The new city of luxury

Exclusivity is what price-blind travellers are looking for. Luxury in the Thai capital encompasses everything from capsule massages to eating with your hands at the restaurant run by the best chef in Asia

he real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” These words, by Marcel Proust, are exactly what you need if you want to travel Thailand with a new perspective. With “new eyes” you can distance yourself from clichés and preconceived images and explore with an open mind. Thailand is home to backpackers, with the 400 metres of Khao San Road serving as their private paradise (or ghetto). But, distancing ourselves from that type of traveller, our challenge was to find the top of Bangkok, literally. That is, the space occupied by 300 square metre suites, with skyline views of “the city of angels”, and soaring roof terraces with designer cocktails. We decided to explore the city through a lens that is closely linked to luxury: fine food. With excellent raw materials – spices, so many spices – and stall displays that look like works of art, Bangkok is the world capital of street food. Resisiting it is tough. Aromas whet your appetite and infuse the streets at all hours of the day. Exclusivity, however, is at odds with improvisation. It involves relaxing at a table in a restaurant, with river views, etiquette, a thousand pieces of cutlery and background music.

Tartar, at Water Library.
Water Library offers a fusion of Thai food and modern European cuisine.
Water Library.

For those seeking the comforts only high-end accommodation can provide, the range of hotels is overwhelming.

When you arrive in the Thai capital, it can be difficult to get used to the heat and stickiness of a damp climate. Perhaps because of the constant feeling of being in a sauna, the city’s forte is relaxing spaces. Some stand out for their originality, like the Bangkok Float Center, where they shut you in an egg-shaped capsule, with water containing Epsom salts, which makes you float while you meditate. Alternatively, an unusual massage, inspired by the Thai national sport, Muay Thai, is available at the Mandarin Oriental hotel spa, considered one of the best in the world. Located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River—one of the most exclusive areas of the city to stay in —, this massage involves kicks and blows typical of this sporting discipline. If you want to completely lose all sense of time and space, however, try the Perfect Day treatment, which lasts five-and-a-half hours.

Spa at the Mandarin Oriental hotel.
The luxurious Mandarin Oriental hotel sits on the banks of the Chao Phraya river.
Mandarin Oriental.

For those seeking the comforts only high-end accommodation can provide, the range of hotels is overwhelming. The Landmark Bangkok, where we stayed, is in Sukhumvit, the longest avenue in the capital and its main commercial artery. The size of the room is what strikes you when you walk in—the executive suite is 78 square metres. But, looking out of its windows, you will forget the vast space around you and instead be enthralled by the views of Bangkok and its sunsets. Dusk can also be enjoyed, and prolonged, in rooftop bars, like Above Eleven (floor 33), Vertigo and Moon Bar (floor 61), or the most-photographed bar in the city: Sky Bar, which rose to world fame after being featured in The Hangover Part II. We are on a terrace located on floor 63 (250 metres up from street level), of the luxurious Lebua hotel. Its most exclusive zone is Sirocco, one of the highest outdoor restaurants in the world.

Haute cuisine in shopping malls

The large food courts in the shopping malls are home to food stands that seek to add a touch of luxury to the traditional concept of Thai street food. Pier 21, at Terminal 21 shopping mall, is one of the most exclusive. Another option is to go to a luxury restaurant. Paste is one of the best in Bangkok. Located on the third floor of Gaysorn Village, its menu is inspired by royal recipes and dishes from the Thai Golden Age, when King Rama IV reigned.

After signature cocktails and endless nights, the dawn comes early in Bangkok. The aroma of spices saturates everything, and not even meditation can stop the flurry of activity. The calm associated with icons like the Temples of the Emerald Buddha and of the Reclining Buddha is at odds with the stress felt by disorientated tourists as they hunt for temples. Wat Pho is a must-see, but so is the Grand Palace, where you can still feel the influence of the king’s death. Bhumibol Adulyadej died in October 2016, but mourning lasts a year. Altars carrying his photograph and banners on skyscrapers help you understand the character of a city with deeply rooted values. It is this type of scene that will help you really get under the skin of Bangkok.

Wat Pho.
Vertigo Sunset is the star cocktail at Vertigo restaurant.
Vertigo and Moon Bar, hotel Banyan Tree.

You will also find these images in the traditional Thai markets. Just over an hour from the capital, Damnoen Saduak and Amphawa are the best known and most touristy floating markets. More central, and specialising in local products, is Samyan Market. Even the most prestigious restauranteurs do their shopping there. Browsing her way through is Garima Arora, owner of Gaa restaurant. She opened her own business after working in the kitchens of the best chef in Asia, Gaggan Anand. This prestigious chef runs Gaggan restaurant, Bangkok, where the menu costs 5,000 bahts (about £115) and comprises 25 dishes. Diners eat 22 of them with their hands.

Amphawa Market.
One of the best massage schools in Thailand is located in Wat Pho.

After signature cocktails and endless nights, the dawn comes early in Bangkok.

Luxury is certainly possible in the city of backpackers. This is a destination of unexpected contrasts, of silent buddhas in packed and rowdy temples. That is the constant oxymoron of this large city, one of the most visited in the world. In Thailand, not only did we confirm that luxury and exclusivity exist, we also learnt that it is easy to find them if you travel with “new eyes”, like Proust. And with full pockets.

Amphawa Market opens only on weekends.
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