The repeat visitor’s guide to Bangkok

The repeat visitor’s guide to Bangkok

Been to the traditional hot spots? Here's a quick run-down on the city's best new restaurants, bars, hotels, galleries and shops

It's easy for travelers to get sucked into that evil vortex of guidebook "must-see" experiences. Bangkok is no exception.

Hit the Grand Palace, eat some mediocre Thai food on a Chao Phraya river cruise and go for a sweaty afternoon spin through the Jatujak Weekend Market.  

Been there, done that, yada yada yada. Now you want new experiences. Innovative restaurants, funky bars and cool local shops that aren't hawking the usual mass-produced Thai souvenirs.

Here's a quick guide to some of Bangkok's top new venues, some old favorites that continue to impress and a sneak-peek of some upcoming openings we're looking forward to.  

Shopping in Bangkok

Thai fashion

Dress from Curated by Ek Thongprasert's Spring/Summer 2012 collection. With Vogue magazine launching a Thai-language version of the famed fashion bible in 2013, Bangkok's yearning for luxury couldn't be more apparent.

But beyond the city's many Louis Vuitton, Hermès and other big brand boutiques are some talented local designers earning global praise as well.   

Earlier this month, Thai designer Wisharawish Akarasantisook won the top prize at the Mango Fashion Awards in Barcelona, Spain. Last year, Ek Thongpraset became the first Thai designer to join the fashion savvy W Hotel's Global Fashion Next initiative. 

So where to find Thailand's hottest young designers? Gaysorn Plaza (BTS: Chidlom) has popular brands like Sretsis and Issue, while celeb favorite Kloset has shops at Siam Center, Siam Paragon (BTS: Siam) and CentralWorld (BTS: Chidlom). 

To check out the designs of up-and-comer k and i, head to Siam Lido and Zen at CentralWorld. 

More on CNNGo: Guide to Thai fashion

Rot Fai Weekend Market

The name, Talad Rot Fai (Train Market) is a nod to its location next to old train tracks and disused creaky bogeys.Since opening little over a year ago, this funky retro market on State Railway land continues to gain new fans by playing on Thailand's love for all things yesteryear.

Wares on display at Talad Rot Fai include vintage toys, Matchbox cars, retro furniture, Asian antiques and Soviet-era pins -- with warm-colored light bulbs bathing the entire market in a dusty sepia ambiance.  

In addition to all the "pop-up" cocktail vans and food vendors there's an onsite pub decked out in wood belting out classics from 1950s bubblegum pop to Johnny Cash. 

Getting there: Take the train to Kamphaengphet station. Turn right at exit 1 and the market's a few blocks down on the right-hand side. Open Saturday and Sunday from 2 p.m. to midnight. 


Asiatique

Asiatique is divided into four zones, filled with more than 1,000 shops, bars and restaurants. Asiatique The Riverfront is a massive new shopping and entertainment complex beside Bangkok's Chao Phraya river.

Inspired by the city's days as a riverside trading post in the early 1900s, it resembles a traditional pier with rows of warehouses.  

Open from 5 p.m. to midnight, Asiatique has some of the same shops that were at the  bulldozed Suan Lum Night Bazaar, while the traditional Joe Louis Puppet Theater and Calypso -- the famed ladyboy cabaret -- will be moving in soon. 

The restaurants and bars include a mixture of upscale bistro-style restaurants serving Thai, Japanese, French and Italian, as well as an Irish pub and a wine bar. There's also an outdoor, covered food court.  

The best way to get there is to hop on the free shuttle boat that runs regularly from the BTS Thaksin pier.  


Thai arts and culture

V64 features established and up-and-coming Thai artists. You don't have to walk much further than your hotel lobby to find a shop hawking traditional Thai art and Buddha images.

For a look at Thailand's modern art scene, head out of the downtown core to Bangkok's new  Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) (499 Moo3, Vibhavadi Rangsit Road. +66 (0)2 953 1005). Local magazine Bangkok 101 recently featured a nice review of the place here.

There's also the v64 Art Studio, a massive warehouse-type space that features dozens of Thai artists' work, most for sale (143/19 Changwattana Soi 1 Yak 6, Vibhavadi 64 Road, +66 (0)2 973 2681).  

If you're interested in learning more about Thailand's traditional fashions and fabrics, check out the newly opened Queen Sirikit Textiles Museum, at the Grand Palace. 

For monthly Bangkok art listings, pick up a free copy of the Bangkok Art Map, which has a full list of the city's galleries and art spaces, updated monthly with the latest exhibitions. 

Bangkok tours 

Bangkok Food Tours 

Bangkok Food Tours lets visitors try a range of Thai dishes, including stir-fried cat fish. This relatively new company organizes food walks day and night to some of Bangkok's best street food neighborhoods and historic Thai restaurants.

