A concierge’s guide to Bangkok

A maternal welcoming figure, with a smile as wide as the Chao Phraya River, Chaba Khampa has been with Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok for more than 30 years. Now Head of Concierge Services, she directs guests around a city that is both stridently modern and deeply traditional

Sunset on the Chao Phraya


One of the joys of Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok is its enviable riverside location. The Chao Phraya is still the beating heart of Bangkok and the endless parade of barges, ferries, cruise boats, cargo vessels, private launches and even fishermen’s sampans are one of the city’s great spectacles. Sometimes, on my day off, I take the Chao Phraya Express Boat upriver just to watch the unfolding panorama. Sunset is the perfect moment for a riverside drink and places opposite Wat Arun temple are the most popular vantage points. The open terrace of the Eagle Nest bar atop the Sala Arun offers postcard views, as does the Rattanakosin roof bar. But there are many little local bars and cafes on the river. One of my favourites is Samsara on the edge of Chinatown, where a Tiger beer and a selection of snacks is the perfect end to a day of exploration.

Take to the water


The river may be central to the city but people forget that Bangkok also has dozens of tributary canals. I love to arrange a private long-tailed boat for guests that can take them through the labyrinth of canals on the Thonburi side of the river where they get to see a more leisurely water-borne Bangkok. The canals are lined with houses, each with its own little boat. Green grocers and postmen come and go on the water, residents bathe and launder clothes at the foot of their front steps, and no one complains about traffic.

A question of timing


The key thing is not just knowing where to go, but when. No one wants to be swamped by crowds. Most tour groups for instance go to the Imperial Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, the Royal Temple, in the morning so I tell my visitors to head there after lunch, about 14.30, when you can have the place almost to yourself. At 17.00, make your way from the palace to the Reclining Buddha, and you will find this most spectacular of Bangkok’s monuments in an atmosphere of meditative stillness. It’s all about timing.


A new shopping experience

Thais love to shop and shopping malls – vast, luxurious, super-modern – have become central to Bangkok life. But before those air-conditioned palaces, there was Chatuchak Weekend Market where over 15,000 stalls sell everything from live snakes to the latest in trendy street fashion. Hop on the Skytrain next to the hotel and you can be there in minutes. I send guests off with a copy of Nancy Chandler’s wonderful market map and they happily spend half a day there. Once upon a time it was a workers’ market selling housewares and gravel. Now it’s a vast emporium of labyrinthine alleys where new designers and artists are able to get a start with stalls of fashion, retro wear, furniture and décor, traditional arts and crafts, ethnic wear and textiles.

Just around the corner


At more than 140 years old, Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok is located in a historic district known as Charoenkrung – named after the first road built in Bangkok. The Old Customs House is next door while the hotel’s Authors’ Wing – named after writers like Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and James Michener who have stayed there – stands as the only remaining structure of the original 19th century hotel. While the neighbourhood has long been known for antique emporiums – River City is nearby – the old riverside warehouses and shipping offices of Charoenkrung have been redeveloped with a more creative bohemian edge.

Just to the north of the hotel are a series of small fascinating streets, close to the river, where galleries and bookshops, quirky cafes and craft shops are thriving. I send guests to the Gallery Café in Soi 30, a lovely intimate place open for lunch and dinner. In the same street, which used to be known as Captain Bush Soi, is Warehouse 30, an exciting mixed-use development of creative spaces – studios, galleries, boutiques, shops, visual arts. It is all part of Bangkok’s riverside revival, and it is right on our doorstep.