by Elyse Glickman
Much of Thailand’s mystique lies in its food and the lush tropical landscape that begets its famed Thai Hom Mali rice (the rice formerly known as jasmine) as well as a bounty of fruits and spices. This resonates with the popularity of cooking shows like PBS’s Easy Thai Cooking with Tommy Tang and surveys which reveal that Thai food is one of the fastest growing ethnic cuisines worldwide, the cuisine ranking sixth in one global study developed by the Kellogg School of Management and Sasin Institute.
Thanying’s heavenly rice noodle dish: not your usual pad thai.
Bangkok and resort towns like Chiang Mai and Phuket put on a great show for people coming to Thailand for the food, the cities offering everything from humble street food carts to high-end culinary spots. However, visits to smaller agricultural towns add another intriguing perspective especially since Thailand’s rice production makes up 30 per cent of rice on the world market. According to the 2011 Thailand Rice Convention and World Rice Standard Summit, an event staged in Bangkok, and rice production capital of Nahkonsawan, Thailand’s rice industry growth ties in not only with world demand for Thai cuisine but also with the increasing popularity rice-based spirits such as sake, soju and rice vodka.
While many of Thailand’s most beautiful destinations pay regal homage to King Rama IX and past kings, it is not only in name that the ruler is involved with the rice industry. Rama IX is also deeply and personally involved in the well-being of his subjects, even devoting time to the health of the rice industry. He has gone as far as having rice paddies in his yard at the main palace for scientific purposes.
Rice auction in Nakhonsawan
Next time you enjoy your favourite Thai dish, forget what you know about it from pop cultural references such as Hangover 2, the ’80s ditties ‘One Night in Bangkok’ and ‘A Passage to Bangkok’. Despite what pop culture suggests, your passage to Bangkok and beyond, when planned thoughtfully, can prove nourishing experience for body, mind and soul.
Where to land in Thailand
Hotels and resorts
The ﬁve-star Shangri-La Hotel scores high marks with its plush suites, million-dollar views of the river, nicely outfitted fitness centre with no shortage of elliptical machines and Chi spa. The impeccable service and a most impressive pan-Asian breakfast and brunch buffet complete with breakfast ice-cream, yogurt and muesli and enormous chunks of fresh fruit as well as very respectable northern Indian fare highlight the Shangri-La Hotel as a world-class destination. Though not in the physical centre of town, the Shangri-La Hotel is still walking distance from river cruises, water taxis and the famed SkyTrain, all of which puts the best of new and old Bangkok right at your feet.
Travellers on longer visits or smaller budgets will want to check out the adorable Bossotel Inn Bangkok, a block down the hill from the Shangri-La. Said to be favourite second home for celebrity chef Tommy Tang, often in town to shoot his American Public Television series Easy Thai Cooking, the inn features a small but authentic Thai breakfast area, friendly staff, a cute, fitness room, pool, an attractive lobby, and simple and roomy suites.
Photo courtesy of Chiva Som, Hua Hin, Thailand
Chiva Som, founded as one of Thailand’s first vacation destinations in the 1920s, is still today one of southeast Asia’s most respected wellness resorts. While the resort looks deceptively compact at first glance, it opens out, like a lotus blossom, embracing visitors into a multi-dimensional sensory experience.
With Chiva Som’s main mission being to send visitors home in better health than when when they first arrived, personalization takes priority over pretension. The hotel’s acclaimed kitchen caters not only to vegans and vegetarians, but also kosher, diabetic and any other personalized diet while keeping the Thai food also offered both delicious and authentic. Although the rooms, public areas and landscaping are inspired by a Thai-Buddhist æsthetic (and indulgent comfort), the holistic approach of the programmes are, by design, universal in appeal. While there is no liquor on the property, the resort offers delicious “mocktails” and a weekly mocktail party.
The colonial-styled restaurant, also a favourite of Tommy Thang, Thanying (no. 10 Thanon Pramuan at Silon 17–19) has delighted patrons since 1986 with spicy-but-sophisticated specialties such as roasted duck, noodle, sun-dried beef and deep-friend sea bass dishes, all of which are balanced with just the right amount of sauce and heat. Highly recommended restaurants and lounges in the Sukhumvit, Soi 24 area, include Lemon Grass, a touristy but worthwhile locale, as well as the Seafood Market, Sorn-Thong Ponchana and the Bed Supper Club.
