Call the city what you want: a blend of the Old and the New, a marriage of the East and the West, whatever; but Bangkok, as the cliché goes, offers the best of both worlds indeed.
by Percy Roxas.
“We are now descending to Don Mueang International Airport,” says the flight stewardess as she straightens up my seat. I look out over the window, and the first thing I noticed, in the still dark sky, is the glittering light. How their twinkle seemingly outshine the stars. “Wow, what a beautiful city even from above,” I say to the lady beside me. ”Well,” she replies, “it’s the most exciting city in Asia.” Bangkok is indeed an exciting city to visit, live, and work — I was soon to find out.
It’s been years since that first touchdown, but to this day the excitement that is Bangkok remains. In fact, it has become even more exciting now than when I first visited it 20 years ago. Ah, how fortunate I feel to be here!
Like all first-timers to Bangkok, my image of the city then was built on the reputation given to it by the media: Bangkok is mainly three “S,” if you know what I mean. But it didn’t take me long to realize that there is more to Bangkok that the three “S.” And the more I stayed, the more my love for the city grew. I would go home to my native country, and then return. I would go home again, and then again, return. And now I’m here, again.
What makes Bangkok eternally popular to people like me? What makes foreigners like me fall in love with the city deeply, madly? The mystique is not easy to crack.
“There is something for everyone here, and surprisingly enough, there’s a lot of hidden corners to enjoy a quieter life with your family while still having all the conveniences of a modern city,” offers Alexander Stenrud Parry, the 42-year-old new general manager of Novotel Platinum Bangkok. I couldn’t agree more.
Like Parry, I used to love strolling around Lumphini Park – one of Bangkok’s oldest and most beloved parks. I bring my family there when they are in Bangkok. Also like him, I enjoy going to Wat Pho, perhaps more than I do going to Wat Prakaew, if only because I can try an authentic Thai massage in this place, which is the oldest massage school in the kingdom. And still also like him, I love Asiatique The Riverfront too, for its sights and sounds. Asiatique is not only great for tourists; it’s also great when you need to entertain friends and family visiting from abroad.
But again, as any Bangkok old hand will tell you, there is more to Bangkok than meets the eye. There’s a lot more to see. There’s so much to buy. There’s so much to do. There’s so much to eat, drink, and enjoy. There’s so much to experience — and everything seems to be relatively easy and affordable.
One of the best things I love about Bangkok, though, is that it doesn’t stand still. Things are always changing. Edifices are being torn down and new ones come up. Products are being launched and then replaced with further improved ones. People seem to be always in a flux. The energetic, vibrant city is always going forward, forward, forward.
At the same time, this home to some 10 million people (14 million if we include those in the Greater Bangkok area) is not a city that is proud of its roots. While it continuously grows and develops, it makes an effort to preserve not just the useful and the familiar, but also the long-standing heritage that makes it unique.
Bangkok combines its long, rich history and culture with a thoroughly modern energy and sensibility. Call the city what you want: a blend of the Old and the New, a marriage of the East and the West, whatever; but Bangkok, as the cliché goes, offers the best of both worlds indeed.
So for example, even if your last visit to the capital was years ago and haven’t been back since, when you do come back you’ll find those experiences that initiated you to this eternal city are still there. They just got a little better. Like the mainstream programs such as the temple tours – to the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Marble Temple, Golden Mount, and other important temples in the city; the Chao Phraya River and klong explorations; the floating markets, night bazaars, street side eating, and other distinctive elements of Thai culture that has been passed on from the ancient times still welcome you with a smile, and often more add-ons and improvements.
Some of the traditional festivals such as the Songkran and the Loy Krathong – and even the Christmas and New Year celebrations — are far bigger now that you’ve probably seen them some 20 years ago.
But there are countless new, modern attractions too, as the new campaign by the tourism bodies, “Discover Thainess,” focuses on. This campaign is an attempt to embbed this characteristic Thai uniqueness to the Bangkok experience, as another group of visitors – the so-called “millennials” — who are more curious, apparently younger, more adventurous, more tech-savvy, and with lots of money to spend too, surges ahead to boost tourism arrivals.
