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A tale of two Bangkoks

Do you sometimes feel that even though you have visited a city, there is a whole other city within that city that you never got to see?

I know that it happens to people who visit Delhi. Over the last two decades, Gurgaon has grown so much with its fancy offices, its plush restaurants and its large residential complexes that the expression ‘Delhi/NCR’ actually covers two distinct cities.

 

Certainly, anyone who lives in say, Chanakyapuri, lives in an entirely different city from somebody who lives on Golf Course Road.

 

   It is like that with many (most, even) other cities. When I was growing up in Mumbai, the city ended in Worli, after which the suburbs took over. Now, South Mumbai is a hollow shell of what it used to be. A whole new city has developed in the North. And Bandra may actually be its Southern edge, the new South Mumbai.

 

   Older cities tended to develop near waterways. The river was so important to London that much of what we regard as the historical or governmental part of the city was built near the Thames. It was the same with Paris and the Seine.

 

   I went back to Bangkok last fortnight, quite soon after my first post pandemic trip and this time it felt like a completely different city.

 

   If you know Bangkok you will know what I mean. The city grew up around the Chao Phraya river and for many years that was the only Bangkok that foreign tourists knew.

 

   If you were a rich American, for instance, you stayed at the riverside Oriental hotel and went to see the temples (Wat Po, Wat Arun) and the Grand Palace, all of which were on that side of the city.

 

   Then, Bangkok grew in the other directions. The big shopping malls (starting with the Siam Center, now dwarfed by its hefty younger brother, Siam Paragon), the newer hotels and the top restaurants all came up in the Ploenchit area. Sukhumvit, which is further down, became a haven for foreign visitors of more modest means (this is where you will find Little India) and got its own share of hotels (though very few in the top league) and malls (Emporium and more recently, EmQuartier).

 

   I have stayed all over Bangkok but my favourite is the Ploenchit area which is where I usually base myself. I like the Chao Phraya and have stayed at many of the riverside hotels: The Oriental, the Peninsula and the Shangri La. But generally, I find it too far from the Bangkok I know well, partly because of the delays caused by the city’s notorious traffic jams.

 

   The last time I went I was pleased to see that, post pandemic, the traffic situation had improved vastly. I also visited the new Four Seasons on the river to meet my friends, Raian and Manik Karanjawala, who were staying there. I was struck by the elegance of the hotel and seduced by the romance of the river.

 

  "As much as I loved the river, I also liked the old town with its majestic governmental buildings, its broad tree-lined avenues and its reminders of a Bangkok that is vanishing."

   So, this time around, I forsook my regular haunts and ventured forth into the old city of Bangkok.

 

   I found that it had changed enormously. The Oriental is still the Grande Dame of the river, the hotel that everyone wants to beat but the new hotels are outstanding. The Four Seasons and the Capella form part of a single complex and both are brilliantly located and beautifully designed.

 

   I enjoyed staying at the new Four Seasons for several reasons. One: the view. The river has never looked lovelier than it does from its rooms. Two: it is part of a new generation of hotels in design terms. The designers have moved away from the old ‘hotely’ look and tried to make it look more residential, like modern flats in a very upmarket residence. Three: the food was excellent. The Four Seasons has the only Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant in Bangkok, which is justly praised and its bar appears high up on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars. But the European food (especially at the French brassiere) was surprisingly good too.

 

   And four: the Four Seasons’ value proposition has always been about the excellent service but this property beat all the others I have stayed at. There is a high level of guest recognition, nothing takes very long (not laundry, not room service etc.) and the attention to detail is extraordinary. For instance, my wife had a litchi cocktail at the Chinese restaurant and casually mentioned that litchis were her favourite fruit. The very next morning, a bowl of the freshest, juiciest litchis had been placed in our room, unasked for—and the litchis were replenished every day.

 

   Now that I was in old Bangkok, I explored the river which always exerts its own fascination. Years ago, when the Oriental opened its spa (one of the first hotels to do so), I asked Kurt Wachtveitl, the hotel’s legendary general manager, (now retired), why he located it on the other side of the river from the hotel. “Because that is the charm”, he replied. “You get on to this lovely wooden boat, you glide across the river and then, you are ceremonially received when you arrive on the other side.” The Oriental has long used the river as an extension to the hotel. Sala Rim Nam, its Thai restaurant is across the river too.

 

   The Oriental is a hard act to beat but the old Four Seasons (in Ploenchit) used to be the king of its part of the new Bangkok. Now that the hotels are both near each other on the river, the competition is more acute. My sense though, is that the new Four Seasons may have the edge because of the excellence of its service under Lubosh Barta, an old Thailand hand who has worked at the chain’s properties in Koh Samui, Chiang Mai and at the old property in Bangkok. (Indians will be pleased to find two familiar faces from the Mumbai hotel: JJ Assi is Hotel Manager and Vishal Sanadhya looks after F&B.)

 

   There is also an alternative now to the Oriental’s domination of the French food scene. Alain Ducasse has opened Blue right across the river with stunning views and food that is even better. When Ducasse told me about it on his last visit to India, I was surprised by how enthusiastic he was about it. In fact, it was even better than he let on, with complex and delicate food by chef Wilfrid Hocquet and a room that is superbly managed by Alex Cufley. Ducasse has restaurants all over the world but I could understand why Emmanuelle Perrier, who is the backbone of the Ducasse empire, said it was one of her favourites of the group’s restaurants. It has one star. The second must surely be on its way.

 

   As much as I loved the river, I also liked the old town with its majestic governmental buildings, its broad tree-lined avenues and its reminders of a Bangkok that is vanishing.

 

   Gaggan Anand sent me to Methavalai Sorndaeng, one of Bangkok’s oldest restaurants. It was like stepping into a time machine to a Bangkok most foreigners rarely get to see now. Afterwards Litti Kewkacha, widely regarded as Thailand’s greatest gourmet,  saw the pictures on my Instagram feed and messaged to say how delighted he was that people were still visiting this landmark .“My dad would take me here as a little kid and it would be full of politicians and the Palace people,” he wrote.

 

   So yes, there are two Bangkoks, the old and the new. And I love them both.

 

 

Posted On: 22 Jul 2022 11:55 AM
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