Bangkokians have been busy: Travellers returning to “the City of Angels” after even a few years will notice changes. The impenetrably jammed streets of Chinatown and Old Town, with their glorious religious and royal enclaves, are finally accessible by mass transit with the extension of the Metropolitan Rapid Transit subway. And the long-neglected waterfront of the Chao Phraya River now has two massive, eye-popping developments on opposite banks: The Icon Siam mall and the Four Seasons complex of restaurants, a water garden and a gallery. Meanwhile, a new generation of chefs, designers and artisans has taken advantage of the pandemic lull to open businesses throughout Bangkok, bringing more flair and fun to an already flamboyant city.
The chef Thitid Tassanakajohn, known as Ton, an owner of Michelin-starred Bangkok restaurant Le Du, last year opened Lahnyai Nusara, an intimate restaurant in a living-room-like space amid the Sathorn district’s skyscrapers. Get a reservation for one of the half-dozen tables overseen by family photographs and embark on Ton’s 12-course menu, based on a cosmopolitan approach to his mom’s recipes, like steamed egg with crab meat and truffles. Dinner with wine is around 3,800 Thai baht (about S$153) per person.
9pm: Dance into the night
Dress shamelessly and let Thai DJs vibrate away your jet lag at Sing Sing Theater, the current reigning nightclub in the Sukhumvit district, with a noirish retro-Chinese decor illuminated by swarms of red lanterns and a riot of professional dancers behind screens and on swings that give the place the feel of a Baz Luhrmann film set. Settle into the intimate nooks and balconies surrounding the stage and dance floor or house shuffle with a cordial mix of wealthy locals and Bangkok’s expat community, including, at the moment, quite a few exiled Russians. Guest DJs and live bands come in for regular parties such as burlesque or Latin nights. Drinks start at 180 baht.
7am: Bike through the area
In the 1990s, Co van Kessel, a Dutch-born resident of Bangkok who died in 2012, pioneered elaborate yet surprisingly easy bicycle tours through the city and its surrounding farmland that used canalboats to move between town and country. Today, a friendly staff of young, English-speaking Thai bike enthusiasts have taken up his mantle from a well-marked garage and office next to the River City shopping complex on the Chao Phraya River. Much of the clientele is still Dutch, and it’s a mesmerising and safe trip through a maze of alleyway temples and canals (you hop into the boat with your bike), leading to paths above the paddy farms upon which the city was built, one of which provides a delicious local lunch. A five-hour tour is 1,850 baht.
2pm: Get an ethereal back rub
Visitors usually head to Wat Pho (“wat” means “temple” in many parts of Southeast Asia) next to the Grand Palace to marvel at the 151-foot reclining Buddha. But one can match the contentment on his face in a discrete building behind the temple where novices master the art of Thai massage, one of the ancient medical practices to which the wat is devoted. The massage center, Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical School, is opposite the main temple building (there’s usually a standing yellow sign in front). Sample their craft with divine foot and back massages, starting from 280 baht for 30 minutes.
4pm: Shop in the arts district
Vietnam War-era military jackets? Butterfly collections? Hand-carved, Scandi-minimalist cutlery? They’re all found in the potpourri of shops, galleries and cafes of Warehouse 30, which spans seven colorfully renovated warehouses and anchors Bangkok’s thriving arts district surrounding the River City shopping center. Recover from all that biking and shopping in one of the complex’s most popular cafes, Mother Roaster, run by the septuagenarian super-barista Ploenpit Rianmek, affectionately nicknamed Pa Pim, who brews some of the best java in town (from 80 baht).
Over the past decade, Bangkok has become one of Asia’s great mixology destinations. The best of the blossoming bar scene is within walking distance of Potong, and includes Teens of Thailand, a cozy jewel-box of a place serving up gin cocktails; Tep Bar, in a former shop that specialises in an herbal liquor called ya dong and uses local fruits and spices; and one of the city’s hottest newcomers, Tropic City, a Thai take on a tiki bar featuring a dizzying array of rum cocktails. Expect to pay at least 300 baht a cocktail at these bars.
