Headlines told of government scandals, of Buddhist monks accused of sexual and financial improprieties, of the growing AIDS epidemic. In 1991, I sat out a military coup in a hotel coffee shop, sipping Singha beer while tanks rolled down the street. A few years later, I got caught in a late monsoon, and had to wade through streets flooded with filthy water. Back at my hotel, I threw out my shoes and vowed never to return to Bangkok.
A few months later the Thai economy collapsed and the baht lost almost half its value against the dollar. And Bangkok was reborn, gradually, yet again, as a poorer but gentler city—one that I've now come back to rediscover.
The café where Rungsima has asked me to meet her is the latest outpost in the Greyhound chain, itself a spin-off of a popular local fashion line of the same name. Right now, it is the coolest place to hang out in Bangkok, and the perfect place for her to show off her city to a New York journalist. Rungsima, the editor-in-chief of the Thai edition of Elle Decor, was born in Bangkok but educated abroad, and is well-traveled and well-connected. Greyhound's cappuccinos are good, its menu is an Asian-Western fusion, and its clientele a mix of stylish shoppers and twentysomethings clutching cell phones and sporting creative hairdos. A tongue-in-cheek sign on the wall proclaims it a NO BULLSHITTING NO BACKSTABBING NO GOSSIPING NO SMOKING AREA.