STORIES

PRØ Travel: Roll Like a Royal in Bangkok

By David Jenison on January 17, 2018

Here's a bit of trivia that will blow your mind: Red Bull started in Bangkok. A Thai pharmacist created the caffeinated beverage in 1976 before a modified version took off around the globe. The irony of the origin story is that Bangkok itself feels like the urban personification of a kick-ass energy drink. 

The country that Europe couldn't colonize boasts a capital that's both chaotic and cosmopolitan. Bangkok feels like a coked-up adventure through a dystopian Disneyland where travelers bounce between royal palaces, centuries-old temples, graffiti-filled streets and sky-high rooftop bars. Then there's a gastronomic scene bursting with creativity and diversity. CNN and Forbes are among the many media sites that named Bangkok the best street food city in the world, yet the Thai capital also claims an epic number of culinary shrines, including the No. 1 restaurant in all of Asia. This energizing spirit attracted and inspired writers like Joseph Conrad and James Michener for centuries, and Bangkok continues to draw people of all types as the reigning most-visited city in the world. 

"Bangkok, like Las Vegas, sounds like a place where you make bad decisions," said The Hangover II director Todd Phillips, and travel junkies certainly don't want to make bad decisions on where to eat, drink and stay. Make the most of your Bangkok adventure with PRØ picks worthy of a Thai whiskey-Red Bull on the rocks. 

Check Your Bags Here

As with any big city, knowing where to center your stay is essential. A common mistake is to book a hotel near daytime tourist attractions—e.g., Saint Mark's Square in Venice, Italy or La Candelaria in Bogotá, Colombia—when it's better to stay in safe neighborhoods near the restaurants and bars you intend to visit at night. This same idea applies to Bangkok.

Many tourists follow the guide books to the historic center near a westward bend in the Chao Phraya River. Indeed, Ko Ratanakosin boasts the city's most famous temples and palaces, Banglamphu represents Old Bangkok with lots of backpacker haunts, and Chinatown contrasts its massive size with narrow, colorful streets. Spend several days exploring these adjacent areas, but rest your head a few miles east in Sathorn between the river and Instagram-worthy Lumphini Park. Sathorn is a central neighborhood with easy access to the historic center, riverboats, rooftop bars, BTS skytrain, MRT underground and most of the city's top restaurants. 

Sathorn is also a preferred location because it boasts what might be the city's most desirable place to stay: the Banyan Tree Hotel. The 61-floor rectangular tower edges out its equally trendy neighbors—the COMO Metropolitan and Sukhothai hotels—with a resort mentality steeped in Asian design and culture. Banyan Tree pampers its guests with oversized rooms featuring aromatherapy incense and exotic fruit bowls that change daily, while the stunning 21st-floor spa opens up to an outdoor pool and sundeck (pictured on the right). Standard rooms start at $170, but the Serenity Club Rooms (starting at $280) on the higher floors (50th to 58th) come with access to the Club Lounge, which offers gourmet breakfasts, daytime snacks, afternoon tea, free-flowing beer (10 a.m. to 8 p.m.) and a canapes-and-cocktails social (5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.) at no additional cost. The Singapore-based chain got its start in Thailand on the Andaman Coast, and the Banyan Tree Bangkok is one of its signature hotels. 

For those who insist on staying in the historic center, go with the Mandarin Oriental. Located on the Chao Phraya River, the colonial-era hotel opened as The Oriental in 1876 and housed many artists and writers over the years. Mandarin International Hotels acquired partial ownership of The Oriental in 1974, and the hotel changed its name to the Mandarin Oriental in 2008. Room rates start around $500. 

Bring on the Flavors!

Jean-Georges Vongerichten is an iconic French chef whose namesake restaurant in NYC currently holds three Michelin stars, and he said his visit to Bangkok changed his life. Writing about the Thai capital in 2007, the chef said, "I landed in 1980 in Bangkok, and I stopped to eat ten times between the airport and the hotel. It was all lemongrass and ginger and chilies." The food has only gotten better since. 

