In Thai it’s known as Krung Thep Maha Nahkon, often abbreviated to krung thep, “the city of angels”; and it shares some characteristics with that other city of angels, 5,500-odd miles away in California: epic traffic; a tarpaulin of brown haze covering the city for many days; crushing heat in the wrong season; sprawling urban accretion for hundreds of square miles. For all this and more, Bangkok, like Los Angeles, can be something of an acquired taste.
But after suffering the numbing one-two punch of the UDD political party’s 2010 anti-government protests (which erupted into protracted street violence and resulted in 80 civilian deaths) and the near-devastating floods of late 2011, the Thai capital, home to more than 5m, has rebounded with a resilience that borders on the miraculous.
Its monuments – Wat Pho’s reclining Buddha, its feet clad in mother-of-pearl laksanas; the faience-like beauty of Wat Arun; and so many others – are some of Southeast Asia’s most breathtaking. But equally interesting is the contemporary arts scene that has quietly but steadfastly emerged here. Waves on the fine-dining front are in large part made by expats, a nice counterpoint to what is one of the world’s most assiduously chronicled street-food scenes.
A luxury weekend here requires a suitably luxurious hotel. For the past decade, the towering Peninsula and the peerlessly elegant Mandarin Oriental (with its lobby-cum-high-society show, where every khunying worth her salt stops in for tea and a gossip), facing each other across the Chao Phraya river, were the stalwarts. The Peninsula in particular boasts strong suits in the form of its 34th-floor Helicopter Lounge (handy for those VIP airport transfers), its truly exceptional spa and the perfect-for-first-timers Peninsula Academy programmes – privately guided cultural, culinary and shopping excursions (though given the emerging competition, the décor now skews decidedly trad).
The news, in any case, is on the other side of the river. The St Regis Bangkok lacks a bankside location, but that’s about all it doesn’t offer. The 21st-floor pool and terrace bar, the suites with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, the space-agey Elemis spa and first-rate Italian restaurant, JoJo, and the hotel’s private entrance to the Ratchadamri SkyTrain station are all compelling points in its favour. Similarly sleek (though not as singular) is the new Siam Kempinski, with a retail-centric location a stone’s throw from the Siam Paragon and Siam Discovery malls; the private garden and pool suites are the ones to book.
These are surroundings of the resolutely 21st-century sort; heritage charm seekers should instead stay at The Siam. Aesthetes will appreciate the antiques which furnish the 39 suites, while sybarites will hunker down in the 1,000sq m Sodashi spa (for which the cult Australian skincare producers developed its first bespoke line). It’s a tranquil, private riverside redoubt.
Both the Kempinski and The Siam have Thai chefs doing buzz-generating things in their restaurants; but it’s an Australian by way of the UK, David Thompson, who stole the culinary spotlight when he debuted Nahm at the Metropolitan hotel in late 2010 to instant acclaim (its Belgravia namesake has a Michelin star); it being the outpost of a London flagship doesn’t mean it can’t serve some of the best traditional Thai in town. In Sukhumvit – long the stomping ground of the expat community – is Bo.lan, the labour of love of another Aussie, Dylan Jones, and his Thai wife “Bo” Songvisava. It’s an elegantly kickback place in a refurbished mid‑20th-century bungalow and serves meticulously researched dishes – the pork is sustainably farmed, the harvest gaba rice 100 per cent organic. If it’s not too hot, take a table on the terrace, where the owners’ black Labrador makes for genial company. Sukhumvit is also home to Bangkok’s loveliest tea house, the weekends-only Agalico, an airy white-on-white pavilion where art students and powder-faced dowagers alike come to enjoy a small but seriously proper selection of cakes and scones.
The Thai-born 27-year-old Chatree “Tee” Chachonklin specialises, rather ironically, in a French-influenced chef’s table (inspired by the years he apprenticed with Alexis Gauthier at Roussillon in Pimlico). You don’t patronise La Table de Tee for the décor (nondescript), nor for the scene (far from starry); this is serious foodie territory, where flavours of Provence – truffles, root veg, foie gras – marry thrillingly with lemongrass and chilli, Thai basil and tamarind.
One would be remiss, in this of all cities, not to make a well-judged leap into the street-food fray. Some champion the Victory Monument, others the Yaowarat Road in Chinatown (both farang-friendly), still others the less-touristed alleys around the Thai Airways building, known as Talad Loong Perm. If in doubt, default to Jae Fai; the prices are a bit above the norm, but Jae herself whips up the killer crab omelettes and pad kee mao (drunken noodles) – consistently rated among the best around – in a wok over coals on the pavement next to her modest eatery.
Shopping here is, for the most part, a different experience altogether. Barring the vast Chatuchak Weekend Market (one to gird the loins for, but a must for housewares, textiles and the sheer happy sprawl of it; go early, and focus on section 26), one generally swaps the pungent cacophony of the street for the anodyne, air-conditioned space of the indoor mall (after mall, after mall…). There are more authentic surroundings – the elegant Almeta shop in Sukhumvit for exceptional hand-woven silks; antiques at Oriental Art of Living and housewares at the frozen-in-time Thai Home Industries, both on the atmospheric Charoen Krung road – but a few leading lights of the local design scene happen to be sequestered on the second floor of Gaysorn Plaza. Among them is FlyNow, whose shift dresses and gowns skew patrician in cut but are rendered opulent with metallic-shot damasks and silk-satins. Sretsis, launched in 2002 by a former Marc Jacobs intern and her two sisters (try spelling it backwards), trades in edgier retro-chic shapes. And the venerated craftsman, Alexander Lamont, has not one but two boutiques here, the smaller focused on his signature hand-worked shell, gilded bronze and shagreen accessories, the larger showcasing his furniture designs.
Between wat-hopping and retail therapy, leave an afternoon to explore Bangkok’s galleries. Fifteen or even 10 years ago the contemporary art scene here was negligible; today, it approaches dynamic. As of June, it has a new Museum of Contemporary Art, the brainchild of 58-year-old telecommunications magnate Boonchai Bencharongkul, whose private collection MOCA houses. The 400-odd works on display are, perhaps expectedly, fairly provocation- and subversion-free (and in any case, mono-collection museums aren’t to all tastes), but they represent a viable survey of modern Thai art.
To see who’s who in contemporary, the pioneering H Gallery should be the first stop. Founded 10 years ago by the soft-spoken American H Ernest Lee, who works in collaboration with the Irish curator Brian Curtin, it hosts exhibitions and performances in a bungalow between the Silom and Sathorn Roads, and is widely recognised as the first to have bridged the space between Thai and Southeast Asian art (a satellite gallery opened in Chiang Mai in June). Similarly esteemed is 100 Tonson, off Ploenchit Road, Bangkok’s embassy district; the one-room gallery, in a gated private residence, hosts solo and group shows produced by a roster of guest curators (and a percentage of proceeds from each is designated for charity).
Kathmandu, which opened in late 2011, is just a few blocks’ stroll from H Gallery. Fine-art photographer Manit Sriwanitchpoom, who has represented Thailand at the Venice Biennale, converted a charmingly shambolic shophouse into a photo exhibition space where past (early 20th-century glass plates of Phuket miners) and present (Manit’s own internationally acclaimed Pink Man project) merge intriguingly. It’s one of the city’s newest art venues: thought-provoking, uniquely tasteful, with a foot firmly in the country’s past and a cultivated eye to the future – as true a reflection of Bangkok in 2012 as its skyscraping malls and luminous, numinous ancient Buddhas.