The Bettering of Bangkok

by Samantha Brown, Apr 7, 2001 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

Think of Bangkok and you'll probably think of sex tourism: the neon of Nana Plaza, the pingpong shows of Patpong, and the sleaziness of Soi Cowboy. But these are merely three modest strips in a massive city maturing as the most cosmopolitan centre of Southeast Asia, a megalopolis that's gradually donning more of an intellectual mantle. Bangkok is evolving into a destination worthy of the adoration of more than just the tourist seeking tacky souvenirs and a cheap package holiday. I live here, and I'm watching the transformation with glee.

Let's start with Bangkok's second claim to fame: its traffic. The stories prior to the economic collapse were legendary, and although those sort of epic days might be over with many cars now repossessed, 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. Now travellers have a quick, air-conditioned and cheap way of getting around many parts of town.

The Skytrain doesn't quite make it to Rattanakosin, the old city of Bangkok where many of the city's 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, 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, albeit more expensive bet.

You can mix a love of architecture, shopping and food if you head to Café Siam, the beautifully-renovated house built by the first governor of the Thai Railways in the 1920s - and another fish out of water in the financial district. French and Thai food are served downstairs, desserts and coffee in the lounge area 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 - a stone's throw from Soi Cowboy, but a mile away in class - or understated Lemongrass, located across the road from the city's newest 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 upmarket "trans-ethnic" cuisine is the go at the newish Merchant Court Hotel's Doc Chengs, in the outer-lying Huay Khwang district.

The arts are finally coming into their own in Bangkok, with the town's first ever opera staged in March; film festivals come and go, leaving film-lovers too short of any holiday leave to go elsewhere in the country. Regular open-mike poetry readings began last year at the hip About Café and Gallery, near Hualamphong railway station. Check out the installation art upstairs 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.

World music is on the ascendancy, with several clubs changing their focus now the Latin craze has dulled. Hit the downmarket but seriously music-centred La Havana on Sukhumvit 22 late on a Friday or Saturday and you'll find anything from a blend of electronic and live instrumentation, to acoustic Cuban trova. The owner claims to have the best Latin CD collection in Asia, so head there any other night and put in a request. On the same lane you'll find world-renowned jazz pianist Randy Cannon tinkling the ivories at the Imperial Queens Park Hotel, while back down on the river the Oriental Hotel's Bamboo Bar frequently features top jazz musicians passing through town.

Of course, the Oriental is still the place to stay - with prices reflecting this. Built on the Chao Phraya by the same Armenian brothers responsible for Singapore's Raffles Hotel, it retains an old-world charm that no other hotel comes close to matching. But there are plenty of other five-star hotels in the area. The Peninsula, on the "wrong" side of the river, would be my second choice for its fantastic views and tasteful décor.

The spa scene, too, has come of age. Even if you're not staying at the Oriental, head to their spa across the river for some of their exceptional Thai or foreign treatments (splash out and book in for the day), 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.