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15 suprising things about Bangkok

Everyone knows Norwegian’s new destination does a great line in markets, street food and massages. But what about 120kg fish and David Beckham worship?

15 suprising things about Bangkok

Text by Caroline Eden

01 It’s got robot waiters

At Hajime Robot Restaurant, you order on touch screens and get served by a friendly robot who sporadically breaks into dancing – the “robot move” – to Lady Gaga or frantic Japanese pop. The food is not haute cuisine, but the cook-yourself Japanese sukiyaki barbecues aren’t bad.


02 You can sleep in a jungle

On the Chao Phraya river, a short water taxi from the city centre, is a patch of land known as Bang Kra Jao, which feels more like a bucolic jungle than Bangkok’s raucous rickshaw-clogged streets – the only people to disturb you from wandering the orchards and waterways are the fishermen who live on houses on stilts, or the odd Buddhist monk.  Now, there’s somewhere to stay, too. Accessible only by boat, Bangkok Treehouse is a pioneering new retreat with nature-inspired, eccentric guestrooms – there’s an outdoor room with no walls or ceilings, and a “river nest”, basically a floating bed on the river. It’s all eco-friendly, from the organic food to the fact that the hotel cleans up rubbish from the river. It’s only for those that can handle the odd beastie, though: there are outdoor showers, and the website notes that “you may have to share the pool with plants and friendly insects”.
Nests from THB4,000 (NOK780).


03 The surf’s reliable

Flowboarding is a super-fun hybrid of surfing and skateboarding that a beginner with a good sense of balance can pick up in a few hours – head to the downtown FlowHouse Bangkok, which also has a relaxed bar and grill by the static wave. For wakeboarding, the curiously named Taco Lake is less a lake and more a freshwater pond, with wakeboarding on a wire for an incredibly reasonable THB300 (NOK60).


04 Some people look like this

Tanakorn Leanjumpa (left), 34, and Natedaow Sanevongnayuthaya (right), 24, met at a rockabilly night and soon decided to set up the Doo Wop Bar, the first bar at Talad Rod Fai (the “train market”) on Kampaeng Phet Road. The market is Bangkok’s coolest weekend market, and the place to spot the city’s growing ranks of vintage-loving young folk. At the bar, Thai Marilyn Monroe and James Dean lookalikes come to listen to ’50s bands like The Cadillacs as they stir their cocktails with chopsticks. Now and then, vintage Beetles and old Chevrolet convertibles creep past. The stylish Sanevongnayuthaya, who has also run a vintage clothes store at Chatuchak Market, said to be the world’s biggest outdoor market, says: “I absolutely adore the ’50s and ’60s. Growing up, I used to just gaze at pictures of my parents when they were teenagers and think, ‘Wow, they’re so cool.’”
Talad Rod Fai is open every Saturday and Sunday from 2pm to midnight (MRT stop Kamphaeng Phet station).


05 Beckham-worship goes beyond football shirt sales

In the back corner of the Wat Pariwat temple on Rama III Road, a Garuda – the traditional mythical winged creature – has been replaced by a 30cm gold statuette of David Beckham, resplendent in Manchester United’s 1998 kit, with sponsor Sharp’s name clearly visible. 


06 You can catch a 120kg fish

Bungsamran fishing park, an eight-hectare lake deep in the suburbs, isn’t the kind of gimmicky anglers’ pond you find in many Asian cities, but a serious fishing spot rich with 50 species, including giant Mekong catfish and huge Siamese carp. Indeed, the world’s biggest rod-caught carp was caught here in 2007, weighing a whopping 120kg. Converted from swampland 30 years ago, it has a pro shop, equipment to hire and a decent restaurant serving Thai classics and seafood.


07 A bike ride won’t kill you

In the recent elections for the Bangkok governor, all the candidates pledged to introduce cycling lanes, a response to an increased interest in cycling over the past few years. A new Bangkok Bike Map is coming soon, highlighting colour-coded routes through uncongested backstreets; and Bicycles United is a new free bilingual magazine with local bike-related news, tours and product reviews. You can also head out on one of the free, multi-ability tours which are advertised on the Bangkok Bicycle Campaign Facebook page and sip a coffee with other bike fans at Café Velo Dome, which allows customers to park their bikes safely and sit among cycling paraphernalia. There are places to rent bikes across the city.


08 The best way to get around is by boat

The most relaxing and fun way to see and get around Bangkok is through its vast network of khlongs (canals) and waterways crisscrossing the city, not to mention the Chao Phraya River, which runs right through the heart of the city. Hordes of commuters and saffron-robed monks take the busy long-tail boats that run up and down the river, meaning that the people-watching is sometimes as good as the scenery. The local Chao Praya River Express Boat, one of more than 15 boat lines, takes in everything from the semi-rural outskirts to Siam Square’s modern shopping malls, passing the imposing tower of the Wat Arun temple and the beautiful Thai buildings of American silk entrepreneur Jim Thompson’s house (jimthompsonhouse.com). Or you can take private tours through the small waterways, past wooden houses on stilts, colonial mansions and floating kitchens. If you’re really serious, it’s possible to head through the Thonburi west bank and branch into the plantations of Nonthaburi, stretching on throughout Thailand’s Central Plains, connecting rivers, rice farms, rustic waterside towns and floating markets.
While a public ferry will cost as little as NOK2, private boat tours usually begin at around NOK250-300 an hour.


