Bangkok guide

WGSN, January 17 2005

No longer known as a shopping mecca for knock-off goods, suspect tailoring and tie-dye sarongs, Bangkok is shaping up to be a chic Asian hub full of homegrown fashion talent, slick interior design and sophisticated nightlife. WGSN takes a bite out of the Big Mango.

Ploenchit and Ratchadamri road

Bangkok is a city with aspirations. The Bangkok Fashion City project, initiated by the government in February 2004, hopes to turn the Thai capital into the fashion hub of SE Asia and give Hong Kong and Singapore a run for their money as major shopping stopovers for tourists. But with the hefty import tax on luxury goods still in place, the city has a way to go.

That said, there are plenty of new upmarket malls opening up in the Ploenchit area, such as the new Erawan centre, and the buzzword in the city is ’boutique’ – from boutique hotels to boutique shopping malls.

But the city also has plenty of homegrown fashion talent on offer, plus a covetous array of stylish interiors and homewares and many good spa beauty brands. The markets are also ideal places to source goods direct from wholesalers.

The city itself has undergone a positive change since emerging from the ghost town atmosphere that enveloped its half-empty malls after the 1997 Asian economic crash. With media mogul Thaksin Shinawatra at the helm as prime minister (some say CEO), Bangkok is today part of Thailand Inc, a modern Asian country that knows its identity and is marketing that to the global community.

The city has recently undergone something of a ‘clean-up’ under Shinawatra: his Thai Rak Thai (Thai loves Thai) political party issued a 2.00am curfew on night spots, introduced random drugs tests at nightclubs and bars and even enforced a dictatorial black-out on media coverage of a particularly bloody crime clampdown in late 2004. It seems the Thai concept of sanuk (fun) is being kept as squeaky clean as possible, but perhaps not quite verging on strict Singaporean standards yet.

Thanks to the super-swish air-con BTS (Skytrain) and the newly opened (although oddly empty) underground Metro line, the city’s chronic traffic problem can also now be bypassed – to a degree. It’s quite easy to cover the main shopping areas and even reach the Chatuchak weekend market on the outskirts of the city using the BTS.

Siam Square
Bangkok is an unplanned, sprawling metropolis; there is no official centre or periphery, just a mass of interconnecting areas. Somehow, this adds to the city’s chaotic appeal, but it can also be quite puzzling for visitors. A good place to start is Siam Square (BTS station Siam), a youth-oriented area where most of the land is owned by nearby Chulalungkorn University.

The Siam Center is perhaps one of the oldest malls in the area but it still has a strong selection of mainly Thai youth brands, with some international labels mixed in. On the ground floor, check out regional labels Guy’s Soda for flamboyant menswear, Dapper Footwear, Dapper Exclusive and CPS Chaps. There are also international brands Sisley, Esprit, MNG (Mango), Nike and Levi’s.

On the second and third floors, make a beeline for VNC shoes, part of the Malaysian Padini group’s stable and a favourite with glam young office workers. Also, check out Jaspal, Keven, XACT, Tango, Theatre, ANR, Pena House and Soda womenswear for a good view of mid-market Thai fashion. There’s also a branch of UK retailer Marks and Spencer, alongside Hong Kong brands G2000 and U2. Also take a look at Greyhound Playhound on the third floor, which is a joint venture with established Thai fashion brand Greyhound and Disney’s Mickey store project, originally launched in Hong Kong in 2004.

The top floor is more sports-oriented, with quite a few surf and action sports specialists such as Mambo, Roxy and Quiksilver. Also check out Supersports, Surfclub, Sportstown and Surfers’ Paradise, the latter hosting Paul Frank and Rip Curl shop-in-shops.

There are also a few small interiors shops in the Siam Center, such as Day-to-Day, catering to young students. For cosmetics, there’s Australian brand Red Earth on the ground floor, a branch of UK health and beauty specialist Boots, which has a strong presence in Thailand, and the bargain-friendly, ubiquitous Watsons.

From the fourth floor, it’s possible to take a covered walkway over to the newer Siam Discovery Centre. The fourth floor is fantastic for interiors stores. There’s a branch of UK lifestyle store Habitat and a Designers’ Guild, but be sure to see the sleek and luxurious Gilles Caffier store as well as the stylish E.G.G., Panta, Anyroom, Room and All Living. All stores stock beautiful ceramics and Thai style contemporary furniture and homewares.

For bits, bobs and gadgets, see the student-friendly Loft on the third floor. There are also many international brands in Siam Discovery including: Morgan, Guess, Elle, Lacoste, Bebe, DKNY, CK Calvin Klein and AX Armani Exchange for apparel; Nine West, Joan & David for footwear; Swarovski and Kipling for accessories; Shiseido, Toni & Guy, MAC and Shu Uemura for cosmetics; and adidas and North Face for sportswear. Diesel is also slated to open in early 2005, along with Mulberry.

