x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Bangkok: After the turmoil

Cover As life in the Thai capital returns to normal, Rupert Wright revels in the shopping, fine dining and pampering for which Bangkok is famous.

Celebrations on Khao San road attract crowds of tourists on a recent weekend. A busy area in the heart of Bangkok, Khao San is very popular among budget travellers.
Celebrations on Khao San road attract crowds of tourists on a recent weekend. A busy area in the heart of Bangkok, Khao San is very popular among budget travellers.

I have learnt over the years that when a woman seeks your opinion on her outfit, the best thing you can do is to agree. But when my wife asked me on our first morning in Bangkok whether she should wear the red or yellow dress, I felt it would be tactful to intervene. "Might I suggest the white dress?" I asked. "That way if it gets hairy on the streets you could always take it off and wave it as a peace flag."

The air is heavy in Thailand at the moment, and not even the cooling monsoon rains can wash away the heat for long. With the rioters dispersed just a month ago, many of the inhabitants are still shell-shocked by the events. Before venturing out onto the streets, I was a bit like the Laurence Olivier character in the film Marathon Man. "Is it safe?" I asked Camilla Russell, the delightful public relations manager of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

"Yes, of course," she said. I asked my pal Ken Hom, the cookery writer and restaurateur in the bar of Maison Chin, the restaurant that he runs in the capital. The place was so busy that we couldn't get a table in the main seating area. "Is it safe?" "Yes," he said. "Otherwise we wouldn't be here." I watched as my wife put the yellow and red dresses back on the rail and pulled out the white frock. "Is it safe?" I asked.

"Oh shut up." The Thai Airways plane from Dubai had been almost empty. We felt safe travelling from the airport in the 7 Series BMW sent by the hotel, and comforted by the lobby and the comfortable rooms, even if there were few people about but willing staff. But eventually it was time to leave the sanctuary of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and head to the battleground. The protesters have been moved on, the tyres they left behind recycled, the blood washed away by the monsoon rains.

But traces of the fracas remain. At CentralWorld, a giant shopping mall near the centre of the protests, a large chunk of the building is now a burnt-out ruin. I have always felt that a mall is rather like a war zone. In fact, I have often felt that after half an hour shopping for shoes with my wife that I would rather burn down the place than admire another set of stilettos. But even I could see that this was going a bit far.

There are still billboards up advertising Louis Vuitton goods and football clothing. Palm trees were swaying in the wind. A number of stallholders had returned and were selling T-shirts and skewers of meat. There was no sign of the red shirts or yellow shirts and no roadblocks, just the usual crush of traffic that makes travelling around the city so disagreeable. "I like the pink taxis," said my wife.

With that we left relative safety of the burnt-out shopping mall and headed to Siam Paragon, a giant emporium of shops ranging from Paragon, a department store, to Jim Thompson silks to Kinokuniya, a book shop. The only danger was of being overwhelmed by rage, futility or a credit card that refused to function. Five hours later, laden down with goods and clothes, my wife declared herself satisfied and we returned to the Mandarin Oriental.

Of course, we knew to call it the "Oriental". It is one of the grandest and most splendid hotels in the East, where kings and queens, Hollywood royalty and even writers and journalists have holed up for years. Twenty years ago I sneaked into the gardens to have a dip in the pool. It is a marvellous green-tiled creation, surounded by bamboo and hibiscus and gardenia. You can hear birdsong and the cheering note of a waiter bringing you drinks. On that visit, having outpaced a pensioner to the last remaining sun-lounger, I was kindly queried as to my room number. I guessed wildly. 211?

"I am afraid we don't have a room with that number sir. I must ask you to leave." I did, but vowed to return. Two years ago it was rebranded as the Mandarin Oriental - it is part of the very nice group that runs the Mandarin Orientals in Tokyo, London and Hong Kong - but if you tell a taxi driver in Bangkok to take you to the Mandarin you risk being carted to Chinatown and shown a two-star establishment.