Thailand, like most countries, is a collection of regional cuisines that share many of the same ingredients. Bangkok's restaurant scene, however, includes all the regional options as well as influences from Chinese and Portuguese cuisine. (If scratching your head about the latter, Portugal developed one of the earliest and strongest trade relationships more than 500 years ago.) Generally speaking, the common building blocks of Thai food include fish sauce, cane sugar, tamarind, lemongrass, chilies, kaffir lime leaf, fresh herbs and coconut milk. These ingredients blend together to form complex aromatic dishes with a symphony of flavors. 

When seeking out street food, look for the stalls and vendor carts that seem to attract more locals, and enjoy beloved dishes like green papaya salad (som tam), chicken coconut soup (tom kha gai), hot & sour shrimp soup (tom yum goong), massaman curry, larb meat salads and fresh fruits and juices like pitaya (dragon fruit) and nose-pinching durian (thúrian). Walking food tours are available for those who want a crash course on street food before braving it on their own. 

Travelers should also try the boat noodles. Long ago, canals cut through the city as transportation routes leading some to call Bangkok the Venice of the East. Back then, boats floated from house to house serving noodle dishes that traditionally contained pork or beef. Most of the canals were later paved over to create roads, but several noodle boats keep the tradition alive with land-locked and riverside vessels serving steaming bowls of freshly made noodles. 

Thai royal cuisine refers to dishes based on the kitchen at the royal palace, which 17th-century French diplomat Simon de la Loubère first documented while stationed in what is now Thailand. The royal menu typically involved elevated sourcing, presentation and execution, but many of the dishes and ingredients overlap with what the common villager ate. Some joke that calling a dish "royal" simply allows a restaurant to charge more, but several elite chefs studied accounts of the royal kitchen to serve the highest-level of Thai cuisine possible. 

Eat Like a King

If the days are made for street food, spend your nights exploring the divine fine-dining scene. No city claims more entries on the current Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list than Bangkok, and Aussie chef David Thompson scored the highest-ranked Thai restaurant in the world with Nahm. The COMO Metropolitan-based restaurant, which once topped the 50 Best list, is a popular option, but it's not a top pick here. Opt instead for Issaya Siamese Club, Bo.lan and Saffron—helmed by a former street vendor, a wife-husband duo and one of Thailand's top female chefs, respectively. 

Issaya Siamese Club is a market-driven restaurant in a romantic, century-old wooden house surrounded by a lush herb garden. Chef "Ian" Chalermkittichai got his start as a kid peddling his mom's hot curries on a street cart, and he's become a national celebrity with multiple restaurants in Bangkok, NYC, Mumbai and Barcelona. His first restaurant, Issaya Siamese Club, remains his flagship, and it serves dishes like Australian lamb shank in a massaman curry and banana blossom & heart of palm salad with crispy shallots. 

Did the student become the master? That might be the case at Bo.lan. Australian Dylan Jones and Thai-born Duangporn Songvisava met in London's iteration of Nahm, got married and opened Bo.lan in 2009. The restaurant, which later moved into deluxe new digs, is an environmentally friendly spot that crafts intricate multi-course tastings. Both chefs have become television personalities, and Asia's 50 Best named Songvisava the Best Female Chef in 2013. Worth noting, Bo.lan and Le Moût in Taiwan are the only restaurants on Asia's 50 Best with a female-led (or co-led) kitchen, and the elevation of female chefs continues with the next top pick, Saffron.  

Another reason Banyan Tree got the nod for top hotel was its stellar seven-restaurant lineup, but those seeking progressive Thai dishes and an exceptional view should head to Saffron on the 52nd floor. Saffron is the signature restaurant found at Banyan Tree properties across the world, and chef Renu Homsombat—who oversees all the Saffrons across seven countries—helms the kitchen at the Bangkok location. The a la carte and set menus offer dishes like seared Tasmanian salmon and crispy pork crackling with coriander-mint salad and braised lamb leg with a creamy Panang curry sauce. The restaurant also serves local Thai wine, and the adjacent Saffron Sky Garden opened in late 2017 as a lively bar area on a plant-filled outdoor terrace. 

