By Ron Gluckman (unless otherwise noted)
Illustrations by Anawat Muangthong
Oct 21, 2022
YES, WE KNOW: Bangkok isn’t exactly a secret. One of the most popular cities in the world, by tourist arrival numbers over the years, by vote of you, our readers, in the Asia’s Best Awards 2022. But the thing about Bangkok is everything is hidden. There are some obvious glossy edifices, but the vast majority of the coolest stuff is hidden down side lanes, between or behind unassuming and sometimes fading facades. So, it’s our expert advice that you really shouldn’t visit without a friend, or the advice of one, who can help you navigate the twists and turns (and traffic) and, as it happens, we have some expert friends. Below you’ll find our most up-to-the-moment Bangkok guide—where to eat and drink, sleep, hike and get away. We’ve also got the intel on Thailand’s newest big draw: the decriminalization of cannabis. This should be enough to ease your entrance to, or reacquaint you with, the capital of the Kingdom of Smiles.
HIGH-END, SKY-HIGH FOODIE HEAVEN
The Standard, Bangkok Mahanakorn is the new culinary mecca we’ve been waiting for.
DESPITE THE NAME, there is nothing ordinary about The Standard, Bangkok Mahanakorn, the flashy flagship Southeast Asian hotel from an international chain famed for its fun look and buzzy venues. From an exquisite Chinese restaurant adorned with bird cages overlooking the hotel entrance inside King Power Mahanakhon, Thailand’s second tallest building (by a meter), to the knockout, glassed-in Mexico restaurant on the sky-high floors of this 77-story tower, the—sorry!—standard here is great food and libations, top to bottom.
Ojo crushes with 360-degree views over Bangkok. Francisco ‘Paco’ Ruano, one of Mexico’s hottest chefs, was recruited by Standard executive chairman Amar Lalvani, who admits many considered Mexican cuisine an odd choice for the showcase restaurant at a top hotel in this region. “But, I don’t think most people in Thailand, or Asia, have tasted Mexican food like this,” he told me pre-opening. “People will be blown away.”
That has been the case since Ojo debuted in June, anchoring Bangkok’s newest hub for high-end dining and spirits. Paco’s menu as executed by chef de cuisine Alonso Luna Zarate mixes familiar dishes—guacamole and tangy ceviche—alongside suckling pig, carne asada and an incredible birri (slow-cooked in Jalisco adobo and chili sauce). As in every venue, Ojo (“eye” in Spanish) boasts an eye-popping bar, killer cocktail list and pairings from an expansive wine cellar curated by Bangkok’s most experimental sommelier, Ottara Pyne.
Mott 32 is named for the address in New York’s Chinatown of a pharmacy, general store and restaurant dating to the 19th century. Equally adaptive, Mott 32 is famed for a wide-ranging menu of Chinese delicacies that has wowed diners from Hong Kong to Las Vegas. The Bangkok version sits in a series of gold- and bronze-hued rooms plush with modern Chinese Art Deco.
Peking duck is a specialty: applewood-roasted for 42 days, and carved at the table. The menu roams around China, with lots of spicy Sichuan-style dishes including a heavenly black poached cod. A small selection of dim sum is sensational.
The classy Standard Grill serves heaps of grilled meat and fish (but save space for desserts like chocolate cream and hazelnut praline, and yummy raspberry-rhubarb pavlova). Flanking this stately steakhouse are several alternate dining areas and a breezy terrace serving breakfasts.
The Standard party continues nonstop in the lobby Parlour, centered around a blue bar with 14 wines available by the glass plus inventive cocktails by award-winning beverage manager Khunn ‘Milk’ Thanaworachayakit. The lively space hosts everything from wine tastings to Drag Queen bingo. A built-in DJ box curates the party, which often gyrates to the rooftop Sky Beach—for the highest drinks and revelry in Southeast Asia.
WHERE (ELSE) TO EAT
These two Thai fine-diners, one already double-starred and the other new but bound for glory, show off how far the culinary landscape has progressed… by looking to the past.