Don’t miss out on the Grand EGV Cinema at the top of the mall, which has an exclusive 20-seater cinema with reclining seats and waiter service, for those who want their popcorn on a platter.

Telecoms advertising

Head out of Siam Discovery and cross over Rama 1 road to Siam ‘Square’, which is, in fact, a warren of shops inhabiting the smaller sois (streets), rather like a low-rise Bangkok version of Tokyo’s Shibuya. This area, despite being less than fragrant, has developed quite a buzz and there are more and more shops opening from the Paya Thai road end, right up to the Novotel hotel. It is ideal for exploring – especially the small arcades such as the Siam Bypass Mini-Mall, which are full of cheap Hong Kong and Thai fashions.

Head to Soi 3 for starters and don’t miss out on what is perhaps the most unusual and eclectic store in Bangkok, It Happened To Be A Closet. This boutique is a bazaar-like space full of Japanese and retro fashions, a tiny hairdressing salon and an even tinier cafe. On Soi 2, check out Belli Belly for beautiful maternitywear and also the Urban 22 mini-mall, which is not exactly a mall, just three floors of Hong Kong and Japanese youth brands.

Take a break at Coffee Banking – quite literally a bank that doubles as a café – before entering the maze-like Mahboonkrong centre (MBK). A Bangkok institution, MBK is ideal for bargain shopping and also has a Tokyu department store. Going back to Siam square, head to the soi running to the side of the Novotel hotel to find plenty of cheap, cheerful and very effective massage salons (see Spas and Beauty).

Ploenchit and Chitlom
Getting back on the BTS at Siam, take the next stop at Chitlom for the Central department store. This is well worth a visit to see the homeware and tableware on the fifth and sixth floors, from fun plastic fantastic items to more serious wood and lacquerware.

Gaysorn Plaza is on the crossing with Ploenchit and Ratchadamri Roads and is perhaps the most upmarket mall in Bangkok, having recently undergone a major overhaul. You can find all the major luxury goods brands here, including Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Christian Dior, Fendi, Salvatore Ferragamo, Burberry, Christian Lacroix, Lanvin, Celine, Loewe, La Perla, Tag Heuer, Hugo Boss, Omega, Aigner, Alfred Dunhill, Daks and Bally.

Gaysorn is also the best place to check out some of Thailand’s rising designers and brands, clustered together on the second floor. A favourite is FlyNow, which produces in western sizes and has a slick new store with a special eveningwear section – don’t miss the footwear and accessories either. Senada Theory offers pretty, whimsical items, if somewhat overpriced, while Tango has fun, eclectic handbags and shoes. Also see Kloset Red Carpet, Sretsis, Zenith and Keven.

Head to the top floor for interiors favourite Cocoon, full of contemporary Thai cushions, tablewares and simple linen clothing. Noble Art, Ayodhya and Dot Gilles Caffier all offer sleek interiors and are well worth a look.

Stop for lunch at Senses restaurant on the first floor and order its unique spring rolls before heading over Ploenchit road to the new Erawan Bangkok boutique mall, next door to the Erawan shrine and the Grand Hyatt.

The mall opened in 2004, although not all units are occupied yet. However, these will be taken up by Singapore’s Club 21, which plans to introduce up to 47 fashion brands into Thailand in 2005, including Yohji Yamamoto, Jil Sander and Mulberry. There will be a Club 21 545-sq m multi-brand store on the first floor, while 25 designer brands aimed at younger shoppers, including Chip & Pepper and Rogan, will be offered at another 250-sq m outlet called Blackjack.

Phrom Pong
Don’t bother with the tacky Central World Plaza on Ploenchit Road and head straight to the Emporium shopping mall and department store on Sukhumvit Road, next to soi 24 (BTS Phrom Pong).

This upmarket mall is always busy and remains a favourite shopping spot in Bangkok. Many luxury goods brands can be found here, including: Celine, Chanel, Christian Dior, Fendi, Gianni Versace, Hermes, Kenzo, Louis Vuitton, Salvatore Ferragamo, DKNY, Gucci, Paul Smith, Moschino, Prada, Ungaro, DKNY and Versace Classic.

Floors one and two are also good for upscale Thai jewellers, which specialise in ornate yellow gold designs and plenty of large gems. Most notable is Jaa on the ground floor.

Ed Tuttle collection for Jim Thompson

The Emporium department store is packed with Thai designers, but elsewhere in the mall check out Greyhound on the second floor, which specialises in pared-down apparel for men and women and even has its own popular café. Also see Dapper Exclusive, Jaspal, Pena House, Soda No.7 for apparel and Footwork, which stocks Brazil’s Melissa plastic shoe brand.