“At my age, I yearn for the more adventurous stuff. But after a city tour by bike, some explorations by the river, or a ride to some exciting places where mainstream tourists fear to tread, I always like to enjoy the food and the local nightlife,” says Jomar Hermida, a 32-year-old Asian tourist. “But I want to experience the Thainess that distinguishes this destination too!” The “Discover Thainess” campaign is meant for tourists like him.
The relatively younger visitors are fast changing Bangkok’s visitor profile that we can expect its tourism landscape to continue to change, continue to evolve, continue to expand in ways it had never before. Exciting isn’t it?
Bangkok initially carved out a reputation for value (read: inexpensive), besides the variety of attractions of course. Food and accommodation facilities and service, even the transportation systems, are easy and affordable. Even going to other destinations from Bangkok is relatively easier as the city is a leading regional aviation hub as well.
There are high-end sectors, of course, but even those are relatively inexpensive compared to those in other high-profile regional destinations. And with a fully developed tourism infrastructure that compares with the best in the world, no wonder the city remains as popular as ever. Proof? The country’s 25th millionth visitor just flew in as we were writing this article. But you probably know that already.
So perhaps it’s better to take you now to a tour to the “Insider’s Bangkok” as we know it now. Here we go:
You’ve seen Wat Prakaew, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and other major temples. Maybe you have even mapped out good old Rattanakosin – the site of the former capital of Siam after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya – for yourself. Perhaps you have also taken a boat ride along the Chao Phraya River already, and has scoured the many canals and waterways that gave Bangkok the “Venice of the East” moniker in the past; you have even enjoyed a dinner cruise and saw the glorious side of Bangkok by night. Maybe you have immersed yourself in the many living proofs of the kingdom’s treasures – art and architecture, dance and music, maybe even handicrafts and street food. Or perchance, you have already taken a peek at Khao Sarn Road – dubbed as the backpacker’s heaven – as well as similar notorious nocturnal districts of Patpong, Nana, and Soi Cowboy.
Now what? Well, there are still pockets of attractions that are waiting for you to be explored, such as the Royal Barge shrine, Ancient City (Muang Boran), the Erawan Shrine in Samut Prakan, and Koh Kred – to name a few; and for fun, Dreamworld, Siam Ocean World, etc. In fact, beyond these are some attractions that are just beginning to make it to the recommended bucket list for tourists: Baan Silapin, Baan Krachiao, etc.
If these are not for you, how about the modern Bangkok – best seen in Sathorn, Silom, Rajdamri, Ratchaprasong, Pratunam, Phaya Thai, Rachatevi, and Sukhumvit areas, but also in the new trendier hubs of Ratchadapisek, Thonglor, and Ekkamai where many of the most of the modern luxurious hotels are situated, and many of the most happening places can now be found. If you’re in Bangkok for some fun, feasting, and parties, then these areas are for you!
The modern Bangkok is a city of malls, as one visitor points out. Indeed, the capital now rivals Singapore and Hong Kong as the region’s shopping mecca. There is a mega-mall in almost every BTS sky train stop and you can actually plan your own “mall crawl” just following the BTS route.
In fact, you can cover all the more interested in the country’s high-quality gems and jewelry products, and Thai silk becomes favored by many international fashion designers, from Beijing to Paris, from New York to Milan, from Tokyo to London.
Bangkok shopping inevitably means more choices for clothing purchases and shoppers are spoilt for choice. Be it chic ensembles from local designers, a tailor-made suit from bespoke tailors, or wholesale deals in Pratunam, Bangkok has you covered.
Thai food of course the No. 1 choice of many foreign visitors, as this distinctive cuisine continues to become one of the world’s top cuisines. There is a Thai restaurant for all kinds of tastes and budgets, from the exotic street-food variety that many visitors want to try, to the fast-food genre for those who like it quick and fast such as Yum Saap, to the high-end culinary specialties that can be found in some of the best stand-along Thai restaurants – such as bo.lan, Issaya, Paste, Blue Elephant, and Baan Kanitha — and in the five-star hotels, such as Benjarong of Dusit Thani Hotel Bangkok and Suan Bua of Centara Grand Hotel @ Central Ladprao.
