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An Insider's Bangkok Guide | Thailand

Grant Thatcher, founder of the sharply opinionated Luxe City Guides, gives his best tips for navigating this fascinating capital.

"Bangkok is a gigantic city. It goes on and on and on," says Grant Thatcher, the 42-year-old English founder and editor of Luxe City Guides (luxecityguides.com). Launched in 2002 and updated twice annually, these ruthlessly picky pocket-size guides cover some of the busiest, most challenging to navigate cities in Asia and Australia. A former actor in England's Royal Shakespeare Company, Thatcher is based in Hong Kong, but makes frequent trips to Bangkok (where he lived for two years) to check out new restaurants, shops, bars and hotels. Only a few make the cut and end up in the guide. Here, Thatcher shares some of his favorite spots.

Hotels

The Metropolitan One of Bangkok's hippest hotels—and not overrated. It's done in ultramodern style, with lots of dark wood, stone and glass. The four duplex penthouse suites are stunning. Make sure to book a Thai massage or a reflexology session at COMO Shambhala, the hotel's sleek health club, then stop by Glow for a fresh fruit juice. Make a reservation at Cy'an, where Australian chef Amanda Gale, who trained with Sydney star Neil Perry, offers dishes like beer-battered snapper with asparagus and hand-cut fries, and braised carnaroli rice with mushrooms and wild arugula. The decor is spartan but then, you don't eat the chairs. DETAILS Doubles from $140; 27 S. Sathorn Rd.; 011-66-2-625-3333 or metropolitan.como.bz.

The Peninsula Immaculate service and some of Bangkok's most luxurious suites. To get there, you can take a ferry across the Chao Phraya River—an enchanting ride, especially at night. The pool is a glamorous place to lounge on Bangkok's hottest days. Head to Mei Jiang for excellent traditional Cantonese cuisine, and to River Cafe and Terrace for an international menu in an alfresco setting. DETAILS Doubles from $230; 333 Charoennakorn Rd.; 011-66-2-861-2888 or bangkok.peninsula.com.

The Sukhothai A trendsetter in Southeast Asia. The Sukhothai has a simple, elegant take on Thai style, with walls done in understated mushroom colors and beautiful gold and green silks. The garden suites are some of the biggest and have bathrooms the size of an average hotel room. And The Sukhothai has one of the greatest pools in Bangkok. A lot of pools in the city have strange shapes or gazebos everywhere. This one is big, rectangular and very tasteful, and there's cold-towel and beverage service. Note: There's some construction noise now, since the hotel is building a spa, slated to open in 2006. DETAILS Doubles from $280; 13/3 S. Sathorn Rd.; 011-66-2-344-8888 or sukhothai.com.

Restaurants

Mahanaga A stylish restaurant serving contemporary Thai cuisine. The dining area is made up of Moroccan-inspired pavilions surrounding a courtyard. On the menu: duck breast in peanut-curry sauce, and sweet-and-sour mullet soup with ginger. DETAILS 2 Sukhumvit Soi 29; 011-66-2-662-3060.

Distil Lobsters, oysters and steaks done simply and well, in a sexy 64th-floor dining room. Outside on the terrace is Sirocco, a restaurant with a glass-walled rooftop bar, where you should stop for a drink before having dinner at Distil. Standing at the bar, you feel like you're perched on the edge of the building; there's nothing else like it in the world. DETAILS The Dome at State Tower; 1055 Silom Rd.; 011-66-2-624-9555.

Bed Supperclub A space-age hangout with fine food. Lounge on beds while sipping blueberry-basil mojitos and dining on dishes like vanilla-and-thyme-roasted sea bass. DETAILS 26 Sukhumvit Soi 11; 011-66-2-651-3537.

Hazara Groovy design and outstanding North Indian specialties like tandoor-baked leg of lamb. Make sure to walk downstairs for a cocktail at the chic Face Bar. DETAILS 29 Sukhumvit Soi 38; 011-66-2-713-6048.

Must-see sites

The Grand Palace and Wat Pho It would be criminal to go to Bangkok and not see The Grand Palace and Wat Pho. The Grand Palace is a collection of royal buildings—including the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the holiest Buddhist site in Thailand—and Wat Pho is the home of the Reclining Buddha, a gold-plated 150-foot-long statue. To avoid the hordes, start your journey no later than 9:30 a.m. Take a ferry from the public Oriental Pier next to the Oriental Bangkok hotel (48 Oriental Ave.). The ferry ride costs about 25 cents and takes you along the Chao Phraya River. Get out at Tha Tien Pier and walk up the street to Wat Pho. From there, walk out onto Chetuphon Road and take a cab to the Grand Palace. A word of caution: Cab drivers have been known to tell tourists the Grand Palace is closed for a special ceremony and try to take them to another temple, where the driver gets a commission. Insist on being driven to the Grand Palace. It's open every day from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., but the ticket office is shut from noon to 1 p.m.

