Friday, Feb. 26, 2010


The temple roofs glitter amid the grime. The flower garlands cloak urban ills with the scent of jasmine. But the tuk tuks no longer hurtle quite as scarily, the skies are less sooty, and all those dark alleys Bangkok leads you down seem better lit. In its own fitful fashion, the Thai capital is becoming a world city — tamer, wiser and with an emerging art and dining scene that makes it seem like more than some steamy swamp where high-society royalists and up-country migrants collide. A brace of modern improvements dominate: sparkling malls, a long-overdue modern museum, the excellent subway. Still, this remains a sensory overload. Bangkok engulfs but never enervates, forever energizing those who forgive its excesses.

1. Wat Suthat

This vast temple compound, tel: (66-2) 222 0280, always feels like the real spiritual deal and, even if never quite properly restored, showcases lacquer-black chapel walls of magnificently fevered fresco paintings to compete with the best of the Italian Renaissance. Across from the main entrance is a giant red ceremonial swing, a Hindu symbol that became Bangkok's civic emblem for a time. The surrounding streets are among the old city's most atmospheric.

2. Patravadi Theatre

Just getting to this arts oasis, tel: (66-2) 412 7287, is well worth the trip on river boats to Wang Lang Pier, then past Nonthaburi's earthy markets. Founded by one of Thailand's most revered actresses, the Patravadi is a hip riverside complex, where a theater, rehearsal spaces, gift shop and restaurants sit amid arbors and sculpture. Catch avant-garde dancers or enthusiastic young students giving a dinner show of Thai drumming and acrobatics, all fronting the city's best views of barge traffic and the Grand Palace.

3. Or Tor Gor

Across the road from the exhausting Chatuchak weekend flea market, this farmers' market, tel: (66-2) 279 2080, is a less crowded and far more authentic showcase of both tropical abundance and the Thai sensibility. Better yet, the statements of identity are all edible: take your pick of the kingdom's best green mangoes, grilled prawns and coconut crab curry.

4. Art and Shopping

Local arts activists fought for decades to get their Guggenheim-aping Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, tel: (66-2) 214 6630, which opened in 2008 and is still in the process of being filled with exhibits. If there isn't enough on display, cross the sky bridge to the MBK Center, tel: (66-2) 620 9000, where every product known to humanity comes at an aesthetically satisfying discount. Or cross the street to enter the warren of alleys that is Siam Square, where playful fashion shops, some fading art-movie houses and one adventuresome Whitespace art gallery, tel: (66-2) 252 2900, serve as the lively meeting points for Thai youth.

5. Sukhumvit Soi 11

After you've gaped at the seedy, red-light Nana neighborhood, duck down this trendy street to get away from working girls and hawkers of pirated DVDs. You'll find locals and expats of all social strata chockablock at the Bed Supper Club, tel: (66-2) 651 3537, or the jockish Manchester United Restaurant and Bar, tel: (66-2) 651 2933. Sample some of the town's best pizza at Pizzeria Limoncello, tel: (66-2) 651 0707.

6. Chinatown

Pak Klong Talad, the wholesale flower market that clogs several blocks on the northern edge of Chinatown, is a cavalcade of paper-swathed lilies, orchids and birds of paradise in an astounding spectrum. If hunger strikes, head back to the main strip of Yaowarat Road for sidewalk dining on the world's best crab fried rice at Rut and Lek Seafood, on the corner of Yaowarat and Soi Texas.

7. Bang Krajao

Want to know what Bangkok may have looked like before the invention of condos or the invasion of 7-Elevens? Tiny motorboats from rickety, unadvertised piers at the end of Narathiwas Road ferry the adventurous to a surprisingly undeveloped heart of green jungle. There, thousands of paths lead through a wet wonderland of stilt houses, sarong-clad elders and fruits that can be plucked from the trees.

8. Wat Po

There's no combination of the corporeal and ethereal like a stroll through this otherworldly temple compound, where the relaxed smile on the famous Reclining Buddha serves as the cue to head for the school of traditional massage, tel: (66-2) 221 2974, right on the grounds. There's often a wait, and there's no privacy as aching tourist bodies lie side by side. But the prices are low and the standards divine.

9. Loha Prasat and Pad Thai

The Loha Prasat is one of Bangkok's more eccentric religious buildings, a metal-tipped complex of concentric boxes that resembles the inner sanctum of an Egyptian tomb. If climbing its levels or browsing the adjoining market for outlandishly showy Buddha amulets builds up an appetite, adjoining Mahachai Road just happens to host the Thipsamai restaurant, (66-2) 221 6280. It's famed for its pad thai, lusciously soft noodles heaped from fiery woks and served with giant prawns and egg as gleaming yellow as the nearby spire of the famed Golden Mount.

10. Hindu Worship

When Bangkok goes Hindu, it really goes wild. Lower Silom Road's Sri Mariamman, tel: (66-2) 238 4007, is the oldest Hindu temple in Bangkok, devoted to the goddess Uma and a special gathering place for thousands of transsexual devotees. The annual Navratri festival, held every October, sees Pan Road — also known for its Burmese and Vietnamese restaurants — crowded with thousands of fire-eating, powder-dusted worshippers, and the procession of deities is as fervent and frenzied as those anywhere else in South Asia, only more jolly.