In fact, several Thai restaurants figured prominently at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards recently, with Nahm (2014) and Gaggan (2015) garnering the top places as Asia’s best. Of course, there are other noteworthy restaurants than these two to enjoy.
The food and beverage segment of local tourism has grown by leaps and bounds especially in the last few years, and today, the city boasts virtually every regional cuisine you can ever imagine. The emergence of several dining destinations – Groove and Sense by Zen (CentralWorld), Piman 49, The Taste (Thonglor 11), among others, are proof enough of this. Not only that, many well-known chefs, such as David Thompson (Nahm), Jean Michel Loraine (j’Aime), and many others are finding the local dining scene so exciting that they have decided to open their restaurants here. Talk about choices, indeed!
Many recent Bangkok visitors are saying that its nightlife has become “tamer” than it was a few years back. That maybe so; but the “hot and exciting” Bangkok hasn’t totally lost its touch. The early bar closing times may have limited the hours of fun somewhat, but there is still so much to enjoy as far as nightlife is concerned. The live bands, the world-renowned DJs, the mini-concerts, the open bars, the beer gardens, even the cabaret shows. The lights at the entertainment districts have hardly dimmed, in a manner of speaking, and the excitement and the thrills they offer are still ever-present.
As one tourist we met on a pub confirms, “Bangkok has lots of adrenalin and energy for the thrills and activities the city offers to 30-something folks like me. Sukhumvit 11, Thonglor and Ekkamai, even RCA! And the amazing rooftop bars and restaurants! I just loved them.”
One of the hottest entertainment districts in the heart of town to date is Sukhumvit 11, where several bars, clubs and restaurants – Clouds, Above 11, Havana, Q Bar, Oskar, Levels, etc…operate for both locals and foreigners. On Sukhumvit 15, Four Points by Sheraton ups the entertainment ante not only with a reinvigorated Ambar and Drunken Leprechaun but also by outsourcing a space to Hooters. Soi Cowboy (Sukhumvit 23) is of course a favorite of those still look for the red-light district atmosphere, albeit tamer, that Bangkok was famous for. On the other side of town (Silom and Sathorn areas), there is Woo Bar (W Bangkok), Ku De Ta, Maggie Choo’s, etc.…promising a great night-out as well.
Thonglor and Ekkamai still reign supreme as the place to be for nightlife (and dining too by the way). There are now several entertainment complexes that draw fun-seekers in droves, including Seen Space. Of course, we must mention how the major hotels are also cranking up notches as far as nightlife entertainment is concerned, with exclusive wine dinners, Michelin-star guest chefs promotions, and other culinary events. Oh by the way, Sathorn Soi 10 is an emerging foodie hub by the way, dubbed as the new Thonglor.
Oh, I haven’t event mentioned the spas and wellness clinics!
And before we forget, Bangkok also has a thriving art scene, and you should experience its vibrancy by visiting a few of the art centers and galleries around town. Then, there’s a new non-profit group called Bangkok River, whose main goal is re-establish Chao Phaya River as the heart of Thai tourism. Formed with the support of eight luxury riverside hotels and River City, Bangkok River has lined up a gamut of programs and activities to inject a new dynamism to the “River of Kings” and make visitors rediscover this very important district of Bangkok.
A few more tips: While modern Bangkokians are generally exposed to what’s in and out in the international arena, visitors are advised not to push it too much by expecting them to behave as Westerners do. In general, common sense, politeness, and respect will help you build longer, lasting friendships in the city.
Visiting the temples and historical places are essential if a visitor is to understand the basic mindset of their hosts. Getting deeper into the lifestyle of the Thais – from exploring their riverine tradition to understanding their sanuk (fun) and mai pen rai attitudes are recommended. Observing the cultural dos and don’ts, and avoiding “cultural taboos” — such as not pointing your feet in front of the person facing you, not touching the head of your friends, or getting properly dressing when visiting sacred places — are highly advised.
One has to overcome the language barrier of course. The Thais are not necessarily fluent in the global lingua franca but more and more are now finding confidence in speaking English. Especially in the travel and tourism sector, the “obstacles” are now being addressed. The Thais would love it more though, if you try speaking with them with their native tongue.
Overall, just try to know more about the Thais and you will enjoy your Bangkok visit even more.