Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Sampanthawong
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
Tel/Fax: (66) 2-237-3362
Mobile: (66) 81-925-7187
E-mail:
jennifer@gampell.com
Web site:
www.gampell.com

 

 

 


April, 2006

NEW SCHOOL THAI
Born-to-shop Bangkok becomes Asia's style capital.
by Jennifer Gampell

Razing the old to raise up the new characterises progress in most Asian megacities. Yet in Bangkok, the dynamic interplay between historic and contemporary creates a unique, albeit chaotic, buzz. The city was on a modernity roll even before prime minster Thaksin Shinawatra, a former business tycoon, worked to transform the city into a sleek international capital of fashion and design. The results include the Emporium mall's Thailand Creative Design Center, with its design-relevant permanent and temporary exhibition spaces and a 15,000-book library that includes Asia's first Material ConneXion resource network.

Yet despite all this focus on style-Thailand has one of the two foreign language editions of Wallpaper*-Bangkok retains its dichotomous essence, with many of its snazziest new hotels, shopping emporia and restaurants coexist alongside remnants of the city's traditional past. While the swank interiors of the newly opened Millennium Hilton Bangkok are by Australia-based BARstudio with design input from the globally renowned Tony Chi, the sleek 32-storey white tower sits near a busy cross-river boat pier and a typical Thai-style covered market, both frequented largely by locals.

To keep current with the latest craze for design minimalism in all things, older structures that haven't been demolished often receive facelifts or sometimes total makeovers. The pinnacle of this chic reinvention has to be luxury hotelier Christina Ong's transformation of a former 1960s YMCA into Metropolitan Bangkok, which opened in 2004. Often venerable Thai dwellings that have escaped the wrecking ball emerge preserved and resuscitated as stylish hotels (Chakrabongse House), restaurants (Face, Supatra River House, Blue Elephant), art galleries (H Gallery) or shops (Almeta).

Vibrant examples of a less consumer-oriented Bangkok are dotted amid the densest aggregation of new and refurbished shopping spaces in town. The two long and congested blocks between Mah Boon Krong (MBK) mall and Central Chidlom department store were retail-focused since the 1970s, but rose to preeminence with the 1999 opening of the BTS Skytrain, the city's first traffic jam-busting rapid transit system.

A stroll along the year-old BTS Skywalk-a blissfully uncluttered pedestrian thoroughfare suspended under the concrete Skytrain tracks between Siam and Chidlom stations-provides a literal overview of the dynamic interactions between past and present. With the purchase of a single 10-baht (35c) ticket you can enter a station at one end and exit the other without having to negotiate the heaving footpaths below.

To explore this shopper's delight, start at the Central Group's flagship Chidlom store, the Bangkok version of Harrods, which retired the concept of cheap and cheerful Thai mall food with the launch of its elegant Food Loft in 2003. The sleekly stylish white Central Food Hall opened last November and similarly raised the bar for in-store supermarkets.

Walk through Chidlom station past the two year-old Erawan "boutique" mall which is as quiet as its next-door neighbor, the Erawan Shrine, is bustling. A peek down onto the street corner will reveal Thais of all ages engaging in the centuries-old tradition of offering flower garlands, lotus, incense and candles to a 50 year-old Brahman statue. Gaysorn Plaza, an austere white mall popular for its 3rd floor interior design stores like antique-focused Lamont & Atfield (3F-8) and the contemporary Lamont (3F-23) is also accessible from this part of the Skywalk.

Diagonally across the teeming intersection from the Erawan shrine is a newer and grander one of Hindu origin. The Trimurti temple attracts trendy young Thais dressed in white with red accents offering garlands to the five-faced deity in hope of resolving their love problems. Juxtaposed to this tiny bastion of the lovelorn is the huge Central World complex scheduled for completion later this year. The project will renovate the interior and exterior of the dingy Central World Plaza mall, once unfortunately called World Trade Centre.

There's no Skywalk access to the single-storey 150 year-old Wat Pathumwanaram, where trees and peaked temple roofs offer peaceful refuge from the neighboring Central World and the gargantuan Siam Paragon shopping mall. The royal temple was built in the 1850s by King Rama IV of The King and I fame on the grounds of his Sra Pathum Palace. Today, most of its vast gardens are leased by the modern palaces of consumerism that tower over Sra Pathum and its current resident Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the King's second daughter.