There are also a few day trips outside the city on offer, including a "Floating Markets Food Tour." For more information and to book, check out the Bangkok Food Tours website.  

Bangkok bike tours

Gone is the era when only the brave would hit Bangkok's notoriously chaotic roads on a bicycle.

These days there are plenty of local groups, such as the Bangkok Bicycle Campaign organizing regular free city tours for those with their own wheels. 

To join the masses, check out this list of Bangkok bike tour companies.

Bangkok dining 

There's a common refrain among travelers discussing Bangkok Thai cuisine that sends the toques of passionate local chefs spinning in fury.

"Why should I pay a lot for Thai cuisine when I can get great food for cheap on the streets or in shophouses?"  

Yes, street food can be wonderful. And of course there's the "you're just paying extra for ambiance" argument. But there's more to it than that.   

Bangkok's dining scene has come a long way in the last three years, with mid- to high-end restaurants moving beyond traditional Thai fare to offer fresh takes on classics, others bringing back long-forgotten recipes.  

The biggest names to transform Bangkok's dining scene in the last few years are Bo.Lan (42 Soi Ronarong Pichai Songkram, Sukhumvit Soi 26, +66 (0)2 260 2962), Nahm (Metropolitan Hotel, South Sathorn Road +66 (0)2-625-3388), Soul Food Mahanakorn (56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55, +66 (0)85 904 2691) and Sra Bua (Siam Kempinski Hotel Bangkok, 991/9 Rama 1 Road,+66 (0)2 162 9000). 

Newcomers

Issaya Siamese Club, in a renovated 1920s house, is surrounded by gardens. Two new upscale Thai restaurants worth checking out are Thai Lao Yeh and Issaya Siamese Club. 

Thai Lao Yeh (14/29 Sukhumvit Soi 45, +66 (0)2 259 2871) is in Bangkok boutique hotel Cabochon. Dishes are mainly northern Thai, Isaan (northeast) and Laotian in origin, with a few southern dishes thrown in. 

Like most modern Thai restaurants, Thai Lao Yeh doesn't assume foreigners can't handle a bit of spice, so you're getting authentic, tasty renditions of some regional Thai classics. (Ant egg soup, anyone?) 

Meanwhile Issaya Siamese Club is internationally acclaimed Thai chef Ian Kittichai's first flagship Bangkok restaurant, which is leading Bangkok's farm-to-table dining movement that's now sweeping through the city.

The menu in this beautifully restored Thai colonial house features traditional Thai cuisine combined with modern cooking methods. There a few misses but for the most part everything on the menu is unique, delicious and oh-so-pretty. We recommend the banana blossom Thai salad, chili-glazed baby back ribs and massaman lamb.  

In terms of non-Thai venues, Kittichai's newly opened Smith (1/8 Sukhumvit Soi 49, +66 (0)2 261 0515) has grabbed the attention of Bangkok foodies by taking a cue from world-famous head-to-tail chef Fergus Henderson. Many of the dishes include oft-spurned animal parts like calf's heart with pomegranate and spicy peas, or haggis with flowers, turnips and sweet potatoes

Boozy brunches 

The Four Seasons Sunday brunch has dishes from all the hotel's restaurants, including Shintaro. Try as the newcomers may to imitate, Four Seasons (455 Rajdamri Road, BTS: Chidlom or Rajdamri. +66 (0)2 253 9195) remains the top place in Bangkok for your over-the-top Sunday brunch needs.

There are over a dozen serving tables piled high with fresh Sydney rock oysters, lobster, Indian cuisine, pasta, Middle Eastern kebabs, lamb chops, steak, veal, roast duck, cheeses, sushi and caviar.

Because it wouldn't be a boozy brunch otherwise, free-flow Champagne or mimosas will make your Sunday afternoon a whole lot more exciting.

Coming in a close second on the brunch trail is Centara Grand at CentralWorld's Sunday Champagne Brunch (999/99 Rama 1 Road, +66 (0)2 100 1234). The problem is, this one is only on the first Sunday of the month. 

Held high up in the hotel's 55 restaurant, offerings include specially prepared seafood, top cuts of steak, cheeses and free-flow wine and Champagne.  

For something different, try Anantara Riverside's (257/1-3 Charoennakorn Road, +66 (0) 2476 0022new Thai Market Brunch, which features old Thai regional classics created by a different guest chef each week. The hotel's Trader Vic's brunch doesn't disappoint either, and is one of the city's best in terms of quality and diversity. 

Bangkok bars

Travelers could find worse places in Bangkok to enjoy a few sundowners. For an upmarket bar with great views, hit The Speakeasy at Hotel Muse (55/555 Lang Suan Road, +66 (0)2 630 4000), set in a beautiful space on the 24th and 25th floors.

