BANGKOK -- This is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of place. I still recall the time my friend Amanda, who had just spent a year living in Hanoi, first stepped foot in this city, eager for something not aggressive and communist. Wandering Chinatown, where we got turned around by the local system of alleys-off-lanes-off-roads (all sharing the same name) under highways, she broke into tears. She swore hatred, and repeated it that evening as she cleansed the gray-brown exhaust grime off her brow.
Six years on and marginally better oriented, I am in love with Bangkok and now relish getting lost in Chinatown. When I stumble into conversations with travelers who can't cannot wait to "leave this place and go to the beach," part of me wants to let them in on the secret: They're sitting smack in the middle of what amounts to the Rio of the Orient, its tropical sensuality cast through a Buddhist prism and, incongruously, projected onto an outwardly hideous canvas in the heart of Southeast Asia.
Is Bangkok still the gritty sprawling beast of a place most travelers hear about? Of course, and I hope it always will be. It's this crab-like personality -- hard on the outside, soft and sweet within -- that makes it so rewarding. Traffic still snarls and sends fumes into the air. Even in the so-called cool season, the air is like a curtain, scented with garlic, sweat, urine, and incense. But now it is easier than ever to discriminate the good from the bad. Transportation is one reason: In the last five years, the city has gotten an elevated rail system and an efficient subway. They have begun to transform and connect the city in ways once unimaginable.
One could, for example, catch the subway from Sukhumvit Road to Hualamphong train station and be there in 15 minutes; even in light traffic, driving could take an hour. It's just as easy to SkyTrain out to Chatuchak (Mo Chit station), where the famed Weekend Market is held, in 20 minutes.
Food lovers should head out at least an hour early to wander Or Tor Kor, a government-run market that specializes in fruits, organic produce, and houses hordes of cooks and vendors. It is possible to taste the Malay- and Indian-influenced cooking of Southern Thailand, the ginger and garlic-flecked grilled chicken known as kai yang from Esarn, and tuck into a golden-hued pineapple from Si Racha that is so sweet and complex it is reminiscent of Sauternes.
If China is the economic engine behind Asia's ride into the future, Thailand is the lifestyle motor. Its culture has a sexy, lighthearted appeal that should allow it to rival even Japan one day for pop prowess. Bangkok has all the style and flirtatious impulses that cities like Shanghai lack, and it has begun to pay dividends when it comes time to consume. Thanks to a sudden blossoming of talent -- foreign and local, chefs and designers -- Bangkok now has contemporary attractions to rival those in places like London.
Siam Square is synonymous with youth culture. It's a concrete beehive of old Deco buildings and glassy new malls easily reached by SkyTrain. On one side of the street are two malls, Siam Discovery and Siam Center, and on the other side the veins of alleys known as Siam Square. This is four-on-the-floor Asian shopping and, though mobbed with students, it draws hipsters, the Thai beau monde, and plenty of tourists. Of special interest are the local designers on the third and fourth floors of Siam Center. Ones to watch include the urban chic duds of Greyhound; Asian-influenced drama-in-cloth by Theater; the dramatic cuts of Tube; and the funky tees of Soda and its male line, Guy's Soda.
Next door at Siam Discovery Center, the fourth floor is a destination for the interior design crowd, thanks to a cluster of designer-owned shops usingSoutheast Asian materials. Enter Panta and wander amid a forest of furniture and housewares woven, bent, and carved from jute and a weed called water hyacinth. Every item has an organic shape and a hit of earthiness. E.G.G. is a similar high-end furniture store with more urbane designs and an emphasis on teak.
Thai style excels at rooting into the country's natural environment and history, yet repeatedly comes up with designs that have a contemporary global feel. Fai Sor Kam specializes in scented candles and incense drawn from Thai basil, jasmine, galangal roots, and anything else the owner takes an interest in.
Anyroom stocks flower vessels by Thai floral artist Sakul Intakul, who combines engineering, modern design, and a sense of reverence for Buddhist and natural forms. In bronze or ceramic, his products come in various shapes, including watermelon slices, tamarind, star fruit, and mango pods, and hold one bud each.
Mae Fah Luang, which has a flagship store at the new Suan Lum Night Bazaar, is a royalty-sponsored opium replacement project. Hill tribes, which once grew poppies, now put their centuries-old weaving skills to use instead. The result is a colorful, textured, and Asian pop-influenced assemblage of carpets, bean bags, street wear, and shawls. .
But enough malls. Grab an iced tea and head into the humid alleys across the street in Siam Square. This is one of two places (the other is the Chatuchak Weekend Market) where the young, artsy, and clued-in come to root for the next big thing. There is fashion talent to be discovered at every turn, like at Issue for flowing cotton and linen separates inspired by Tibet, Nepal, India, and pop culture. Or It's Happened to Be a Closet, a funky garage sale of recast vintage pieces.