The Princess herself inaugurated Siam Paragon, the newest mega-mall on her family's land, last December. As her father celebrates his diamond anniversary on the the throne this year, it is fitting the centre she opened takes its name from a flawless 100-plus-carat stone. Built on the old Bangkok Intercontinental site, the 500,000m2 mall is phenomenally big but not nearly as glorious as the pre-launch hype. Many of the 250-plus international and local brands have smaller outlets in other Bangkok shopping centres. However some well-known Thai stores, like Dinakara Fine Jewelry (137B) which specializes in unusual one-off modern pieces, have permanently relocated here. Giorgio Armani, Jimmy Choo, Dolce & Gabbana and Mikimoto also make their Thai mall debuts here.

Notwithstanding design flaws and occasionally frost service, Siam Paragon still welcomes shoppers with a massive department store with a huge cosmetics section on the ground floor; an aquarium (Siam Ocean World, operated by Oceanis Australia Group, B1-B2); a 14-screen Cineplex with a 500-seat IMAX theatre; an exhibition and convention centre; and a 1,600-seat theatre for Broadway-esque shows. It's also home to Thailand's biggest English-language bookstore Kinokuniya.

Mid- to high-end shoppers can certainly kill a lot of retail birds with one stone at Siam Paragon, but don't overlook nearby venues like youth-focused Siam Center where talented Thai fashion designers such as Tango and Soda showcase their creations. Next door, Siam Discovery is a smaller, user-friendlier version of Paragon with a great fourth floor of contemporary interior stores including Panta and Habitat.

MBK is a long-established, ever-popular haven for cheap clothes, pseudo designer handbags and mobile phones. Before dismissing it as too tacky, consider the tiny azure stall on the 3rd floor opposite Sangthai Jewellery where foreign antiquarian jewelry dealers go for excellent laser jewelry repair at a fraction of Western prices.

Nancy Chandler's Map of Bangkok describes every major shopping area in Bangkok and a wealth of other sightseeing musts in colourful graphic detail. Many post-publication updates are also listed on www.nancychandler.net. Whether your interests encompass historic or ultra contemporary, the easily portable map and the information-packed Luxe Bangkok guide are enough to keep even the most hyperactive visitor occupied.

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SHOP
PLAYGROUND
818 Sukhumvit 55
(02) 714 7888
www.playgroundstore.co.th

Small is getting big in the mall world, especially on Soi Thonglor where neighborhood outlets are the order of the day. Of these, the three-storey, black-slate Playground is the mini-mall of the moment. Its sparsely presented stock of mainly foreign-read very expensive-homewares, clothing, CDs and arty books is designed to tempt trendy impulse buyers. Kuppa has a branch here (the original is better), as does the fabulous Sonie's Japanese-Italian fusion restaurant of Sukhumvit 39 fame.

YVES JOAILLIER
Charn Issara Tower
Third Floor, Rama IV Road
(02) 234 8122

When Yves Bernardeau opened his jewelry store here 20 years ago, this now-moribund shopping centre was one of Bangkok's newest and finest. Yves' clientele of long-time regulars keep returning because trustworthiness and reliability count for more than flashy surroundings. A small selection of French- and Italian-influenced gold and precious-stone necklaces and rings are on display, but Bernardeau's forte is designing and making to order. He also sells quality gemstones at good prices and has a reputation for honest dealing.

MAISON DES ARTS
1334 Charoen Krung
(02) 234 7547

Thailand's stylish stainless-steel place settings and cutlery grace private and hotel tables around the world. Maison's haphazard displays belie the stellar quality of the merchandise, but this tiny store on the first block of Charoen Krung between Silom and Soi 42 counts the Peninsula and Shangrila hotels among its loyal clients.

ALMETA
20/3 Sukhumvit Soi 23
(02) 204 1413
www.almeta.com

Almeta has been creating and manufacturing hand-woven Thai silk fabrics and accessories for major international interior design and fashion houses since 1992. Set in a 1970s-style house, the Bangkok outlet offers the same pioneering "silk a la carte" concept available to export clients. Customers mix and match over 1,000 colours with 50,000 fabric types - for anything from a single item to an ientire collection.

AW TAW KAW MARKET
Kamphengphet 1 Road
Opposite Chatuchak Weekend Market

Jeffrey Steingarten, food writer for Vogue magazine visits Aw Taw Kaw market whenever he's in Bangkok. So does J.W. Apple, writer-at-large for the New York Times. And so do throngs of other food-appreciating shoppers. Under this vast and recently renovated metal-roofed space, Thai fruits, vegetables, fish and meat are exquisitely displayed in their raw and cooked states. Enormous vats of freshly prepared curries, succulent pieces of grilled meats and fish, together with accompanying dipping sauces and a variety of typical desserts are on sale. It's open daily but coming here on a weekend means you could also visit the sprawling Chatuchak which, despite its daunting size, heat and crowds sells the biggest and most eclectic range of items in Bangkok.

