The air is cleaner, the traffic is better, and Thailand's capital is focused on the future, pulsing with energy and a sexy sense of design. Meet Asia's new metropolis of cool.
"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.
Outside the café windows, jackhammers are tearing up the street for a new subway system modeled after Singapore's (it will have air-conditioned platforms), scheduled to open next year. Meanwhile, shiny, metered taxis honk their horns impatiently. I spot only the occasional three-wheeled exhaust-spewing tuk-tuk, long a favorite of tourists but now going the way of the dinosaurs. Overhead, the Skytrain, Bangkok's rapid transit system, glides by on elevated tracks. Open since 1999, the train runs on two lines and less than 20 miles of rails. A major expansion is in the works, but the system is already a godsend for tourists, covering most of the areas they're likely to visit. Even the Chatuchak Weekend Market, usually a daunting taxi ride, is just a few minutes' walk from a station. (The train has been less successful among residents: the middle class refuses to give up its cars, and many workers prefer the bus, which is slower but cheaper. Still, ridership increased by more than 30 percent last year, and the government is trying hard to woo additional passengers.)
Ironically, I find that the years of recession seem to have smoothed out the city's rough edges. When I first laid eyes on Bangkok, there were almost no tall buildings. Then, in the 1990's boom years, skyscrapers seemed to sprout up overnight. Now the skyline is filled with the ghostly shells of hundreds of unfinished building projects, gone bust mid-construction when the baht collapsed. Even without the Skytrain's impact, there are fewer cars on the roads (auto sales dropped by 75 percent in the two years following the economic crisis, and the price of gas doubled). Since most of the pollution came from construction dust and car exhaust, the air is visibly cleaner. The authorities have promised a crackdown in Patpong, that warren of street hawkers, raucous bars, and raunchy sex clubs, though it remains one of Thailand's biggest, and oddest, sightseeing attractions.
Despite the current "morality government," as it has been dubbed by the press, the Thai people's enviable dedication to sanuk (a good time) still defines the laid-back civic mood here. The zeitgeist is captured by the Thai expression mai pen rai, which translates loosely as "no worries." Even my careerist friends here seem to spend a shocking amount of time enjoying life. I suggest as much to Rungsima and her friend Sakul Intakul, a floral designer, when they come by the Sukhothai for a poolside lunch that stretches into late afternoon. I point out that it is, after all, a weekday. They protest, but only mildly. Sakul, whose work has been featured in Wallpaper magazine, is actually on the job, in a way: he creates the Sukhothai's celebrated floral arrangements, including the stunning multitiered "sculpture" in the lobby.
Over the past decade, the Sukhothai's graceful low-slung buildings, gardens, and lotus pools have been hemmed in by skyscrapers; its restaurant, Celadon, considered by many the best in town, has doubled in size. But it is still a fabulous place, more urban resort than hotel. The staff is good-looking, charming, and energetic. The public spaces and guest rooms all shimmer in Thai silk. My desk has a flat-screen computer with a high-speed Internet connection; the bathroom is big enough to get lost in. All the Sukhothai lacks is the riverside location of its main rivals for the carriage trade: the Peninsula, which opened four years ago, and the grande dame Oriental across the river.
Thais call their capital Krung Thep, or "City of Angels," and like Los Angeles, it's sprawling, smoggy, and steamy—temperatures average in the low 90's from March to May (the world's hottest city, according to the World Meteorological Organization). Unlike L.A., though, Bangkok has a definite center: the sinuous curve of the Chao Phraya river, which begins at Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, sweeps past Wat Arun, River City, and Chinatown, and ends at the Taksin Bridge. When I first came here, I spent almost all my time on or near the river. This trip, though, I'm always on the Skytrain, heading north from the river to either Siam Square or Sukhumvit, Bangkok's two most happening neighborhoods, for dining, shopping, and gawking.
And what a change I find. Fifteen years ago, Bangkok fashion was all rip-off American; in the 1990's, it was counterfeit Japanese. Now Thai designers are drawing inspiration from their own cultural heritage. Even the old-guard Jim Thompson silk company, best known for its high-quality, conservative neckties and scarves, has introduced a collection of bold, contemporary furniture and accessories in traditional materials—such as silk and teak—by the London-based Thai designer Ou Baholyodhin. Many creative enterprises are collaborations between Thais and expats, who bring an outsider's appreciation for the culture. One of the most popular spots for dinner in Bangkok these days is Le Café Siam, where French-born executive chef Xavier Lecourt's menu draws from both French and Thai traditions.
