Razzle-dazzle: At Sirocco, dine alfresco on the sixty-third floor of Bangkok’s second-tallest building, the State Tower, where Mediterranean cuisine and live jazz compete with glittering city views
Bangkok is one of the most heterogeneous, if not miscellaneous, cities in the world. Wandering down Sukhumvit Road, a main thoroughfare, in one block I passed a Kashmiri restaurant, a camping-gear shop, a diamond merchant, and a passel of friendly girls in red high heels in front of Pedro’s Bar before arriving at my destination, the California Wow Xperience, a popular exercise club. At the entrance, speakers aimed at the street keened and thudded with techno music. Directly underneath, two old women sat on camp stools, peddling lottery tickets and Buddhist amulets, while behind them a little girl sprawled on the sidewalk doing her English homework under a banner advertising a two-for-one membership promotion.
Inside, a maelstrom of disco lights whirled across a starship Enterprise interior, with glowing video monitors bracketed in every corner. Above the reception desk, a DJ sat in a plastic cube, directing the musical energy. When I approached the desk, a row of fit young female employees executed a perfect wai in unison, touching their fingertips together and bowing their heads in the traditional Thai greeting. I told them that I had come to work out and asked for a tour; one of them, wearing a name tag that read SOM, took me on.
Room after room was packed with young Thais spinning on bicycles, running on treadmills, doing yoga, lifting weights, dancercizing, Pilatesizing. Perhaps a quarter of them were in their teens (the minimum age for members is fourteen). Som told me that more than two thousand people come here every day to work out. After we had toured the club’s three floors, which are connected by glowing Lucite stairs and dedicated elevators, she brought me to a lounge with six booths; in five of them, pairs of slim young office workers and high school kids were signing contracts on clipboards.
I explained to Som that I was just visiting the city for a few days. After welcoming me, she plunged into a bit of California-style sharing. Yelping excitedly over the music, she said, “When I joined this club, it really changed my life. I started to focus on good health and positive attitude. Now I work at California Wow, which is a very positive experience for me. I am happy!” Glowing with vigor, she transfixed me with a sunny smile.
Imagine that gladsome positivity radiating throughout the whole country. On a recent ramble through Thailand, I picked up a contact endorphin high everywhere I went. There is an air of robust confidence, an ethos of cosmopolitan sophistication — a sense that the country is taking its place as the region’s leader. I met a thirtyish investment banker at a cocktail party who neatly summed up the change: “We don’t feel like a small country anymore.” (With a population of sixty-five million, larger than that of France, why should they?)
The two of us were at the grand opening of a chic watering hole called Hu’u, on South Sathorn Road. The owner, an affable Singaporean lawyer named Terence Tan (who told me he also teaches snowboarding on Whistler Mountain, in British Columbia), could have chosen any city in Asia for this new restaurant; previously he has opened clubs in Singapore and Bali. He picked Bangkok, he said, because it’s “the most dynamic, most interesting city in Southeast Asia now. It’s an exciting place to be.”
At Hu’u, an acid-yellow Lamborghini was parked out front for guests to goggle at; an hour into the party, a Chinese dragon animated by acrobats noisily paraded through the restaurant. After we had sampled the cocktails and canapés, I shot down Sathorn to The Metropolitan, a classy new hotel, for dinner.
Eighteen years ago, when I first came to Bangkok, Sathorn Road was the boonies, famous for big outdoor family seafood restaurants, funky places where you chose your fish from a glass tank; only a couple of them have survived the street’s upmarket, high-style trend. At The Metropolitan, the menu is global: sashimi and tapas and Moorish seafood, served with Australian flair by chef Amanda Gale. The hotel’s aesthetic is minimalist supercool, with expanses of white, a tyranny of hard edges, and the occasional exquisite floral accent. But even in their severe, verging-on-fashion-victim uniforms, the staff are friendly and instinctively want to please. They just don’t do attitude in this country.
After bouncing back from a devastating currency crisis in 1997, Thailand’s economy continues to grow at the fastest clip in the region — more than six percent annually. Setting the pace is the muscular tourism industry, which has been the country’s leading foreign-exchange earner for more than a decade. The standard of living in most areas has risen visibly.
