From the air, Bangkok appears to be a tangle of elevated freeways groaning under the weight of all-hours traffic. It is an undulating wave of short and tall buildings spaced with no apparent logic or system. From the ground, those same buildings are simple and modular, with only minimal ornament, occasional splashes of color dulled by the thick yellow air.
Vehicle emissions from the overcrowded streets have left their mark in the form of black residue discernable along the rooftops. Sidewalks are stained, cracked and lined with vendors selling fried dough and Buddha trinkets. Drooping electric wires hang thick and low — dangerously close to passing pedestrians. The blare of honking horns and the squeal of automobile brakes is constant.
Yet, amid this seeming chaos, you’ll find throwbacks to a more serene time in Bangkok’s history. Visit the temples of Wat Phra Kaeo, where bright color and ornate design spring from behind brick and stucco walls. Marble slabs decorate high-gabled roofs in a Chinese style. Gilded spires sparkle. Porcelain and mirror fragments coat entire outer walls of the temples. Clearly, this a place where the present and the past are forever intertwined.
Thailand is earnestly competing with China and Singapore to be the economic gateway into Southeast Asia. Evidence of that effort can be found in Bangkok’s changing and expanding infrastructure. The government’s goal is to transform the city from a chaotic hodgepodge of buildings and roads into an efficient and satisfying place in which to live and do business.
The metropolis that is Bangkok today began in the 1700s as a quiet and unassuming village surrounded by wild plum trees. (Bangkok translates as “plum orchard.”) Located on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River, it was determined to be the ideal location to build a city in the form of a Buddhist mandala or “abode of the deities.” In 1782 King Rama declared Bangkok the new capital, thereby paving the way for construction to begin. The result was a circular layout alternating rings of land and water. The Lak Meuang, a complex of palaces and royal monasteries, was constructed at the mandala’s center. The closer a Thai noble lived on the ring of land closest to the center, the higher he stood in the city’s social order.
By the 19th century, Thai kings had abandoned this ordered form. Waterways were allowed to branch away from the circular design with no consideration given to city planning. The result was an elaborate network of canals that earned Bangkok the nickname “Venice of the East.”
In the 20th century, most of those canals were filled and paved to make roads (though not nearly enough to accommodate the masses that struggle on them daily). In a period of just 100 years, beginning in 1900, Bangkok grew from a city of 8 square miles to the 205-square-mile metropolis it is today. Throughout this period of exponential growth, city officials did little to manage expansion. The new Skytrain, an elevated train system that opened in 1999, and the new Metropolitan Railway Transport subway system, which opened in August of last year, are attempts to alleviate traffic and congestion.
Bangkok has also grown upward. In the 1970s, fewer than 25 buildings stood taller than six stories. Now nearly 1,000 buildings have breached that height, 20 of which soar more than 45 stories. Bangkok’s financial center, located along Silom Road, was nothing more than paddy fields as recently as 50 years ago. It is now comprised of multistory buildings housing banks, finance firms, insurance companies, export-import houses, airline offices, restaurants and department stores.
Significant economic growth in the 1980s and ’90s resulted in many modern accouterments, including coffee shops and world-class hotels and monuments. There are also several new air-conditioned, marble-tiled shopping malls with food courts and cinema complexes. These malls offer many of the same retail stores popular in the United States. At The Emporium, Central World Plaza or Gaysorn Plaza — all easily accessible by Skytrain — you’ll find Chanel, Christian Dior, Hugo Boss, and Crabtree and Evelyn among the many posh stores. But you won’t find many bargains; retail here is pricey. Suan Lum, Bangkok’s newest night market in the Silom, is less expensive and offers a much more cultural shopping experience. Be prepared to bargain.
Tourism is a major source of revenue for Bangkok. The many foreigners buzzing about the city throughout the year are evidence of a continuing interest despite current difficulties. Thailand’s market crashed in 1997 after nearly two decades of a steadily climbing economy. Recovery since then has been encouraging, but it was slowed in 2004 by violence and an outbreak of avian influenza in the south. The result was a drop in gross domestic product from 6.4 percent to 6 percent. Although the Thai tourist economy in six southern provinces was dealt a harsh blow by the recent tsunami tragedy, Bangkok itself was undamaged.