As for other recommendations, Paste serves dishes made with rare seasonal produce based on family recipes from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and the kitchen's run by another wife-husband team in Thai-born Bee Satongun and Aussie Jason Bailey. Less costly options include the Muslim Restaurant, serving Indian-influenced halal food for more than seven decades, and the quirky Cabbages & Condoms. The latter restaurant—which now has locations in England, Japan and throughout Thailand—started in Bangkok as a way to raise awareness and funds for sex education and AIDS prevention. The space features condom art installations (yes, you read that right) and tiny shops selling scarves and other goods that benefit rural communities. 

Step Outside the Lemongrass

"When in Rome" doesn't exactly apply to dining in Bangkok, at least not entirely. Travelers certainly want to eat Thai food in Thailand, but as one of the world's most international cities, Bangkok stands out for elite restaurants serving a wide range of global cuisines. In fact, Bangkok's most famous restaurant, Gaggan, actually serves progressive Indian. 

In 2015, Gaggan dethroned Nahm as Asia's top restaurant, and it's held the No. 1 spot ever since. While such honors typically go to snobby spots draped in white tablecloth, Gaggan is more like a fine-dining party. For starters, the menu lists the 25 courses as emojis that arguably look like tabs of acid, and the chef gives the dishes names like Bong Connection, Magic Mushrooms and Who Killed the Goat. To the horror of stuffy French chefs everywhere, a recent dish at Gaggan even required diners to lick their plates to a blaring KISS song. Not surprisingly, chef Gaggan Anand is a former rock drummer who became the first Indian chef at elBulli, and his namesake is the only Indian restaurant ever to make the World's 50 Best Restaurants, where it currently sits at No. 7. Book several months in advance and request to sit in The Lab if space is available. 

Gaggan is also an investor in one of the city's other top restaurants, Sühring, serving modern German food. Twin brothers Thomas and Mathias Sühring serve nine- and 12-step tasting menus in a 1970s villa in the heart of the city. For another culinary twist, head to the gay-friendly, art gallery-style Eat Me for Asian-influenced international dishes. The restaurant's American chef, Maine-born Tim Butler, previously worked at Providence in Los Angeles and under Marcus Sammuelson (Red Rooster) at Aquavit in NYC. Adventurous palates should also consider the House on Sathorn where Turkey and Thailand collide in a 19th-century colonial structure. Istanbul-born chef Fatih Tutak, who trained at Noma and Nihonryori Ryugin, serves dishes like Aegean Fish Auction, From My Mum, and Vikings Discovered Istanbul that he presumably named while high. Each of these restaurants made Asia's 50 Best list. 

In what way does "when in Rome" actually apply to the Bangkok dining scene? Well, Bangkok has its own Little Italy (bet you didn't see that coming) with restaurants like Pan Pan, Paesano, No. 43, Gianni Ristorante and Calderazzo. The Italian neighborhood is located around Lang Suan and Soi Tonson streets. 

Stay High in the City

Bangkok's traditional nickname is the City of Angels, and what better place to see the angels than from atop a towering building high above the city. For an outdoor experience with city views, the Saffron Sky Garden (pictured on right) is a preferred pick at Banyan Tree, but the hotel also introduced one of the city's first rooftop hot spots: Vertigo restaurant and Moon Bar (both pictured in the main image up top). Crowning the 61st floor, the alfresco restaurant-bar combo offers panoramic 360-degree views, a gorgeous clientele, craft cocktails and elevated dishes like spiced ahi tuna ceviche, tempura soft-shell crab and Australian tomahawk steaks. 

