Bangkok claimed the title of “World’s Most Visited City” according to the 2017 Mastercard Global Destination Cities Index. No wonder almost 20.2 million international tourists flocked to the City of Angels. When it comes to wish lists, Bangkok ticks most boxes. Cultural attractions and rich history? Tick. Great food? No doubt. Good shopping? Yep. Fabulous spas. Nothing beats a Thai massage. Vibrant nightlife? A resounding yes.
Welcome to the capital of the Kingdom of Thailand where east and west, ancient and modern, exotic and erotic, calm and chaotic, clash and collide in the most delightful ways. Here’s how get the most bang for your baht.
Note: all prices approximated in Canadian dollars.
The “you only live once” splurge list
Seduced by The Siam
Arriving at The Siam hotel via the hotel’s vintage riverboat transported me into a unique and tranquil world onto its own in the middle of bustling Bangkok. My debonnaire butler, Paul, escorted me along a path past a swimming pool to the antique carved wooden doors of my villa where I had a courtyard with my own plunge pool.
The Siam is the brainchild of Bangkok rock and movie star, Krissada Sukosol Clapp who built the hotel in 2012 as a retreat and place to house his and his mother’s vast collections of antique Thai treasures. They hired American architect Bill Bensley who incorporated the clean bold lines of Art Deco, glass, water features and lush garden landscapes with the carefully curated art and antiques.
If you enter the Siam from the street you find yourself in a garden pavilion with a lotus-shaped fountain in the centre. The piece de resistance is the soaring central atrium where a glass conservatory-style roof brings light to a reflection pool surrounded by tropical foliage. Off to one side there is a library and screening room. Upstairs in the Vinyl room, complete with grand piano and vintage posters, you could well expect to spot Noel Coward tickling the ivories in this jazz-age setting.
The Siam offers some unique guest experiences. You could work with a trainer and learn the art of Muay Thai kick boxing (the national sport) in the gym. If that’s too demanding, head to the Opium Spa for a Muay Thai deep tissue massage. You can also opt to have a Sak Yant ceremonial sacred tattoo.
The hotel is located in the Royal Dusit district of Bangkok. Your butler will help you arrange your day and reserve a place on the hotel shuttle yacht for excursions along the Chao Phraya River. But chances are good that you won’t want to leave The Siam.
Spice of Life
I joined The Siam’s sous chef, Thammarach, for a Thai cooking lesson. We started our morning with a tuk-tuk ride to a local market where chef pointed out the remarkable range of produce and bought some herbs for our class as we dodged shoppers on motor scooters. Back at the hotel we donned aprons in the private cooking class kitchen overlooking the river. Chef demonstrated how to tackle each ingredient, from bruising lemongrass to chiffonading kaffir lime leaves. He also explained that Thai food contains five major flavours: sweet, sour, spicy, salty, bitter. Each dish should have a least two of those tastes and the key is getting the right balance. Hence the need to keep testing as you cook and add more chillies, more fish sauce, more coconut milk or more palm sugar as your palette dictates. We concocted Tom Yam Goong soup, a fiery broth with jumbo shrimps topped with fresh coriander and drops of chilli oil. Then we tackled pork with red curry, a marvellous melange of all of requisite flavours. For our last dish, the green chicken curry, chef taught me to make curry paste from scratch pounding the toasted coriander and cumin seeds, garlic, shallots, coriander roots, chillies, galangal and lemongrass with a mortar and pestle. Hard work but worth the effort.
Star Spangled Bangkok
The red Michelin Guide has published its first 2017 guide to Bangkok listing a kaleidoscope of dining options—from slurping street food noodles to enjoying a multi-course tasting menu in a five-star hotel or glitzy shopping mall. At the one-starred Paste, chef Bee creates dishes based on ancient recipes that once delighted the royal family. Among the highlights of her delicious repertoire is a Thai crab omelette with 31 flavours.
Smooth as Silk
Thai silk is famous and now at the Divana Spa you may indulge in their signature Organic Golden Silk Royal Pampering treatment. Golden silk thread is rich in protein while the mulberry leaves, the feed for silkworms, contain significant vitamins.