For a visitor like myself, reimagining Bangkok as a city where one might spend an afternoon sitting in fashionable cafés or gliding through trendy stores—as if one were in New York or London or Paris—requires a major shifting of mental gears, amending the outdated "exotic" images that travel agents still use to lure visitors here. A very good place to make the adjustment is the area around Siam Square, which is home to several department stores and shopping centers, including Siam Center and Siam Discovery Center. Both are crammed with interesting stores representing local and international designers, and with young shoppers scoping them out. Greyhound has a clothing store here, as does Habitat and the trendy Japanese Loft. There seems to be a Starbucks on every corner, and the Au Bon Pain on the ground floor of Siam Discovery Center is always packed.
There are also a number of hotels in the neighborhood, notably the Regent Bangkok, which has been going through a reincarnation of its own. New York-based Tony Chi has designed three gorgeous restaurants for it: Madison, a Manhattan-style steak house; Shintaro, a sushi bar; and Biscotti, where chef Giovanni Speciale prepares wood-fired pizza, pastas, and seafood in a vast open kitchen, surrounded on three sides by seating for diners. The kitchen, where I counted eight cooks on one night, is pure theater, and the food, based on local produce, is sparklingly fresh. I enjoyed it so much that I returned for lunch the next day.
Tony Chi, who was born in China and for the last four years has visited Bangkok monthly, seems to have tapped into the city's cosmopolitan yearnings. Biscotti is worldly, yet encourages a communal conviviality—a combination rarely found in hotel restaurants. Locals decked out in everything from jeans to silky dresses and Armani suits fill it every night. "Bangkok is very sophisticated, not in material things, but in its gracefulness," Chi tells me. "It has a lot of inner beauty—and the potential to become one of the great cities of the world."
The other neighborhood that captures my attention is Sukhumvit, a series of leafy, quiet lanes off a long stretch of busy Sukhumvit Road. The area, which still has plenty of century-old wooden houses, has long been popular with foreigners as a place to both live and play. I've been coming to Sukhumvit for years to shop at Rasi Sayam, probably Bangkok's best source for traditional Thai handicrafts. There are great restaurants out here, too; after dinner, everyone heads to Q Bar, an offshoot of the famous Saigon celeb hangout that closed a few years ago. But now, instead of hiring a taxi to get there—a ride that could take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour—you can make a daily pilgrimage using the Skytrain, which has eight stops along Sukhumvit Road.
An area of rice paddies only 50 years ago, Sukhumvit is now home to the Emporium, the city's newest and most upscale shopping plaza (Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, and the like). The restaurant Agalico, whose owner is reputed to be a direct descendant of King Rama V, is where ladies who lunch go for afternoon tea. Sukhumvit has also become a boom area for small, chic day spas such as Pirom, Palm Herbal, and Being, all of which offer treatments with a Thai twist, like hot-oil papaya body wraps and a Thai-pepper body scrub.
Day spas, nightclubs, boutiques, restaurants. What happened to the recession?To hear it from taxi drivers and shopkeepers, business is bad, money tight. Khun Puchong, a waiter at the Sukhothai with a college degree in business, used to work at a bank; now, he says, he's lucky to have a job at all. But clearly there are people who still have money to spend, I remark to my friend Tom Van Blarcom, an American P.R. executive who has lived here for almost 20 years.
"Rich families may have lost their shirts when the economy tanked, but they all had plenty more shirts hidden away," Tom says. "And the Thais love to shop. They kept their purses closed for a few years, but now they're back in action." We've just come from the Emporium, where I practically bought out Propaganda, a store that sells whimsical housewares by local designers—a bottle opener that resembles a shark's fin, a toothbrush holder in the shape of a molar. Now we're refueling at Kuppa, a spacious café co-owned by a Thai and an Australian. Kuppa has its own coffee roaster, is strictly non-smoking (an almost unimaginable concept in Asia), and serves food that runs the global gamut, from a baguette sandwich of Virginia ham and Monterey Jack to Thai grilled chicken to pizza with sausage, roasted peppers, and onion jam. It's the kind of place I could imagine turning into my official hangout if I moved to Bangkok.
And Kuppa is filled with Thais. My own observations, plus hard facts, back up Tom's theory. Economists say that a lot of the domestic growth (the economy is expanding again) is due to domestic spending, and credit card usage is high. The expats do their part as well. When we're finished with lunch, Tom leaves a generous tip on the table—an unusual gesture in Thailand. "Tipping is big now among American expats," he says. "The baht is low and tourism is too, so the service people need it."
The last night of my visit is Loi Krathong, the annual full moon festival. In Bangkok, there are fireworks and celebrations on the river, so all the restaurants, hotels, and sightseeing boats on the Chao Phraya are booked up far in advance. Luckily, Gahn Chaiprasit, a commercial film director I know, invites me to join him on a boat his company has chartered for the evening.