Bangkok may soon be able to untangle itself from the chaos of freeways and buildings. In addition to the Skytrain and subway, a new international airport, Suvarnabhumi, is scheduled to open Sept. 29 (the current Don Muang will become domestic only). The growth and change here is so fast it’s palpable; it seems as though the economic troubles and disorganized urban development you see here today may be entirely rectified tomorrow. And if you consider what has been done in the last century, that timetable may not be far off.
The Silom financial district is the lodging hot spot for the business traveler. This area also has convenient access to the rest of Bangkok via the Skytrain, the MRTA and the Bangkok Transit System. The highest concentration of luxury hotels can be found here; however, there are also moderately priced accommodations for the more conservative traveler.
THE DUSIT THANI
The Dusit Thani is located in the heart of Silom and is a favorite for those on business. Silk and teakwood decorate 500 rooms, including the Landmark rooms, which are among the most spacious in Asia. Each of the 26 Thai Heritage suites has its own decorative motif, which serves to reflect different aspects of traditional Thai culture. Throughout the lower and upper lobbies you will find several choices for dining and cocktails. Cuisine ranges from traditional Thai to American and Japanese. Or, try French with a Mediterranean flair on the rooftop at D’Sens Bar and enjoy the panoramic city view. Amenities include an outdoor golf driving range, fitness center, spa, high-speed Internet access, 24-hour butler service and limousine service.
THE DUSIT THANI
946 Rama IV Road
Bangkok 10500, Thailand
tel 66 02 200 9000, fax 66 02 236 6400
THE ROYAL ORCHID SHERATON
Located on the Chao Phraya River,
The Royal Orchid Sheraton is in a key location for sightseeing as well as for business. Sights such as Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn and Chinatown are easily accessible. The Royal Orchid also has a 24-hour business center equipped with 16 different meeting rooms, some large enough for five people, others boardroom size. Audiovisual equipment, technicians and production services are available.
THE ROYAL ORCHID SHERATON
Siphya Road, 2 Captain Bush Lane
Bangkok 10500, Thailand
tel 66 02 266 0123, fax 66 02 236 8320
THE SWISS LODGE
The Swiss Lodge is a modestly sized, modestly priced hotel in the Silom. Its 57 rooms are decorated with marble, granite and teak. The beds are big and the showers tall. The hotel provides business travelers with convenient amenities, such as conference rooms, private office services and computers equipped with business software. Café Swiss, the hotel’s eatery, offers traditional Swiss meals and a breakfast buffet.
THE SWISS LODGE
3 Convent Road
Bangkok 10500, Thailand
tel 66 02 233 5345, fax 66 02 236 9425
LOY NAVA DINNER CRUISE
As visitors step aboard a restored antique rice barge, they are welcomed with a water sprinkling ceremony and adorned with a garland of jasmine. A scented wet towel and lotus flowers are set on each plate, and Thai women play traditional Thai music and dance while diners peruse the menu. Try the crab-cake rolls to start and the grilled prawns and mussels as a main course. There is also an extensive bar list. Make reservations between 9:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. in person at the office, or call after 6:30 p.m. The cruise lasts two hours.
LOY NAVA CO. LTD.
37 Charoen Nakorn Road
Klongsan, Bangkok 10600, Thailand
tel 66 02 437 4932 or 66 02 437 7329
fax 66 02 438 3098
Sometimes familiarity is a good thing. Such is the case at Angelino. Located at the Shangri-La Hotel, the comfortable venue where you can enjoy your meal while seated at a table overlooking the river, is known for its Italian cuisine. A jazz duo plays in the evening. Reservations are strongly suggested.
89 Soi Wat Suan Phu, New Rd.
tel 66 02 236 7777
HIMALI CHA CHA
The recipes of former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s cook, who died in 1996, live on at the comfortably informal Himali Cha Cha. Try the tandoori chicken, a favorite of locals, and pay close attention as servers rattle off the daily specials, which are usually both intriguing and delicious. Be sure to try the mango-flavored yogurt drink — sweet and satisfying.
HIMALI CHA CHA
1229/11 New Rd.
tel 66 02 235 1569
Located in Chinatown, this is a small, informal eatery. It is usually crowded, but welcomes all to come in and share tables. Try the vegetarian and nonvegetarian curries. The menu includes a lentil soup (dhal), Indian breads, spiced yogurt (raita) and a yogurt drink (lassi). It’s a great stop for an inexpensive and quick meal while out sightseeing.