For other rooftop experiences, the Sky Bar at Lebua State Tower has been a tourist magnet ever since it appeared in The Hangover II, but opt for less predictable options like the Octave Rooftop Lounge, CRU Champagne Bar, Park Society, CHAR, Red Sky, Above Eleven (featuring a Japanese-Peruvian Nikkei menu) and the tree-filled BAR9 Beer Garden overlooking a canal.

Do you want to drink like a local? Beer lovers should opt for Singha, a pilsner introduced in 1934 by a Thai nobleman who earned a brewmaster diploma in Germany. Fittingly, Singha beer is made with Thai barley and German hops. For spirits, Thai rice whiskey has sharp, sweet notes that give it a rum-like feel. Old-school whiskey drinkers go for Mekong, but the more popular pick is Sang Som. Savor the flavor by trying the spirits straight up before moving on to mixed drinks. 

Thailand is currently in the midst of a second War on Drugs, so avoid seeking out cannabis in the city. If intent on smoking in Thailand, spend a few days at Railay Beach in the Krabi Province, and look for the cannabis and magic mushroom signs.  

Temple Hop Like a Hungover Monk

For veteran travelers, church-and-temple fatigue sets in early. Rather than getting burnt out trying to visit every gold spire in Bangkok, pick two or three potential faves, and respectfully seek your hangover salves in a spiritual setting. For those staying in Sathorn, head west through Chinatown to Rattanakosin Island and Banglamphu where the most famous Buddhist temples (which the Thai call wats) are found. 

Located in the heart of the historic center, Rattanakosin became an island through hand-dug canals that originally served as protective moats, and it's home to the Grand Palace. Bangkok's premiere architectural complex includes the sacred Wat Phra Kaew, home to the gold-clothed Emerald Buddha. Just south of the Grand Palace,Wat Pho houses the gold-plated Reclining Buddha, an early 19th-century construction that's about 50 feet high and 150 feet in length. Wat Arun, a landmark temple on the other side of the river, is a quick ferry ride away, but its exterior is easily viewed from the riverfront near (or from) The Deck restaurant and bar. (The temples featured on Thai coins are all located in Bangkok, so if looking for more options, you can always check your pocket for ideas.) 

From Rattanakosin, head north about 15 minutes on foot to Khao San Road in the Banglamphu district. Alex Garland's 1996 novel The Beach (and the subsequent movie) opens in this seedy neighborhood that's now a backpackers' hotspot. This literary legacy contributes to the nausea-inducing tourist overload, but Khao San Road is worth a visit for bargain shopping, millennial hookups, colorful street art and various counter-culture touches. 

For those staying in Sathorn, consider spending a few tranquil hours at Lumpini Park for a natural reprieve set against a backdrop of steel-and-glass giants. From there, head north of the park for an art fix at 100 Tonson Gallery

Mark Your Calendars

Your belly and beer mug are calling out for Bangkok, but when exactly should you go? Well, the City of Angels doesn't exactly have angelic weather. It has three seasons—cool, hot and wet—with the best weather falling between November and February. These months recall springtime in America, and color freaks will adore watching the vibrantly blooming flowers. Still, the city is an adventure all-year long, and travelers might want to peg their journey to one of Bangkok's major events. 

Gastronomists can visit in September for the week-long World Gourmet Festival, which features chefs from all around the globe. Jazz, opera and ballet aficionados might enjoy the month-long Festival of Music & Dance, which also starts in September. For those who want to go big, celebrate the Thai New Year with the Songkran Festival in April. Several spiritual practices take place during the three-day fest, but it's also a giant water war in which people roam the streets blasting each other with high-powered water guns. Prepare to get completely soaked! April is typically the hottest month of the year, so you'll probably enjoy it.

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Photo credits: Banyan Tree, Flickr/Roberto Trombetta, Issaya/Zuphachai Laokunrak, Flickr/Alexis Gravel and Flickr/Mark Fischer.

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