IN BANGKOK’S CHINATOWN, the city’s breakneck progress is balanced with preservation. And this juxtaposition is evident at Potong, where chef Pitchaya ‘Pam’ Utarntham is flying the flag for progressive Thai- Chinese cuisine in her family’s former residence. In a handsome, beautifully restored 120-year-old building, the Le Cordon Bleu graduate mines inspiration that has been with her since early childhood.
“All Thais know about Thai-Chinese food like khao man gai (Hainanese chicken rice) and pad Thai,” Pam says. “What I want to do is to use my experience as a professional chef to elevate the humble dishes I grew up eating.” At Potong, she’s marrying modern techniques to precious traditions to create culinary alchemy unlike anything witnessed before on Bangkok’s fine-dining circuit.
Noteworthy items include an amuse-bouche inspired by the Thai- Chinese tradition of greeting friends, families and guests with an orange. What appears to be a plump orange is white chocolate encapsulating citrus kombucha. Other standouts include 13-day hay-aged duck breast, Angus beef ribs, and rice bowls presented on a lazy Susan: a feature of every self-respecting Thai Chinese dining room.
With Potong booked solid for the foreseeable future, and a sultry narrative-forward cocktail bar, Opium, up top, this excursion down memory lane is proving to be a fruitful one. restaurantpotong.com; 20-course menu Bt4,500 per person — By Duncan Forgan
WITH EXECUTIVE CHEF Supaksorn ‘Ice’ Jongsiri and head chef Yodkwan ‘Yod’ U-Prumpruk and their brigade team all hailing from the south of Thailand, a personal approach is guaranteed. Expect childhood memories tied in with meticulous research on the hyperlocal traditions of wee villages throughout 14 southern provinces, and nearly 90-percent southern ingredients on the menu. Pair this with their virtuoso execution and impeccable service—it’s understandable Sorn was awarded its first Michelin star just five months in, currently ranks No. 2 on Asia’s 50 Best, No. 39 on The World’s 50 Best, and holds two Michelin stars.
The strictly tasting menu here (you must be able to take spice and eat shellfish) brings you on a journey from land to sea, particularly showcasing the abundance of southern seafood from Phuket rainbow lobster to their most sought-after crab dish, Gems on a Crab Stick, served in a mortar and topped with a spicy chili sauce that will leave you breathing fire. Booking a table is not easy as the chefs want their regulars to keep coming back, but the restaurant reserves 20 percent of their availabilty for international gourmet travelers.
Set in a 90-year-old, two-story house that was refurbished with a sleeker, luxer interior adorned with arched windows and gold touches, most tables are secluded—but our favorite spot is on the ground floor smack dab in the middle where you can watch the grill clay pots firing away outside.
instagram.com/sornfinesouthern; tasting menu Bt 6,500 per person — By Megan Leon
WHERE TO DRINK
Bangkok nightlife is world famous. But if you had to pick one neighborhood where the bars are the buzziest and the kids are frankly the coolest, head to the Charoen Krung corridor: it’s got fancy cocktails, dirty dives and everything in between.
NIKS ANUMAN-RAJADHON didn’t specifically intend to set up in Bangkok’s old city, where he now has an empire composed of some of the city’s hippest bars. “You don’t choose the location: the location chooses you,” he says. And the area’s magic can’t help but seep in. “There’s a scent in this part of the city because of all the spice shops,” he continues. “As someone who loves botanicals and infusions, that was of particular interest to me.”
Anuman-Rajadhon now has four venues on and around Soi Nana, a narrow street lined with historic shophouses that has become one of Bangkok’s liveliest bar enclaves. Gin is the thing at Teens of Thailand, his debut venue in the hood. Asia Today majors in cocktails infused with Thai botanicals, while Tax stands out by utilizing vinegar in its drinks. His latest venture, Independence, specializes in wine-based drinks.
This restless creative evolution exemplifies the buzz around Charoen Krung Road, Bangkok’s oldest paved road and one of its most characterful arteries. Here, junk shops and markets selling arcane paraphernalia rub shoulders with luxury hotels like Mandarin Oriental, Capella Bangkok and Four Seasons Bangkok, and upstarts including hip galleries, restaurants and bars.
