It’s 7am, and I’ve been waiting in Bangkok’s immigration line for an hour. I’m tired, hungry and dangerously grumpy after an overnight flight from Dubai sans breakfast. I’ve just berated a French guy with dreadlocks for queue jumping. I want to go home.
Fast forward an hour: I arrive at Bangkok’s freshest (literally: the surreal exterior is covered in greenery) boutique hotel, the Hansar. I step out of the cab and slowly inhale the rich, pleasantly heavy, rain-tempered air of the capital city. I’m instantly in a better mood.
I’m here to seek the boutique side of Bangkok – a city where it’s too easy to haul up in a five-star American chain hotel and tick off the tourist boxes, which I’ve done in the past. This time I want to bypass the backpacker-heavy Khao San Road, avoid the night markets stacked with pirated DVDs and questionable nightclubs, and instead hunt out the bespoke, trendy and one-off spots. Here are my highlights.
Just a five-minute walk down the road from the Hansar hotel is Siam Square – Bangkok’s Soho. The most famous shopping destination in the area is mega-mall Siam Paragon (www.siamparagon.co.th; +66 2 690 1000) and, while this is definitely worth a look (particularly for its buzzing basement food floor), I suggest you venture to the smaller malls, as well as the streets themselves, to find something different to what we have in Dubai.
For starters, wandering around any suburb of Bangkok, including Siam Square, is a sensory feast and an event in itself: every 200 metres there’s a food stall frying up squid or chicken, creating a constant soundtrack of crackling and sizzling, not to mention countless shrines wafting eau de incense into the air and offering the shiny glint of buddhas ready to be worshipped. Strolling down the street from my hotel, I pass the bustling Erawan Shrine: erected in the ’50s by the government, its aim to convince superstitious labourers that the gods were appeased, and the difficulties with the construction of the adjacent Erawan hotel were just a coincidence.
Bypassing the eager worshippers, I arrive at the small and unassuming Amarin Plaza shopping centre.Admittedly I only wander in to shelter from the rain (which in Bangkok comes in short, sharp bursts; in contrast to Dubai’s heat, it’s actually rather pleasant). Yet I end up spending hours in Amarin thanks to its one-off fashion boutiques and vintage record shops. Highlights include Ballet Shoes (+662 652 0339), run passionately by a bossy yet warm Thai woman, whose family business has been crafting quirky leather shoes for men and women since 1959. I also love Keith & Kym Gallery (+662 256 7243) – not to be confused with Aussie sitcom Kath & Kim – which sells quirky hand-made silver jewellery. I soon have my eye on a ring that could only be described as a delicate knuckle duster.
Yet perhaps the most definitive Bangkok shopping experience is the markets, and the most definitive of these is the Chatuchak weekend market (www.chatuchak.org; no number), a sprawling, sweaty symphony of shopping that houses more than 15,000 stores. On my second day in the city (a Saturday), I set off for the market at about 10am, hopping on the Sky Train to the adjacent Mo Chit station (www.bts.co.th; + 66 2 617 7300).
Arriving at the market, I’m instantly overwhelmed by how heaving and hot it is under the corrugated iron roof, and vow to arrive earlier on my next visit. Yet I resolve to brave the crowds and wander straight to the most ‘boutique’ of the 27 sections, namely clothes (sections five and six), collectibles (section three) and antiques (sections 22 to 26). The antique section is full of treasures, from ’50s postcards to antique tea sets, while the clothes section is crammed with local designers’ wares, including a particularly mouth-watering range of genuine leather candy-coloured bags.
By 1pm I’m tired and a little testy, but thankfully, just before breaking point, I find a haven amid the madness: gourmet iced tea specialist Lann Cha, a quiet Victorian-style courtyard located behind fantastic Thai candle store AnyaDharu (www.anyadharu.com, no number). After three hours of hustling my way through the market, my bespoke raspberry iced tea is just the refresher I need.
There’s one thing I take as seriously as shopping on holiday – and that’s food. You simply can’t go to Thailand without sampling the cuisine, but just plop into any old food court and order a pad Thai and you’ll be disappointed. In fact, the worst pad Thai I’ve ever eaten was dished up on Khao San Road in Bangkok about five years ago, so this time I decided to do my research.
One Thai restaurant that’s very ‘now’ is Bo.Lan (www.bolan.co.th, +662 260 2962), run by Australian chef Dylan Jones and his Thai/Aussie wife Duangporn Songvisava; their aim is to ensure that the world’s best Thai food can be found in Thailand, not in the swanky suburbs of Western cities. The restaurant sits in a beautiful, one-storey wooden villa, nestled on a quiet street of the trendy Sukhumvit area. The food is delectable – everything is fresh and unpretentiously home-style – yet it’s quite pricey for Bangkok: a three-course meal for two will set you back about Dhs500. That said, it’s the best meal I’ve eaten in Bangkok, and I don’t mind paying for quality. The Thai beef salad is almost unbearably spicy for my palate (it feels as though I’m eating the sun), but the combination of the perfectly cooked beef and the sweet mangosteen is so good that I laugh in the face of fear and happily devour it.
If you want to party after dinner, trendy bar/restaurant/club Bed Supperclub (www.bedsupperclub.com; +662 651 3537) is nearby, and its white, futuristic interiors and unfailingly party-party atmosphere will keep you entertained until late into the night. Also in the area is the less clubby but equally hip Long Table (www.longtablebangkok.com; +662 302 2557), a spot as good for drinks as it is for dinner.
After eating and shopping my way round the city, I’m glad to return to the Hansar (from Dhs550 per night, www.hansarbangkok.com; +662 209 1234). The Thai-owned 94-suite hotel has proven so successful that it’s currently travel website TripAdvisor’s number one hotel in Bangkok, as voted for by travellers themselves (www.tripadvisor.com).
The Hansar is smack bang in the centre of the city but is so tranquil and quiet that it’s almost impossible not to relax. The decor is edgy yet comfortable – a blend of wood and concrete alludes to a business hotel, but every now and then there’s a detail that places it firmly in the world of high design, from the giant pieces of Thai art to the open-air concierge desk and concrete hallways.
The service is helpful, genuine and never obsequious, and the terrace breakfasts are good (although I do think we’re spoiled when it comes to hotel breakfasts in Dubai). The food at the French restaurant Eve is just fantastic – the beef short rib is the softest cut of meat I’ve eaten.
Speaking of soft, I’ve never experienced a comfier mattress than at the Hansar, so much so that every now and then, mid-shop, mid-drink or mid-eat, I begin daydreaming about getting back to Hansar, where I’ll be able to escape from the crazy city otuside that is Bangkok and truly switch off.
Need to know
Fly to Bangkok from Abu Dhabi with Etihad from Dhs3,010 return including tax. A free airline coach will take your from Dubai to Abu Dhabi airport.
www.etihadairways.com (02 511 0000)
When in Bangkok, never touch or point at the head, which is sacred. Never use feet – the lowest body part – to move or point at things, and don’t step on money as it bears royal imagery.
Did you know?
Bangkok’s full, ceremonial name is quoted in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest place name in the world. At 188 characters, it’s often shortened to Krung Thep, which translates as ‘City of Angels’. The full name is never actually used, though it can be seen on signs as part of a tourist campaign.
Dubai to Bangkok
Flight time: Six hours
Time difference: Three hours ahead of Dubai
Dhs1 = 8.1 Thai baht