10am: Enjoy art on one shore
The Four Seasons complex, which opened in late 2020, has revolutionised the dreary stretch of river south of the Taksin Bridge. Escape the dense urban surroundings to airy courtyards surrounding terraced pools, outdoor art installations and banyan trees descending to the shore. Head from the lobby to the waterfront via the small museum Art Space, a broad whitewashed studio featuring a rotating series of modern art installations curated by Bangkok’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum shop features funky one-offs, including a blow-up 10-foot worm (65,000 baht) and customised graffiti tote bags (1,330 baht). Exit the gallery to find a popular French bakery, Cafe Madeleine, which serves excellent croissants (95 baht) and coffee on the wide riverfront terrace.
11am: Eat on the other shore
Cross the river on the public ferry (from 13 baht) to the Icon Siam mall. Few do malls better than the Thais: Imagine the spaceship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind perched on the shore (ignore all the bland Western luxury logos dominating the facade) and step into the light. The first floor has arguably the world’s best food court. Thais flock to the locally run stalls that have replaced so many of Bangkok’s much-missed street vendors. Many stalls don’t have names and just have one specialty, like spicy shrimp soup or pad thai, often made by that vendor’s family for generations. You can easily enjoy a multicourse feast for less than 200 baht. After lunch, visit the top-floor balcony to discover a light-and-mirror art installation called “Infinity Forest” and one of the best views over the river.
1pm: Visit a secret garden
Between downtown and Suvarnabhumi Airport, the Prasart Museum is one of the city’s best-kept secrets and an excellent introduction to Thai history and design. The lifelong passion project of a former Bangkok real estate mogul, Khun Prasart, the museum comprises six acres of gardens and centuries-old temples, and has treasures rescued and restored from around the world. Traditional Thai artisanship is on view, such as an intricately decorative style of porcelain called benjarong and trees deliberately twisted into enchanting shapes. Sometimes Prasart is there himself, happily working in his garden and greeting visitors. Make an appointment by phone first (66 2 379 3601). Entry is 500 baht and includes a guided tour, usually about an hour.
Prasart Museum is a lush hideaway showcasing ancient Thai design, architecture and gardening techniques.
Potong is a newcomer serving Michelin-starred, Thai-Chinese fusion in a former pharmacy in Chinatown.
Co van Kessel offers elaborate and safe bike tours through Bangkok’s urban jungle and into the countryside.
WHERE TO EAT
Lahnyai Nusara is an intimate living-room-like space offering elaborate meals based on the chef’s family recipes.
Tep Bar serves herbal-infused cocktails with local liquors in an industrial-chic space that hosts Thai musicians.
Sing Sing Theater is Bangkok’s reigning nightclub of the moment, where the rich and glamorous dance in a Chinese-noir setting.
Mother Roaster has excellent coffee served by a septuagenarian super-barista.
WHERE TO STAY
Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok at Chao Phraya River is a new leafy and modern oasis in a formerly industrial part of the riverfront. The hotel complex features gardens, cafes and a contemporary art space. Doubles from 14,000 Thai baht.
JW Marriott was recently renovated to very elegant standards and gives easy access to the lively nightlife and markets around the Sukhumvit district, starting at around 6,300 baht a night.
Villa Bangkok Hotel, formerly Villa Phra Sumen, is a great budget choice with modern rooms along the Rop Krung canal in the heart of the historic Phra Nakhon district. Doubles start at 1,640 baht a night.
The vibrant neighbourhood of Bang Rak is bordered by Lumpini Park and filled with inexpensive yet luxurious short-term rentals that often feature full-service buildings with concierges and pools.
By Finn-Olaf Jones © The New York Times Company
The article originally appeared in The New York Times.