Header images: Dish from Err; Thai boxing at RSM Academy; outside Smalls
Asia's 50 Best Restaurants is making its debut in Bangkok later this month, and there's far more to the city than outstanding street food and fine dining.
In the first of our 50 Best Destinations series, Mason Florence, who heads up The Diners Club World's 50 Best Restaurants Academy of voters for South East Asia (North), treats us to his favourite hidden gems, from Thai boxing gyms to live music bars.
Bangkok is a city that offers its pleasures at random – every back alley seems to house similar variants of wonderful street food, soothing foot massage, shimmering temples and the scent of jasmine flowers.
Yet this is a city where very different realities seem to co-exist side by side; passionate street protests can take place at the same time as Buddhist meditation, tawdry bars sit next to cutting-edge contemporary art and ancient village life happens in the shadow of giant malls. It’s good to know just where to look and where to go.
1. Cruising with Charlie
+66-(0)-81-837-5501 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Many hire blaring long-tail boats to cruise along the Chao Phraya River and through its maze of captivating canals (klongs). But when my river trip hankering kicks in, I call on Charlie, an affable Virginia gentleman who operates Buakao (White Lotus), a simple, unpretentious river cruiser that can comfortably seat up to 10. Buakao makes for a perfect private river expedition to truly discover why Bangkok was once called the “Venice of the East”. Charlie’s been navigating the backwaters here for years and can lead you to secret places, from lush orchid farms to secluded temples where feeding the resident fish earns you merit. The charter rate is 1,500 baht an hour.
2. Klong Bang Luang Artist House
+66-(0)-2-868-5279 / facebook.com/Baansilapin
Whether cruising with Charlie or opting for a more familiar long-tail boat ride, no journey into Bangkok’s suburban waterways is complete without a stop at this charming canal-side art community. The atmospheric enclave features crafts, good Thai food, fish-feeding, an old wooden house transformed into a gallery, a do-it-yourself art classroom and a courtyard for staging extraordinary performances with traditional Thai puppets. There is typically a puppet performance at 2pm daily, from Tuesday to Sunday.
3. Rajadamnern Singha Muay Thai Academy
Jasmine City, 23 Sukhumvit Road / +66-(0)-2-661-6292 / rsm-academy.com
In recent years, Thai boxing, with its fast movements, exotic music and rituals, has quickly gone from spectator to participatory sport with men and women, Thai and foreign, taking it up for fitness. This gym features local champions as instructors in a non-threatening, upscale setting: a safe and fun place to try your hand (as well as elbow, knees and feet) at this ancient Thai art.
4. The Siam Hotel
3/2 Thanon Khao / +66-(0)-2-206-6999 / thesiamhotel.com
In a league of its own, The Siam Hotel is an idyllic hideaway slightly up-river from downtown, owned by Thailand’s famed Sukasol family of entertainers. Purpose-built under the flair of renowned landscape architect Bill Bensley, The Siam is all about understated elegance and nostalgia for the “golden age of travel”. Great for a luxe stay, lolling on the river, drinks at the Deco Bar & Bistro or a distinctive meal at its signature Chon Thai Restaurant. The three old restored Thai houses here were once owned by legendary American silk hero Jim Thompson. An essential stopover for lovers of design, antiques and style.
5. Thailand Creative & Design Center (TCDC)
The Emporium, Sukhumvit 24 / +66-(0)-2-664-7667 / tcdc.or.th
A government-run showcase of the latest in cool and playful Thai design and clothes, the Thailand Creative & Design Center also boasts an extensive research library and amazing gift shop. Soon to be moved from its roost atop the uber-luxe shopping mall Emporium Bangkok, the centre should be seen in its original location while it’s still possible. Just across the road is Emquartier, Bangkok’s latest mall-located foodie mecca.
6. Sathorn 11 Art Space
404 Sathorn 11 / +66-(0)-2-004-1199 / sathorn11.com
This pocket of Sathorn Road has been booming lately with new restaurants, cafés and, now, more art galleries. Here, an American father and son duo have transformed a funky old shop house into an underground gallery combined with pizza parlour and an upstairs artist-in-residence studio. Refreshingly, the emphasis is on emerging young artists. Not so far away, on the opposite side of Sathorn, art aficionados can also stop in at Kathmandu Gallery (on Pan Road), a charming little photo-dedicated gallery run by famed Thai shutterbug Manit Sriwanichpoom.
