Bangkok: battle of the rooftop bars

by Rikkie

Whether you are staying at the Banyan Tree or the Lebua at State Tower, or just meeting someone for a quick drink, check out their rooftop bars. Both are spectacular, but which one is the best?

As I gaze down hundreds of feet below me in the cool night air, Bangkok is eerily quiet. The streets are full to bursting point, with myriad cars trundling slowly through the metropolis and skyscrapers illuminating the surroundings for miles around – yet, sat here sipping a cocktail and listening to soft jazz playing in the background, the air of sophisticated calm is a world away from the hedonism of Patpong or the chaos of the Kao San Road. It’s an atmosphere that you might expect to be unique, yet is offered by two hotels within a mile of each other: the Banyan Tree and Lebua at State Tower. But which of these rooftop bars offers the premium experience?

Lebua at State Tower

A recent addition to Bangkok’s plethora of hotel choices, the Lebua found fame in 2007 when it hosted what was billed as the most expensive meal ever – a £25,000 extravaganza. Thankfully, staying at the hotel is not so exorbitant. Suites start at about £100 a night.

When it opened, the Lebua usurped the Banyan Tree by having the highest open-air bar and restaurant in the world. Situated on the 63rd floor of the State Tower, the Sky Bar beat the Banyan Tree's by a mere two floors. While it is undoubtedly spectacular, there is no seating room, making it feel like little more than a tourist attraction with overpriced drinks. You can enjoy the environment for a fleeting moment before being cast aside in favour of more rubber-necking tourists.

Much as I would like to have reviewed the open-air Sirocco restaurant, we were told there was no availability at all, which was disappointing. It struck me as hugely irritating  that, when booking rooms direct with the hotel, nobody told us that reservations were essential. Breakfast, however, was plentiful and extensive – and thankfully no reservation was required.

The suite, while comfortable and spacious, felt very much of the standard hotel variety. There were few flourishes and, frustratingly, the doors to the balcony remained locked due to insurance risks.

After sweating out half your body weight while sightseeing or shopping on the streets of Bangkok, the open-air swimming pool provides relief. However, sun-lovers should be warned that the pool area spends most of the afternoon completely in the shade. During our visit in December, it was almost chilly.

The Banyan Tree

In contrast to the overcrowded Sky Bar at Lebua, the aptly named Vertigo Bar at the Banyan Tree is welcoming yet sophisticated. It is spacious enough for you to loll around with a partner, without feeling hemmed in by other guests. So intimately lit is the environment, you are provided with torches in order to read the menus. The food is of excellent quality – and, while expensive by Thai standards, is nowhere near the price you would expect to pay in Western city equivalents. If not eating, you can sit and just soak up the views while working your way through the list of classic cocktails.

The suite we stayed in, though geared towards the business traveller with its substantial office area, was large, stylish and welcoming. This being a primarily sheer-faced building with no balconies, standing by the windows and looking down continued the vertigo theme with aplomb.

If the Lebua’s breakfast was impressive, the Banyan Tree’s is a banquet – almost to the point of being daunting. Alongside western breakfast favourites there are carvery dishes such as roasts, plus dim sum, fish soup, you name it. If you fancy it and can stomach it, it is likely to be here.

So, who wins?

It’s a no-brainer; the Banyan Tree won out in nearly every respect. The Lebua does have its advantages – it is closer to the Skytrain and has more attractions within easy walking distance. The Lebua is cheaper, but if you are planning a special trip for a truly memorable experience, with an attention to detail and unrivalled spa facilities, then the Banyan Tree is the easy choice.

Enjoy your cocktails!