Unlike most of her beauty-pageant counterparts, American-born Areeya—referred to among Thais by her nickname Nong Pop—parlayed her celebrity status into a multifaceted career: Thais love their king, but they also love their beauty queens. Areeya has served in the military (an experience described in her book Boot Camp) and produced a documentary about the hill tribes of northern Thailand. In the process, she’s become a very different kind of icon from the airbrushed waifs gracing Bangkok’s fashion and lifestyle magazines. She has a reputation for speaking her mind, too, so I ask her about last April’s riots and their aftermath.
“The Yellow Shirts take over the airport, and four months later the Red Shirts close down an ASEAN summit and rampage through Bangkok. It was tit for tat. I think they were trying to force a coup … But you know, after everything that’s happened, most Thais are unhappy with either kind of shirt, red or yellow.”
Areeya is currently working on a 12-part documentary that examines the lives of ordinary Bangkokians, particularly those, like the residents of Thonburi’s klongs, who still maintain traditional lifestyles. “The people who are suffering are those that are just trying to make a living—they’re seeing their incomes halved because of the drop in tourism and investment.”
She’s also adamant that Bangkok is a perfectly safe place to visit. “Even with the rioting, protesters had a political objective—they mainly clashed with the army and local residents who were angry about their neighborhoods being invaded. Thais are generally very laid-back.”
There is something peculiar to Thailand in the way politics is conducted—it’s a heady mix of self-interest, populism, revenge, greed, people power, gestures of humility, and the opinions of countless clamoring voices. Divisive as things have become, politics rarely impinges on the capital’s day-to-day functioning. “Bangkok is not Detroit or L.A.; we don’t have Bloods and Crips shooting at each other,” says Areeya wryly.
If Thonburi and Chinatown offer up the more rootsy side of the city, then hotels like Le Méridien in Silom—with its enormous, sleekly furnished glass lobby and ambient Henri Scars Struck soundtrack—represent its modish cosmopolitan veneer. Another newcomer is Vie, just one SkyTrain stop from Siam Square. Built on the site of an old cinema, Vie Hotel wears its “design” status on its sleeve—and it can afford to since the owner (and czar of the city’s cineplexes) hasn’t stinted on the finishing and details. Jim Thompson silks are used throughout; the gym actually is state of the art; and it even boasts a freestanding four-story nightlife complex that the owners hope will become a destination in itself. What’s more, you can enjoy all of this—well, not the fabulous penthouse—for less than US$120 a night. In fact, if you’re looking for great deals, there couldn’t be a better time to visit the Thai capital.
Bangkok’s lifestyle boom can also be witnessed at a host of new restaurants—no surprise, given the food-mad predilections of city residents. Extra Virgin, a collaborative project among five friends, serves more-than-passable Thai fusion (try the rocket-wrapped salmon or the fusilli with Thai fish) amid shabby-chic interiors that are part Thai home, part New England cottage. “I used to have another place here called Coquette that was, well, very pink; but I wanted something the boys would like too,” explains co-owner Rika Dila, a Bangkok-born Japanese-Filipina who epitomizes the city’s new breed of hipsters.
Another day I meet Pim Sukhahuta for brunch at Minibar Royale, the bistro she opened with her sister (the pair also run a successful international fashion label, Stretsis) and some other partners. “We’d all lived in the States and really just wanted to re-create the vibe and the food of some of our favorite New York hangouts here in Bangkok,” Pim explains. They’ve succeeded admirably. My smoked salmon bagel, the retro racing-green interior, and the music are all spot on.
For outstanding Thai food, I’d normally recommend only one place—the street. But when I hear about a Thai-Australian couple who’ve just left the world’s only Michelin-starred Thai restaurant (Nahm in London) to set up their own fine-dining spot in Bangkok, I’m intrigued. Bo.lan (named after chef-owners Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava and Dylan Jones) takes the multiple strands of Thai cuisine and teases them into a symphony that’s at once aesthetic, delicious, and just a tad theatrical. Assuming, that is, you opt for the so-called “Bo.lan Balance” degustation menu, which includes a five-dish amuse bouche and a medley of curries like cured pork simmered in coconut cream and served with fish cakes and prawn-stuffed dok khae flowers. “We go to the markets two or even three times a day and the menu changes based on what ingredients are available. Everything is fresh,” Jones tells me. The chefs’ dedication seems to be paying off—be sure to book well in advance.
Equally du jour is Long Table, a 25th-floor restaurant and bar named for its communal table, which can seat up to 70 diners. Designed by Orbit, the team behind Bangkok’s seminally futuristic (and perennially popular) eatery-cum-disco Bed Supperclub, Long Table opened early last year and quickly became a fixture for the see-and-be-seen set, who gather nightly to sip cocktails on its vertiginous balcony.
By the end of my trip, I’ve decided that, political uncertainty aside, Bangkok is still one of my favorite cities to visit in the world. Right now tourism’s down, but that means prices are too, even among some of the more venerable hotels. Thai Airways is offering some impressive fares to woo back customers, as are a raft of low- cost airlines. I’m told that even the city’s louche side has been offering discounts. And while the Red Shirts continue to demonstrate, with the not-so-tacit support of the exiled Thaksin (he has over 23,000 followers on Twitter), most Thais seem to want the coalition government to work. “We’re tired of politics,” Poob says. “We just want to get back to normal life.”
As Bangkok’s sprawling skyline recedes behind us on the drive to the airport, my taxi driver turns up the radio—garage rock, Thai-style—and bursts into such joyous song that I’m genuinely taken aback. I look at him quizzically; he just glances at me briefly and smiles.
When to Go
Thailand’s frenetic capital offers year-round excitement, though the rain and heat of the summer months are best avoided. The weather is at its best from November though February.
Bangkok’s three-year-old Suvarnabhumi International Airport is connected by multiple daily flights to all of Asia’s major cities.
Where to Stay
The understated Sukhothai (13/3 South Sathorn Rd.; 66-2/344-888; sukhothai.com; doubles from US$294) remains one of Bangkok’s most elegant hotels. Or book a stay at Le Méridien Bangkok (40/5 Surawong Rd, Bangrak; 66-2/ 232-8888; lemeridienhotelbangkok.com; doubles from US$252).
Another newcomer is Vie Hotel (117/39–40 Phayathai Rd., Ratchathewi; 66-2/309-3939; accorhotels.com; doubles from US$120), with 154 affordably priced yet smartly laid-out rooms. For something even cozier, check into the 25-room Ariyasom Villa (67 Sukhumvit Soi 1; 66-2/2548-8803; ariyasom.com; doubles from US$110), a converted 1940s house that is also featured on our Luxe List.
Where to Eat
Eating on the streets may be one of Bangkok’s great pleasures, but for a taste of exquisite Thai food in smart surrounds, head to Bo.lan (42 Soi Pichai Ronnarong, Sukhumvit 26 Rd.; 66-2/ 260-2962). Other relatively recent additions to the city’s dining scene include New York– style bistro Minibar Royale (37/7 Citadines Bangkok, Sukhumvit 23 Rd.; 66-2/261-5533) and the 25th-floor Long Table (Column Tower, 48 Sukhumvit Soi 16; 66-2/302-2557).
Where to Drink
The spaceship-like Bed Supperclub (26 Sukhumvit Soi 11; 66-2/ 651-3527) is still one of Bangkok’s top lounge venues, seven years on. For another longstanding —if raucous—nightspot, head to the Tapas Room Club (114/17–18 Silom Soi 4; 66-2/234-4737).
Originally appeared in the October/November 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Bangkok: The Whole Shebang”)