There are plenty of empty sun-loungers around the pool now, and they have even built a new basalt infinity pool that has a view of the Chao Phraya River and the tugs that pull enormous barges along its length. It is always quiet in the rainy season, but seldom this quiet. The hotel has seen many business cycles - after the Second World War it was all but abandoned and had to be revived by a consortium that included Jim Thompson, the silk man - and no doubt it will overcome this hiccup. There are three different parts to it: the original building, where the suites are named after writers who stayed there, such as Noel Coward and James Michener, beautiful high- ceilinged rooms with patterned wallpaper and wooden fans; there's the Garden Wing, with large duplexes and views of Bangkok; and the River Wing, where we stayed.

There's a spa across the river, where we enjoyed a massage in a fine wooden building. During recuperation we were fed grapefruit slices covered in toasted garlic in coconut sauce, a combination that sounds terrible but tastes divine. My wife was all for another shopping trip, so we ventured out around the lanes, where we bought three suits, four shirts, five dresses, six scarves, a set of cufflinks, and a money clip. We would have spent more but the credit cards rebelled.

So with nothing left to buy, we went sightseeing. A boat picked us up after breakfast and sped us to the Temple of Dawn. It is a tall, rather garish structure on the riverbank. The steep steps are rather like a stairmaster. Puffing a little, we then crossed the river, picked up a car and drove to the Grand Palace. It is as grand as it sounds, built in 1782, but added to over the years. There is a beautiful mural around some of the inside walls, where art students sit, not copying the figures but adding to them, touching them up and adding details to the faces.

Here is a good place to observe that the country has struggled with the modern and ancient before, and not just over the past few years. The Borom Phiman Mansion looks for all the world as if it has been airlifted from the Faubourg Saint-Honore, with its sandstone walls and mansard roofs. It was built at the turn of the 19th century, inspired by the travels of the king's children in Europe. Walk fewer than a hundred paces, and there is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, with its painted walls and golden Buddhas. Another few hundred metres away and there is the Banqueting Hall. It is even more schizophrenic: its walls are built to a European design, and it was intended to have a roof in the same style. Instead, the king's uncle rebelled and to appease him the architects added a Thai top. It looks like a European man with a chada, the Thai classical headdress, clapped on his head.

This was all thrilling stuff, but rather tiring. Fortunately our driver was on hand to take us back through the traffic to Jim Thompson's House. He is the engimatic American who arrived in Thailand after the Second World War and revived the Thai silk industry. He built a beautiful house on a klong, the Thai word for canal, collected Buddhas and bronzes and gave glamorous parties. Then one day he went for a walk in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia and disappeared, never to be seen again. His house is now a foundation and there's a shop that sells silk ties, shirts and scarves.

It had been a successful trip: with the exception of the Grand Palace, everywhere had been pretty much deserted, except for the busy roads. We had a very nice lunch of tom yam soup, Chinese stir-fried vegetables and mango and sticky rice, then returned to our own refuge on the river. Here we lounged by the pool once more, took tea in the Authors' Lounge, where we were served a choice of Maison Freres teas and sandwiches, honeyed crisp vermicelli in rice flour shells, macaroons and marzipan fruit, Dundee cake and ginger creme brulée. Then it was time for a set of tennis, before the set dinner at Sala Rim Naam, just across the river by the spa, where an endless array of beautiful Thai dishes convinced us that this is really one of the very best cuisines of the world.

Next day my wife decided that we should resume our shopping and sightseeing. Fortunately I had the advice of the British Foreign Office to hand. It may have lifted its blanket ban on travel to the country, but it remained wary. "You should avoid any demonstrations or large gatherings of people. If you become aware of any nearby violence you should stay indoors, monitor this travel advice and the local media. You should exercise caution," it advised.

We should be careful, I told her. Too much sightseeing or shopping can do you in, and besides there will be crowds. Stay by the pool is the message from the diplomats. So, is it safe? Well, it's not good for your waistline or your credit card, but Bangkok remains one of the friendliest, most intriguing and splendid capitals to visit. And if the rioters block your exit, all you need to do is head back to the Oriental hotel. There are enough restaurants, masseurs and diversions to keep one amused for months. We kept finding new places to eat or shop without leaving the grounds. There were no red shirts, but lots of other shopping opportunities.

"Come back soon," they told us as we left. "We need guests." rwright@thenational.ae