Khlong Bangkok Yai A trip along the back canals of Bangkok shows a side of the city visitors usually miss. So much of Bangkok's life takes place on the canals—there are temples, houses on stilts, children playing in the water—and these waterways are a complete about-face from the rest of the city. To get to Khlong Bangkok Yai, one of the liveliest canals, take a longtail boat from the private Oriental Bangkok hotel pier. (Walk through the hotel, at 48 Oriental Ave., to get to the pier. Keep in mind that the Oriental Bangkok won't admit visitors wearing shorts or flip-flops.) Canal rides cost about $13 an hour and last one or two hours.

Getting around

Bangkok is exceptionally hot and congested; avoid walking if possible. Also avoid tuk tuks: These three-wheeled vehicles may look fun, but they reek of gas, are noisy and can be expensive. The Skytrain is easy to use, air-conditioned and cheap. It won't take you everywhere, but it's useful for getting to places like Chatuchak Market and Sukhumvit Soi 23. Otherwise, take a cab (insist on one that uses a meter) or hire a driver, and allow extra time since the traffic can be terrible. Warning: Some drivers will try to take you to gem factories or their auntie's restaurant. To hire a reliable driver, contact Julie Taxi (011-66-1-846-2014 or julietaxi.com).

Shopping

Chatuchak Weekend Market This is an absolutely enormous market—open on Saturdays and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.—and it's full of all kinds of things, both fabulous and awful. Depending on which sections you visit, you'll find antique furniture and objets, beautiful plants, handwoven textiles and the latest trends in ceramics—or you'll wade through aisles of dusty secondhand clothing, tacky souvenirs and sad caged pets and endangered species. Go in the morning to avoid the crowds, and make sure to navigate the market correctly. Here's the right way to do it: Arrive by taxi at the main gate, or take the Skytrain to Mo Chit station and walk out from Exit 1 at the station, following the groups of pedestrians along the road until you arrive at the main gate; to make sure you're at the right gate, look up, and if you see the clock tower directly ahead, you're in the right place. Now, simply duck left into the two lanes that run along the edge of the market: These are sections 1 to 4, where you'll find all manner of housewares, ceramics and plants. Do not stray into the central section of the market surrounding the clock tower; there is nothing here of interest. Keep following the outside lanes and you'll begin to notice a few cafés and stone seats. When you see the little spirit house strapped to a tree (the house is a small wooden box with ribbons, fabric and incense), head right onto the inner road; follow it left, around and past the new underground station. Look up, and eventually, on your right, you'll see a sign in the central market announcing Section 26. You'll find some great antiques here. Getting a deal depends on how good your bargaining skills are. Offer 50 percent of the sticker price to start off, and keep your bargaining sweet and gracious. Section 26 is also home to Viva Bar, where you'll probably want to stop for a beer. But check your watch. If it's midday, it's time to leave. DETAILS Near the airport and the old Northern Bus Terminal on the far northern edge of the city; the main gate is on Phaholyothin Road.

Flower market This is one of the most appealing places in Bangkok. It's very atmospheric and very Thai. You can fill up an entire car with orchids and spend $6 maximum. DETAILS At the foot of the Memorial Bridge in Chinatown.

Lambert Holding Co. Gem shops are ubiquitous in Bangkok—and many of them will rip you off. After all, it can be hard for a civilian to tell the difference between a ruby and a piece of red glass. To avoid wasting gobs of money, visit David Glickman at Lambert Holding Co. His showroom gives a cash-back guarantee with no time limit; if you change your mind about a purchase, you can bring it back, no questions asked. DETAILS Silom Shanghai Bldg., 4th fl.; 807/809 Silom Rd. at the corner of Soi 17; 011-66-2-236-4343.

Spas

Devarana A spectacularly pretty spa in the Dusit Thani hotel. Walk up the limestone staircase and along a catwalk to enter the cool, refined space, which is decorated with striking flower arrangements. Reserve one of the double suites: each has a shower, steam room and large round tub. Sign up for a vigorous Thai massage or a body scrub with ingredients like sweet corn, jasmine or rose petals. DETAILS 946 Rama IV Rd.; 011-66-2-236-9999 or devaranaspa.com.

Ruen Nuad A wonderful little massage spot near The Sukhothai hotel in a building that was originally a shack. The space has been converted into 15 bright, clean treatment rooms. Ruen Nuad offers only aromatherapy, Thai massage and foot massages, but the staff does them all terribly well. The treatments are very inexpensive—they range from $9 for an hour of Thai massage to $20 for an hour and a half of aromatherapy. DETAILS 42 Convent Rd.; 011-66-2-632-2662.

Published May 2005
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