Bangkok has been voted the world’s best by Travel + Leisure in 2011, 2010 and 2008 (in 2009 it came 3rd). In 2011 Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards named Bangkok as the “Best City in Asia” which it had also done in 2007 for the seventh year in a row. In 2009 CNN also named Bangkok “The World’s Greatest City”. So what is all the fuss about?
Welcome to ZiZ Bangkok’s “100 Things that make Bangkok Great” – Part 1 of 5. Over the ensuing weeks we will list 100 observations about Bangkok that we believe make this modern yet chaotic Southeast Asian city what it is. Like any city in the world it has its foibles but there are clearly an awful lot of people around the world who, like us, believe that Bangkok has all the ingredients and flavours required to make it magnetic.
The ZiZ Bangkok Travel and Events team lives, works and parties here and with our 100 Things that make Bangkok Great list we hope that we have included items that will have you nodding in agreement and some that might come as a surprise. Either way we value your comments and feedback about the list, any individual entries or features you feel should be added.
So lets start the ultimate Bangkok tour zooming back and forth from past to present from ancient monuments to modern design centres, teak rice barges to tuk tuk’s. Join us as we explore customs, districts and Bangkok festivals spotlighting age old customs and modern fads. The journey will take us from street food to sumptuous restaurants, land to water and even sex change. So buckle up and enjoy the Bangkok ride!
New Year in Bangkok Chinatown
The arrival of the Chinese New Year also marks the arrival of hordes of tourists from Singapore and Hong Kong who flock to Bangkok heading straight for Yaowarat Road and Bangkok Chinatown. The Chinese New Year is an excuse for an extended Bangkok city break and an almighty street party in the maze and labyrinth of Bangkok Chinatown.
Chinese immigrants began to arrive in Bangkok in the late 1700’s, just as the new capital was in the process of being created. Today the district is more a symbolic centre than commercial core but during Chinese New Year vendors arrive en masse selling dry goods, fruit and poultry, treats and groceries to the crowds of Thai Chinese.
Chinese New Year in Bangkok Chinatown is about a monumental feast and paying respects to ancestors which happens to a backdrop of traditional lion dancers and a soundtrack of fire-crackers. Children wait with starry-eyed anticipation for their red envelopes of cash during this very photogenic annual event.
The Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall was commissioned by the still much revered King Rama V, King Chulalongkorn. Designed by Italian architects in a neoclassical style and constructed with marble imported from Carrara Italy, the Throne Hall has a Latin cross plan and a huge Roman dome at the centre.
Italian artists went to work to create exquisite frescoes that adorn six of the smaller domes in the Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall. The frescoes depict some of the key achievements of the first six kings of the Chakri dynasty (the current King, King Bhumibol, is the ninth King of the Chakri dynasty).
Construction of the Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall was completed in 1915 during the reign of King Rama VI. At a time when both the French and the British were vying to colonise Siam, the throne hall was symbolic of the kingdoms progression towards becoming more modern and civilized. Among other achievements, King Chulalongkorn is credited for preserving the independence of the Kingdom from European colonialism.
A Riverside Oasis of Luxury
The Peninsula Bangkok, with its characteristic W-shaped design that gives every room in this luxury hotel a river view, has an undeniably impressive pedigree and lineage. But its location on the banks of the Chao Phraya River is what transforms this excellent hotel into a phenomenal one.
The Peninsula Bangkok hit the Conde Nast Gold List in 2007 and in the same year was also cited by Travel + Leisure as being “The World’s Best Hotel for Service” and home to “The World’s Best Spa”. From 2008 The Gallivanter’s Guide, Zagat Survey, Asia Spa Magazine, Destinasian Magazine, Tripadvisor and Thailand Tatler joined the mix. In 2011 The Peninsula Bangkok continues to receive awards from Conde Nast, Travel + Leisure and onwards.
Sibling to the Peninsula Hong Kong whose name is synonymous with unsurpassed luxury and service and as being a haven for the rich, the famous, the titled and titans of industry. Experience the jet-set lifestyle by arriving at The Peninsula Bangkok by helicopter before being ushered to the Penthouse Suite where you can relax among the opulent décor and antiques, enjoy the exclusive view and the attention of your personal Butler.