392/1 Chakraphet Road
tel 66 02 216 5656
A night at Sirocco (1055/111 State Tower, Silom Road, tel 66 02 624 9576, www.thedomebkk.com) is a rare and spectacular experience. An open balcony extends out into the horizon from atop the 68-story tower, the second-tallest building in Bangkok. Views of the city twinkle on one side, while on the other, the lit and glowing walls shed a soft light on visitors. This is a great place for drinks, but the food is a bit overpriced. The setup, however, is well worth a visit. Cocktails start at $6.50. In the business district, Silom Soi 4 has a bit more edge. Bars and clubs swarm this alleyway, and there is a mix of absolutely everything. Tourists, locals, college students and business travelers can take their pick depending on what suits the mood: hip hop and trance clubs (trance has a repetitive base line and a blend of electronic noises), cabaret shows, discos, restaurants and lounging areas are all down here. Telephone (114/11 Silom Soi 4, tel 66 02 234 3279), Sphinx (100 Silom Soi 4, tel 66 02 234 7249) and The Balcony (86/88 Silom Soi 4, tel 66 02 235 5891) are the current hot spots on this lane. After work, try the Diplomat Bar (87 Wireless Road, tel 66 02 690 9999) in the Conrad Hotel where cool jazz hums in the background. Very different from Silom Soi 4, this venue allows you to breathe a sigh after the long workday. It’s also nice to bring clients to unwind in this more casual atmosphere.
Although Thai people have begun to adopt the handshake to accommodate foreign business-people, the customary greeting in Thailand is a bow with hands pressed together. The higher one’s hands when bowing, the more respect shown. Be aware, however, that respect is earned, so be conservative during initial meetings. A man should accompany his bow with the verbal “sawadee kap.” A woman should always greet with “sawadee kaa.” The bow also helps to avoid any gray areas concerning touch, particularly between sexes.
Thailand, the Land of Smiles: Thai people have 13 different smiles for emotions ranging from happiness to embarrassment to remorse, even tension. Keep this in mind when doing business. A smile is not always an agreeable response.
When having meals, Thais often eat a hot and sour soup called tom yum. In the United States, soup is usually eaten before the meal. Thai tradition is to take spoonfuls of soup between bites of other dishes throughout the course of the meal. The soup helps to clear the palate for the next dish.
Raghwan Raghwan, senior specialist in workers’ activities, has been living in Bangkok for the last five years on assignment for the United Nations. He mediates between big business, government and trade unions to protect the rights of local workers and ensure proper working conditions. Raghwan sheds light on the changing infrastructure and discusses its affect on Bangkok business.
Just the Facts
Location: Bangkok is located in south-central Thailand, north of the Gulf of Thailand, northeast of Laos, east of Cambodia and west of Myanmar.
Population: About 7 million
Climate: Tropical. Temperatures throughout the year rarely drop below 70°F. Bangkok’s monsoon season is November to mid-March. From April through May is the hottest time of year and also the most humid; temperatures average 90°F. June to September is pleasantly warm at 75°F, but also rainy.
Time Zone: GMT+7
Phone Code: 66 2
Currency: Thailand bhat
Electricity: 220 volts AC, 50Hz; standard two-pin plug
Official Languages: Thai (Siamese), English (secondary language of the elite)
Key Industries: Tourism, textiles, timber and jewelry. Others include agricultural processing, beverages, tobacco, cement, jewelry, electric appliances and components, computers and parts, integrated circuits, furniture, plastics, tungsten (the world’s second-largest producer) and tin (third-largest producer).
While Bangkok was spared much of the devastation that swept southern Asia in the wake of the December tsunami, coastal Thailand sustained considerable damage. Recovery and relief efforts are ongoing. See “Tourism Industry Struggles to Recover From Tsunami,” page 11.
INFO TO GO
Bangkok Don Muang International Airport (BKK) is surprisingly efficient and easy to negotiate. Northwest Airlines (tel 800 447 4747, www.nwa.com) flies from New York (JFK), Boston (BOS) and Detroit (DTW) to Bangkok via Tokyo (NRT). British Airways (tel 800 247 9297, www.britishairways.com) flies from New York (JFK) and Los Angeles (LAX) to Bangkok via London (LHR).
Axis Rent A Car serves Bangkok Don Muang International Airport. Driving is on the left, but bad traffic and confusing roads can prove major difficulties. Taxis or limousines are a more convenient option; a ride to the city should cost about $7.50 (airport surcharge included). Beware of taxi drivers who swarm the airport exits. Buy a fixed-fare ticket instead from the public taxi booth outside the arrivals area. A bus to the city costs $2.
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