The cataclysmic tsunami that claimed more than five thousand lives on Thailand’s southern coast in December 2004 was a severe test of the country’s resources; the Thai response to the crisis was compassionate, swift, and effective. Dire predictions that the disaster would have a prolonged impact on tourism proved unfounded: According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, despite the expected steep decline in early 2005, by year’s end foreign arrivals were slightly higher than they had been the previous year.
Nowhere is the upbeat tone more apparent than in the nation’s capital. A decade of massive investment in city infrastructure — with an additional fifty billion dollars to be spent over the next five years — has transformed Bangkok into one of Asia’s most exciting metropolises.
Of all the changes, none is more dramatic than the revolution in mass transit. Hurtling above the city from Sathorn to Sukhumvit on the Skytrain at rush hour, I could see the heat rise in shimmering waves from the jammed-up streets, but I couldn’t hear a thing. Although it was crowded, my train was a bubble of cool and quiet. Even the teenagers whispered. The only sound was the whoosh of the train through the sky.
Decent mass transit has even relieved the traffic a bit. When I first started coming here twenty years ago, the city was famous mostly for its perpetual gridlock. The perceptible reduction in automobile traffic, combined with tough new laws against industrial contaminators, has had a pleasant side effect: a considerable decline in air pollution. One loser has been the city’s iconic tuk-tuk. In days of yore, the jaunty trishaws were ubiquitous, with noisy two-stroke engines that belched black fumes as they flew down the road. Now tuk-tuks, much reduced in number, are powered by natural gas and ridden almost exclusively by tourists.
When the Skytrain opened five years ago, it was an instant symbol of the city’s rebirth. Officially the Bangkok Mass Transit System, Skytrain is a futuristic marvel, transforming the skyline into a vintage sci-fi comic book’s vision of a utopian future. Thais complain that at ten baht (twenty-five cents) for a short ride, it is too expensive — indeed, it costs much more than the bus — and that the trains go mainly to places that interest foreigners. Although much of the city is outside its range, the Skytrain has gradually attracted a following among middle-class commuters. Since gasoline prices spiked in early 2005, Skytrain ridership has risen to more than 400,000 a day.
A new subway system opened three years after the Skytrain, giving it a run for the commuter’s money. Don’t ask why the projects weren’t planned together, but as a result, there are only two transfer points between the rival networks. The subway experience, with its view of nowhere, is blander than the Skytrain, lacking genius loci, but both systems are efficient, comfortable, and clean — amazingly clean. One afternoon, when coming up the escalator at the Sukhumvit subway station, I saw a uniformed worker patiently holding a single-edged razor blade against the rolling handrail, skimming off the patina of filth. I could be in Zurich, I thought, or Singapore. But funky old Bangkok?
As you explore the city, whether by foot, car, or Skytrain, you’re always aware that there’s yet another way to navigate: The Chao Phraya is a constant, luminous presence. Early Western travelers called Bangkok the Venice of the East, and crowded ferries course the canals that crisscross the old parts of the city. I had always wanted to try them but felt oddly intimidated: They seemed to be only for the Thais. Then one purple evening on this trip, as I crossed an elegant stone bridge arching over a canal, I noticed a pier for the ferry just below. A boat was steaming toward it. With a sudden burst of moxie, I bounded down the steps just as the boat pulled up to the wharf. I used the age-old tourist’s trick of copying the guy in front of me: When my turn came, I repeated his destination and, like him, handed the boatman a ten-baht coin. I ducked under the low canopy of the boat and slipped aboard.
The boat pulled noisily away from the pier. It was the late evening rush: Tired office workers in suits, restless high school kids, mothers coming home with groceries, and a few saffron-wrapped monks were packed to the gunwales. Plastic curtains were raised above the bow to keep the passengers dry; dim lanterns provided just enough yellow light to read a newspaper, giving the cabin interior a period look, like in an Edward Hopper painting. The boat cut like an arrow through the heavy, humid haze of the canal — redolent mostly of diesel fuel, with a faint tang of vegetable rot. Here, genius loci ruled.
The ferry’s first stop was a pier next to a looming computer mall. It was a place I actually wanted to go, so I hopped off, feeling absurdly pleased with myself.
