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The better way to see Bangkok: Unique hotels, activities, food and sights in Thailand’s capital

By: Monica Pitrelli

If Bangkok only conjures images of big city congestion, red light districts, shopping malls and corporate hotels, you’ve been missing the boat – literally. Get stuck into our traffic guide to a better way to enjoy Thailand’s capital.

 

Where to Stay

The old way
It’s common to seek out the action – shopping, nightlife, tourist sites – and then find a hotel nearby. That’s why most people, including seasoned travellers to Bangkok, tend not to venture far from Siam, Silom, Sukhumvit and the south banks of the Chao Praya River.

The better way
Stay so far north that you’re nearly off the grid on most Bangkok city maps. Along the northern riverside, deep in the heart of the historic palace district, is where you’ll find The Siam, a beautiful 39-room luxury boutique hotel that combines the glamour of Art Deco with the grandeur of Thai architecture. If it were possible for Jim Thompson and The Great Gatsby to produce a love child, it would be this hotel. Built in 2012, it feels 10 degrees cooler and 100 degrees calmer than the rest of the Thai capital. And, one night as a guest is all it takes to understand why The Siam was recently named one of the best city hotels in the world by Condé Nast Traveller.

Getting Around
The old way
A combination of taxis, private cars, tuk tuk and BTS skytrain, with an ample amount of time for teeth-gnashing traffic built in.

The new way
Avoid anything on wheels and do all your travelling via boat. The Siam’s private speedboat can get you from the hotel pier to the city centre in 20 minutes flat – a feat unachievable by car, bus or even motorbike. The boat travels the Chao Phraya River nine times a day and will drop you off anywhere along the route that you desire – be it one of the many riverside restaurants, the Grand Palace, Chinatown, the Flower Market or shopping hotspots like River City, OP Place and Saplan Phut Night Market. Moreover, the ride is a pleasant one with plenty to see and photograph, there’s no risk of traffic jams and it’s completely free of charge.

Pool villa courtyard with fountains, bamboo clusters, lounge area and spiral staircase to second-floor balcony
Pool villa courtyard with fountains, bamboo clusters, lounge area and spiral staircase to second-floor balcony

 

Spending Your Free Time

The old way
Spend zero time in your hotel, especially if you booked a box in a corporate behemoth. Besides, you don’t come to Bangkok to relax; that’s what Krabi is for.

The new way
Enjoy your hotel. Escape to it. The Siam has spacious suites (the river view suites are particularly great for families) and pool villas (repeat: villas – in the city) with vine-streaked courtyards, bi-level bedrooms and private rooftop balconies. The villas also boast extras that turn a basic hotel room into a holiday retreat – things like dressing areas, walk-in closets, large bathrooms with skylights and over-sized bathtubs. It’s the details that make the difference: finally, a waist-high mini-bar so we’re not forced onto all fours to nab a mini-bottle of Perrier. There is a library, a piano conservatory, a secluded yoga garden, a professional-grade Muay Thai gym and Thailand’s only chemical-free spa (with swank ergonomic treatment beds). And all of this is shared between only 39 rooms, so there’s a good chance that communal spots like these will be enjoyed in total solitude.

Dealing with the Seedy Elements
The old way
Sights and sounds that reinforce Bangkok’s international reputation for back-alley barters and cheap human retail are inevitable. Just deal with it.

The new way
Seedy side – what seedy side? There are virtually no tourists in the neighbourhood, which means the folks who prey off the wanton desires of international travellers are nowhere to be found. The Siam’s closest neighbour? The Crown Prince. And, having a royal for a next-door neighbour has plenty of perks, such as a super-secure neighbourhood watch programme, an absence of high-rise buildings in the area, and no loud parties to keep you up at night.

Rambutans piled high at a local market
Rambutans piled high at a local market

 

What to Eat

The old way
Hit up every restaurant and rooftop bar to have been named to a Top Ten list in recent history. Prices are high, but the food and the views are worth it, even if few on the premises speak a word of Thai.

The new way
Go local. By the first morning light, the street directly in front of The Siam is bustling with street vendors serving up piping hot breakfasts to palace staff. For lunch, the famous Krua Apsorn – a hole(ish)-in-the-wall restaurant that David Thompson counts among his favourites – is just a short boat ride away, serving dishes that don’t make the menu at traditional tourist spots; items like cow parsnips, stink beans and river prawns prized for the red and beige oils that should be enthusiastically sucked from their heads.

And, okay, if you simply can’t fight the urge for a hotspot, you’ll definitely be able to hit one of them up without dealing with a queue or impenetrable reservation list. Chon, The Siam’s onsite Thai restaurant, tops many a riverside restaurant hot list. It’s located in three traditional Thai houses (once owned by Jim Thompson himself) that have been moved from Ayutthaya, and features a riverside landing perfect for sunset aperitifs. And for the ultimate dining experience by the Chao Praya, book a seat at the Chef’s Table, where you’ll get the personal attention of The Siam’s Aussie chef Jane-Therese Mulry as she cooks up a private seven-course feast of items like Canadian scallops, 14-hour braised brisket and deconstructed mango cheesecake, right next to your table.

A 2,000-year-old Han dynasty horse and carriage is one of hundreds of antiques exhibited around the hotel
A 2,000-year-old Han dynasty horse and carriage is one of hundreds of antiques exhibited around the hotel

Seeing the Sights

The old way
Tour Wat Pho, Wat Arun and other temples along the tried-and-true tourist route, fight the clothing police at the Grand Palace, head out of town to the ultra-touristy Damnoen Saduak floating market, and squeeze in a swing through a museum or two for good measure.

The new way
For Bangkok first-timers, a tour of the riverside wats and Grand Palace is in order (these places are easily accessible via The Siam’s shuttle boat), however, the ultra-touristy floating market located an hour outside of town should be skipped altogether in favour of a trip through Bangkok’s actual working klungs, or canals. Once known as the “Venice of Asia”, the klungs won’t provide you with the chance to haggle over teak elephants and neon-painted umbrellas, but you will get up-close views of time-worn stilted houses, orchid farms, markets (not of the “weekend” variety), mailmen delivering letters via boat, and vendors hawking ice cream from old rickety boats to children playing along the riverbanks. The Siam can book a longtail boat and private guide to snake you down Bangkok’s narrow waterways, where there is barely a tourist in sight.

The neighbourhood around The Siam has plenty to explore, too: an old Khmer village built directly on top of the Chao Phraya, a traditional medicine clinic, historic homes, churches, mosques and a 199-year-old Chinese temple where, for a modest donation, friendly overseers will guide you on how to plant 17 sticks of incense around the temple to receive the ultimate blessings from above.

And inside the hotel itself is a museum to be enjoyed at any time, day or night. The owners, the Thai celebrity Sukosol family, use the space to exhibit their astounding private antique collection that includes relics from 3,600 BC and Tang dynasty treasures and more recent European pieces. (Note: Most of the really old stuff is safely behind glass; the rest sits out openly around the hotel emphasising the family’s relationship of trust with its guests.)
Is Bangkok safe right now?
In a word, yes. Though the words “military coup” may sound shocking to many, it’s not so atypical for Thais. Overall, it’s business as usual in the Thai capital.

Getting there
The Siam is roughly equidistant from both Suvarnabhumi Airport and Don Mueang International Airport – about 45 minutes. The hotel can arrange to pick you up in a BMW 5 or 7 Series, or a Volkswagen van for larger parties. For around US$100, a fast-track service at the airport can be organised to expedite the immigration process, too.
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