EAT
THOMPSON BAR & RESTAURANT
Jim Thompson House
6/1 Soi Kasemsan 2
(02) 167 368
www.jimthompson.com

Designed by London-based Ou Baholyothin, this hip café on the grounds of the Jim Thompson museum features concrete walls textured in designs derived from timbers and tiles in the old house. After sampling the stylishly presented Thai and Western menu items, don't miss the latest exhibition at the Centre for the Arts across the courtyard. Its shows alternate between traditional and contemporaryand the most sophisticated in town.

LE LYS
104 Narathiwat Soi 7
(02) 287 1898

On the increasingly style-conscious dining scene, "ordinary" Thai food is getting harder and harder to find, at least in central Bangkok. This long running family-owned restaurant recently moved to new Mediterranean-style premises but the food remains as authentic and tasty as ever.

KOI
26 Sukhumvit Road, Soi 20
(02) 653 4990

Branching out from Los Angeles and New York, this is another star in the firmament of trendy new Bangkok eateries. The atmospheric 200-seat restaurant and separate lounge is housed in two adjoining wood-and-glass structures fronted by a large Zen-inspired garden. Cuisine is billed as "modern Japanese cuisine with a California twist" but you can call it fusion if you like.

TAMARIND CAFE
27 Sukhumvit Soi 20
(02) 663 7421

Globally influenced vegetarian cuisine in a spacious two-storey glass-fronted building with a breezy rooftop garden. Come for a full-on meal or simply a fresh juice and dessert. The friendly staff are possibly even more creatively stylish than their surroundings. This is also the home of F-Stop, a gallery dedicated entirely to photography. Shows change monthly.

THE LIVING ROOM
Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit
250 Sukhumvit Road
(02) 649 8888

Frankly the food is an excuse to hang out at the best of Bangkok's popular jazz venues-others include Bamboo Bar at the Oriental, Sirocco at The Dome, and Diplomat Bar at the Conrad. Hope that the irrepressible singer Alice Day is in town. She's usually accompanied by another regular, elder statesman of jazz, bassist Eldee Young and his trio. But anyone who plays here is worth listening to. On weekdays and Saturdays the sounds are groovy at nighttime and the menu is confined to snacks.

KUPPA
39 Sukhumvit Soi 16
(02) 663 0495

In notoriously fickle Bangkok, any restaurant whose popularity endures after being around for nearly a decade merits a visit. One of the early harbingers of Bangkok's current style movement, this smart warehouse conversion has floor-to-ceiling windows and massively comfortable couches interspersed with marble- and glass-topped tables. Light meals and snacks, baked goods and coffees are daytime favorites, with more substantial fare available in the evenings.


STAY
THE SUKOTHAI
13/3 South Sathorn Road
(02) 287 0222
www.sukhothai.com

Designed by Ed Tuttle, this low-rise hotel set on 2.4ha of gardens is a series of pavilions built around lotus pools. Its opening in 1991 marked the beginning of the "less is more" trend in Bangkok hotel design, but few properties that came afterwards match the Sukhothai in either design or service.


CHAKRABONGSE VILLAS
396 Maharaj Road
(02) 622 3356
www.thaivillas.com

The perfect antidote to an overdose of ultra chic and terminal stylishness comes in a wonderful, but unfortunately very small package. You must book at least two months ahead to reserve one of the three refurbished Ayuthaya-style wooden villas located on the river within the grounds of a family home built in 1908 by Prince Chakrabongse, a son of King Rama IV. Guests can enjoy a spectacular view of the river, including Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn), a swimming pool and twinkling candlelit nights in a lush garden.


METROPOLITAN BANGKOK
27 South Sathorn Road,
(02) 625 3333
metropolitan.como.bz

Minimalist and popular, Christina Ong's hotel exudes a carefully crafted and subtle aesthetic. Staff wear Yohji Yamamoto and the two smallish restaurants-Cy'an and Glow-feature small but considered menus. Metropolitan Bangkok caters to a select coterie of international clients who feel at home as soon as they walk into the high-ceilinged, studiously under-furnished lobby. From drapy Armani-esque bathrobes to the Como Shambhala spa products and treatments, everything here is designed to make guests look and feel as hip as their surroundings.


THE PENINSULA
333 Charoen Nakhorn
(02) 861 2888
www.bangkok.peninsula.com

The Peninsula towers above its neighbor across the river-the aging and slightly fusty Oriental Hotel-in more than just height. Originally criticised for being on the "wrong" side of the Chao Phraya river, the hotel quickly became the address of choice. Sophisticated, efficient and replete with amenities, it continues to garner accolades and was voted World's Best Business Hotel by Travel + Leisure in 2005.


Copyright 2006 Jennifer Gampell