Late that afternoon, a huge rainstorm floods the streets and brings traffic to a standstill. The doorman at the Sukhothai hails me a cab, but the driver refuses to take me to the Ratchawong Pier, where the boat is docked. Ridiculous, he declares: after this downpour, and on Loi Krathong no less, it will take at least an hour. I persist, the price goes up, and off we go. The driver was right—traffic is horrendous—and he grumbles the whole way. Bangkok may have changed for the better, but bad weather, traffic jams, and crabby cabdrivers are woes it still shares with big cities everywhere.
It turns out everyone else is late too, which means I am on time. Gahn's company, Big Blue, is impressively egalitarian, and everyone, from directors and producers to drivers and maids, climbs aboard. The group is international: there's a Filipina-Australian model with a pierced tongue, and her husband, a Singaporean filmmaker; a Burmese art director based in Vietnam; a sullen teenager from Atlantic City, someone's visiting nephew, his Discman headphones shutting out the world. Gahn introduces me to two Thais who studied at the Pratt Art Institute in New York and to a producer who comes from a Bangkok "hi-so" (high society—the ones who had all those extra shirts hidden away) family and has an apartment in London. The wooden boat is open on all sides, with a peaked roof. There are tables set with linens and flowers, and a lavish buffet.
During Loi Krathong, Thais send tiny floats onto the river for good luck, and these elaborate arrangements of flowers, burning incense, and flickering candles bob all around us. Downriver, in front of the Oriental, the fireworks begin. Music drifts across the water, hundreds of tunes, it seems, from hundreds of boats. We pass a famously hideous high-rise condo, a relic of the boom years, its base modeled on Notre Dame and its domed roof a replica of the U.S. Capitol. Up above, the brilliant full moon illuminates Bangkok's glittery temple roofs and skyscrapers. I am sitting at the stern, my legs dangling over the side, sipping a beer. The warm breeze carries the river's complicated brew of fragrances. I recall my first trip on the Chao Phraya, now so many years ago, and I feel myself once again falling under Bangkok's spell. The fabulous food, the gracious people, the river, the fragrances, the moonlight—none of this has gone away. And while the city's contemporary urban ills haven't disappeared either, Bangkok's latest, most stylish incarnation makes them much easier to bear. I'm definitely coming back.
The Facts: Bangkok
Bangkok's best weather is from November through February, when the nights can be cool enough to justify a sweater. Rainy season starts in July and ends in October; spring is very, very hot.
Nancy Chandler's Map of Bangkok (www.nancychandler.net) is ideal for shopping.
WHERE TO STAY
- Sukhothai Located in the Sathorn neighborhood, the city's most stylishly simple hotel also draws "hi-so" locals to its health club and pool. The coolly elegant design, calm atmosphere, and luxurious suites with huge bathrooms make it an ideal respite from Bangkok's tumult. Doubles from $190. 13/3 South Sathorn Rd.; 800/223-6800 or 66-2/287-0222, fax 66-2/285-0303; www.sukhothai.com
- Regent Bangkok The former Peninsula is now part of the Four Seasons group—and upholds its high service standards. It still seems to be searching for an identity, but the Tony Chi-designed restaurants and the ideal-for-shopping location are reason enough to stay here. The garden-terrace rooms on the pool level are the ones to book. Doubles from $280. 155 Rajadamri Rd.; 800/545-4000 or 66-2/251- 6127, fax 66-2/253-9195; www.fourseasons.com/bangkok
- Peninsula Bangkok The newest luxury property in Bangkok is also the first major hotel on the Thonburi side of the river, so almost every excursion means a river crossing (boats run every few minutes). The service might be the friendliest in town, and the views from higher floors are stunning. The pool goes on and on. Doubles from $169. 333 Charoennakorn Rd.; 66-2/861-2888, fax 66-2/861-1112; www.peninsula.com
- The Oriental The Riverside Terrace at Bangkok's grande dame is still the best place in town for breakfast or an evening drink; afternoon tea in the Authors' Lounge is lavish. Splurge on one of the Author's Suites—named for Conrad, Maugham, Michener, and others—which are big enough to hold a cotillion. The spa is one of the best in town (and booked well in advance). Doubles from $269. 48 Oriental Ave.; 66-2/659-9000 fax 66-2/659-0000; www.mandarinoriental.com
