Floods, protests, power struggles, a military takeover – Krungthep, known to the rest of the world as Bangkok, has endured more than its share of hardships recently. The loss of the country’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who remained remarkably popular throughout his 70-year reign, hit particularly hard last year. Thailand’s populace is nothing if not resilient, though: after a dozen coups d’état in less than a century, they have to be – and, in spite of it all, the capital continues to flourish and, in the process, reshape its identity.
For decades, this was a city that imported everything, to which strings of glitzy megamalls attests. But somewhere along the way, Thailand began to foster its own considerable creative pool. Look closely and you’ll notice that generic luxury brands are ceding shelf space to funkier fashions by Thai designers; local chefs proudly flaunt family recipes on the hottest tables in town; and even north-eastern Thai folk music is in the midst of a revival.
Bangkok’s historic heart may rest on temple-studded Rattanakosin Island, but its contemporary pulse is scattered throughout smaller, splintered neighbourhoods in Sukhumvit, Sathorn and Silom and can be harder to pinpoint. Travellers looking to tap into the zeitgeist should venture past the backpacker cocoon of Khao San Road and make their way towards nearby Phra Athit Road, a boho hangout with live music venues and restaurants near the Chao Phraya river, then make a beeline for Chinatown. On Soi Nana, off Charoen Krung Road, minutes from Cantonese holes-in-the-wall and stores selling traditional herbal remedies, shophouses are being refurbished into galleries and unpretentious bars.
Booming, chaotic, at times overwhelming, but never, ever boring, Bangkok is more culturally diverse, complex and compelling than ever.
WHAT TO DO
Take a cooking class
After stopping by celeb chef Ian Kittichai’s signature restaurant for updated Thai classics, such as massaman-braised lamb shanks and jasmine-infused panna cotta, you’ll want to learn how to cook like the maestro. Classes at Issaya Cooking Studio teach some of the chef’s best-loved recipes, plus insights into everything from mixology to sous-vide techniques.
• Courses from 2,000 baht (£45), issayastudio.com
Art gallery crawl
Bangkok’s art movement has blossomed in recent years. Artha Gallery keeps the emphasis on regional talent from Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. Over in Sathorn, head to Sathorn 11 Art Space, which features exhibitions on the ground floor and four resident artist studios above, and H Gallery, with edgy works by Asian artists in a converted mansion. Closer to the riverside, be sure to visit Bridge and The Jam Factory, housed in a sprawling multipurpose complex designed by starchitect Duangrit Bunnag.
An industrial space with eclectic collections, Speedy Grandma fills up with creative types at weekends. Treading the line between gallery and bar, Cho Why is one of several revamped shophouses injecting new energy into Chinatown. Events range from a street-art fest to a rooftop paella party. Across the street at 23 Bar and Gallery, the artsy incarnation of one of the city’s legendary dives, expect indie tunes and no-nonsense drinks.
With more than 8,000 stalls selling everything from parakeets to pottery, Chatuchak Weekend Market, up by the Mo Chit BTS Skytrain station, remains the one to beat. Go early or late, when the tropical temperatures are more forgiving, as navigating the 27 sections can prove a dizzying experience. Plan for a post-shopping sundowner at Viva 8, a ramshackle bar with excellent mojitos where DJs spin house. Many up-and-coming Thai designers try to make it here first, so keep an eye out for next season’s labels before they hit the big time.
Head to Talad Rod Fai (Sri Nakarin Soi 51) and Talad Rod Fai 2 (Esplanade Complex) for all sorts of vintage bric-a-brac. At the Rot Boran Market (The Walk, Kaset-Nawamin road), known as the “Classic Car Market”, VW bugs and other old-school autos find new life as pop-ups selling just about everything.
Baan Silapin (The Artist’s House)
After visiting the requisite temples – Wat Saket for the view, Wat Phra Kaew for the glittering, gilded everything, and Wat Pho for a massage – and seeing all manner of standing, sitting and reclining Buddhas – head to the Thonburi side of the river for this lesser-known cultural gem: a teak house decorated with quirky sculptures. Shadow puppet performances, a traditional art that is becoming increasingly scarce, are worth seeing, but be sure to call ahead, as showtimes are irregular.
• 315 Wat Tong Salangam, Phet Kasem Road, +66 2 868 5279
If the concrete jungle becomes a bit wearing, consider a cycling trip over to Phra Pradaeng, a mangrove-covered peninsula on the western side of the Chao Phraya.
