Amidst the vibrant tangle of waterways, expressways, streets and sois, where in Bangkok do you go for good food? This seven stop guide lists dining experiences from the unforgettable to the altruistic
He was wearing only bright orange and yellow condoms and so was she. My quest for good food in Bangkok had taken me from the sublime to the ridiculous; or had it? This, my last Thai restaurant experience, was not as raunchy or absurd as it may appear; beyond the condom clad mannequins was a uniquely philanthropic dining experience that we’ll find out about in a moment...
From meals to remember to meals that will make a difference or meals that just make you feel at home: if you’re eating out in Bangkok, try this seven stop guide to culinary variety:
Where better to start than Bangkok’s waterways? The Chaophraya (River of Kings) winds through the heart of the city and has been a busy thoroughfare for centuries. Its banks are peppered with Buddhist Wats, colourful markets, ancient fortresses and historic sites providing an enchanting, floodlit backdrop to your candlelit meal.
Our Loy Nava Dinner Cruise (www.loynava.com, +66(0)-2437-4932) was billed as a “luxury rice barge journey into Thai culture and the Thai heart” and it didn’t disappoint. We were welcomed aboard with a rose-water sprinkling ceremony and presented with sweetly fragranced jasmine garlands by smiling, traditionally attired hostesses. The girls also entertained us with traditional dances throughout our two hour cruise.
The Loy Nava claims to be Bangkok’s original dinner cruise vessel. It is a converted, 70 year old teak rice-barge with a heavy, vaguely antique feel and understated elegance. We opted for the traditional Thai menu (www.loynava.com/menu-thai-seafood-vegetarian.html); the chefs cater for all tastes with dishes prepared as mild or hotly spiced as you fancy.
Soi 8 Bar (http://bangkokpubguide.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=10&Itemid=42, +66(0)-2653-3144) off Sukhumvit Road is a popular, saloon-style, Kiwi-run pub / restaurant with a menu ranging from Burgers & Chips or Bangers & Mash to the ubiquitous Thai Green Curry (which was perhaps the best I tasted anywhere). Several large screens provide simultaneous live coverage of world-wide sporting events; there’s Kilkenny and Guinness on tap and your dining experience is played out to a low-profile classic-rock soundtrack. Across the road is Monsoon, which is also popular with expatriates.
A little further down Sukhumvit Road along Soi 12, you will find an unusual Dine Aid concept at Cabbages and Condoms (www.cabbagesandcondoms.com, +66(0)-2229-4610). Thai food is their speciality, and they do that side of their business mouth-wateringly well. But their underlying raison d’etre is promoting better understanding and acceptance of family planning as well as generating income to support development activities in rural Thailand. It’s hard to escape the theme: vintage, often amusing, AIDS awareness posters adorn the walls and the waiter brings condoms rather than mints with your bill, not to mention those beautifully attired dummies. In cooler weather, unwind amidst bubbling water-features and twinkling fairy lights in the seclusion of their garden.
After dinner we relaxed with a 15 minute foot massage for 60 Baht - the proceeds directly support underprivileged Thai women in building livelihoods. If you want to help further, visit the C&C handicraft shop, which supports HIV+ women in India and Cambodia. If you’re really interested in pro-poor tourism, you might like to try the Birds and Bees (www.birdsandbeesresort.com, +66(0)-3825-0035), C&C’s luxury resort 150km from Bangkok.
Back on the dinner trail: If you find that your appetite for spicy food is diminishing, try Maria Restaurant (+66(0)-2234-0440), an Italian joint on Silom Road two minutes’ walk from the Holiday Inn. They do excellent pizzas and, if a preference for spice returns at the last minute, they do a mighty fine Thai Green curry too.
Silom Village (http://www.silomvillage.co.th/retaurant_silom.php) a little further along on the opposite side of Silom Road is a great spot for seafood. Don’t be put off by the brash, neon-lit entrance – the ‘village’ is actually a quiet, secluded cul-de-sac. Half a dozen restaurants nestle together amidst palms and pools in a peaceful environment either side of the evenly paved ‘walking street’. Crabs, lobsters, king-prawns and a selection of fish parade in tanks ready to answer your culinary whim. Thai dancing displays are laid on throughout the evening
For a taste of home, head for MacDonalds; their burgers really do taste exactly the same the world over – trust me, I’ve checked. If you take your junk food fix on Silom Road, you’ll be right opposite Patpong market where, from 7pm, seven nights a week, you’ll find everything from pirate DVDs to ping-pong shows; beautifully carved croaking frogs to exquisitely rendered paintings. For punishment or pleasure (I’m really not sure which), why not try a ‘testicle massage’?
True local fare
Finally, embrace local eating practice at one of the many food stalls that line every road, soi and market. You’ll find stalls offering spicy take-away snacks in bags or on sticks; there are also make-shift sit-down pavement restaurants where customers perch on plastic stools whilst gulping a bowl of noodles or soup. These offer a colourful alternative to the farang options but are best avoided if you have a weak stomach.
The bottom line
Almost all the restaurants I’ve mentioned offer main courses priced between US$5 and US$10 (£3 - £6). The Loy Nava charges US$43 (£26) / adult with discounts for children. Prices at food stalls will depend very much on your bartering skills and whether or not the vendor sees you coming – hang back and watch how much the Thais pay if you want a bargain!
Working off the calories
When, after a few days of fine dining, you begin to feel the pinch around your waist-band, head to Lumpini Park at the Patpong end of Silom Road. Everyday at 5pm, as the sun sets and the dusk gathers; mass, open-air aerobics classes take place. Anyone can join in and hundreds do: men, women, expatriates & Thais; dispelling pent up energy in a synchronised, calorie busting work-out.
Or walk off some calories on a riverside sightseeing tour: take the tourist shuttle boat, up and down the river - an all-day pass (unlimited stop-offs) costs 150 Baht (US$5). The initial boarding (at a jetty below the Taksin Bridge) feels like a cattle herding, with a crush of camera and guidebook clutching tourists scrabbling for seats, but numbers thin out as people jump on and off at the many jetties and it’s a very efficient way of seeing the main sights.
The most colourful stop is the 24 hour flower market but don’t miss Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn). Thailand’s most visited site is also beside the river - the Grand Palace – has been there since 1782 and is still used for many royal ceremonies. The adjoining temple houses the Emerald Buddha, which is believed to be 2000 years old.
Where to stay
Holiday Inn (Silom) is in an excellent location just yards from the expressway – a real boon for speedy airport transfers. The staff are excellent and the rooms are modern. The spotless bathrooms have a spacious, glass walled shower as well as a good-sized bath. The breakfast buffet is superb but make sure it’s included in your reservation; the walk-in rate is much higher.
It really couldn’t be much easier. Bangkok is served by around 90 airlines operating flights to and from well over 100 domestic and international destinations. The ‘new’ Suvarnabhumi Airport (officially opened in 2006) is spacious and clean with efficient baggage handling and check-in, although clearing immigration on arrival can be slow.
Taxis from the airport should cost no more than 400 Baht (including tolls) but watch out for drivers offering you an inflated ‘discount fare’ – if in doubt, insist on the meter. When it's busy, avoid the queue by heading upstairs to departures and nabbing a taxi as the driver is dropping someone else off. Be warned though, that although you will avoid queuing and paying the 50 Baht airport surcharge, you will lose what protection is afforded by the taxi registration process downstairs!