November 17, 2012

Bangkok Nonstop

Bangkok is full of surprises. With the recent political confrontations prompting vigorous debate about Thailand’s reputation as the ‘Land of Smiles,’ that sounds like an understatement. But one of its greatest attractions is a non-stop capacity to amaze. The pulsating urban energy comes from Thai culture’s ability to absorb dramatic change and outside influence while keeping its vital essence.

Throughout a roller-coaster history, Bangkok has survived many harrowing turns — not least the Asian economic crash of 1997 — and rebounded not just fast, but with flair. This time, as soon as the Red Shirt rally ended in late May, the city sprang back up on its feet, dusted itself down and applied its irrepressibly positive, practical spirit. Within days, Bangkok began to recoup the zesty character that has made it one of the most visited, awarded and fondly regarded world cities.

To the millions who have visited or lived here, Bangkok appeared unfamiliar as the protests escalated. That’s true of any city during a spasm of political unrest. Yet most of Bangkok stayed untouched throughout. In the aftermath, most of the Ratchaprasong and Siam Square shopping districts remain intact and operating as before. Returning visitors will recognise the city they remember.

Shopping mall operators and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration have provided space for displaced shop owners to maintain their businesses. Residents have already splurged on the discounted wares. Now tourists can expect a lot more sales, promotions and festive markets, reinforcing Bangkok’s reputation for value.


Much of Bangkok’s appeal derives from the vibrant street life. Entrepreneurs turn any occasion into a market infused with sanuk — the easy-going Thai sense of fun. Roving vendors bring food, goods and local colour to daily life. Now this culture of flexible improvisation ensures continuity through the city’s recovery.

Bangkok’s most authentic retail experience remains the market, whether for shopping, looking for souvenirs or simply browsing. Dozens of bazaars span the capital, from herb-scented wet markets and the textiles hub of Pratunam to the specialist lanes of Chinatown and the old wooden markets revived at the city’s edge. None integrates more with metropolitan life than the vast Chatuchak Weekend Market. Every segment of society heads there to seek serendipity, inspiration, regional foods and a laid-back social scene.


Thais also take their market culture indoors. Bangkok boasts several of Asia’s biggest malls, brimming with international brands and emergent Thai labels. On the mile-long ‘Ratchaprasong Shopping Street’ between Central Chidlom and Siam Square, all the malls bar two now trade as normal. CentralWorld will reopen in stages and the BMA has pledged to upgrade the area’s public spaces.

As Bangkok develops, its affluent suburbs gain destination attractions. During Ratchaprasong’s temporary closure, the spotlight moved to chic new malls beyond downtown. At the end of March, the semi-outdoors K Village lifestyle mall opened where Sukhumvit Soi 26 meets Rama IV Road. Near Suvarnabhumi Airport, the former Seri Centre on Srinakharin Road emerged in April from total transformation into the luxury mall Paradise Park. The recently launched Crystal Design Centre on the Ekamai-Ramindra Road also came into its own as Asia’s biggest integrated design complex. In a measure of Thai retail verve, Bangkok ironically emerged from the protest period with even more shopping options.


The local products now marketed in Bangkok boutiques and abroad reveal a key progression in Thai society, from rural produce to urban wares, from crafts to creativity, from artefacts to art. Aspects of high culture and folk wisdom persist in authentic settings, notably food, herbalism, textiles and artisanship. Now a new generation parlays those strengths into gourmet cuisine, spas, catwalk fashions, contemporary art and stylish products infused with indigenous materials and a sense of Thainess. Innovative institutes like Thailand Creative and Design Centre (TCDC) and Bangkok Art & Culture Centre (BACC) nurture and showcase this resourceful artistry.


Much of Bangkok’s momentum derives from its expressive youth and indy subculture. The informal economy enables entrepreneurs to experiment with their ideas in thousands of tiny shoplets and stalls, before founding their own brands. Siam Square, buzzing with students, designers and indie creatives, drives the pulse of Thai pop culture and fuels new industries. A score of galleries hold publicly accessible exhibition openings for the region’s liveliest art scene, which has generated many internationally collected artists. Just as the rally ended, one of Thailand’s new wave film directors, Apichatphong Weerasetthakul, became the first Southeast Asian to win cinema’s highest honour, the Palme d’Or at Cannes. That same week, the country’s foremost dancer, Pichet Klunchun, premiered a touring production at Singapore Art Festival, translating Thai tradition to a global audience. Bangkok designers, too, continue to win plaudits abroad for their fashion and furniture. These young achievers are all the fruit of Bangkok’s fertile creative seedbed.


