After nearly 10 days in Hong Kong—with the over-hyped Rugby Sevens, Sam Mendes’ mesmerizing production of The Tempest, and visits to see the aging rockers Jeff Beck and Tom Jones—my transfer on to Bangkok felt like an exotic change. It was my inaugural trip to the Thai capital, and the first thing that hit me was the heat. Seemingly everywhere else I’ve been over these long winter months has been frigid, but here it is over 90 degrees; even the locals are apologizing for its intensity.
But it was a welcome change until I realized what came next. The Peninsula Hotel opted to pick me up in a vintage Rolls-Royce. I felt like Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy, the very epitome of someone overdoing it. It felt impolite to turn it down, so off I went in the ridiculous old thing. There’s a metaphor here on what it’s like to travel throughout Asia; things are… different.
I’ve always thought Bangkok to be wild and it didn’t disappoint. The traffic is overwhelming and the baht is 29 to the dollar, making things impossibly cheap if you’re willing to partake in local customs. Just as with anywhere else, for the best experiences, branch out—you need to get beyond the veneer and mix in with both the high-end and the low.
Many will tell you there are only two hotels in Bangkok: The Peninsula or The Mandarin Oriental. They are literally across the river from each other, eye-to-eye like sworn enemies vying for the almighty hotel dollar. GWS made it her mission to get to the bottom of this match, and I hereby declare a winner: Hands down, The Mandarin Oriental is the superior experience. At 130 years old, it is perfectly perched on the Chao Phraya River, the River of Kings. This feels like the real Thailand. Well, the five-star version anyway. People have said it’s the best hotel in the world; let’s not get carried away. The staff are dressed traditionally, and a picturesque riverside bar and restaurant serves great cocktails and local cuisine. It’s elegant and easy, which is all I crave in a hotel. For transport (either by boat or taxi, especially to the center of town) it saves you a pass around the river, which, during rush hour, makes a big difference. On site they have a whopping nine restaurants, a rumored 1,000 staffers (!), and 358 rooms, most with river views, from around $300. The Peninsula, on the other hand, is a pass. It feels dated, the staff far too fussy, and for the money you can do a lot better. If your grandfather is passing through Bangkok he might like it, but you won’t.
The Mandarin Oriental
Charoenkrung Road Soi 40
02 659 9000
For a hip business option, opt for The Metropolitan Bangkok. It is the sister property to the Metropolitan in London and is as swank and decidedly stylish. The Shambhala spa will rock your world—if all you do is visit here your trip will be sublime—and it’s hard to find fault with the 24-hour room service and IT butler (my inner-technophobe’s dream). The pool is quite happening, so sneak in a visit. Room rates vary wildly, but you can typically score one for about $100 a night, and they currently have a deal where the third night is free. Your finance director will swoon.
The Metropolitan Bangkok
27 South Sathorn Road
Thai food isn’t really my bag (GWS understatement), so this trip made for a culinary challenge. There are essentially three eating options: street food (which can be incredible if you have local guidance or a sturdy stomach); local joints that see the occasional expat or visitor; and, of course, the fancy restaurants geared almost toward tourists. Stick with options one and two, and avoid three altogether.
The best food I had in Bangkok was at Pla Dib. Upon entry, you feel like you might be in Brooklyn: hipsters, amazingly fresh fish, and a resident DJ subtly making things oh-so groovy. Like most places worth visiting, it’s a bit of a schlep, but the cost is purely your time (given no taxi in this city will cost more than $5). Pla Dib is the hot new place, so be sure to book. Try the sashimi (tuna and salmon were to die for), and the wasabi mashed potatoes—a feat to eat with chopsticks as your only option. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 5 p.m.-midnight. Average cost per person is a bargain at about 600 baht ($20).
Soi Areesamphan 7
02 279 8185
Known as Spring Summer to locals, The Spring Dining Room is the great restaurant complex introduced by Thai actor Phoi Tantasathien in 2004. It's been wildly popular since its inception, serving delicious Thai cuisine (although they don’t admit to it being Thai). Set in a beautiful converted Thai house, everything feels like it’s outside due to the renovation, with glam-looking people everywhere. Try the spicy seared salmon and cucumber salad and the spring pad thai with sea prawns. When finished, stroll over to Summer Chocolate House for serious dessert options. For a very long night, try Winter Bar for a nightcap.
Khlong Toei Nuea
02 392 2747
For cocktails, visit Vertigo Bar, atop the beautiful Banyan Tree Hotel. This 61st-floor destination will require various elevators and seemingly endless staircases, but the panoramas are well worth it. The cocktails were just eh, but it’s one of those activities that you do to tick the box. Stay for one, then move on.
Vertigo Bar at Banyan Tree Bangkok
21 South Sathorn Road
02 679 1200
Bangkok has options for both naughty and nice, although the former tends to be more interesting. If you’re feeling adventurous, go to Patpong, the “entertainment” district (read: red light) for an evening stroll. You’ll be offered many “sexy DVDs” and free shows that aren’t really free. Resist these options if you know what’s good for you. Now, pay attention: There is Patpong 1, 2 and 3; the first two are fairly benign parallel streets with many bars and raucous types. Patpong 3—Soi Jaruwan—is most famously known as Silom Soi 4, and this is the gay district. Here you’ll find it all, especially Thai “hostesses” that are very friendly to Japanese businessmen. And for those of you wondering about the old “ping pong” folklore, let’s just say that this is where it all began. My advice is to stick to the Night Market and let your imagination handle the rest.
By day, try to acquaint yourself with the city. The sensory-lifting ABC Tours—short for “Amazing Bangkok Cyclists”—will take you through the nooks and crannies, eating and explaining the whole way. Check their site or call for schedules. They have boat and walking tours and it’s well worth the investment.
ABC Amazing Bangkok Cyclist
Sukhumvit Road Soi 26
Depending on your fancy and travel schedule, try the Weekend Market. It’s filled with everything your wildest imagination can conjure up and your concierge can help get you there.
And lest we forget the history of this capital city, remember that there are temples aplenty. I didn’t make it to all of them, and if you have to pick one, try Wat Pho, home to the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (and fascinating Thai massage classes). Your guide will explain about ancient Thai medicine rituals and you’ll notice many buddhas striking familiar yoga poses.
I’m not much for palace tours, but if you’re already here then go to the Grand Palace, which is the city’s most famous site. It offers a great vantage point to the local history, which feels rather emblematic of Bangkok's current political strife. As you’d expect, you’re welcome almost anywhere at the palace except the royal quarters.
I’ve warned you about the Peninsula, and the next thing to forget is the restaurant Baan Khanitha. I’m not kidding when I say that every concierge and businessperson in town will recommend you visit this place for dinner. Apparently it has won best Thai restaurant year after year (from whom, I’m not sure). What a joke! This place was the pits and the ripoff of my life. It looked and felt like a soulless airport lounge, with many half-empty tables and very average-looking conversations. It defines sub-par. A few dishes and a bottle of wine cost the equivalent of $200, which in Bangkok is a disgrace. Do yourself a favor and get more adventurous.
Many are also convinced of the BTS Skytrain's perfection, and it is very efficient, if you know exactly where you’re going. I’ll leave it to you to decide, but in a city where taxis are on every corner and cost mere pennies, they became my sure thing. Sure, traffic can be horrid but at least you get to where you intend to be.
Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than 50% of the year. Her recommendations are aimed at business travelers who are short on time but not on taste. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. She lives between New York and London.