My therapist used a web of silk thread stretched tightly between her hands to stroke my skin in a spinning motion to improve circulation and stimulate new collagen and elastin. Next came a body and face massage using a silk cocoon-stuffed, yarn-like ball, followed by a silk serum moisturizer. Then I steamed a room scented with mulberry leaves. More potions included a facial mask made with ginseng and silk cocoon extract. Finally, I soaked in a bath of milk, cocoons and rose petals Cleopatra-style.
Red Sky at Night
As Bangkok’s skyline soars, rooftop bars abound. Red Sky atop the Centara Grand hotel and shopping mall is a stylish spot with panoramic views from its 55th floor. Imbibe some bubbles at the Cru Champagne Bar along with some caviar and oysters. We’re talking sky food, not street food—with prices to match.
Jim Thompson, an American who revitalized the silk industry in Thailand, was a U.S. military intelligence officer who went on vacation in Malaysia in 1967 and mysteriously disappeared. But his silk legacy lives on. His shops sell beautiful creations, large and small. You will also dine well at Jim Thompson Restaurant and Wine Bar located in Jim Thompson House Museum.
The “cheap thrills” save list
Down by the River
Bangkok River is a collaborative project by business partners to encourage visitors to explore the neighbourhoods and shops along the Chao Phraya waterway. I took an informative stroll with David Robinson who works with the Bangkok River group. We began at River City, a complex housing several shops, restaurants, antiques and photo galleries. Along our walk Robinson pointed out several historic buildings, including the East Asiatic Trading Building and Grand Post Office, now home to the Design and Creative Centre. At P. Tendercool we admired bespoke furniture made from recycled opium den beds. Housed in a building that looks like a temple, Thai Home Industries sells handcrafted cutlery, pottery and cotton shirts. In the Creative District, several warehouses have been turned into design stores and cafés. British graffiti artist Banksy would surely approve of some of the street art. Check out the River Bangkok’s excellent website and take yourself on an informative walk.
Culture and Hedonism
Bangkok has more than 400 temples but if there’s one must-see it’s the Grand Palace, a square mile of gilded royal temples and palaces. The ornate Wat Phra Keo houses the famous Emerald Buddha (actually it’s made of jade). Take a tuk-tuk to the neighbouring Wat Pho, famous for its enormous Reclining Buddha and it’s ancient school of Thai medicine and massage, so you can combine culture and hedonism in one visit. A one-hour massage costs about $16. You can also enroll in various massage lessons and become immensely popular with your friends back home.
Trip the Night Fantastic
For those of you who loved hunting for treasures at the night market in Lumpini Park, the bad news is that is no long exists; the good news is that there’s a new even better evenings only attraction called Asiatique The Riverfront open daily from 5 p.m. to midnight. Catch the free 10-minute ferry from Sathorn Pier (Skytrain stop Taksin) across the Chao Phraya River. The refurbished 100-year-old sawmill has more than 1,500 boutiques housed in nine warehouses. Shop for anything from hip new fashions to traditional Thai handicrafts. I got some aromatherapy oils, silk scarves and some funky jewellery for just a few baht. Plan to dine at one of 40 eateries serving a variety of cuisines, including Japanese, Italian and pub fare. There’s also the Joe Louis Thai Puppet Theatre, Calypso cabaret and a huge Ferris wheel from which you’ll have fabulous nighttime views of downtown Bangkok.
Bangkok is plagued with heavy traffic and lots of jams. Your fastest mode of transportation is the Skytrain, offering a bird’s eye view of the city in clean and blissfully air-conditioned cars. English is spoken at the ticket stations. The underground or MRT is another option. Fares range from .50 to $1.40 for both trains, or you can opt for a tourist pass.
Tuk-tuks are fun and noisy and make good photo ops. However, a taxi might be cheaper. If you hail a tuk-tuk, agree on a price before getting in and prepare to haggle hard. Beware of a cheap trip to a tailor or gem shop. The fast and frequent ferries along the Chao Phraya River are a good way to visit the many temples and palaces. From the main Sathorn Pier you can head upriver and stop at numerous piers all the way to Nonthaburi. Buying a tourist ticket) gets you one-day unlimited travel plus a guide to some of the riverside tourist attractions.
Get your Kicks
The normally gentle Thai people are passionate about their national sport, Thai boxing. Join the locals as they cheer for and gamble as the athletes pummel each other using most of their body parts. Bouts take place at Ratchadamnoen Stadium on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. Cost for a ringside seat is about $40.