For interiors, don’t miss Jaspal home Collection, Shanghai Tang and the famous silk shop Jim Thompson. There’s also an open gallery area on the fourth floor that stocks many of the interiors and accessories goods to be found at Chatuchak market (see below) – but at more expensive prices. Thai spa products are also available in this section, so be sure to pick up Harnn’s Black Pepper Massage Balm.

Emporium’s food court on the fourth floor is a clean and cheap place to stop for a bowl of steaming noodles with a view over Benjasiri Park – remember to pick up vouchers in order to pay. Then wander around the supermarket area to choose desserts and sample all kinds of Thai food.

Chatuchak weekend market and other markets
It’s hot, it’s dirty, it’s big – but it’s a must-see. Every Saturday and Sunday, Chatuchak offers just about everything, from plastic baskets and live snakes to regionally produced cutlery and handmade paper. Take the BTS to Mo Chit and head to the centre of the market where there’s a clock tower and a map. The best area for hunting is around Section 26, which has plenty of craft stores and individual designers. For clothes, head to sections 10,12,14,16,18 and 20-26.

Head to Chinatown for the super-cheap Saphan Phut market on Thanon Triphet in the evenings, which is a favourite with young Thais searching out vintage clothing and T-shirts.

Pak Khlong Talad flower market, running from Memorial Bridge to Khlong Lord on Thanon Chakpet in Phra Nakorn, is awash 24 hours a day with beautiful flowers, and is best seen before dawn.

For tourist tat, head to Silom road and sois 1 and 2, more notoriously known as Patpong. It’s virtually a Bangkok institution and worth at least a quick run-through – but it also serves to highlight the extent of the region’s counterfeiting problem.

Thonglor and further stores
The Thonglor area (Sukhumvit soi 55) is currently growing in popularity as a residential and retail area, partially due to the new H1 complex. As an antidote to the usual air-con mega-malls in Bangkok, H1 is a hub of cool restaurants and design and lifestyle stores. There’s a large Capellini furniture store; a comprehensive design bookstore called Basheer; and the eclectic botanically-inspired Geo. Restaurants and bars Chi, To Die For and Hay are busier in the evenings and there’s a shuttle tuk tuk service from Thonglor BTS.

Nearby stores include the glamorous Kitsch apparel for men and women; Budji Living for high-end Filipino design; Boffi for sleek minimalist European furniture; the cute Shade of Retro for kitsch homeware; the large Décor Mart Design Center; and Hawaii Five-O, Y50 and Soho for more retro-kitsch interiors. Don’t miss Rachnida for its exclusive silks and soft furnishings on Sukhumvit soi 63 in Thonglor.

On the other side of town on Surawong road, there’s the famous Jim Thompson shop, specialising in silk accessories, homeware and soft furnishings. Many items can look a little dated but there are good collections by Ed Tuttle – at good prices.

For all things electrical, from iPods to mobile phone accessories and cartoon-covered CD-roms, don’t miss Panthip Plaza on Phetburi Road.

Everyone has their favourite tailor in Bangkok, but try Narin Couture on Sukhimvit (BTS Nana) for smart, reliable tailoring. Look out for the photo of former UK Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher behind the cash desk, who had her 1980’s power suits made here.

Supercentres have also started to open in Bangkok, the biggest being the Tesco Lotus in Klongtoey and the Big C supercenter in Lumpini.

Where to eat and drink
Thai food is truly addictive and some of the best dishes can be sampled on street stalls and with vendors selling noodles, satay and bags of sticky rice. Eating is a national pastime so, to ensure freshness, choose a popular stall that has a constant flow of traffic.

Another cheap and tasty – and more hygienic – way to sample Thai food is to eat at the food courts in almost every shopping mall. These work on a voucher system and a delicious bowl of noodles with meatballs plus a drink can be had for the bargain price of $1.50. The food court at Emporium is excellent and very clean.

Other lunch options include Senses at Gaysorn Plaza, the Greyhound café at Emporium and café-cum-gallery Kuppa. Also reserve a space at weekend garden café Agalico for peaceful coffee and cakes.

There are quite a few good bar and dining places, such as the much-publicised Bed Supperclub where diners lounge on futuristic white ‘beds’. More relaxed alternatives are Hazara, which serves north Indian food and Lan Na Thai, both in the same teak house on Sukhimvit soi 38, with a great downstairs bar, Face, for pre- and post-dinner drinks.

For ultimate glam, there’s formal French dining at Normandie, but don’t miss out on Sirocco and Mezzaluna, both at the top of the very, very tall Bangkok State Tower for alfresco dining with great views of night time Bangkok. (Make sure you check the weather before booking.) Alternatively, opt for a quick drink at the vertigo-inducing Sky Bar.