7. Siam Center
979 Rama 1 Road, Siam / +66-(0)-2-658-1000 / siamcenter.co.th/
While I’m far from a fashionista, I’m often quizzed by visitors to Bangkok on where to hunt for the latest creations from Thailand’s deep pool of hot young designers. The city’s cavalcade of malls offers much of the same in familiar, international brand names, while this smaller mall in the shadow of the glitzy Siam Paragon is the place to try on the latest in fashion from Thai talents. For a near-perfect pad thai, the food court on the fifth floor is well worth seeking out.
394/35 Maharaj Road / +66-(0)-2-622-2291 / errbkk.com
The latest in a batch of hip gourmet drinking spots, this spin-off, by the Thai-Aussie couple behind the more refined Bo.Lan, No.37 in Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2015, is a great place to stop for lunch or dinner while in the Old Town (it’s near the famed reclining Buddha housed at Wat Pho temple, not far from Ta Tien river pier stop). Think simple and tasty authentic Thai dishes served up in a rustic row of shophouses where classic snacks are turned into world-class tapas.
Central Embassy, 1031 Ploenchit Road / +66-(0)-2-119-7777 / facebook.com/EathaibyCentral
I’m normally not one to recommend dining in one of Bangkok’s ubiquitous shopping malls, but there are several amazing mall-housed food courts where you can experience the tastes of Thailand without the heat of eating on the street. The best of the lot is Eathai, on the lower ground level of the glitzy new Central Embassy, a well-executed bazaar with actual stalls preparing regional dishes from across the Kingdom. Just beside it, there’s a terrific market to buy Thai food products to take home.
10. Or Tor Kor Market
Kamphaeng Phet Road / +66-(0)-2-279-2028
Hop on the MRT (subway) to Kamphaeng Phet station, take exit #3 and you’ll find yourself in a spectacular showcase of all the colours and flavours of Thailand. This spotlessly clean, government-run farmers’ fresh market is just across one boulevard from the ever-crowded Chatuchak Weekend Market, yet is often overlooked. Ogle the array of tropical flowers, sample superb satays or choose from dozens of pots full of authentic crab and coconut curries.
11. Baan Kra Jao
This astounding, entirely green island area is a jungle encampment that has somehow been left untouched on the south bank of the Chao Phraya. Reached by small boats for hire from the Klong Toei area, you can bike for miles on rural roads and rickety boardwalks, past traditional houses, banana groves and friendly locals. Bring your own bike or rent one upon arrival near where the shuttle boats land. Specialty local cycling outfits like Spice Roads and Grasshopper Adventures run neat organised tours to Baan Kra Jao.
12. Soul Bar
945 Charoen Krung Road / +66-(0)-83-092-2266 / facebook.com/livesoulbarbangkok
This is a mainstay of the riverfront area on the artsy edge of Chinatown that is slowly getting gentrified – and becoming among the hippest areas in the city. From Wednesday to Saturday it features a blast of live funk and soul in an excitingly tight loft space. Start the night here, and if you like the vibe of the area ask Romain – the friendly and furry young Frenchman who runs the place – to point you in the direction of nearby Soi Nana (not to be confused with the go-go bar ghetto with the same name on Sukhumvit Road), where joints like Cho Why are offering more edgy nightlife alternatives in Chinatown.
Suan Plu Soi 1 / +66-(0)-95-585-1398 / facebook.com/smallsbkk/
Last but far from least, this is my true local. Smalls is where many of the city’s hospitality pros and creative types will wind up by the end of the night. Among Bangkok’s many watering holes, this corner shophouse-turned-rooftop-bar with two more cosy floors is in the in-spot for ex-pats, hospitality types, artists and chefs, as well as chilled DJs and occasional live jazz. Nightly (except Tuesdays) legendary celebrity photographer-turned-nightlife-specialist David Jacobson holds court with his regulars. Don’t forget to check out some of the world class art on the walls.
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