Bangkok has its media-fed familiarity: Backpackers staggering down the Khoa San Road, seedy ‘Patpong’ floor shows and sizzling street vendors’ serving everything from fresh papaya to fried scorpion.
But today’s Bangkok smacks of sophistication, boasting some of the world’s best blues bars, hidden bohemian corners and a beguiling boat community.
From the banks of the river Bangkok’s visitors can watch the world go by as countless brightly coloured river taxis and floating markets tear across town; or opt to use this frantic, fast paced service to take you from one end of the city to another – still for as little as 3pence per person!
Despite its sophistication, the mix of no-money and new-money is rife, as luxury hotels and sparkling Starbucks’ share area codes with shanti slums; however from high society to grass roots, how you choose to explore Bangkok is entirely up to you…
Creative culture vultures and coffee connoisseurs may wish to start their day with a coffee (Indian Chai and traditional Sri Lankan Tea also available) at the infamous Erawan Tea Room, overlooking the Erawan Shrine and a favourite haunt of Jackie Kennedy.
Caffein fuelled and ready to explore, travellers can take a spacious tuktuk (or a rip roaring river boat) to visit Wat Arun, dubbed ‘Temple of the Dawn’ because of the way sunlight dances off its porcelain surface.
For a taste of contemporary art and design, visit the publicly funded BACC. Reminiscent to The Guggenheim, here art lovers can peruse locally produced handicrafts alongside internationally acclaimed artwork.
For us it was about chasing old Bangkok Bohemia, and the best of the Blues Bars, so our adventure started on Rambuttri Street – just a stones throw from the Khoa San Road.
Despite its proximity to backpacker hell, Soi Ram Buttri’s ratio of GoGo Bars and Sexpats to vintage boutiques and tree-lined coffee shops is lower than you’d imagine, with THE perfect breakfast, pit-stop or dinner spot in the form of Madame Munsur.
A laid-back, low-slung labour of love, created by the gorgeous and ambitious, Chaing Mai native, Nong (known as ‘Patch’ to her friends); Madame Munsur, with its bamboo swings, brightly cushioned day beds and intertwined floral and fairy light interior, is a homely all-day dining spot, with a delicious menu taking special care and inspiration from Patch’s proud northern heritage.
While we all know and love Pad Thai or a good Green Curry; sway away from these dishes and into the history behind Thailand’s northern cuisine; well worth exploring – and all of which can be done without the 12 hour trek to Chaing Mai – and at Madame Munsur’s in fact.
Heavily influenced by the best of Burmese cuisine, Northern Thai food incorporates spices and herbs traditionally selected by ‘Sala Mongs’ (Guru Healers) and are used as much in their cooking as they are in their medicines.
If visiting Bangkok and in need of authentic flavours beyond the call of the high-street hawkers, visit Madam Munsur and tuck in to a hearty Kaeng Hang Le, a fragrant stewed pork curry with tamarind juice, ginger, peanuts, garlic and a unique blend of healing Hang Le Powder. Or dine true northern Thai family style and share the Larb Moo, tapas style dishes using local organic vegetables and spicy Thai salami.
Steeped in tradition it may be, with black and white photography of the King and Queen of Thailand prominently placed on the wall; these photos sit alongside psychedelic modern art, just like the food sits alongside sharp Martinis and expertly blended Mojitos.
And if you don’t slip into Thailand’s bohemian hippy roots as you swing in your chair and sip on your Singha; just ‘ask for Patch’ and get swept up in her tales of all things 70s…
Of course the heart of Bangkok’s Bohemia lies within leafy Soi Ari, where you’ll find WTF Gallery & Cafe, an independent shophouse where “in the know creatives” gather for poetry readings, pop-up menus and exhibitions from local artists.
If like me, you were born with the blues, ain’t nothin but the best of the blues than at Bangkok’s speak easy, Bamboo Bar; an elegant and authentic jazz and blues hotspot, where daily, live musicians play under chandeliers as award winning cocktails are served.
Housed in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, to mark its 140th anniversary, this week The Bamboo Bar’s award winning Mixologist, Khun Ball, has launched an exclusive series of signature cocktails inspired by the invigorating and refreshing essences of Thai flowers, fruits, herbs and spices.
Hardened travellers rest assured. Although Bangkok’s sophistication levels are on the up, with artists, musicians and creative architecture gentrifying areas of the city; meandering through local markets or navigating riverside alleys, perhaps not even batting an eyelid at the buckets of live snakes, eels and scorpions on every corner, is all still possible.