Try C’yan at the Metropolitan hotel for seafood cooked under Australian chef Amanda Gale. The hotel’s Met Bar serves great cocktails but the door policy is so strict that it’s never very busy. Another good hotel restaurant is Biscotti which serves up simple Italian food. Finish off with drinks at the Aqua Bar. Alternatively, you can have your own full moon party at the appropriately named open-air Moon Bar, at the top of the Banyan Tree Hotel.

Alternatively, it may be hot, sticky and very plain but the Suda restaurant, tucked away off Sukhumvit and near BTS Asok station, is always packed with ex-pats lapping up the fantastic and simple Thai food. It serves great Tom Ka soup and, if in season, order the mango with sticky rice and sweet milk.

Although thoroughly over-the-top, Mystique on Sukhumvit is one of the most popular nightclubs. There’s also the well-established Q Bar which has probably peaked in popularity but has some good dance nights.

For more nightlife, people-watch on Silom Soi 4 which is basically a dead-end alley crammed with bars and the centre of the local gay scene. Alternatively, head to the restaurants and bars in the old backpacker’s haunt of Khao San Road in Banglamphu and be blinded by neon lights and brightly lit internet cafes.

Where to stay
Virtually every kind of accommodation is on offer in Bangkok, from serviced apartments to traditional houses. One of the most recent hotels to open is The Metropolitan, located in the heart of the city in the Central Business District, about ten minutes walk from Silom Road. Converted from the old YMCA, the hotel has been reborn as one of Bangkok’s chicest spots for the fashionable traveller – even the staff wears Yohji Yamamoto uniforms. This hotel is definitely a Christina Ong project and just to push that home, there’s a small Club 21 gallery in the hotel foyer, the first Club 21 store to open in Thailand, and an excellent Como Shambhala spa.

The Sukhothai

The Metropolitan’s neighbour is the Sukhothai, which really is an oasis of calm in the heart of Bangkok, thanks to a minimalist and calming oriental elegance. A regal and polished riverside alternative is the Peninsula, a top-rated hotel on the banks of the Chao Phrava that constantly features high on the travel industry’s best service awards.

With villas and rooms available, the traditional-style Baan Davis and Davis Hotel is near the national convention centre and also neighbours the high-end Emporium shopping complex, ideal for restaurants and shopping. Nearly all rooms are designed with different themes.

Chakrabongse House is a secret and exclusive alternative, home to three suites in a beautiful villa with views of Wat Arun.

On a more low-key note and for fans of the The Beach, head to the now brash and neon-lit Khao San Road in the old Banglamphu area. Once a rather shambolic but fun backpacker hangout, it’s now home to the new cheap ‘n’ cheerful Buddy Lodge.

Spas and beauty
There’s some serious pampering to be had in Bangkok, from upscale spas to smaller reflexology and massage shops.

For basic massages, head to Siam square and the soi running to the side of the Novotel hotel to find plenty of cheap, cheerful and very effective massage salons. One of the oldest is Lek (it has a sign that looks like a Ford car logo), which has a branch at the airport and is always busy with ex-pats from the nearby British Council. Opt for a body massage and one-hour foot massage.

One step up is Ruen Nuad on Convent Road off Silom, which is great for Thai massage and aromatherapy. Even better is the cosy Ananda Spa at the President Solitaire on Sukhumvit soi 11.

For ultimate luxury, the Como Shambhala spa at The Metropolitan is one of the latest to open in Bangkok and is calming and spacious with a holistic touch. The Devarana Spa at the Dusit Thani Hotel offers luxurious suites and tubs for milk baths.

Inspirational places:

  • The glittering and golden Grand Palace and Wat Pho in Banglamphu are probably the most worthwhile sites to visit in Bangkok. Have a massage and a Chinese horoscope done at Wat Pho and then shuffle past the reclining Buddha.
  • Also check out silk exporter Jim Thompson’s House, located next to a klong canal, which is made up of a series of traditional teak houses.
  • Finally, keep an eye on the Muay Thai (boxing) schedule at Lumpini stadium or, more preferably, the smaller Ratchadamnoen stadium. There’s also a growing number of female boxing matches on the schedule, with fighters taking part from all over the world.Factfile:
    • Opening times: Bangkok is a 24/7 city. Nevertheless, many stores and restaurants are closed on Mondays. Department stores and shopping malls are usually open from 10.00am to 8.00pm everyday (or later when there’s a special promotion week on).
    • Taxis are easy to come by but it’s often useful to have the name and address of the place you want to go to written in Thai as most drivers don’t speak English (don’t be fooled by the Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton soccer stickers in the back window).
    • Almost everything can be bartered on – just keep smiling and you might get what you want without anyone losing face.

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