Candy coloured cabs, noisy tuk–tuks, raucous bars, waterside villages and temples make Bangkok an unusual city where chaos and tranquility co-exist peacefully, writes Kalpana Sunder
Best time to visit: All year round, except September and October
You need: 3 to 4 days
Two muscular Thai men with abs of steel, dressed in fluorescent pink and lime green shorts mount the ring with fierce expressions, as traditional music plays in the background. As they slam their fists and feet into each other, my daughter catches my eye and indicates she has had enough. We are at a Muay Thai boxing match. With basic plastic seating and a packed audience, we reach just in time for the final bout, and they've saved the best for us.
The iconic Sky Bar. Pics/Kalpana Sunder
It's a mother-daughter bonding trip that I undertake every summer, filled with shopping expeditions, history, culture, fun and food explorations through some of the world's most interesting cities. We love coming back to Bangkok time after time — its chaos and madness, its energy and vitality seem to be a magnet! With its glittering temple roofs, candy coloured cabs and platoons of exhaust spewing tuk-tuks, the street hawkers who convert platforms into dining rooms, the raucous bars, its malls and markets, its tranquil wats (temples) and sinuous river — Bangkok is actually many worlds in one place. It's one of our favourite places, where we feel at home and are always welcomed by the smiling, sing-song 'Swadeeka'.
At the mall
In quest of something different to do on each trip, we check out one of Bangkok's newest malls, a mammoth glass and metal structure with Wi-Fi, airport style signage and an impressive 36-metre escalator, which has city-themed floors (Paris, Rome, Istanbul, San Francisco, etc) called Terminal 21 as well as themed bathrooms complete with Japanese-style heated seats.
The city based glitzy mall, Terminal 21
We love the information desks where the staff is dressed like retro airline attendants with blue caps at a jaunty angle and the mall directory which looks like a passport. We peek into the sleek washrooms that look like the London Underground and the Caribbean as well as the Paris-inspired one with hanging frames, chandeliers, elegant mirrors and transparent sinks! Photo-ops exist everywhere — we pose against the Golden Gate Bridge, classic old London telephone boxes and red double-decker buses well as a Samurai warrior. The real highlight is the local designers' section where we trawl through outlets featuring creatively designed clothes by Thai designers at affordable prices.
One of our favourite spots is the Lumpini Park, which is Bangkok's version of Central Park. It's a great spot for people-watching, where we see locals pump iron at an old style outdoor gym and friendly water monitors that scurry past. Travelling by the sleek Sky Train that whizzes across the city delivers us from the traffic snarls. I walk with my daughter through the infamous Patpong night market, which used to be the heart of the seedy nightlife area with go-go bars and has been cleaned up in the last few years. My daughter is surprised at how sleaze co-exists alongside ornate temples and a beguiling culture in this city of surprises.
The Chao Phraya River
For a break from the frenetic pace of the city, we take a long tail boat excursion along canals and waterways criss-crossing the Chao Phraya River, which provides a peek into the 'real' Bangkok, which used to be called the 'Venice of the East' once. We pass temples glittering in the sun, waterside villages and peer into people's backyards, as they cook or wash clothes. Warehouses of weathered teak slowly give way to royal riverside residences. Monks on a boat in their brilliant orange robes float by, as we watch fat catfish in the waters.
That night we have dinner at the acclaimed Australian chef and writer David Thompson's famous restaurant Nahm at the Metropolitan (considered one of the best Asian restaurants in the world) who has re-interpreted traditional Thai street food and made it high art. What stands out is the subtle balance of flavours, from galangal to kaffir lime and lemon grass. Canapés feature an interesting betel leaf dish, which we fold into a cone and fill with a mixture of pomelo, roasted coconut, peanuts, palm sugar and herbs. The crowning highlight of the evening is a typical Thai dessert with fresh sweet corn, red sticky rice, pandan dumplings and sweet coconut!
On top of Bangkok
I head to the famous Sky Bar, now famous for being featured in 'The Hangover Part II'. I feast my eyes on breathtaking views of the city from the bar, which is atop Lebua State Tower, touted to be the world's highest outdoor bar with stunning vistas across the Chao Phraya River. Our drink is 'Pandora's Box' — which has a zillion ingredients from wild fig and vanilla cigar to orange peel, gin and house made raspberry bitters.
It's a 'mobile drink' — served in a carton so that you can carry it wherever you go! We talk to the genius mixologist Ron Ramirez, who has been all over the world mixing drinks from Bavaria to the Maldives — he has created the special 'Hangovertini', in honour of the movie, with a mixture of whiskey, green tea liqueur, sweet vermouth, fresh apple juice and rosemary-infused honey.
We cap the evening taking a shuttle boat to the new Asiatique Market, which is a riverside market packed with over 1,000 stalls and 40 restaurants and entertainment-like lady boy cabaret and a classic Thai puppet show. What impresses us is that it's a piece of Thai maritime history — built on a piece of land that used to be the Danish East Asiatic Company's warehouse, when Bangkok was a leading river port. Its architecture reflects back to the reign of King Rama V and is either original or an authentic replica.
We meander into the stalls selling Thai silk, wooden figurines, bags and stone encrusted jewellery filling our bags and honing our bargaining skills. We save the best for the last — we choose to relax and unwind with a Thai massage. Nimble hands work on the knots in our back caused by too many shopping bags. My daughter and I are both in Nirvana — with a suitcase full of new shopping finds and rejuvenated, relaxed bodies and minds, we are ready to go back home.
Getting there: There are direct flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Bangkok
Where to Stay: Stay at Metropolitan by Como with a central location and a minimalist décor as well as a health food restaurant Glow and the celebrated Nahm. www.comohotels.com/metropolitanbangkok
What to do: Visit the wats, the Grand Palace, take a river cruise, visit the markets and malls, have a traditional massage, try street food. Embark on a day trip to the floating markets, take a Thai cooking class and hit the nightspots
Buy: Clothes, beads and jewellery, local art and craft, woven bags.
Getting around: Take the sky train, to avoid the horrendous traffic. Cabs are plentiful; just make sure to take your hotel's card with the address on it in case you get lost. And for a bit of local fun take tuk- tuks. Water taxis also ply Bangkok's canals