You think it, I ink it.
Small, subtle, artistic Tattoos have slipped into the mainstream of public acceptance over recent years, the sight no longer sending people scuttling in the opposite direction. The “Bad Boy” image of tattoos has long gone and the plethora of Tattoo Parlours around Khao San Road, MBK, Siam Square and Sukhumvit Road are testament to this.
Bangkok tourists tend to beeline Khao San Road for tattoos but for those in the know there are many options more central in and around MBK and Siam Square particularly. Prices range from around 1,500THB for a small tattoo to well over 100,000 THB for a body glove. Standards of both artistic aptitude and hygiene vary from world-class to suspect so research your Bangkok tattoo parlours well.
The Play’s the Thing
Patravadi Theatre, named after innovative veteran performer and founder Patravadi Mejudhon, is the most prominent performing arts centre and school in Thailand. Like Bangkok itself, Patravadi Theatre is where East-meets-West on stage and performances are eclectic, experimental and full of fervour.
Set in a compound overlooking the Chao Phraya River on Arun Amarin Road, Patravadi Theatre has a variety of spaces for big and small productions. Plays are regularly produced in-house and the theatre also hosts visiting troupes, both local and foreign, as well as participating in many cultural festivals. Patravadi Theatre also runs a 12 day acting course.
Bangkok Urban Spa Retreat
If you can picture the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel that sits near the junction of Rajdamri and Ploenchit Road, it is perhaps the last place you would imagine to find a perfect vision of quietude. But when you arrive at “the Fifth Level”, elevated above one of Bangkok’s busiest streets, you will enter the i.sawan Residential Club and Spa; a sanctuary of peace, calm and wellness.
i.sawan Spa at Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok hotel covers 7,000sqm within which is a collection of spa cottages surrounding a landscaped courtyard. Each of the cottages has a separate living space and treatment room for the ultimate in-room papering experience; close your eyes, be pampered and relax to the soothing sounds emanating from the in-room iPod.
i.sawan Spa at Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok is an unexpected urban spa retreat that provides total escape from the chaos below and a spa refuge complete with yoga studio, nail salon, pool and dining options.
Bangkok on 3-Wheels
The ubiquitous and iconic Bangkok Tuk Tuk is featured on the “must-do” list of many Bangkok tourists and they continue to be used by some locals as well to zip along narrow soi, to and fro from the local market. Fast and furious, the drivers are adept at weaving their way through some of the worst gridlocked traffic in Bangkok and Tuk Tuk’s are certainly a safer and more comfy option than motorcycle taxis.
If you are planning a Tuk Tuk ride, go for a short trip preferably at night. You will find that the rates are not that much different to taxis so really the appeal is for novelty value only and do bargain . . . nicely! Beware when a Tuk Tuk driver offers you exceptionally cheap “sightseeing” rates as invariably the trip will include shady gem or tailor shops where they will earn commission.
Lifts, Tucks and Gender Switching
Yanhee International Hospital has garnered a reputation for being one of the world’s top hospitals for cosmetic surgery and there is practically no part of the human body, male or female, which they cant alter one way or another. With a menu that includes all manner of lifts, reductions, implants, tucks and suctions, Yanhee International Hospital’s inpatients include both visitors to Thailand and Thai locals alike.
Rumour has it that Yanhee International Hospital is responsible for more than half the country’s katoey plang pet (transsexual) population and while these are “Male-to-Female Sex Reassignments” they also offer it the other way round too! You can check-in for a Hair Transplant at 80 THB per graft, have all your pubic hair permanently removed for US$850, become a woman for under 300,000THB or a man for under 600,000THB.
The wonders of modern science!
The Suntaraporn Sound
Booming in from the past is the music of the Suntaraporn band whose hey-day was in the 1940’s. The founder of and composer for this Thai-style big band, Euah Sunthornsanan, would have been 100 years old in 2010, the same year that UNESCO recognised him as “Great Personality of the Year”.
Atiporn Senavong, Euah’s only daughter, took up the mantle after her father’s death over a quarter of a century ago and kept the band and sound alive. Atiporn also added Suntaraporn music school and Suntaraporn Foundation to the mix for which she remains director and secretary respectively. The Suntaraporn band is particularly noted for its unusually high singing voices; “the Suntaraporn sound”.