There was a national election going on while I was in Bangkok: Campaign posters were everywhere, showing candidates in heroic or histrionic poses. Sathorn Road was plastered with images of a strikingly handsome candidate from the Democrat party, airbrushed and retouched until he looked like a singer in a boy band, with cherry-red lips and twinkling eyes and teeth. Another candidate, a mustachioed massage-parlor magnate, posed threateningly with a sledgehammer, taking symbolic aim against corruption. The popular prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, a tough-talking communications tycoon, opted for a pensive portrait in sweats, the vigorous leader as regular guy.
Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (“Thais Love Thais”) party took power in 2001 on a promise to wage war against narcotics and prostitution, which were spiraling out of control. The new government didn’t make any subtle distinctions between sleaze and sophistication — for a scary moment, it looked as though all the bars in Bangkok, a city of night owls, would close at midnight. Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and even staid Singapore were poised to overtake Bangkok as the region’s fun city. But after some serious thought was given to the inevitable economic impact of such action, the backpedaling began. The campaign dealt a blow to established red-light districts; once notorious Patpong is now a dinosaur, frequented only by old-timers. Sex tourism has become an Internet-driven business.
The Thaksin government ordered the police to deal with drug cases in a “ruthless” and “severe” manner, which was largely interpreted as a license to kill. By mid-2003, more than 2,500 Thai citizens suspected of involvement in narcotics had been hunted down and shot, in the streets and in their homes. (The government claims that most of the deaths were the result of fighting among narcotics gangs. Amnesty International disagrees.) Many of the dead were users, not dealers, which tarnished Thailand’s good name as one of the region’s most progressive democracies.
The night before I went to dine at Bed Supperclub, a popular Bangkok pleasure dome, the place was raided. Bed is that rarity, a gimmicky superhip club that has built up a loyal clientele and survived. From the outside, it looks like the mother ship in a 1950s flying-saucer movie, with a long ramp entering the belly of the craft. The all-white interior delivers what it promises: lines of wide beds upon which diners recline, in the decadent spirit of imperial Rome. Across from the ramp is the bar, which is usually packed with stylish young professionals wiggling and jiggling to the latest music.
That’s where the bust took place. The cops arrived at 11:30, according to the club’s general manager, Roger Chi. An enthusiastic, bright-eyed Californian with an MBA from Wharton, Chi expressed no rancor about the raid. “There must have been forty or fifty cops,” he told me. “I was really impressed by their organization. I told the bartender to give them sodas.”
Two vans, partitioned with stalls, were parked out front, where customers were issued cups and ordered to produce urine samples. “Some of the customers were getting off on it,” said Chi. “I heard them saying things like ‘Only in Thailand!’ It was a war story they could take home with them.”
The police did a quick-and-dirty test on-site that came up with a few positives, but in the lab they all proved to be false.
Bad police work, perhaps, but great TV: The night Bed was raided, news cameras from Thaksin-owned TV stations arrived simultaneously with the police, to capture dramatic images of the crackdown on dissolute urban youth — for consumption in the suburbs and up-country. Much of Thaksin’s power flows directly from his dominance of the nation’s electronic media. On television, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between news stories about the election and Thai Rak Thai ads, with Thaksin’s dumpling-bland face on-screen every other time I looked up at the TV in a roadside noodle shop.
To no one’s surprise, the election returned Thaksin for an unprecedented second term, in a landslide victory for his party. Historically, political parties in Thailand have never been very strong. Other institutions — particularly the monarchy, in the person of the hugely popular King Bhumibol, who begins the sixtieth year of his reign in June — command the people’s loyalty and love. Immediately after the election, Thaksin looked invincible; some political scientists were talking about the possibility of one-party rule. But by year’s end, his ruthless suppression of dissent was backfiring. Weekly protests against Thaksin in Bangkok have attracted big, boisterous crowds; in November, he suspended his weekly press conferences — on the advice, he said, of his astrologer.
Foreign travelers not only to thailand but to most of mainland Southeast Asia are drawn to Bangkok. Yet the more closely Bangkok becomes connected to the world, the more profoundly Thai it remains.