Designed to bring back some prohibition era nostalgia, it consists of two bars, a cigar lounge, private salas and a boardroom.

In terms of bar-hopping, Bangkok's Thonglor and Ekamai neighborhoods are still where the moneyed young locals go, though there are a few grittier, pretension-free hideaways like Tuba, Shades of Retro and the new indie rock joint Sonic that are excellent places to chill out.

Another neighborhood popular with young locals is Ari (BTS: Ari), which is filled with funky bars and mid-range restaurants.  

Much has been said about tiny bar-cum-gallery WTF (7 Soi Thonglor 51, BTS: Thonglor) since it opened two years ago. Condé Nast Traveler recently gave it a nod while CNNGo has mentioned it multiple times in our Bangkok section.  

Regularly bringing in live bands and touring DJs, it remains one of the top Bangkok bars to visit for a laidback night out with friends and good cocktails. 

For something really unique, if you happen to be in the city during one of the regular Isan Dance Hall nights -- usually held at RCA's Cosmic Café -- be sure to check it out. Well-known local DJ Maft Sai spins plenty of Thai roots music, reggae and dancehall, guaranteed to get anyone moving.  

Can't decide which bar stool to plant your butt on? BK Magazine publisher Asia City has come up with an iPhone app that helps you find a happy hour near you.   

Bangkok hotels

Every few years, a new boutique hotel manages to steal the thunder of its big brand counterparts and catch the attention of global travelers. This year Bangkok has two.  

The Siam 

The Siam was designed in part by well-known architect Bill Bensley. Though this riverside beauty just opened in June, it's already getting rave reviews from global media and locals.

A 39-key city resort, The Siam holds bragging rights as the first property in Asia invited to join the exclusive Virtuoso Preview program.

Each of the 11 villas has its own plunge pool, while the corner Riverview Suites 305 and 205 overlook the Chao Phraya and Rama 8 and Krungthon bridges.

A Thai boxing ring is there for fitness fanatics, while the art deco-styled interiors feature vintage and antique furnishings to add to the historical significance. 

Thanon Khao, Dusit. www.thesiamhotel.com

Bangkok Treehouse

Inspired by Henry David Thoreau's "Walden," the 12-suite Bangkok Treehouse has become something of a "staycation" hot spot for locals looking to get out of the city center and enjoy from fresh air in Bang Krajao, the "green lungs of Bangkok."

Guests arrive via a dedicated shuttle boat across the Chao Phraya, disembarking onto a floating pontoon overlooked by the hotel’s gourmet organic restaurant.

Each standard suite is divided into three levels (living room, bedroom and roof deck), offering views of the surrounding river, mangroves and coconut plantations.

Inside, the rooms are comfortable and cozy, with all the expected features (TV, DVD, Wi-Fi) and optional air-conditioning. 

400 meters east of Baan Namphueng Nok Temple in Bang Krajao. www.bangkoktreehouse.com

Luxury brands

One of So Sofitel's "metal" themed rooms. In terms of big brands, the top five-star arrivals of 2012 worth checking out are So Sofitel and Okura Prestige.  

The super-hip Sofitel So's decor was inspired by the five elements found in the nearby Lumpini Park, as interpreted by big-name Thai interior designers.

There's fire motifs for public areas and restaurants, while the 238 rooms are categorized into water, earth, wood and metal themes.  

Every room comes with an Apple Mac Mini entertainment system and iPads are available for suite guests. (2 North Sathorn Road; +66 (0) 2 624 0000)  

Meanwhile, located in the Park Ventures building on the corner of Ploenchit and Wireless roads, Okura Prestige is the Japanese hospitality group's first Thailand property.

The 34-story "Ecoplex" is part office block and part hotel, and the lowest hotel rooms start from the 27th floor. All rooms are designed in accordance with Okura’s principles of "simplicity and elegance." There are four dining outlets but the one attracting the most attention is upscale Japanese eatery Yamazato. (57 Wireless Road, +66 (0) 2687 9000).  

Coming soon

At the time of publishing, a few venues are set to open in the weeks ahead worth mentioning. 

Bangkok-based chef Jess Barnes has been building a lot of buzz for his new restaurant Quince in recent months, giving diners a taste of what they can expect by appearing everywhere from organic farmers markets to pop-up restaurants.  

Barnes promises down-to-earth cuisine in an unfussy atmosphere. Quince, on Sukhumvit 45, is set to open in July. 

Meanwhile Bangkok's surfers will soon be hitting the manmade waves at Flow House, due to open in August. 

And finally, after a long wait and much curiosity, W Hotel Bangkok opens its doors in October this year. Travelers can expect W's usual injection of fashion, design and music in the otherwise corporate Sathorn area.

Karla is a digital producer with CNN Travel based in Bangkok, Thailand. 

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