Food Glorious Food Halls!
In the beginning there was Thai food and then came international restaurants and more latterly divine havens of gastronomy in the form of Food Halls that have redefined food retailing in Bangkok and throughout the region. Food is right at the heart and soul of Thai culture and Bangkok has become one of the most gastronomically cosmopolitan cities in Southeast Asia if not Asia per say.
Central Chidlom should be given credit for paving the way and setting the standards. The Central Chidlom Food Hall is an expansive oasis of food and wine that caters for the needs of all epicurean’s. Fine quality products from around the globe are sourced and presented by the 300-strong team of staff which includes a team of international executives. Central Chidlom Food Hall holds its ground in the face of the vast and varied food halls that followed including Central World Plaza, Siam Paragon and the revamped Emporium.
Travel in the Slow Lane by Train
If you are searching for things to do in Bangkok and need a day tour take yourself straight to Hua Lam Phong Train Station at the end of the subway (MRT) line and board a local train to Mahachai or even Kanchanaburi. There is nothing glamorous about this journey but it will be memorable and it costs next to nothing.
Vendors will board the train at each station to sell you snacks and food before jumping off again between stations. Then there is the wet market that sets-up practically on the railway line and as the train approaches the market stalls are frantically pulled back to give it passage. The railway network in Thailand is very good and while journeys just beyond Bangkok are basic the sleepers to destinations upcountry are excellent.
Muay Chaiya – Bangkok Dangerous
Muay Thai or Thai Boxing is Thailand’s national martial art which has, like Thai food, also become a hugely popular export courtesy of various movies and competitive mixed martial arts. The most convenient place to see a Bangkok Muay Thai fight is at Lumpini Park but to truly appreciate this ancient art you have to study it. As with all schools there are the good, the bad and the ugly in and around Bangkok.
There is one Muay Thai school though that stands out from the crowd and teaches Muay Chaiya; the oldest, most traditional and most lethal form of Muay Thai. Enrolling into this school is neither a holiday nor for the feint hearted and the training regime incorporates the same basic training techniques handed down by past Muay Chaiya practitioners. While standard Muay Thai camps teach the “Art of Eight Limbs”, this school adds grappling, breaking, throwing and traditional weapons into the mix.
The school shuns commercialisation in favour of preserving Muay Chaiya as a traditional Thai Art. All applicants are screened and acceptance is not guaranteed. Do you know which Muay Thai Camp we are talking about?
Bangkok traffic jams are notorious and still very much alive and well. Depending on the day and time, a Bangkok car journey is generally measured in hours while you sit and wait either stationary or inching along and woe betide it rains! Why? Even though the squeaky-clean, air conditioned sky train glides above and the subway shuttles commuters below, Bangkokians simply cant resist the comfort of their own cars.
Yes it’s about poor city planning and the right roads being in the wrong places but Bangkok traffic jams have become synonymous with the city and there is no sign of change anytime soon. So charge up your iPhone, grab a good book, make sure your driver knows exactly where you are going and tune out until you get there; it could be a long road ahead!
If you are remotely into mobiles, computers, hardware, software, techno gadgets, computer games and DVD’s then you are doubtless well aware of Pantip Plaza with its chaotic rabbit warren and maze of shops. But a one-stop-shop for all things IT related Pantip Plaza is with more choice than you can shake a stick at and products at very competitive prices; often outright bargains in fact.
Be wary when offered rock-bottom prices though as there is no guarantee, unless you test it, that what you buy will work when you get it home. If you are there for a few hours seek sustenance, refuge and refreshment in the food court.
Pantip Plaza is the mother of all IT Malls in Bangkok but other alternatives include Fortune Town IT Mall on the corner of Rama IX and Ratchadapisek Roads (Rama IX MRT) and Digital Gateway on Ploenchit Road (between Siam Square Soi 3 and 4).