The culture is perfectly suited to the hospitality business: Thais are the lotus-eaters of Southeast Asia, people who love nothing more than a good time. They have a word for it: sanuk. Typically, sanuk involves getting together with your buddies and drinking whiskey and cola, or eating piles of fried snacks and sweets at a sidewalk café, or going to the movies. A popular sanuk among the young people in Bangkok is riding up and down the escalators, flirting and giggling, at one of the city’s massive middle-class malls. It could be a workout at the California Wow Xperience (though that’s a bit strenuous for sanuk).
In the freewheeling 1980s and ‘90s, the now legendary days of what was called the tiger economy, this love of pleasure permitted a rise in, or at least a greater openness about, prostitution and illegal drug use (which would later sweep Thaksin Shinawatra’s party to power). And that coincided, disastrously, with the global AIDS epidemic. In the early days, the disease met with the same sort of denial in Thailand as it found in much of the world: It was blamed on foreigners, assumed to be a problem of the poor and the powerless, and ignored.
But in 1991, when the fact that the nation had a major epidemic on its hands became evident, Thailand made AIDS awareness a national priority. Soon it was coping better than most countries in Asia, with a strong public-health campaign that went directly to sex workers and young singles: Condoms, not advice, were widely distributed, and HIV/AIDS education was made compulsory in every school in the country. Since then, the rate of infection has plummeted, saving millions of lives.
The Thais’ remarkable tolerance derives directly from Theravada Buddhism, which permeates every aspect of life in the country. Buddhism teaches that all earthly things are an illusion and pretty much omits the concept of sin (except with respect to killing). As a result, it takes a lot in the way of private behavior to get Thais riled up. For example, gay people live more openly here than in most Asian countries. There is also a large, visible transgender community, which has gained wide (though not exactly universal) acceptance; The Iron Ladies, a stand-up-and-cheer movie about a championship tranny/gay volleyball team and its lesbian coach, released in 2000, is the second-highest-grossing Thai film ever.
Some people say Buddhism is a way of life, not a religion. Except in the Muslim deep south, which is culturally distinct in every way, the practice of Theravada Buddhism is virtually universal and continuous, even in worldly Bangkok. Every Buddhist man in Thailand is supposed to spend part of his life as a monk; although women have no such obligation, Buddhist nuns in their white pajamalike suits are not an uncommon sight. Taxis are well supplied with amulets, plastic statuettes of bodhisattvas, and occasionally smoking joss sticks, and mystical tattoos adorn the arms and chests of the drivers. On my first visits to Bangkok, I was alarmed when the driver would take his hands off the wheel to execute a quick wai as we passed a shrine for which he had some special feeling. Today, passengers on the Skytrain wai as the train passes over a major Buddhist shrine.
My favorite public artwork in Thailand is the floral sculpture Sukhothai Tri Ratna (“The Triple Jewel of the Dawn of Happiness”), in the lobby of The Sukhothai hotel, on South Sathorn. The work is by Sakul Intakul, who has just opened Promenade Décor, a shop for his line of floral designs, porcelain and bronze vases, and jewelry in a beautiful interior-design center on Wireless Road. When I visited him there, he told me that Sukhothai Tri Ratna’s importance is as a living sculpture, one that incorporates the lives of the plants into the piece. Three different flowers, all white, embody the tripartite foundation of Theravada: floating lotuses, to represent the Buddha; fragrant tuberoses, to symbolize the religion’s teachings; and reed mace, an emblem of the monastic community that propagates them. A five-tiered brass superstructure, which rises from the lotus pool, suggests the moral precepts of Buddhism that form the path to enlightenment. It is an exquisite thing, at once both universal in its classic design and utterly, unmistakably Thai.
Right next door to The Sukhothai, by the porte cochere of the supercool Metropolitan, a bronze lotus pod of Oldenburgian proportions rises from a pool. Its maker, a slight, soft-spoken sculptor named Natee Utarit, is thirty-four. When I met him, we spoke of the many transformations he has seen in his country. “A good culture is one that is alive and open to change,” Natee said. “Now we’re more open to foreign influences. In the old days, Thai life revolved around the palace and the temple, but globalization has changed the way we think. If we can accept new ideas without losing our Thai-ness, it’s a good thing.”
