Bangkok’s hidden quarters feel like another world. Little Arabia, Chinatown, the old Portuguese or French quarters … all have unique sensibilities. In Pahurat, adjacent to Chinatown, there are rows of old Indian cloth shops and cafes with glass cases full of gold-leafed Indian sweets, the air thick with smoke from cheroots, the scent of sweet chai, sizzling hot samosas and Indian music.
When you arrive in Bangkok, first the heat hits you, then the smell. It’s unmistakable, utterly unique, and quickly envelops you. If someone created a scented Bangkok candle, its fragrance would probably be smoky incense, grilled pork, tuk-tuk fumes and sewage, with a top note of jasmine.
At Lumphini park, known as the green lungs of the city, there are aerobics classes, legions of afternoon strollers, tai chi, music performances, an outdoor gym, swan-shaped pedalos on the lake, and a farmer’s market on the weekend.
The best views aren’t always from up high. The 300 or so steps to the top of Golden Mount, or Wat Saket, a chedi in the old part of Bangkok, is rewarded with a panoramic view of old and new buildings jostling for space. But to really make sense of the city, jump on a Chao Phraya river ferry. Take the Skytrain to Saphan Taksin and go 15 stops to Thewet. This 30-minute journey gives a full tour of the city, taking in shiny high-rises, Portuguese mansions, the edges of Chinatown, everyday river life, the old French embassy, as well as jumping catfish and people feeding fish outside temples. Once at Thewet, explore the wet market and the flower market.
There’s only one Vietnam veteran’s bar left in Patpong, the notorious red-light district. When Khun Daeng and her American GI husband opened the Madrid Bar and Restaurant in 1969, the first thing they did was swap the grand piano for a record player. Soon after, it became a hangout for CIA types. Men like Jack Shirley, a legendary former CIA official, drank here. The current owner, Jenny, Khun Daeng’s daughter, has not altered the decor since the Madrid’s hey-day, and it still serves the unappetising-looking but much-loved army dish known as SOS. This either means “shit on a shingle” or “save our stomachs”, depending on who you ask. It is a mush of chipped beef, mixed with milk and gravy, slapped on toast.
In Bangkok, simple dishes are elevated to the sublime. The chefs at Soi Polo Chicken (Soi Sanam Khila, off the Wireless Road) marinate the chicken in a secret blend (I have been trying to get the recipe for years) before deep frying it and serving it with a thick crumble of sun-dried and deep fried garlic that is scattered on top. Soul Food Mahanakorn is great for bar snacks, or what locals call “drinking food”. They serve Isan chicken wings and wraps of grilled pork jowl and tamarind jam.
I love the buzz of Chinatown. It’s photogenic and crammed with stalls and rushing people; then seafood restaurants appear in the late afternoon, coming alive and taking over whole streets until late into the night. The best way to see both sides is to stay here, at Shanghai Mansion, with its 1930s style decor and four-poster beds.
There are outstanding local tailors. Tanika Tailor on Sukhumvit Road is a family-run operation that makes beautiful men’s shirts in exquisite fabrics. They’ll keep your measurements on file in case you come again. Their suits are the bomb.