Having been to Bangkok several times, nothing quite feeds a sense of happiness better than returning to the meandering banks of its Chao Phraya River. This time, as I was joined by a newbie to the Thai capital, namely, the Husband-in-Chief, I enlisted luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent to aid in curating a tailor-made itinerary over four full days that would reflect Bangkok’s most important sites, while adding activities that I hadn’t yet experienced to keep us both happy and engaged.
On arrival at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, we were met by a VIP agent 10 feet from deplaning and whisked through immigration and customs. Ten minutes later the VIP agent handed us directly off to guide who showed us to our waiting, air-conditioned vehicle. Bangkok is a marvelous city though has notoriously heavy traffic and street names a mile long, so I was pleased as punch to leave the driving, guiding, and logistics in A&K’s hands.
Returning to the Shangri-La Bangkok where I have stayed several times over the years was like getting a warm hug from an old friend. Strategically located right on the Chao Phraya, it makes getting ferries to the main sites easy. It’s also right next to the BTS Sky Train to zip around to other city locations avoiding vehicular traffic altogether.
The Shangri-La’s immense lobby has a centerpiece representing Thai stupas and an entire wall of orchids with glass windows at the Lobby Lounge looking out towards the resort pool and the river. The pool bar is a great place for cocktails and to watch life amble by. Across the river is Icon Siam Shopping Center that had the misfortune of opening right before COVID. However, it’s now thriving with all the usual high-end shops such as Cartier, Hermès, and Gucci. It also houses the world’s second largest Starbucks. You’ll want to look up and see the artistic lit lanterns paying homage to Thailand’s annual Festival of Lights and lanterns – Loy Krathong. Shangri-La provides several complimentary shuttles daily to Icon Siam.
Chocoholics will rejoice as Shangri-La’s lobby also has a Chocolate Boutique with all manner of macaroons, chocolate cakes, and my personal favorite, the chocolate “mood capsules.” Because, frankly, I’m not sure I would trust anyone whose mood wouldn’t be enhanced by a chocolate capsule. That said, I’m happy Shangri-La has an excellent, state-of-the-art fitness center with classes, free weights, LifeFitness equipment, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the river.
Our Horizon level room – included access to the 24th floor Horizon Club for breakfast, high tea, and happy hour – had bay window upholstered seating overlooking the river. Combined with a large, intricate wood panel depicting an ancient Thai scene, daydreaming was inevitable. A massive desk made work manageable, and an incredibly comfortable king-sized bed with high-count sheets ensured dreamy slumber.
The Drinks and Meals
Thailand in general and Bangkok in particular is a place to dine and drink. And doing both well is a pleasure as the city has a plethora of great places, casual and fancy. Breakfasts at Shangri-La’s Horizon Club had a glorious buffet of western and Asian dishes, tropical fruits, swoon-worthy baked goods, and a made-to-order menu in case one needed Eggs Benedict.
On the 26th floor of Avani+ Riverside Hotel is SEEN Restaurant & Bar. Stellar views from both indoor and outdoor seating and mixologists employed to make you happy is a splendid respite.
For a Hangovertini, head over to Sky Bar at Lebua for an unforgettable experience sitting 820 feet above Bangkok. Arriving at sunset and staying until darkness provided a cascading play of light, color and mood while serenaded by live music.
Cruising along the Chao Phraya and seeing the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, and the Rama VIII Bridge during daylight is wonderful. However, seeing those at night lit up while gliding on a meticulously restored antique rice barge enjoying a seven-course Michelin-worthy meal is otherworldly. Manohra Dinner Cruises leaves from the Anantara Riverside Hotel (there’s a complimentary boat service to Anantara departing every 30-minutes from BTS Saphan Taksin/Sathorn Pier, a few feet from the Shangri-La).
Manohra has three ships and we dined on the Moon, with 40-passengers capacity. Intimate tables were beautifully set with fine Thai textiles, elegant China, while the main dishes – mouthwatering cod and tender wagyu – were served under glass domes. Service was impeccably gracious, while every single course was delectable, culinary artistry in action.