Indeed, the evolution has been alchemic for lovers of great drinks served amid convivial surroundings. At Four Seasons’ BKK Social Club,
mixologist Philip Bischoff’s creations— inspired by the glamour and lifestyle of Buenos Aires—are befitting of acclaim, namely No. 14 on World’s 50 Best Bar list 2022. Next door at Capella Bangkok, Stella features throne-like chairs, hand-painted frescoes, and a taxidermied white peacock that takes center stage under a mirrored ceiling. The vibe is feminine but forceful: a concept reflected by pan-Asian cocktails incorporating local spirits and herbs inspired by formidable Asian women throughout history.
A looser but equally discerning spirit can be sampled at Tropic City (No. 24 on World’s Best Bars) where a tiki theme informs everything from the décor—a tasteful mash-up of flower motifs and Portuguese tiles—to the sociable atmosphere on the venue’s outdoor terrace. A few blocks away, above 100 Mahaseth restaurant, search out the brand-new lush speakeasy Mahaniyom Cocktail Bar, which presents a concept of “resourceful” alocholic drinks where every part of one ingredient—flower, leaf, root, fruit, juice, flesh (yes, there’s a beef beverage)—is utilized in each of its signature recipes. If you’re more of a grape lover, look for the tiny sign for Mala on a side-street nearby: this flower shop doubles as an uber-romantic natural-wine bar, and the potato pancakes are worth the trip alone.
One of the hood’s not-so-secret weapons is its handful of riverside bars. Baan Rim Nam offers chill vibes, DJ beats, art installations, and a bijou selection of drinks in a 200-year-old riverside warehouse—plus a massage therapist specializing in tapping. Or there’s Jack’s Bar. The rough and ready shack by the river next to the Shangri-La Hotel is no longer a secret (having been voted No. 6 best bar in Bangkok in our Asia’s Best Awards 2022), but it remains a gilded place to down a few cold ones. —D. F.
WHERE TO STAY
Throwback yet modern, lush and exclusive, The Siam is glamorous rock-star hotel holding court on the River of Kings.
OLD MEETS NEW IN A SNAZZY synthesis of style at The Siam Hotel, which broke many molds when it opened on the Chao Phraya River a decade ago. Looking like a classy makeover of the century-old riverside hotels that ushered in Bangkok’s long-ago emergence as a tourist mecca, it’s actually an Asian-deco creation that conjures up the glamour of the golden age of Hollywood, and Siam, as Thailand was once called.
Legendary doyen of Southeast Asia-based architects, Bill Bensley outdid himself with this urban treasure, boasting black-and-white checkerboard tile floors, soaring ceilings and forests of greenery filling vast atrium-like interior ponds. It was all designed to suggest luxury of the ages. “It’s really like a giant museum,” Bensley says.
“There are over 10,000 works of art and antiques throughout,” general manager Nick Downing tells me on a tour of the grand property that’s kitted out with vintage furniture, one-of-a-kind curios, hidden salons and a vast collection of ceramics.
Simply reaching The Siam, far upstream from Saphan Taksin, hub of most hotels that crowd the River of Kings in the original trade district of old Bangkok, is the first stage in a special journey. If you can, arrive via The Siam’s vintage teak boat, typical of river transport from decades past. We dock beside a massive, palm-lined pool, and are guided through tropical gardens past several traditional Thai teakwood houses from a century ago, into the spacious main resort.
With only 38 suites and villas, it’s an unique urban retreat, notes Downing: “Having so much space is part of what makes it special.” Indeed, one feels like some minor celebrity from the past, hosted at this amazing country estate, wandering endless halls of gleaming Art-Deco checkerboard tiles, uncovering hidden nooks like the Vinyl Room—with its superb selection of 400 albums, and more curios (T+L Tip: This makes a sweet spot to throw an intimate private gathering.)
Everything is superbly curated. The gym not only features weights and a muay Thai boxing ring but a mesmerizing collection of vintage sports exhibits and charming photos of Thai boxers through the years.
