As Asia's international transport hub and a top tourism and business destination, cosmopolitan Bangkok is the beating heart of Thailand. Its reputation for culture, nightlife and world-class dining and shopping is legendary: alongside the skyscrapers and malls, you'll find colourful, traditional street life, from food stalls to markets; dazzling golden Buddhas, some breathtakingly colossal; and the richly ornamented, centuries-old temples of the Grand Palace complex. Those looking for romance might find it on a charming boat trip on the lush narrow waterways, or dining al fresco alongside the exotic Chao Phraya River.
If Bangkok has a 'centre', the Siam area surely is it. Siam's transformation over the past 10 years has led to the addition of trendy lifestyle malls, such as Siam Center. One of the first malls in Bangkok, Siam Center has been completely revamped to become an ear-popping, eye-turning celebration of hip. There's no shortage of food and beverage hangouts and places to sit and marvel at Asian consumer culture at its best.
For arts and crafts, there are numerous galleries, venues and handicraft shops along the back lanes and side streets, all the way from Phra Athit Road in Rattanakosin, south through Chinatown to Charoen Krung Road and down to the riverside. Among the myriad discoveries is
P Tendercool on Charoen Krung Soi 30. The Belgian-Thai furniture company is housed in old warehouses where they create impressive hardwood teak and makha wood tables using sleeping planks formerly used in Vietnam and Cambodia as beds.
Once referred to as the Venice of the East, Bangkok's extensive network of canals means you can make the most of the water when you go sightseeing, avoiding the city's hectic traffic. The boat ride from Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok to the Grand Palace along the Chao Phraya River is only 15 minutes. Within the complex are more than 100 buildings and temples, including Wat Phra Kaew, home to the spectacular Emerald Buddha. A visit to Wat Pho, the oldest and largest Buddhist temple in Bangkok, is also rewarding. Dating from the 16th century, it is famed for its 15-metre-high, 46-metre-long reclining Buddha. The National Museum in the Rattanakosin area, meanwhile, represents the definitive accumulation of historical Thai culture.
Thanon Surawong is where you will discover one of Bangkok's hidden gems, the Neilson Hays Library. Dating from 1897, the building emanates a Mediterranean style, courtesy of its Italian designer and architect Mario Tamagno. Among the collection of over 20,000 books are some as old as the library itself.
For almost two centuries, Charoen Krung Road and the neighbouring Bangrak district have been the cultural hub of Bangkok, where great traditions meet emerging trends and contemporary art. Bangrak's Atta Gallery, located at the O. P. Garden, was established as a modern gallery concept in 2010 and is where art meets jewellery. It also holds six to eight shows a year in a dedicated space. The Jam Factory on Chaoren Nakorn, designed by ‘starchitect' Duangrit Bunnag, is the perfect venue to catch an art event. The venue, surrounded by tranquil gardens, regularly updates the works of local and international artists and artisans.
The arrival of Speedy Grandma and the Soy Sauce Factory has transformed the once-forgotten Talad Noi neighbourhood into a reputable art precinct. The locale encourages emerging artists to feature their most thought-provoking and controversial pieces, with the latter gallery regularly exhibiting the work of award-winning photographers in an intimate space.
In the Silom neighbourhood, H Gallery is a must-see. Established in a century-old Thai mansion with colonial heritage, this charming gallery features eclectic shows. If you are still thirsty for art, head to The Reading Room nearby. Hidden in an old shop house, this contemporary art resource centre offers a collection of outstanding international art and design books set up as a cosy living room.
A treatment at The Oriental Spa at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok is a must for any spa lover. In a beautiful teak house across the river from the hotel, you can try a traditional Thai massage, or go on a signature Oriental Organic Journey. The latter includes a full body scrub of coconut, green beans and jasmine rice; a herbal hair treatment, and a massage with rice milk cream.
Minutes away from Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, the Silom neighbourhood is one of the city’s premier gourmet destinations. Have a power breakfast at Rocket Coffeebar, the brainchild of Swedish/American beverage specialists, which has a large number of fans thanks to its speciality coffees, pastries, green juices, brunch menu and healthy offerings. Head to Sathorn Soi 12 for a light lunch at Supanniga Eating Room, where dishes are rooted in traditional recipes, offering the best of cuisine from the Trat and Chantaburi provinces with a spicy Isaan touch – a delicious combination.
The aforementioned Jam Factory offers foodies two distinctly and equally charming dining venues, The Never Ending Summer, specialising in time-honoured Thai cuisine and The Summer House, which offers European comfort food with spectacular river views.
Dusk til Dawn
Bangkok's nightclub, bar and dining scene is constantly evolving, so there are many cool discoveries to be made. As the sun sets, the whole Chao Phraya River comes alive with vessels and is a delight to behold. Overlooking the water and majestic Wat Arun, and located beside Wat Pho, the outdoor deck at Chakrabongse Villas is the ideal spot to chill with a cool cocktail.
A visit to Asiatique after dark is also highly recommended. Popular with international visitors and Thais alike, this 29-acre former trading port and warehouse site of the East Asiatic Company – a giant of international trade in bygone times – is now a remarkable riverside destination of boutiques, cheerful restaurants and entertainment outlets. Throughout Asiatique, history is preserved in the form of huge cast-iron anchors, goods train tramlines, cast-iron replicas of coolies at work and man-pulled trishaws, all perpetuating a sense of time and place. Located a short trip downriver from Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, catch the daily shuttle boat service there (it departs from the hotel at 6.30pm and returns from Asiatique at 10pm).
Vogue Lounge on Narathiwas Road is ideal for pre-dinner cocktails before moving to your next destination. A cool hangout, Vesper has a relaxed vibe, with vintage furniture and a great cocktail list. Further up Silom (Soi 7), hidden between tiny streets, lies Namsaah Bottling Trust, chef Ian Kittichai’s shocking-pink house turned restaurant and bar. End your day at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok with signature cocktails and jazz at The Bamboo Bar.