Do you ever feel like even though you’ve visited a city, there’s another whole city within that city that you’ve never seen? I know this happens to people who go to Delhi. Over the past two decades, Gurgaon has grown so much with its fancy offices, its posh restaurants and its huge residential complexes that the expression ‘Delhi/NCR’ actually covers two different cities. Certainly, anyone who lives in Chanakyapuri lives in a completely different city than someone who lives on Golf Course Road.
It’s the same with many (many, too) other cities. When I was growing up in Mumbai, the city ended in Worli, then the suburbs took over. Now, South Mumbai is a hollow shell of what it used to be. A whole new city has developed in the north. And Bandra may actually be its southern edge, New South Mumbai.
Old cities began to develop near waterways. The river was so important to London that much of what we consider the historical or government part of the city was built near the Thames. The same happened in Paris and Seine.
I returned to Bangkok last fortnight, shortly after my first post-pandemic trip and this time it felt like a completely different city.
If you know Bangkok you will know what I mean. The city grew up around the Chao Phraya River and for many years was the only Bangkok known to foreign tourists.
If you were a rich American, for example, you stayed at an oriental hotel on the river and went to see the temples (Wat Po, Wat Arun) and the Grand Palace, which were all on that side of town.
After that, Bangkok grew in another direction. Large shopping malls (starting with Siam Center, now dwarfed by its larger sibling Siam Paragon), new hotels and top restaurants all sprung up in the sprawling area. Sukhumvit, which is further down, has become a haven for foreign visitors of more modest means (here you’ll find Little India) and has its share of hotels (though very few in the top league) and malls (Emporium and more recently). , EmQuartier).
I have lived all over Bangkok but my favorite area is the Plonchit area which is where I usually base myself. I love Chao Phraya and have stayed at several hotels along the river: the Oriental, the Peninsula and the Shangri-La. But in general, I find it a long way from the Bangkok I know so well, partly because of the delay caused by the city’s notoriety. traffic jam.
The last time I went, after the pandemic, I was happy to see that the traffic situation had improved a lot. I also visited the new four seasons of the river to meet my friends, Ryan and Manik Karanjawala, who were staying there. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the hotel and mesmerized by the romance of the river.
So, this time, I ditched my regular haunts and headed to Bangkok’s old town.
I found it changed a lot. The Oriental is still the grand dame of the river, the hotel that everyone wants to beat but the newer hotels are great. The Four Seasons and Capella form part of the same complex and are both superbly located and beautifully designed.
I enjoyed staying at the New Four Seasons for many reasons. One: the view. The river didn’t look as lovely as it looked from his room. Two: It is part of a new generation of hotels in terms of design. Designers have moved away from the old ‘hotel’ look and tried to make it more residential like modern flats in more upmarket residences. Three: The food was excellent. The Four Seasons has the only Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant in Bangkok, which is justly praised and its bar appears high on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars. But the European food (especially at the French brasserie) was surprisingly good.
And Four: The Four Seasons value proposition has always been about great service but this property beats all others I’ve stayed at. There is a high level of guest recognition, nothing takes too long (not laundry, room service etc.) and the attention to detail is exceptional. For example, my wife had a lychee cocktail at a Chinese restaurant and casually mentioned that lychees were her favorite fruit. The very next morning, a bowl of the freshest and juiciest lychees was placed in our room, the lychees were replenished every day.
Now that I was in old Bangkok, I explored the river which always gives its own charm. Years ago, when the Oriental opened its spa (one of the first hotels to do so), I asked the hotel’s legendary general manager (now retired) Kurt Wachvital why he put it across the river from the hotel. . “Because that’s the charm”, he replied. “You get on this beautiful wooden boat, you cross the river and then, when you arrive on the other side, you’re formally welcomed.” The Oriental has long used the river as an extension of the hotel. Sala Rim Nam, its Thai restaurant, is also across the river.
The Oriental is a tough act to beat but the old Four Seasons (in Ploenchit) used to be king of its part of the new Bangkok. Now, as both the hotels are close to each other on the river bank, the competition has become more intense. My sense is that the new Four Seasons may have an advantage because of its service excellence, led by Lubosh Barta, an old Thailand hand who has worked at old properties in Koh Samui, Chiang Mai and Bangkok. (Indians will be delighted to find two familiar faces from Mumbai hotels: JJ Aussie is the hotel manager and Vishal Sanadhya looks after F&B.)
There is now an alternative to the Oriental dominance of the French food scene. Alain Ducasse has opened Bleu by the river with amazing views and even better food. When Ducasse told me about it on his last visit to India, I was surprised by how enthusiastic he was about it. Indeed, it was better than he let on, with chef Wilfrid Hockett’s complex and delicate food and the room brilliantly managed by Alex Coughley. Ducasse has restaurants all over the world but I can understand why Emmanuelle Perrier, who is the backbone of the Ducasse empire, is one of her group’s favorite restaurants. It has a star. The second should definitely be on its way.
As much as I loved the river, I loved the old city with its grand government buildings, its wide tree-lined avenues and memories of a fading Bangkok.
Gaggan Anand sent me to Methavlai Sorandang, one of Bangkok’s oldest restaurants. Stepping into a time machine in this Bangkok is something most foreigners rarely get to see now. After that, Littie Kewkacha, as Thailand’s biggest gourmet, saw the photos on my Instagram feed and messaged me how happy she was that people were still visiting this landmark. of politicians and courtiers,” he wrote.
So, there are two Bangkoks, old and new. And I love them both.
The opinions expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, July 23, 2022
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