- BEST VALUE Montien Hotel This Thai-owned property may not have all the amenities, but it does have comfortable rooms, good service, and an unbeatable location: right near the Skytrain, and a short walk from Silom Road. The coffee shop serves great Western breakfasts and some of the best noodle dishes in town. Doubles from $130. 54 Surawong Rd.; 66-2/233-7060, fax 66-2/236-5218; www.montien.com
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
Baan Khanitha A Thai restaurant just west of Sukhumvit that also sells contemporary art. Traditional dishes, such as spicy minced chicken salad, taste newly invented. Dinner for two $30. 2 Ploenjit Rd., 49 Soi Ruam Rudee; 66-2/253-4638
Biscotti The only place in town that will lure you away from Thai cuisine. Excellent Italian offerings—particularly the wood-fired pizzas—are complemented by a good wine list and a modern, open-kitchen design. Dinner for two $30. Regent Bangkok; 66-2/251-6127
Celadon Many call this the city's best Thai restaurant, citing the serene atmosphere and beautiful dishes bursting with fresh flavors (and spices—no stinting on chiles here). Try the spicy shrimp appetizer and the green curry. Dinner for two $42. Sukhothai; 66-2/287-0222
Greyhound Café Shop-till-you-drop types pause at the chain's various locations—including this one, on the second floor of the Emporium shopping center—for Thai-Western fusion food and lattes. Lunch for two $12. Sukhumvit Rd., Soi 24; 66-2/664-8663
- Kuppa A great pit stop in Sukhumvit for casual lunch (pizza, Caesar salad, homestyle tuna sandwiches) as well as for Thai specialties and house-roasted coffee. The dinner menu is more upscale; try the crispy duck with wild mushroom risotto. Dinner for two $38. 39 Sukhumvit Rd., Soi; 16 66-2/663-0450
- Le Café Siam A Thai-French restaurant in a 1921 house in the Sathorn neighborhood. The languid atmosphere and colonial décor—the antique furniture and lamps are all for sale—nearly overshadows the food. Dinner for two $30. 4 Soi Sri Akson, Chua Ploeng; 66-2/671-0030 www.lecafesiam.com
- Q Bar The coolest bar in town, a branch of the Saigon original, is a great place to check out the Bangkok scene after dinner in Sukhumvit. 34 Sukhumvit Rd., Soi 11; 66-2/252-3274 www.qbarbangkok.com
- Central Chidlom The sixth floor of this upscale department store, one Skytrain stop from Siam Square, is filled with traditional Thai merchandise—tableware, wooden utensils, decorative items—much of it from the Chiang Mai area. 1027 Pleonchit Rd.; 66-2/655-7777
- Emporium Bangkok's newest upscale shopping plaza, the first in the Sukhumvit area, with such international names as Louis Vuitton and Versace. The witty home-design products at Propaganda (66-2/691-6331; www.propagandaonline.com) make for unusual gifts to take home. Living with Jim Thompson (66-2/664-8616; www.jimthompson.com), the contemporary furnishings line, has an outlet here as well. Sukhumvit Rd., Soi 24; 66-2/664-8000
- Neold Collection This shop specializes in Thai baskets, sculptures, and antiques. There is also a branch at the Regent Bangkok. 149/2-3 Suriwong Rd.; 66-2/235-8916
- Rasi Sayam A Bangkok fixture that sells high-quality crafts—baskets, ceramics—in a charming old house in Sukhumvit. 32 Sukhumvit Rd., Soi 23; 66-2/258-4195
- Siam Center and Siam Discovery Center These adjacent shopping plazas house trendy shops and outlets for most of the top young Thai designers as well as imported brands. The Discovery Center is newer and more upscale, with home décor shops like Habitat, Punta, Fai Sor Kam, and Anyroom (66-2/658-0481), which carries Sakul Intakul's vases. The Gold Class Cinema (66-2/658-0454; www.egvcinemas.com) on the Discovery Center's sixth floor shows first-run Hollywood films and is closer to a private screening room than a traditional theater—reclining seats with footrests, a lounge, and waiters serving drinks and meals. 989 Rama I Rd.; 66-2/658-1000; www.bihc.co.th
- Sogo Erawan A full-service department store near the Regent hotel. Cocoon, the elegant Thai home design boutique that sells everything from candles to throw pillows, has a branch here. Rajadamri Rd.; 66-2/256-9131
Pirom Spa A full-service day spa in a converted light-filled house and garden. Good massages, and great natural soaps for sale (try the jasmine rice variety). 78 Sukhumvit Rd., Soi Ruen Rudee; 66-2/655-3525-8 fax 66-2/255-6080; www.piromspa.com
Being Spa Currently in with fashion-conscious locals, who go for special treatments such as the Thai-pepper body scrub. 88 Sukhumvit Rd., Soi 51; 66-2/662-6171; www.beingspa.com