The library is packed with an eclectic collection of old books and amazingly rare, early-1900s Bangkok guidebooks. And, as in all Bensley-designed properties, it’s packed with playful art. Every room is uniquely decorated with a slew of vintage collectables: bubblegum cards of old Thai stars, charcoal sketches, musical instruments. Pool villas feel like a gauzy, romantic Hollywood getaway, adorned with movie posters, vintage shop signs or traditional Thai artwork. But everything comes from Krisada ‘Noi’ Sukosol-Clapp, a famous local movie-and rock star, and serious collector.
His family owns the hotel; Noi outfitted the property with his own antiques and vintage memorabilia assembled over decades. And he continues to revamp the resort. “I’m always finding new things,” Downing confides. “He keeps coming back with amazing things he’s found. It keeps everything fresh.”
The Siam, which splashed on the scene in 2012, does the same. The newest addition is Story House, a smart contemporary restaurant. Bensley enclosed the former terrace and Noi outfitted it with antique cabinets and tables. Everything is perfectly matched, and the food is sensational. But, of course. That’s The Siam style.
thesiamhotel.com; doubles from Bt22,000
Secret Thailand Exclusive Offer:
Book a Garden Suite and receive double upgrade to Courtyard Pool Villa, based on minimum two-night stay, subject to availability at time of booking, includes welcome cocktail on The Pier and daily breakfast for two. Book by 31 October 2022 for stay before 31 October 2023 and book direct with The Siam at the link below or by phone +66 2206 6999 mentioning “The Siam loves Travel + Leisure”
NEW HIGHS FOR THE LAND OF SMILES
What to know about Thailand’s recent decriminalization of cannabis.
THAILAND BECAME ASIA’S first country to legalize marijuana in June. A ganja gold rush immediately ensued: dispensaries sprouted around the country, farms began boosting the rural economy, while entre-pot-neurs created flavorful strains competing with global weed superpowers. This was revival as well as revolutionary. Marijuana had been a traditional Thai specialty long before it was banned in more recent times. Now, the old staple is rapidly reemerging in bistros, bars and spas.
And the biggest impact may just be starting: supercharging tourism. Minister of Tourism and Sports Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, whose Bhumjaithai Party pushed the legalization, has noted that marijuana can only enhance Thailand’s rep as The Land of Smiles.
In agreement are proponents of pot liberalization like Tai Taveepanichpan. In his 20s, he runs a trio of marijuana businesses, including his Four Twenty dispensaries. (The name is cannabis culture slang; weed festivals are held around the globe every April 20.) At Four Twenty in the Asoke neighborhood, glass counters are packed with jars of buds with names like Diesel, Rainbow Runtz, Couch Potato and Jelly Donut. Labels denote prices and—importantly—amounts of THC, the oil that produces the high, and CBD, hailed for a wide spectrum of medical benefits. There are also descriptions of effects you can expect, like “Brain High, Energetic.”
Tai estimates 70 percent of his customers are tourists: “They often come straight from the airport.” It doesn’t hurt that Four Twenty is next door to a hostel, whose guests can buy and consume on premises, along with a variety of beverages. Happy Hour daily features free drinks with pot purchases. (T+L Tip: There’s also delish smashburger shop, Stax, right oustide—you know, for the munchies.)
Already, upmarket hotels and restaurants are on the bandwagon. Chefs have been cooking special marijuana menus, hotels are offering masterclasses, and many bars find pot is a perfect complement to the lively local nightlife scene.
But pay attention to the fine print: While marijuana is legal to buy for those aged 20 and up, growing still requires registration and a permit, and shops can only sell unprocessed weed. Gummies are out, since Thailand still bans extracts of more than 0.2 percent THC. Some shops are selling baked goods, but this is in a legal gray area. Puffing pot in public is forbidden, as it was technically legalized for medical purposes. And don’t bring any cannabis or hemp into the country.
Tai recommends finding a trustworthy shop, where staff is knowledgeable about what they are selling. “All of our bud-tenders are trained, and can suggest varieties based on what you’re looking for.” Also, he says, reduce your weed miles: “Support local growers.”
T+L Talks to…
Asia’s grand gardener, tropical-landscaper extraordinaire, and famed hotel architect Bill Bensley is the living legend behind 200 of the world’s best loved, and most mind-blowing resorts. A longtime Thai resident, the American architect welcomed us at his studio in the Ekkamai neighborhood to talk art, design and his legacy.