At Volti Tuscan Grill & Bar, Bangkok’s only Tuscan-style-grill, Chef Bruno Ferrari prepared an inspired six-course, truly global tasting menu, including foie gras with Boston lobster, squid in Italian curry and black truffle, and spaghetti with wagyu, garlic and chili that had me contemplating moving to Italy.
If visiting Thailand’s ancient capital of Ayutthaya - an hour away - Sala Ayutthaya has an enviable location on the river, with indoor and outdoor seating, and views of Wat Phutthaisawa. Known for its prawns served seven different ways, including grilled, pad Thai, and Khao Pad, a return visit to taste the other four varieties will be required.
If you go to only one museum in Bangkok, it should be its Museum of Contemporary Art. Akin to L.A.’s Broad Museum, Bangkok’s MOCA contains over 800 pieces of businessman Boonchai Bencharongkui’s private collection. Within five floors, there are pan-Asian masks, water puppets, and sculpture displays, dramatic surrealist art, especially those of Sompong Adulyasaraphan and Pradeep Kochabua, and the impactful solid, black-walled level that made the bright paintings visually sprint off the walls.
On the grounds of the magnificent Grand Palace that contains the Wat Prah Kaew – Temple of the Emerald Buddha – is the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. This museum should be visited for its architecture even if one has zero interest in textiles/fashion. Now 91, the beloved Sirikit was quite the darling of western media and a Thai fashion icon equivalent to the celebrity of Jackie Onassis. Nearby is Wat Arun with its noteworthy spires.
About an hour out of Bangkok, a site like no other is the Maeklong Station Railway Market, also called the Life-Risking Market, since its stalls are actually attached to the railway. When the train signal sounds, vendors immediately shut the overhead canopies while simultaneously removing their wares to avoid the oncoming train coming within 10-inches on either side. It’s a sight to behold. Once the train passes, the process is reversed, eight times a day.
At UNESCO’s Ayutthaya, the one-time commercial and global diplomatic center lasted over 400 years until Burma’s 1767 attack. Surrounded by three rivers, an entire day can easily be spent here exploring its many temples. Wat Mahathat features traditional Khmer architecture with several statues, stupas, and murals. However, it’s the stone Buddha head deeply embedded in a tree’s roots that is most mesmerizing. Here the supernatural seems ever present.
On the site of the old Royal Palace, Wat Phra Si San Sanphet was the area’s most sacred prior to its total destruction during the Burmese attack. Mainly used for storing relics and royal ceremonies, its three impressive stupas are thought to hold the ashes of three ancient kings. This structure then served as a blueprint for Bangkok’s Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Close by is Bang Pa-In Summer Palace. Abandoned for nearly a century, most structures were rebuilt in the 1850’s. Still used by the Royals, the massive, manicured grounds make the available golf cart rental useful, and several building styles: Thai, Chinese and neo-classical European, emit an unusual architectural mélange.
If you’re in Bangkok on a Sunday, having tea in Shangri-La’s Lobby Lounge is a must as Executive Pastry Chef Alexander Hekimov provides delectable carbs, while seriously skilled ballroom dancers kick up their heels entertaining all.
Though one can have a very good massage in any one of the thousands of massage storefronts that line Bangkok for the cost of two NYC Starbuck’s cappuccinos, my personal happiness is best served at Shangri-La’s elegant Chi Spa. In addition to masseuses so skilled – reserve Pui if she’s available – you may consider tattooing her name on your arm so as not to forget, the atmosphere and decor at Chi Spa is Nirvana producing.
The Lessons Learned
Being in chaotic, buzzing, beautiful Bangkok and surrounds is a magical blend of old and new, traditional and modern, with both incredible street food and five-star fine dining. And of course, there is seriously stellar shopping for anyone desiring or needing retail therapy: Thai silks, handicrafts, home goods, fashion, and jewelry, especially rubies and sapphires. By far the best location to hang your hat is along the Chao Phraya. While there are many great hotels along the river, I prefer being in the company of friends, so my home away from home remains the Shangri-La Bangkok.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” Her work has appeared in several major publications around the world, including The LA Times, The SF Examiner, The Asia Times, The Jerusalem Post, and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, among many others. She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.
Written by Julie L. Kessler
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