09 Some of the best things are free

Climbing the 320 steps to the stunning Golden Mount at the Wat Saket temple complex only costs a mild sweat and the reward is a panoramic view of Rattanakosin Island. For something less Zen, from 6-9pm every Wednesday there’s a free Muay Thai fight on a ring outside the MBK Centre, the most-visited mall in Bangkok.


10 It’s the World Book Capital

For 2013, at least, with a series of literary events throughout the city. If you just want to relax with a book, Bangkok’s café culture is booming, evidenced by the arrival of New York deli institution Dean & DeLuca. For a unique café experience, head to Café De Norasingha (check out its Facebook page), a stately spot in what was King Rama VI’s (1910-1925) royal reception room – think mahogany, ceiling frescoes and good coffee for just THB40 (NOK8).


11 Nicolas Winding Refn is obsessed with the city

Winding Refn is the US-based Danish director whose stylised but visceral and often extremely violent directorial style was first inspired by watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He has won awards for every film he’s made, from the Danish crime drama trilogy Pusher (from 1996) to Bronson (2008), about notorious prisoner Charles Bronson, and 2011 cult movie Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. His next one, Only God Forgives, is an Asian noir-meets-western set entirely in Bangkok, where Winding Refn regularly holidays. It stars Gosling, again, this time as a Westerner who runs a Thai boxing club as a front for a family drug ring. It’s due for release in July and we’ll have a full preview in next month’s N by Norwegian.


12 This is less than four hours by bus and ferry

There are more jaw-dropping islands in Thailand, namely Ko Phi Phi or Ko Lanta, but for a quick getaway from Bangkok, it’s hard to beat the teardrop-shaped Ko Samet. Just 200km from the capital, it has crystal-clear waters, white sand and coral reefs – and it misses the monsoon season. It can get busy with Bangkok-dwellers at weekends – if the crowds are too much, head to the more secluded Ao Kio Na Nok, a sandy beach known for its great sunsets, or Ao Karang, the best spot on the island for local seafood.


13 You can buy the world’s best liquorice here

Bangkok is home to the first Asian branch of Lakrids, the liquorice company that Dane Johan Bülow started at the tender age of 23. Bülow’s goal was to elevate liquorice to the point where it was spoken of as a serious ingredient in fine-dining circles. In the six years since, he’s seen his high-quality, old-fashioned confectionary lend its sweet-meets-savoury subtleties to some of the world’s best restaurants, including The Fat Duck in the UK. The range, which includes everything from liquorice stout beer to habanero chilli liquorice, dominates a corner of the Tops Supermarket at the Central Chidlom department store.


14 It’s got a Vogue-worthy fashion scene

You’ve made it as a fashion hotspot when you get a Vogue – and Vogue Thailand is the latest international edition of the fashion bible, having just opened this year with a male editor-in-chief, Kullawit Laosuksri, a former editor of Elle Thailand who also owns a flower shop and designs jewellery. He’ll have plenty of local labels to write about, too. Perhaps the most high-profile is Bangkok fashion institution Greyhound, whose sharp cuts and bold prints are sold in 15 shops around the world, and which has five stylish cafés in Bangkok. Another hot name is Sretsis, a label founded by three sisters that creates whimsically feminine womenswear and accessories, with lots of silk and chiffon going on. Their big break came when both Paris and Nicky Hilton were snapped wearing the same Sretsis buttoned dress a few years ago.


15 The top-rated Thai chef is an Aussie

Originally from Sydney, long stints in Bangkok have seen David Thompson become the world’s leading expert on Thai cooking. His beautiful takes on obscure (and often authentically spicy) Thai street food dishes have seen his Nahm restaurant named the world’s 32nd best in this year’s World’s Best Restaurant list. Try his Ma Hor amuse-bouche or cook it yourself with his cooking-meets-culture books, Thai Food and Thai Street Food.

But there are big Thai chefs, too…

Ian Kittichai is considered the first Thai celebrity chef, fronting the country’s most popular cookery show. After stints abroad at the likes of elBulli and California’s French Laundry, he came home to open Smith, a meat-heavy nose-to-tail joint with dishes such as kaeng hang lay, a northern pork belly curry.

Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava, the chef at Bo.lan, has made her name making progressive Thai dishes with a ‘slow food’ emphasis on seasonal, organic ingredients. She worked with David Thompson at his Michelin-starred London branch of Nahm and was voted Asia’s best female chef in this year’s Asia’s Best Restaurants list. Try her stir-fried pork with chilli and dried prawn relish.
Norwegian flies to Bangkok from Oslo and Stockholm. Book flights and hotels at norwegian.com

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