With 9,000-plus stalls and some 100,000 visitors every weekend, a for-sale roster that includes antiques, Buddha relics, back-issue fashion magazines, the odd endangered animal, tropical fruit trees, wicker furniture, and much more, the Chatuchak Weekend Market has long been a tourist favorite. It becomes a human traffic jam -- sweaty and stinky -- at midday when the hordes converge. So come after 4 p.m. to encounter the taproot of Thai trends. There's now an entire series of sections (roughly 1-8) that have been taken over by a friendly cohort of artisans trained both locally and abroad. There are whiskey bars with four seats, vendors of leather sandals and belts, and tiny cafes with linen-encased pillows and urbane slate-and-black detailing.
Short of being a resident or having a familiarity with Thai language, you are simply best off getting lost a bit in this market. If you step out into the inner road, there are signs with numbers; stay in Sections 1-8. Among the shops to find are Black Earth for ceramics in earthen-sleek patterns of moss, purple, black, and mineral; Clay Shop for retro-inspired plates, vases, and espresso cups; a furniture store whose owner recycles old woods; and a great mix-and-match bedding store on a corner next to a CD vendor. It's a meet-me-by-the-pineapple-guy-near-the-satay-vendor kind of place.
Beyond the malls and markets is a mini-universe of shops worth seeking out. Many are tucked away in the side streets of Sukhumvit Road, in essence the "new town" of Bangkok. The only place for bespoke silk is Almeta; the place stocks hundreds of colors, weaves, plies, and yarns, and can make just about anything.
If shopping is a daily free-for-all, suppertime in Bangkok has become an orderly rush to a host of new eateries that have given the city a bona fide dining scene. Bed Supperclub has become an icon for its shock-white interiors, Tuesday night parties, and tubular freestanding shape. But it is the restaurant that sets it apart. Full-time stylists and curators alter staff outfits, mount art installations, and change music by the day. Chef Dan Ivarie's menu includes dishes such as silken-textured snowfish with local beet risotto and carrot-passion fruit sauce. He cooks with heady Thai flavors, a come-as-you-are vibe that reveals his American roots and global flair.
If there's one sure sign the guard is changing in Bangkok, it's where the beau monde goes to splash out. After a decades-long run at the top, the vaunted Oriental Hotel (where the leopard print-clad Bamboo Bar is still fabulous) seems over the hill. Walking distance from its shiny front doors is State Tower, a building with garish faux Roman-style architecture that has grabbed the champagne-swillers with a host of spaces known as The Dome. They sit on the 63d floor that includes a contemporary al fresco Italian spot called Sirocco, with a lofted glass bar, and the clubby-cool lounge Distil with live DJs, wraparound windows, a great oyster bar (but an erratic wine list), and Mediterranean nibbles. On a clear night, the views draw one's gaze over the Bangkok sprawl and the Los Angeles-like flicker of lights, out to where the nut-brown Chao Phraya River spills into the Gulf of Thailand.
In a trendy enclave known as Thong Lo, H1 rolls the beloved Bangkok pleasures of shopping, dining, and boozing into a low-rise complex of glass and steel-beam boxes by architect Duangrit Bunnag. A 250-year-old tree stands at the center of the compound and teak-planked terraces form a kind of outdoor lobby where socializing can be frenetic. Skip the dinner hour and book a table to drink at To Die For, which wouldn't be out of place in New York's Meatpacking District, or the outlandish French-Japanese lounge Chi.
As with all international cities, Bangkok owes a lot of its character to singular personalities and the places they have bred. Le Lys began as a labor of love presided over by a generous Thai woman, Pat, and her French-born husband, Phillippe. They have turned the ground floor of their 1960s bungalow on Narathiwat Road into a warm, country bistro-like Thai restaurant with a petanque court and bamboo bar out back and Pat's Burmese, Chinese, and Thai antiques as decoration in the living room/dining room. They serve the kind of food that one rarely encounters as a tourist. The chopped lemongrass salad, pickled bamboo shoot soup Lao-style with chilis, dried Phuket-style shrimp dip, and roast Muscovy duck with pa-naeng curry sauce and holy basil taste urbane but are wholly Thai in origin.
When the office lights go out and the traffic abates on Sathorn Road, you'll find Australian chef Amanda Gale of Cy'an at her best. Working from the kitchens of the Metropolitan hotel, she is arguably the finest contemporary Western-style chef in Asia, and last ran the kitchen at the Parrot Cay Resort in Turks and Caicos. Her gift to Bangkok is a lusty blend of Spanish, Provencal, and Moorish flavors driven by swimmingly-fresh seafood and a reverence for vegetables. There are few young cooks whose delivery is as steady-handed and intelligent as hers.
The sister-brother duo Koy and Pla Burarak, who run iBerry, have in a few short years helped make Thailand a country that screams for ice cream. Their ice cream kiosks, full-service restaurants, and most recently a sleek industrial-style dessert cafe in Thong Lo have the potential to be a global brand. What they have in common is iBerry's roster of sorbets and ice creams. They change according to what is at market, but always reflect Southeast Asia's greatest agricultural asset: dozens of tropical fruits. Flavors include soursop, black sesame, durian, rambutan, mangosteen, and everything else that falls from a tree or can be plucked from a bush in season. Their customers include bearded hipsters, uniformed students, ladies who lunch, and even well-known Thai models sneaking out for a sweet, cooling snack.
Now if only they would open one in Chinatown . . .
Rob McKeown is a freelance writer in Asia.