• ABC Amazing Bangkok Cyclist offers half-day tours for £29pp, including longtail boat transfers and mountain bike rentals, realasia.net
WHERE TO EAT
Salty, sweet and screaming hot, Bangkok’s street food is adored by all strata of society. Hygiene is sometimes questionable and MSG rampant, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from dining like a king on a shoestring budget. Keep your eyes peeled for rib-sticking jook (rice porridge with pork crackling and raw egg), comforting khao mun gai (chicken and rice) or its rarer, biryani-inspired cousin khao mok gai, crispy hoi tod (eggy mussel or oyster pancakes), fatty khao kha moo (meltingly tender braised pork leg with gravy), Isaan-style jim jum (hot pot), and the ubiquitous trio of gai yaang, som tom and khao niew (grilled chicken with spicy papaya salad and sticky rice). Noodles, including yen ta fo (neon-red glass noodles with tofu), ban mee (thin egg noodles often served with wontons), suki (bean thread noodles, egg, cabbage and seafood or meat) and richly flavoured kuai tiao ruea (“boat noodles” in a spiced, blood-enriched broth with offal), are served around the clock and can be ordered haeng (“dry” or stir-fried) or nam (“wet” with soup broth). For sugar fiends, khao niew mamuang (mango sticky rice) is a dependable go-to, but consider branching out to khanom krok (custardy coconut confections) and the dangerously craveable kluay kaek (deep-fried bananas in a coconut batter).
Gentrification has edged out many of Sukhumvit’s street eats, which means travelling a bit further to find larger pockets. Victory Monument and the surrounding area has an abundance, as do Silom and the historic areas of the city. Chinatown, especially Yaowarat and Charoen Krung roads, is packed with stalls that have been serving the same dishes for generations.
It might have started out as an artisanal pickle cannery in a hostel, but this eatery is currently whipping up some of the most interesting fare in town. As the name references, 80% of ingredients are local, while the remaining 20% allow for creative wiggle room. Chef Napol Jantraget delights in genre-bending plates like charcoal-grilled squid with fingeroot glaze, black garlic paste, popped rice berries, roasted peanuts and local sour greens that are rooted in Thai traditions, but also draw on his time at a brasserie in Toronto.
• 1052-1054 Charoen Krung Road, +66 2 639 1135, on Facebook
Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava and Dylan Jones, a Thai-Australian chef duo who cut their teeth at London’s Nahm, are best-known for their uncompromising Thai fine-dining eatery Bo.lan. The pair’s second offering ditches the fancier trappings in favour of gutsy countryside bites, best washed down with a Chang beer or a whisky-soda. Order a couple of rounds and nibble on sai ouwa (coconut-smoked northern sausage, £4) and kor moo yang (grilled pork neck with tamarind sauce, £5), while deciding which mains to share.
• 394/35 Maharaj Road,+66 2 622 2291, errbkk.com
Supanniga Eating Room
Rare Khon Kaen and Trat recipes from the owner’s grandmother help explain this cosy place’s enduring popularity. It’s hard to order wrong, but steer away from the usual pad thai and opt for khai jiew pu (omelette stuffed with crabmeat, £3) or ka lum tod nam pla (stir-fried Chinese cabbage, £2), an umami bomb anointed with pungent fermented fish sauce.
• 160/11 Soi 55 Sukhumvit road, +66 2 714 7508, supannigaeatingroom.com
Bangkok’s sizable Indian diaspora has given rise to some excellent eateries, including this number, which steers clear of cliched curries and peppers in subtler nods to the subcontinent, such as the decorative latticework derived from mosques and cheeky broken-English signs in the bathroom. Order the gently spiced lamb sheekh kebab (£9) or the house-made paneer tikka (£8), which is as silky as cheesecake and just as rich. After dinner, walk down the street to a darkened alley where, behind a door by an abandoned phone booth, salsa dancers shimmy to live bands at Havana Social, the owner’s hidden Cuban-inspired speakeasy.
• 38/8 Soi 11 Sukhumvit Road, Fraser Suites Hotel, +66 89 307 1111, charcoalbkk.com
WHERE TO DRINK
Iron Balls Distillery
Ash Sutton, the genius behind bars including Iron Fairies and Maggie Choo’s, outdid himself with this hideaway’s stripped-down, brooding aesthetic and succinct Prohibition-era cocktail list. A gleaming copper distillery serves as the centrepiece and produces the place’s namesake elixir, a south-east Asian spin on gin, fermented with a heady mix of fresh pineapple, coconut, lemongrass, ginger and juniper.
• Park Lane, Sukhumvit 63, on Facebook
Follow the sounds of soul and funk four nights a week to one of Bangkok’s best live music spots. The lack of a cover charge and the rollicking house party vibe help explain why the crowds keep coming, even when the tiny joint is past capacity. Bigger bands often see the party spill out onto the street, which doesn’t seem to bother anybody one bit.