For decades, Bangkok has revelled as a hub of nightlife tourism, which covers the merry spectrum from quirky to saucy to chic. Recent trends have seen contrasting booms in nightlife, such as clubs with dramatic design, raves with international DJs, Bohemian retro bars, and exuberant theme nights by outfits like Dudesweet and Trasher. Plentiful live music draws fans and aficionados, whether indy rock, boisterous pop, rap, jazz or blues. Asia’s biggest and most diverse gay scene plays magnet to affluent regulars flying in from regional capitals to party, dine and shop. New venues opened even during the protests, with the art-bar WTF Bar & Gallery immediately becoming a “refuge pub,” typifying the city’s resilient morale.


Whatever kind of sanuk, Thais never socialise without a constant stream of food — very good food. Bangkok dining has entered an exciting phase. Some of this buzz comes from spectacular settings, whether chic eateries like Long Table or al fresco restaurants atop skyscrapers. Expatriate chefs contribute to one of the world’s broadest ranges of ethnic dining options, joined by visiting famous names during the many epicurean festivals. Thai food, long a global favourite, is also receiving haute cuisine attention, while retaining its integrity. Bo.lan restaurant and the upcoming Nahm, a branch of the only Thai restaurant with a Michelin star, typify a nascent Thai slow food movement. Both draw inspiration from Bangkok’s non-stop pavement buffet of street food, and from the old family restaurants in the historic parts of town.


For all its globalized advances, Bangkok remains rare among modern metropolises by maintaining communities in its old centre as an authentic living heritage. Markets abut museums, shophouses flank palaces, temples hold folkish festivals, and ancient neighbourhoods retain their signatures, from apothecaries and amulets to arcane crafts. Increasingly, developers restore not replace old buildings. These express architectural history despite new uses as hotels or bars, restaurants or spas. In Chinatown or riverside quarters, nostalgics can still find traces of old Asia and a precious sense of place.


An international trading gateway for centuries, Bangkok acquired its patchwork appearance by constantly adding to its architecture rather than bulldozing all the past. The same fusion is as true of traditional dance, costume, music and decorative arts as it is of prevailing pop fads. This hybrid culture reveals traits from across Asia and the West, somehow blended in a way that’s distinctively Thai. The city has always harboured communities of diverse ethnicity. Confident in its cultural core, Bangkok embraces foreign influence and modernity, which accounts for its openness to visitors and whatever is in vogue.


Access to Bangkok’s attractions has improved vastly over the past decade. Right now the mass transport network is expanding in several directions. The MRT Subway and BTS SkyTrain — recently extended across the river to Thonburi — were joined just after the protest by the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). It links the BTS with Yannawa and Khlong San using comfy high-speed buses. Set to be fully launched in August, the Airport Link brings Suvarnabhumi and several train stations within a quick, cheap glide from a downtown terminal and links to the BTS and MRT. The canal expressboat service along Klong Saen Saeb will also this year extend to Minburi in Bangkok’s semi-rural northeast, where the old wooden market is being revived.


The klong (canals) in this formerly waterborne city also provide a contrasting amenity: tranquillity. Bangkok epitomises the busy, relentless metropolis, but its pockets of quiet replenish the soul. The remaining klong feed the Chao Phraya River, which churns with activity and every kind of boat imaginable, yet soothes as it slides relentlessly by. Parks and plantations provide recreational green space, while temples, spas and massage offer sanctuaries for mind and body. Bangkok has its share of friction but also hands that heal.


The energy of the city buzzes around a heart of calm. Buddhism brings to Bangkok a detachment that allows dramas to unfold, contradictions to flourish, diverse cultures to coexist, and every day to bring a surprise. After all, they are mere moments amid constant change. Regardless of what happens, Thais have a remarkable capacity to greet the next moment, irrepressible, graceful, cheery. They treat life as a series of cycles. So as the wheel of karma turns, Bangkok comes back up.

Philip Cornwel-Smith is the author of Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture, and writer-editor of the Time Out Bangkok guidebook. Born in England and based in Bangkok since 1994, he was founding editor of Bangkok Metro Magazine, contributes to international publications and is currently writing Very Bangkok, a book about the city’s neighbourhoods, networks and social scenes.

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