Travel: Bangkok

With the Chao Phraya river and numerous canals, Bangkok is known as the Venice of the East
With the Chao Phraya river and numerous canals, Bangkok is known as the Venice of the East
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A Thai cooking class and tour of the design quarter add flavour to a city with a feast of nightlife, canals and bustling streets

Bangkok is a riot of colour as our driver heads towards the city centre from Suvarnabhumi Airport. It’s muggy, and we’re told about the infamous gridlock that we’ve avoided by arriving in the middle of the afternoon. There’s so much to take in as we thread our way through the main streets but before long we pull up outside “Le Grand Dame”.

The Mandarin Oriental's Authors' Lounge, beloved of writers from Somerset Maugham to Joseph Conrad, has been given a �13m revamp

The Mandarin Oriental's Authors' Lounge, beloved of writers from Somerset Maugham to Joseph Conrad, has been given a �13m revamp

Welcoming guests since 1876, the historic Mandarin Oriental Bangkok – one of the chain’s two flagship hotels along with the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong – frequently makes world top ten lists.

I’m shown to my room after a short ride in a lift – “the first in Bangkok, sir!” – to the third floor of the hotel’s Garden Wing. Recently renovated, the sumptuous rooms are more like apartments, and I’m offered a welcoming lemongrass juice drink.

Dusk is falling over the Thai capital, and from the window I can see lights beginning to flicker on along the banks of the Chao Phraya river. It’s busy with boats but there’s no time to admire the scenery, as we’re due downstairs for 
pre-dinner drinks in the Authors’ Lounge.

Since its early days as a guest house, the Mandarin Oriental has been a home from home for actors, pop stars, world leaders and authors. But it’s the latter group with whom the hotel has become synonymous.

Portraits adorn the corridor walls – Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, Noel Coward, Graham Greene and Barbara Cartland have been honoured with suites in their names.

The Authors’ Lounge itself is in the only remaining structure of the original 19th century hotel, the Authors’ Wing. Given a £13 million revamp as part of the hotel’s 140th anniversary celebrations, it is light and airy, and teeming with history. My eyes are drawn to the imperial staircase in the middle of the room and an opulent elephant ice sculpture.

Dinner is on the opposite bank of the river at the Sala Rim Naam restaurant. The hotel’s shuttle boat takes us on the short crossing. There we sample traditional Thai dishes such as Lon Poo Talay (crab meat cooked in coconut milk) and Yaam Talay (spiced seafood salad). There’s just time for a couple of drinks in the hotel’s Bamboo Bar, complete with live jazz, before heading upstairs to catch a few hours of sleep.

After a relaxing breakfast on the Riverside Terrace the following morning, while the others in my party head for the spa, which this year marks its 25th anniversary, or to a Thai kickboxing introductory class, I cross the river to The Oriental Thai Cooking School, where a three-hour cooking class will, I hope, help me understand Thai food a little better. Led by ebullient chef Narain Kiattiyotcharoen, we are shown how to prepare four Thai dishes: Mee Grawb Raad Na (crispy noodles with pork and Chinese kale sauce); Thawd Man Pla (fish cakes); Yam Hed (mushroom salad) and Lawd Chong (pandan dumplings in scented coconut sauce). The set-up is fantastic; a large mirror overhead allows us to watch how dishes are prepared before we get to try for ourselves. It’s different to any cooking I’ve done previously but, relishing the chance to get my hands dirty, I roll up my sleeves and get stuck in. Chef Narain is on hand to talk us through the various cooking methods. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable morning and I’m more than a little disappointed when the class ends.

After a delicious seafood lunch at Lord Jim’s, one of the hotel’s eight on-site restaurants, we head down to the riverside where we get on a longtail boat for a tour of the Chao Phraya river and Bangkok’s canals, or klongs. Keen James Bond fans may recognise longtail boats from Roger Moore’s chase scenes in The Man With The Golden Gun.

Once dubbed the “Venice of the East”, Bangkok was home to a great many canals that threaded their way through the city, with boats the main mode of transport. Although several of these canals were turned into roads in the early 1900s, many still remain, and are home to an alternative Bangkok. Just a stone’s throw away from the financial district’s skyscrapers are countless houses crammed together on the canal banks; some huge mansions, others little more than glorified sheds.

Huge monitor lizards laze about on jetties and stone steps as we navigate the narrow canals, and we catch a glimpse of the impressive Wat Pho temple, home to the iconic reclining Buddha. It’s a great way of seeing a different side of Bangkok and beats sitting in the gridlocked traffic in the city centre.

Later that evening we embark on a walking tour of Bangkok’s burgeoning creative district. In late 2013, local architect Duangrit Bunnag relocated to the western side of the city and set about transforming the area. Known for his work designing hotels, he turned his hand to reclaiming old warehouses for creative spaces. The Jam Factory restaurant sprung up, closely followed by a furniture studio, a café and bookshop, an art gallery and his own studio. Bunnag has grand plans to renovate numerous historic buildings on the banks of the river.

We pass creative spaces, pop-up bars and restaurants during our walk, and several buildings that Bunnag’s Creative District organisation has earmarked for preservation, including the Grand Postal Building and the French Ambassador’s residence.

We eat dinner that night in the Jam Factory; a dimly lit, minimalist space with exposed brick and wonderful food. Our final evening in Bangkok has been fascinating, and it will be wonderful to go back in a couple of years and see how the design quarter has flourished.

Before we leave the following day, we are treated to a tour of the hotel and a chance to see the new six-bedroom Grand Royal Suite. Measuring nearly 7,000-sq ft and taking up the whole of the first floor, no expense has been spared. Along with lavishly furnished living room and bedrooms, the suite also comes with a private gym and spa treatment room, a secluded dining room for 10-12 people and a balcony with breathtaking views of the river. And it’ll set you back just the £10,000 a night.

With a couple of hours until our flight, I nip down to the Authors’ Lounge to take in afternoon tea. Perched on a luxurious armchair with the sound of boats on the river in the distance and all manner of exquisite foods laden on the trays in front of me, I think of all the literary greats who would have sat where I am over the years, agonising over that difficult second chapter. But with all the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s charms, it’s the city’s nightlife, snaking canals and bustling streets that have well and truly won me over.

FACTFILE

Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, rates start from Thai Baht 11,950 (about £250) per room per night. Tel: + 66 2659 9000, www.mandarinoriental.com/bangkok

Spa & Wellness: www.mandarinoriental.com/bangkok/chao-phraya-river/luxury-spa

Walking tour organised by Thailand Creative and Design Centre: www.tcdc.or.th/contact/

EVA Air flies from London Heathrow to Bangkok International, prices start at £551