“It’s great fun,” he says of his golden years. But Bensley, 63, is hardly letting up. His current projects include a mountain lodge in the remote Tibetan kingdom of Mustang, and a train-themed hotel in verdant Khao Yai, two hours north of Bangkok.
The latter features Bensley at his most imaginative, conjuring an immersive fantasy of Thailand’s Golden Age of train travel. Historic carriages rescued from rubbish heaps were craned into a park setting, with 50,000 trees overlooking several lakes. Each carriage is uniquely kitted out with vintage train memorabilia. Tracks were laid so guests and their luggage can be moved by handcart from the lobby, modeled on a train station from the 1950s.
Bensley came to Thailand in 1989, and quickly moved from gardens to major roles in hotel design, creating some of Thailand’s most famed resorts, like The Siam Hotel in Bangkok and the Four Seasons Golden Triangle Tented Camp. He also has his own Shinta Mani brand, hotels run with an overall do-gooder, friend-of-the- Earth ethos first formed in conjunction with a philanthropic group that trains Cambodians to work in the tourism industry.
On his first week in Thailand, he met local horticulturist Jirachai Renthong; they have worked together ever since, living with five Jack Russell terriers at Baan Botanica, their colorful garden home blooming with an estimated 1,500 species of plants.
In recent years, Bensley has taken up painting with his usual gusto. His colorful paintings hang, row after masterful row, in a new wing at the studio. His first solo show at Bangkok’s River City in early 2022 earned rave reviews.
In between expeditions to Alaska and the Congo, where he’s designing a series of off-the-grid lodges, he’s painting his way across Europe for an exhibit on churches, cults and religion. The Congo lodges are in an area populated by pygmies and gorillas. “It’s the best brief I’ve ever had in my career. This will be for people who have already come to Africa five to 10 times, but are looking for that last box to tick.”
Of course Bensley obliges, continually crafting new, blissful out-of-the-box experiences.
BILL BENSLEY’S 5 FAVORITE PLACES AROUND BANGKOK FOR DESIGN:
1) RIVER CITY “It’s really breathing new life into the art scene.”
2) THE SUKHOTHAI HOTEL “I love it, and the [Edward] Tuttle style that was so influential on tropical architecture.”
3) TEMPLE OF DAWN (WAT ARUN) “One of my favorite places. I love to stay in a hotel across the river, because I just love looking at it.”
4) SAMUT PRAKAN “The ancient city. I love to go running in this place, it’s so wacky.”
5) THE SIAM HOTEL “Can I pick this? I just love the look and gardens. It’s a grand place that feels like it’s been here for ages.”
“Wine should be fun,” says Ottara Pyne, who claims one of the coolest jobs in Bangkok, head sommelier at The Standard, Thailand’s buzziest new hotel. An advocate of natural and organic wines, he’s stocked the racks with more than 1,000 bottles encompassing 220 labels. And enthusiastically advocates for every single one of them.
“They gave me way too much space to play with,” he says with a big smile. Pyne, of Burmese heritage, grew up in Bangkok and the U.S., and studied philosophy, but migrated to wine after a year abroad in France. Living in the Pacific Northwest, he ran restaurants and became enamored of the region’s offbeat vineyards.
Returning to Bangkok, he landed the ideal position, at the restaurant run by gastronomic rock star Gaggan Anand—who took top honors for a record four straight years on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. That expanded Pyne’s knowledge of pairings, plus established him as a local celebrity; stories called him “eye candy” and put him on lists of “sexiest bartenders.”
Covered in tattoos, with earrings and occasionally a nose ring, he’s a striking figure at 29, and brimming with passion. He shows off his newest tat, on his wrist: Say less. Thankfully for Bangkok drinkers and diners, he doesn’t heed the message, at least when it comes to wine. “It’s great to be working where people have such a new, fresh exposure to wine. People are really eager to try new things.”
