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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
818 Sukhumvit 55
(02) 714 7888
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.
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.
20/3 Sukhumvit Soi 23
(02) 204 1413
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.
BAR & RESTAURANT
Jim Thompson House
6/1 Soi Kasemsan 2
(02) 167 368
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
13/3 South Sathorn Road
(02) 287 0222
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.
396 Maharaj Road
(02) 622 3356
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.
27 South Sathorn Road,
(02) 625 3333
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.
333 Charoen Nakhorn
(02) 861 2888
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.
© 2006 Jennifer Gampell