• 945 Charoen Krung road, on Facebook
Slide open an unmarked wooden door in Thonglor and step into this dimly lit drinking den housed in a three-story shophouse. A long marble bar and gleaming, ceiling-high shelves displaying a formidable liquor collection make this one of the sexiest speakeasies in town, while the craft cocktails by legendary local mixologists Suwincha “Chacha” Singsuwan and Naphat “Yod” Natchachon mean the narrow space is packed on weekends.
• 125 Sukhumvit Soi 55, +66 98 969 1335, on Facebook
Drop whatever preconceptions the term “lifestyle mall” calls to mind, because this industrial complex buried in Thonglor houses some of Bangkok’s best bars and eateries. A crawl should start with a craft brew and greasy grub like laab fries at Beer Belly, then go for something stiffer at U.N.C.L.E, a leather-upholstered lounge with tipples such at the Honey Keep It Cool, with cachaça, lemon-infused green tea, Fernet-Branca, honey and Tullamore Dew whiskey. Touché Hombre has the best selection of mezcals and tequilas in the city, not to mention authentic bites like elotes callejeros (grilled corn with cotija cheese, chipotle-spiked mayonnaise and lime). Finish your night with a trip to Beam, a warehouse-style club where techno pounds till late.
• 72 Soi Sukhumvit 55, on Facebook
Teens of Thailand
A G&T here might well carry a lingering, savoury aroma of peppered pork jerky or Thai tea. Housed in an 80-year-old shophouse, cluttered with vintage Thai furniture, this watering hole has earned a cult following for its gin infusions made from whatever the owners find from neighbouring Chinatown stores. On a weekend, be prepared to queue for one of the coveted 16 seats.
• 76 Soi Nana, Charoen Krung road, on Facebook
Sing Sing Theater
An opium-den fever dream of paper lanterns, Chinese dragons and slinky qipao-clad ladies, Sing Sing Theater’s retro-glam, over-the-top vision of 1930s Shanghai packs the dance floor on weekends.
• Sukhumvit Soi 45, on Facebook
WHERE TO STAY
OK, so it’s expensive, but for a luxe stay, this is the place. Six years in the making, this Bill Bensley-designed passion project of local celebrity, actor and former indie rocker Krissada Sukosol Clapp is chockablock with antiques. The resulting property is remarkably atmospheric, especially on the serene verandah overlooking the Chao Phraya. Guests can learn to fight like a champion with an Olympic Muay Thai trainer or even pick up a sacred sak yant tattoo from Ajarn Boo, a master of this ancient art.
• Doubles from £295 room only, thesiamhotel.com
Cabochon Hotel & Residence
A night at this colonial mansion might evoke memories of a stay at an eccentric uncle’s, if said uncle were the swashbuckling, well-travelled type and a bit of a hoarder. The place is crammed with curios, ranging from the intriguing (retro typewriters) to the downright kooky (cheetah skulls). It’s got character to burn, not to mention a rooftop pool, a restaurant serving Isaan and Lao cuisine, and prime location just off of Sukhumvit Road.
• Doubles from £93 B&B, cabochonhotel.com
Inn A Day
Signs of this riverside boutique’s previous existence as a coconut sugar factory are everywhere, from the original storage tins in the walls to the oversized wheels of jaggery that serve as tables in the restaurant. Each of the rooms is named and colour-coded to different times of day, starting with 7:00 AM in early-morning hues and ending with the crepuscular-tinted 5:00 PM. If the budget allows, spring for one of the “later” suites, which feature lovely views of Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) at sunset.
• Doubles from £80 room only, innaday.com,
With floor-to-ceiling windows in its 25 rooms and a lively rooftop restaurant with river views, the new Riva Arun makes for a great spot to soak in the scenery.
• Doubles from £72 room only, snhotels.com
Travellers needn’t spend a fortune to sleep comfortably in this town, thanks to a spate of design-forward hostels opening in trendy neighbourhoods. Decked out in warm wood tones and sporting a craft beer bar, co-working space and third-wave coffee shop, ONEDAY (dorms from £9) is as hip as they come. In Ari, a lively residential area with tons of street food, The Yard Hostel (dorms from £13), made of upcycled shipping containers, quickly established itself as a neighbourhood haunt, as well as a social stop for wayfarers. Considerate extras – bicycles for rent, two-month luggage storage, barbecue equipment for impromptu grill parties – and a friendly staff add to the experience. In Chinatown, Loftell 22 (dorms from £7) offers comfy dorms and private rooms in two previously abandoned historic buildings in Talad Noi.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010