Greyhound, a clothing line regarded as the Armani of Thailand with its sleek, geometric, simple styles, proves that Thailand cannot defined merely by brightly coloured silk attire and beachwear alone. Like Armani in the west, the brand also has offers its own respected Thai Nouveau haute-cuisine at its Greyhound Café.
Although there are many alluring street food stalls everywhere you turn, the international food court at MBK Centre is a well worth a visit. In a pleasant air-conditioned environment punctuated by a colourful cast of cooks, visitors can eat their way through the mall, not only mixing and match items from different Thai stations but also sampling other offerings such as Indonesian, Japanese, pan-Asian seafood, Chinese, fresh juices and smoothies and even Halal–Middle Eastern!
Bangkok’s cocktail scene
Whether or not you do cocktails, Bangkok offers a plethora of ‘sky bars’, such as SkyBar–Le Dome at the State Tower (a shooting location for Hangover 2) and Red Sky at Centara World. In addition to wonderful selections of cocktails, both locations are also must-dos for luscious food menus, music and city views. The prices are on the high side, comparable to bar prices in Los Angeles or New York City, but well worth the cost with the unique flavours taking advantage of local fruits, spices and unusual combinations of ingredients. SkyBar–Le Dome’s cocktail was even inspired by Hangover 2 and is something to savour over a leisurely evening overlooking the city.
A more local scene can be found at the combination bar of Jameson’s Irish Pub and the –5 Ice Bar in the Silom neighbourhood. British expat Ian Harriss is at the helm of this wonder-bar and performs the role of creator for some of the most interesting ice cream and sherbet drink. The Bed Supper Club, located in the ever-popular Sukhumvit, Soi 24 neighbourhood, also proves popular for the younger, dance driven crowd.
While “touts” on bike taxis may try to lure you into stores set up for tourists, bargain hunters more interested following the local lead will want to head to Chatuchak Weekend Market.
Fashionistas who like their shopping indoors will find Siam Square seductive and overwhelming. The best way to make the most of your time is to select a destination mall or block compatible with the way you shop. Siam Paragon is a conglomeration of domestic and international chain stores in an arrangement similar to American malls. Gaysorn Centre is Bangkok’s answer to Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive. For those looking for something unique, edgy Thai clothing, accessories and decorator goods can be found Siam Discovery.
Siam Center, a diminutive mall credited with starting the whole Siam Square explosion, is now is the spot to find Thailand-based fashion designers on the rise. Labels worth obsessing over include gorgeous hand-crafted leather handbags from Tango and signature boutiques from Thailand’s young designers, including 27 November, Rebecca, Jaspal and Kloset.
Downtown Hua Hin bustles after hours with its own night market. Carpeting several downtown blocks with street food indulgences, inexpensive souvenirs and rolling cocktail bars, interesting buried treasures can also be found in the mix. Finding Shoes, a delightful shop which carries inexpensive but beautifully made leather sandals with floral cutouts is worth a peek.
The crew at Chiva Som recommend and swear by Cicada Market, a ten-minute walk from the property. Staged only on weekends, this upscale alternative to the traditional Asian night market features handcrafted jewellery, shoes, home textiles, clothing and objets d’art sold by their creators in a tidy maze of open air boutiques, alongside live jazz performances.
Thailand’s historic æsthetic blends seamlessly into fashion and home design, and nowhere is this more evident than with Jim Thompson, credited for transforming Thai silk into a global industry. The Jim Thompson House, an exquisite residence-turned museum, pays homage to the lost design great who disappeared in Myanmar in 1967.
Though Thailand’s most impressive historical venues including the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, Lumphini Park and the museums filling out the Rattanakosin Island and river districts in Bangkok should not be missed, active temples and city parks you may encounter by chance are just as worth a visit since they are defined the same distinctively Thai architectural and historic hallmarks.