Being a shopping paradise and food nirvana, Bangkok’s two-and-a-half-hour flight journey from Changi Airport is one that is well travelled by the locals. There’s one big problem with these vacation hot spots though, the paralysing traffic. I, for one, do not like to jostle with other people. Crowds kill my vacation mellow. Hence my impending anxiety when tasked to cover an article about a hotel located right smack in the middle of this gleaming metropolis. However, over a course of three days, I was fortunate to realise the Thailand capital’s softer side; its’ centuries of history layered by modern architecture and diverse events. Bolstering the city’s hipster-magnet quotient are the barrios that bubble with retro-chic merchandise and forward-thinking projects such as the new Thailand Creative & Design Center (TCDC) by award winning design firm Department of Architecture, aimed at injecting a breath of fresh air to one of Bangkok’s oldest commercial districts.
“We’re here.”, our driver announced after a cruel one-hour on the roads, braving morning traffic. The bustling town centre coming to life and drawing in moving travelling vessels with ferocity. Conveniently located in the Pratunam area, the Amari Watergate Bangkok is a shopping fanatic’s dream. My dreams of therapeutic foot rubs ‘rudely’ interrupted by the rambunctious chiming from the welcome entourage at the hotel lobby, who greeted us in song and dance followed by the most beautiful phuang malai (flower garlands) made using jasmine, crown flowers, amaranth and magnolia flowers. Needless to say, the lively cajoling arranged by the affable concierge got me raved up for the rest of the trip.
Ideal for both business and leisure travellers, Amari Watergate Bangkok offers 569 rooms ranging from deluxe rooms to presidential suites. The lobby is kept to sleek minimalist mood, awashed with warm earthy tones. The open space and high ceilings giving way to luxuriating streams of daylight that catch the cascade of hand crafted Murano glass, all 847 pieces of it (to tie in with the Hotels’ street address 847 Petchburi Road) in romantic glisten. 5-star accommodation accompanied with 5-star hospitality; I knew I was about to spoilt rotten. This prediction ascertained with a platter of local fresh fruits, a juicy watermelon with my full name painstakingly carved into its side.
First order of business is lunch and we worked our way thru the cities’ intricate water canals in search of sustenance. Canal taxi boat rides are highly recommended here, the only impeding detail being the murky brown waters which one can easily avoid with the tugging of the lines used to deploy the translucent screens that work as shields on the sides of the boat. I slid up beside an immaculately dressed office worker who came to my rescue when I expressed distress from the splutters, the smoke screens garnering a strange amount of excitement from me.
Lunch stop was at one of the gentrifying factors in Siam Square One, White Flower Factory – a bohemian flower child space dishing out both traditional Thai cuisine alongside European fusion fare. Aesthetics play a big part here in the dining room, think distressed copper, wood and genial marbled surfaces as the colour palette; all this to invoke a higher sense of emotive response when the colourful fare is brought to the table. One of the dishes showcased Crispy Cat Fish Flakes alongside a colourful plate of piquant mango salad. This will be the first of many times I tuck into this local delicacy, each one surmising with more exclamation points as the trip unwound. The café offers an enviable selection of desserts, and we weren’t going to stop at just one, priming the sweet tooths with an entourage of saccharine delights that included the obligatory Thai Tea crepe cake.
The connection to the exotic city sealed via ‘food language’ which we will practise vicariously throughout the trip; much to the dismay of my waistline.
Walk the calories off with a trip to Camp BKK just a stone’s throw away. Trendy doesn’t even begin to cut it as you bask in the sheer enormity of apparel selection in the sprawling 4-floor complex. With a round up of over 70 local womenswear brands from Facebook and Instagram, the variety can be as overwhelming as it is exhilarating; thank goodness for the reasonable price structure as the scarcity of material in some of the more revealing pieces can be a tad disconcerting.
After freshening up, dinner is back at the Hotel. Our appetites were tickled with a breath-taking spread presented at the Amaya Food Gallery. Taking on a global approach, the gallery presents a bevy of choice ranging from Indian, Italian, Japanese, Western and specialities from Thailand. The abundance of food may leave you in a food coma sooner than you know it, so if my opinion weighs for anything, heed my advice and strike the Thai section whilst the iron (or the Pad Thai Wok) is hot.
Their sinfully good street food spread highlighting regional specials such as esarn egg, mom ping, chive biscuits, luk chin ping, Thai fish cakes and skewered meats reflect an obsession with keeping things authentic. Sure enough, spice levels aren’t stinged upon and the feisty som tum will make you break out in sweat. More than sublime mouthfuls, the pad thai fried to order offers gastro-entertainment, as do the other show kitchens where naan dough gets stuck to the side of a tandoor oven and thick slabs of pork chops are grilled over licking flames. Make sure to save space for desserts, the ice kachang station offers a whopping selection of 40 condiments including pandan vermicelli, gingko nut and lotus roots amongst many others.