Afternoon at the Races
The Royal Bangkok Sports Club is typically off-limits to the average Joe, entrance reserved exclusively to the city’s super elite. The Royal Bangkok Sports Club includes Tennis Courts, a Golf Course and Horse Racing and is fittingly overlooked by some of Bangkok’s finest luxury hotels; the Grand Hyatt Erawan, the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok and the newly arrived St Regis Bangkok Hotel, an ode to luxury living.
Every other Sunday though the Royal Bangkok Sports Club opens its doors to the hoi-polloi for horse racing Thai style. Gambling remains illegal in Thailand so don’t charge off looking for the nearest Tote because it isn’t there. But as we all know horse racing without being able to have a little flutter is like a broken pencil, there is no point. So watch with a wry smile the publicly shy as they shuffle purposefully to add purpose!
While technically illegal, fighting fish remains a national pastime in Thailand and if you can get your mind past the ethics of fish fighting for a moment seeing a “live bout” is a rather peculiar experience. Imagine a group of grown men crowding around a fish bowl vocally egging on their stake. And these bouts aren’t two minutes long either. In fact it can take hours before a winner is finally declared.
Nevertheless, fish fighting continues to be a popular spectator sport in Thailand and if you are hell bent on seeing one you could surreptitiously ask around the pet section at Chatuchak Market or head for the countryside where Siamese fish fighting is rife!
A Walk in the Park
While residents crave green space in Bangkok spending time frolicking amongst the greenery during daylight hours is as about as appealing as sunstroke itself and Lumpini Park, the city’s oldest public green space, is no exception.
However for an absolute spectacle be at Lumpini Park by 6am on a Sunday morning to witness hundreds of people emerging from the concrete. You will see them jogging, practising tai chi, yoga and even ballroom dancing in the new light of dawn. Not to be missed!
As those who have spent any amount of time immersed in Bangkok will know, once in a while you do have to come up for air; the streets of neon glamour, the swirling masses of people. Mercifully there are stunning tropical beaches and verdant mountain retreats within two hours from Bangkok but for therapy closer to home nothing beats taking to a boat on the Chao Phraya River.
There is something about the River of Kings and its ability to wash away worries leaving you in a relaxed state with time to let your mind wander. It might have something to do with the refreshing breeze that funnels down from Ayutthaya or is it just being on the water and seeing the city from a different perspective?
So next time you need to escape from it all head down to the Chao Phraya, take a complimentary hotel shuttle rice barge (the Anantara Riverside Resort & Spa, formerly the Marriott Resort and Spa, gives a good run), charter a long tail boat or book a Chao Phraya Dinner Cruise. Sit back and relax whilst watching the city and the river with its strings of barges and motley fleet of watercraft and allow the water to work its magic.
The Thailand Creative and Design Centre (TCDC), located on the 6th Floor of Emporium Shopping Complex (Phrom Phong BTS), brought at last a new, modern, dedicated design space to Bangkok. Hosting both permanent and temporary exhibitions, the likes of Vivienne Westwood have adorned its walls and floor space. It seems slightly ironic that the TCDC was the brainchild of Mr Taksin’s now banned TRT Party who launched the Thailand Creative and Design Centre whilst in government.
You can become a member of TCDC for little over 1,000THB and get access to 25,000 design-related books and multimedia. Silver Membership grants access to the spacious, airy, WiFi enabled Member Lounge while Platinum Membership gets you into “Material ConneXion® Bangkok”; a global library of fabrics sourced from around the world which is perhaps a little bit too specialised for most.
Sing Along Songs
Love it, like it or loathe it, Bangkok remains awash with Karaoke where you can sing till your hearts content in mini karaoke booths found in shopping malls or private dining rooms with karaoke at many Bangkok restaurants. You can go bowling and book your own private alley with, yes, karaoke. A while ago an enterprising Bangkok cabbie called Vichian Simma even launched a karaoke cab service!
Very popular among Thais, the stock-standard formula combines karaoke with alcohol and food, inside or out, for an occasion or just fun. Almost all karaoke joints offer your favourite western songs complete with ball bouncing along the lyrics. You will also encounter many popular Thai tracks as well and if you are out with Thais who have taken you to karaoke you wont wait long before being ushered to the microphone!
100 Things that make Bangkok Great Part 2
Stay tuned for the second installment of “100 Things that make Bangkok Great” according to ZiZ Bangkok!