Bangkok is changing. Certainly, the less salubrious elements of the exotic capital can still be found, and, truth be told, fairly easily; but a cultural shift seems to have taken place over the last decade. The streets are slightly less hectic, the tangle of wiring that clings to the side of buildings like massive spiderwebs slightly diminished…and in-the-know expats have even started decrying gentrification.
Thankfully it has a long way to go in that department. The town’s intoxicating smell, a mix of a thousand open kitchens, incense, flowers, and the great Chao Phraya river, remains, singular and delightful; tuk tuk drivers still haggle over fifty cents on a $3 ride; and the sight of a massive golden Buddha will always be cause for reverence. For this moment at least, Bangkok is a perfect balance of old and new, gritty and Instagram ready.
Most travelers past the backpacking stage will find the Ratchaprasong area, a couple of miles east of the Grand Palace, an appropriate home base. With its gleaming hotel towers and sprawling shopping malls, along with ubiquitous street vendors, bistros, boutiques, and mini temples, it’s as close to a ‘downtown’ as Bangkok has, and a shining example of said perfect balance.
It was here that we emerged, from the plush backseat of the hotel’s airport Mercedes, into the welcoming embrace of the plush new Waldorf Astoria – the first Asia Pacific address for the iconic New York brand. We had come, raised-lettered invite in hand, for the grand opening party; but with a few days to fill before the festivities, were excited to explore not only what the hotel was bringing to the neighborhood (spoiler alert: a lot), but how Thailand’s most high-profile city had evolved since we last visited.
With locals from Abercrombie & Kent to guide us, and the elegance of the Waldorf to return to, the next few days were a sensory delight.
The Waldorf Astoria Bangkok
The hotel is sumptuously designed and presented, with a staff that welcomed us with the traditional Thai Wai gesture at every turn – and anticipated our every move (though to be honest, we could have pushed that elevator button ourselves). We felt immediately cared for. The multitude of hospitality options, from bars and restaurants, to the magnificent rooftop outdoor pool, spa, and of course our suite, ensured our gastronomic, Instagramic, and pretty much all other needs, were met and exceeded.
Forcing ourselves out of our high-thread count sheets, we explored the shopping, eating and people watching options of our immediate surroundings. Two blocks north of the Waldorf is the enormous shopping mall (11th largest in the world, apparently) CentralWorld, which is bookended by two other equally impressive emporiums, including Graysorn Village, where we discovered the Michelin-starred Paste Bangkok. Consistently named one of the top restaurants in Asia, their dinner tasting menu was sublime, and of course included traditional Thai elements such as salted duck egg, massamam curry, and durian.
A lunchtime feast a few blocks east at Central Embassy mall was a much more casual affair; we attempted to make our own Pad Thai and Lemongrass Soup at the Issaya Cooking School, and, amazingly, they turned out pretty well. We didn’t go hungry.
Champagne Bar at the Waldorf Astoria
Dinner our first night was on the water aboard a boat from Supanniga Cruises that sailed up and down the brackish Chao Phraya. Champagne flowed as we indulged in a trad Thai meal of papaya salad, spicy shrimp soup, and assorted curries. Afterwards, as typified in the annual Loy Krathong festival of light, we set fire to small flower strewn banana leaf boats, dropping them overboard, along with our wishes and prayers, to float away.
Back at the Waldorf, still pondering if our prayers would indeed be answered, we settled in for a nightcap at the luminous 57th floor Champagne Bar, relishing the lights of the gleaming city below. Apparently, someone was listening.
And speaking of…as an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation – 95% of the populace are worshippers of Buddha – Thailand is of course home to thousands of temples, some small and quaint, and we visited several during our stay. We felt a particular sort of spiritual awakening coming on at the cozy Wat Rachakhrueworawihan, where we made offerings to the monks and donned traditional Thai sarongs.
Then it was off to take in the grandeur of the Grand Palace, home of the Emerald Buddha – which, despite the throngs of tourists, was an undeniable spectacle. On the grounds is also the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, which was showing a startling collection that highlighted the Queen’s 22-year working relationship with French couturier Pierre Balmain, including an array of photos from her 1960 world tour to 15 Western nations. It was all a bit…007.
Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles
A day of market visits and creative arts exploration was next on the agenda. We spent a hot couple of hours checking out the stalls of vegetables, cooked meats, toys, coffee, and everything else you could think of at the 200-year-old Nang Loeng Market – all the while being careful not to step on the many lounging, bored, alley cats – then strolled the colorful and fragrant, obviously, Pak Klong Talad Flower Market, even stopping to try our hand at flower arranging at the quaint Oneday Wallflowers. Lunch was at the nearby urban-rustic styled Err Bangkok, where we snacked on stir-fried morning glories and egg-coated grilled sticky rice – the ubiquitousness of sticky rice in Bangkok not to be underestimated.
We were back at The Waldorf in time for dinner, a 10-course tasting festival at the hotel’s chic Front Room restaurant. It’s lorded over by the diminutive Chef de Cuisine Fae Rungthiwa Chummongkhon – we smiled watching her sternly directing kitchen staff three times her size – whose CV includes a stint at Frederikshoj in Denmark. She dazzled us with Thai-inspired Nordic cuisine; and after almost four hours at the table we retired to our room basically in a state of gastronomic euphoria.
Stay tuned for Part II.