Our conversation turned to Natee’s next show, a series of conceptual paintings based on the landscapes of a nineteenth-century monk who painted Western places he had never seen, working from postcards; the exhibit will be at Bangkok’s Silpakorn University.
I asked whether his huge lotus pod had any religious significance. “A lotus is only a lotus,” Natee told me. I pressed him, and he acknowledged the work’s Buddhist meaning, but added, “In Buddhism, we don’t need symbols to remind us. Meaning is all around.”
Then, after a moment’s pause, he said, “Did you know that the wai represents a lotus bud?” and he placed his hands together to demonstrate.
PLACES + PRICES: BANGKOK
Throughout most of the last century, while its neighbors were convulsed in wars, Thailand remained defiantly independent (except for a period of Japanese occupation during World War II), with its doors open to the world. Standards of service are substantially higher here than in other nations in the region. Thailand is also a bargain: Except in the highest season, around Christmas, you can often find rooms at even the swankiest Bangkok hotels for less than $200, and a three-course dinner for two at a fancy restaurant is usually under $60 (excluding alcohol, which is not a bargain).
The country code for Thailand is 66. When in Bangkok, add a 0 before the local phone number. Prices quoted are for March 2006. The U.S. embassy is at 120-22 Wireless Road (2-205-4000; bangkok.usembassy.gov).
Lodging No fewer than eight Gold List hotels grace this city (see the 2006 Gold List), but the Peninsula Bangkok is my favorite, with exquisite decor and spectacular views (2-861-2888; peninsula.com; doubles, $260–$300). Among the newer hotels, The Metropolitan is chic, sophisticated, and exceptionally comfortable, with plenty of amenities (2-625-3333; metropolitan.como.bz; doubles, $240–$300). The Bangkok Boutique Hotel is well-located and handsomely kitted out (2-261-2850; bangkokboutiquehotel.com; doubles, $60–$130). On the Chao Phraya, near the Royal Palace, the fascinating Chakrabongse Villas is on the grounds of a mansion built by a Thai prince in 1908. The lodgings are a small teak house directly above the river, with stunning views of Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), as well as two smaller rooms — one on the garden, the other with a veranda (2-622-3356; thaivillas.com; doubles, $160–$200).
Dining and Nightlife Some of the best restaurants are in the international hotels, notably Celadon, at The Sukhothai (2-344-8888; prix fixe, $25), and Cy ‘an, which serves Australian food at The Metropolitan (2-625-3333; entrées, $10–$19). The most spectacular new spot, on the 63rd floor of the State Tower, Sirocco cooks up modern Mediterranean food, but the panorama’s the thing (1055 Silom Rd.; 2-624-9576; entrées, $13–$28). Also new and extravagant, in a sprawling mansion set around a patio where a brass band plays, MahaNaga serves contemporary Thai (2 Sukhumvit Soi 29; 2-662-3060; entrées, $6–$25). For classic Thai food in a landmark mansion, the famous Blue Elephant is excellent (233 S. Sathorn Rd.; 2-673-9353; entrées, $4–$12).
The Bed Supperclub, with changing themes and an all-white interior, has surprised everyone by maintaining its edge among the local fashionista set, and the food is better than you might expect (26 Sukhumvit Soi 11; 2-651-3537; prix fixe, $25). Hu ‘u is a big, bold, ambitious attempt to create a fine-dining venue on Sathorn Road — innovative menu, expert cooking and service. The bar has a glittering 20-foot-high display of bottles and serves more than 150 cocktails (187 S. Sathorn Rd.; 2-676-6677; entrées, $9–$18). For a nightcap, the Living Room is a fabulous jazz club in the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, with windows facing the skyline and the Skytrain.
Reading A tour of life off the guidebook trail, Bangkok Inside Out, by Daniel Ziv and Guy Sharett, is not always as hip and outrageous as it thinks it is, but that’s part of the charm. Anyway, the giggle-to-page ratio is quite favorable (Equinox, $20). A more sophisticated guide to the country’s contemporary culture is Very Thai, by Philip Cornwel-Smith, with stunning color photography by John Goss (River Books, $35).
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