Off Duty: Bangkok

No other city offers visitors such a staggering array of affordable pleasures as the Thai capital, says Andrew Spooner
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Why?

A sultry, engaging cacophony of sights, smells and tastes, Bangkok is not for the fainthearted.

During the sticky summer months of July and August, it begins to resemble a giant, out-of-control sauna complete with temples, lady-boys, delicious street-food and gridlock. And, despite a few shaky moments, last year's coup has been shrugged off by the dynamic Thai capital and business is booming.

Whatever you do, don't be put off by Bangkok's travails – there's probably no city on earth offering such a staggering array of affordable pleasures. From sumptuous day-spas and exquisite dining to ubiquitous street food and relaxing foot massages, gratification is never more than a moment away. The key word is "sanook" – a Thai term that loosely translates as easygoing fun/pleasure and which is instilled in every element of Thai culture.

And "sanook" is not just for the locals. If you're staying in the city there's an enormous range of top-end accommodation offering the cheapest luxury on earth. The Peninsula (00 66 2 861 2888; www.bangkokpeninsula.com) and Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit (00 66 2 649 8888; www.luxurycollection.com/bangkok) are two of the best business hotels in Asia. If you want more traditional charms The Oriental (00 66 2 659 9000; www.mandarinoriental.com/bangkok) is a classic, while the Metropolitan (00 66 2 625 3333; www.metropolitan.como.bz/bangkok) offers cool, contemporary design and a private members/residents' club. Serviced apartments such as the stylishly urban Siri Sathorn (00 66 2 266 2345; www.sirisathorn.com) allow guests to create a more personalised space, while the riverside Ibrik Resort (00 66 2 848 9220; www.ibrikresort.com) conjures up a slice of exotic privacy that only Bangkok can deliver. For something completely original, the eccentric Atlanta Hotel (00 66 2 252 6069; www.theatlantahotel.bizland.com) is a Bangkok legend – the original 1950s Art Deco-styled lobby was the setting for Wong Kar Wai's film, In the Mood for Love.

What?

For those who like expensive designer goods head to the newly opened Siam Paragon ( www.siamparagon.co.th), a shopping centre of Babylonian proportions slap, bang in the city centre. To experience the creativity of Bangkok's youthful population hop across the road from Paragon to Siam Square, an atmospheric warren of miniature DIY boutiques and food stalls. Tech-head urges can be satisfied around the corner on Petchburi Road at Panthip Plaza, Bangkok's legendary, computer and IT market.

Temple lovers are spoilt for choice in Bangkok – there are literally hundreds. Start the day with the striking spires of the riverside Wat Arun – they change colour with the sunrise – then head to Wat Po, which is not only home to a huge, golden reclining Buddha but is also the birthplace of Thai massage and masseurs still ply their trade in a side pavilion.

If you want peace and quiet, head to Bang Ka Jao, an area that has been afforded some semblance of protection by the Thai king. Set across the Chao Phraya river from the centrally located Khlong Toey pier, Bang Ka Jao is a lush, green jungle area that still maintains a village-like feel. It's the perfect place to unwind from the relentless pace of the city, especially if you take a bike tour ( www.bangkok.com/cycling-tours/index.html).

Where?

Spend time in Bangkok and you'll soon realise that the locals always seem to be eating – with the quality of the grub on offer, who can blame them?

Chinatown is a wonderful, hectic hive of Taoist temples, gold sellers and endless runs of food stalls. Sometimes the smells and victuals defy description but a wander around here is crucial for any visiting gourmand – get here by riding the Chao Phraya river bus to Tha Ratchawong pier.

Cy'an, chef Amanda Gale's creation at the Metropolitan (see above), offers some of the best international cuisine in the city. Soi Suan Plu, a backstreet next to the hotel, is home to a plethora of excellent nighttime street food stands – don't be afraid to point out exactly what you want, little English is spoken.

For a real culinary surprise check out the small Arab quarter just off Sukhumvit Rd near the Nana Skytrain station. Find the shisah pipes outside the family-run Nasir al-Masri restaurant ( www.restaurant-shishah-nasir.com) on Soi Nana Nua and you'll also discover awesome lamb shish, hummus and flat bread.

The famous pod-like expanse of the Bed Supper Club ( www.bedsupperclub.com) is still worth a visit for Bangkok nightlife newbies. To really get down with the locals try Royal College Avenue (known locally as RCA), a strip of bars and clubs to the east of the city centre. Club Astra ( www.club-astra.com), Bangkok's cutting-edge nightclub, is located here.

Wow

There's good reason why the Grand Palace ( www.palaces.thai.net) is an essential stop for any visitor to Bangkok. Quite simply, it is a visual feast that leaves many first-timers gasping. It's also a living, breathing spiritual centre, home to Wat Phra Kaeo, the sacred temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Arrive at the palace in the fresh light of morning and the textures and colours refracting off the assorted gold adornments, tiled mosaics and pointed spires are staggering. Come back in the evening and the soft glow of sunset renders a completely different set of shades and tones.

Andrew Spooner is the co-author of the 2007 edition of Footprint's Thailand guidebook ( www.footprintbooks.com).

Comments