The Night is Young - Artistic drinks and scavenger hunts
For tipple-seekers, Bangkok has recently been recognised as a place where the dollar becomes positively acrobatic in its ability to stretch its value. In the recent Asia’s 50 Best Bars rankings released by Drinks International, a good 5 Bangkok bars made it on this year’s list; proving the city of smiles to be a formidable power in the global cocktail scene. It may be best to search for hidden bar Backstage Cocktail Bar (ranked no. 18) while still relatively sober. The entrance concealed behind the velvet curtains of a theatre-themed Playhaus boutique hotel in the Thonglor district slides apart to reveal a long bar counter flanked by plush semi-private booth seating.
The backstage mirrors back light the ‘dance floor’ where theatrics put up by the skilful bartenders unfold. Fun, glamorous and seductive – Backstage Cocktail Bar delivers the after-hour pleasures that sees you ordering a second, and maybe a fourth cocktail, hunkering down by the bar and perhaps making an awkward attempt at speaking Thai as the night unwinds.
If you’re one to dress up, then a visit to Vesper (ranked no. 40) is in order. In addition to serving solid contemporary Italian dishes, this classy bistro decked out in a moody European style ambience rustles up some of the best artisanal cocktails in town.
My ‘Girl before a Mirror’ rung up by Dedsakda “Kenny” Thianthong, who competed in the Bacardi Legacy Thailand Finals 2017, was a surreal concoction of the usual negroni suspects stacked with cacao milk foam. The creamy realms on the surface reflecting a certain mellow but bitter chocolate note that soothes the sweet disposition of its underlying efforts. It’s elegant, a smooth criminal and a keeper for sure.
One of the highlights of my trip was Bronx Liquid Parlour. The bartender, Hideyuki Saito is touted to be one of the best in Bangkok, having been pouring drinks from behind the swanky bar at Vogue lounge for the past two years. Less hectic and tons more intimate, the space caters to a slightly older and more professional audience.
I tried ‘The Butter’, which features butter washed American whiskey mixed in with absinthe and cognac. A progressive take on the Sazerac which was accompanied by a pear financier perfumed with beurre noisette and a buttered fig which he proceeds to torch with vicious ferocity – releasing the sweet aroma of caramelized stone fruits into the air. Save your pretty penny for this one. Here’s a tip: Bronx has a proper kitchen that serves a pretty mean gyoza dish and foie gras pate, so you won’t have to stumble out of here hungry.
Nurture your Creative Spirit
The trend for art involvement has picked up by leaps and bounds over the years. It’s evident that Bangkokians have embraced the endless possibilities of the contemporary art scene. The opening of spaces that pander to the creative minds allowing for a certain sort of diversification in tourism. We visited the recently opened Thailand Creative & Design Centre (TCDC) situated in the Bangkok General Office itself. Established as a learning center of design and an intellectual stimulation agency, it aims to promote business and social development and quality of life through creativity. Inside, the feeling is almost “ironic suburban” the 9000-meter spread comprising of exhibition space, creative space (which provides books, periodicals and multimedia for research), Trend Corner (housing books to keep you updated on consumption trends), business center, workshop room and a silent study room. A visit to this emporium is imperative to understanding the new wave of arts culture in Bangkok.
Navigating Bangkok’s Vibrant Street Food Scene by Tuk Tuk
As cliched as it is, the Tuk Tuk Food Tour is highly recommended. Targeted at the traditional tasters who have a strong affinity for old school flavors, it’s a great way of feeling the city’s energy. Savour what the locals eat whilst getting transported in style from one destination to another via the iconic tuk tuk.
First stop sees us warming cheap plastic stools and rubbing shoulders with the locals at Jae Koy Somtum. The e-sarn style Thai cuisine here is excellent and the spicy cat fish salad here is markedly different. This version unabashedly rich with oil, sits handsomely like a crown on the platter and judging from our clean plates, was lamented the favourite of the lot throughout the trip. Also commendable are the tom yum soup and corn som tam, the dishes are presented with little quirks, suitable for sharing not only for its heft but also for its mild spice. Do make sure to pace yourselves as another 6 stops await you at this juncture.
The next stop not only cashes in on nostalgia, but on pure authenticity. “Ann” Guay Tiew Kua Gai is everything that your doctor warned you about. Chewy flat noodles cooked till crispened up like a disc with the aid of eggs. Marinated duck meat is thrown into the mix and you lay on the chili, fish sauce, special sauce and vinegar like it’s the end of days. Take a breather with a trip to the temple Wat Pho followed by a tour of the Flower Market (Pak Khlong Talat), both eye-opening experiences that one can enjoy bereft of the stifling heat one would experience in the day.
The belly-busting journey concludes with a visit to pad thai institution Pad Thai Thip Samai which panders to the supper crowd with its 2am closing time. Escape past the burning furnace of the kitchen upfront to the air-conditioned comforts of the dining back of house and tuck into either the Pad Thai Sen Jan Man Goong – Pad Thai with prawn head juices, and Pad Thai Haw Kai Goong Sot – Pad Thai wrapped in the thinnest of egg omelette imbued with smoky goodness from the woks. Despite the price being a little steep by Bangkok standards, the queues snaking out the door are a testament of the stall's reputation.
Written by Lee Sihan