And The Standard is a perfect place for this bubbly wine enthusiast. “It’s so F&B [food and beverage]-driven,” he says, adding: “Wine lists can be intimidating.” So, Pyne glides around tables at the hotel venues, each with its own unique drinks list, nonchalantly guiding guests to new discoveries.
“I want to empower people, but not to direct them,” says the philosopher-sommelier. His style is smooth, friendly. “The most important thing about wine is telling stories, about the people who produce it, and the place it comes from.”
OTTARA PYNE’S 5 FAVORITE PLACES FOR WINE AND GOOD TIMES IN BANGKOK:
1) ALL CATS, ALL BATS (469 Phra Sumen Rd., Old Town)
“Sort of like an East Side New York wine bar meets Industrial Bangkok. There’s a Mexican chef and a small wine list, with lots of natural wines, and great Mexican bites.”
2) MOD KAEW WINE BAR (1041/21 Phloen Chit Rd.)
“A great small wine bar, with great drunk food (mod kaew means “bottom’s up” in Thai) and one of the cheapest places to drink natural wine in Bangkok.”
3) CÔTE BY MAURO COLAGRECO (Capella Hotel Bangkok)
“Jay ‘Thanakorn’ Bottorff is my favorite wine sommelier in Bangkok. He really knows the producers and has the best wine list. Plus, a very warm personal touch.”
4) TROPIC CITY (65 Soi Charoen Krung 28)
“I just love this bar! It creates a great space for people to have a good time, with the drinking, music—everything works.”
5) MIKKELLER (26 Ekkamai 10 Alley, Lane 2)
“Also not a wine bar—but you can’t drink wine all the time! Just a great place to relax in a nice neighborhood in Bangkok, with a fantastic beer list.”
Hotels strive to tap new trends, eager to concoct more engaging experiences for guests. Covid lockdowns only intensified the importance of this effort, with returning tourists hungry to explore and reconnect on their travels, making the need to curate fulfilling attractions that much more crucial.
One new hotel banking on uniquely crafted options is ASAI, a fresh brand from Thailand’s iconic Dusit International, designed for curious, millennial-minded travelers seek authentic local experiences and neighborhood immersion. There is only one property so far in Bangkok’s Chinatown, but another will open soon on Sathorn Soi 12.
“We have witnessed during the global pandemic a strong desire for differentiated and authentic experiences. By delivering memorable and meaningful events and activities, we are engaging our guests and customers in an inherently personal way,” says Tachatan ‘Jay’ Chairoek, assistant director of customer experience and programming for Dusit. Her team works closely with staff at each property to develop unique programs not only for the individual locations and clientele, but also the various local communities.
The first ASAI naturally leans on its prime location, in Bangkok’s culturally rich Chinatown. It highlights food, partnering with local chefs to throw pop-ups both in the hotel and at neighborhood restaurants, trying to forge community bonds through festivals and wellness events. The new ASAI in Sathorn will feature work by local artists and a new version of Err Restaurant, from the locavore- and sustainability-focused chefs of Michelin-starred bo.lan (now closed).
In Phuket, the Dusit Thani Laguna works with community-based tourist groups to arrange trips to unusual places like animal shelters. The Dusit Thani Hua Hin holds sustainability workshops in its own onsite farm, along with alternative wellness activities. These priorities are close to the heart of Jay, a passionate rock climber and overall wellness fan.
TACHATAN CHAIROEK’S 5 FAVORITE PLACES TO TUNE OUT THE CITY NOISE:
1) ROCK CLIMBING “In the city, Rock Domain Climbing Gym Bangkok. For nature, Railay Beach in Krabi.”
2) WELLNESS “I love Lotus Wellness Bangkok for the floating sound bath. And Goenka to do a 10-day silent meditation once a year.”
3) BOOKS “The secondhand bookshop Dasa Book Cafe is my favorite place for books.”
4) FOOD “Khao Tom Jay Suay (610-5 Phadung Dao Rd.) near ASAI Bangkok Chinatown is my fave for local eats—boiled rice Teochew-style and minced pork with salted fish are particularly good.”
5) NATURE “I prefer beaches to mountains. After all, you can find a mountain at the beach, but you can’t find a beach in the mountains.”