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Bangkok rooftop bars are better, the pets brasher, the hotels braver

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaAs meditative temples draw in the crowds and riverboats chatter, hotels battle to offer the best rooftop sky bars in Bangkok. We look at a few new luxury hotels, and dip our toes into some fun shopping, pampered pet escapes, delicious bites, and spas to check what's new after the long Covid shutdown.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Bangkok fun guide, Wat Pho Buddha, ICON Siam shopping mall, river taxe and food court/ photos: Vijay Verghese

The magnificent and serene reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, a place for meditative contemplation (far left), ICON Siam on the river, A Chao Phya River Taxi, and the lantern-festooned food halls of ICON Siam, which are well worth a visit/ photos/ Vijay Verghesea

WHEN the mercury hits 44C in Bangkok, only the most devout sunworshippers or zombie tourists courting death through a thousand khop khun kraps might be seen staggering about the blazing streets. Yet, on a hot May Sunday afternoon, fortified with little more than the fickle allure of distant gilded spires and a swig of watermelon juice, there strode I, sweatily making my way from the Rajinee express boat pier (N7) to my favourite mystic bolthole, Wat Pho.

I fell in love with this spot — part of the Grand Palace and its sister structures nestled within a vast curve of the Chao Phraya River — on my first visit in 1982. Wat Pho (8.30am-6.30pm, Bt200), is a beautiful sprawling complex of stone-inlaid stupas, shade trees, soaring white temples with gilded roofs, and a wondrously composed reclining Buddha. The huge gold figure stretching languorously across the entire temple interior is in sharp contrast to the red-faced foreigners shuffling around in a reverential stupor, all much in need of the traditional 'strong' Thai massage this estate is famous for.

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Not far from Rajinee pier and the Sanam Chai metro stop is the huge and aromatic Pak Khlong Talat flower market. It's nothing to sneeze at unless you're allergic to pollen. The fabled Chatuchak weekend market (BTS stop Mo Chit, Exit 1, or Khampaeng Phet MRT Blue Line) will be familiar to many, but Jodd Fairs (4pm-midnight) is a newer name worth getting to know. This is a fun Bangkok night market for the young and restless. The Dan Neramit location (Phra Ram 9 MRT Blue Line stop) will change to Ratchadapisek sometime in 2024 after the current lease expires. Expect acres of food, drink, funky clothes, balloons, classic cars, and quite mad themed areas.

The Chao Phraya River is humming anew with river taxis and long-tail boats churning the water shuttling passengers from Asiatique, the themed shopping and dining area that is seeing a minor renaissance, past Saphan Taksin (the BTS ferry point), to the brash and bustling ICON Siam and on to the shimmering Grand Palace. ICON Siam boasts space for kids and weekend entertainment riverside paired with luxury shopping and an immense food court. To avoid long head-scratching waits in the sun, take a moment to check out the Chao Phraya Express boat service timings and routes from Sathorn to Nonthaburi.

{The Jodd Fairs night market is a fun spot for the young and restless with tons of food, drinks, and mad themed areas with classic cars and castles

Bangkok fun guide and new luxury hotels, Capella (left), Cafe Madeleine and Four Seasons (right), photos: Vijay Verghese

While the Capella Bangkok favours delicate filigree wood screems and cream tones (left), the Four Seasons is a larger, imposing, cubist construct (right) and its riverfront Cafe Madeleine is a delight / photos: Vijay Verghese

On Charoen Krung Road, between Asiatique and the BTS Saphan Taksin station, are the newer Four Seasons and Capella. The contemporary cubist Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok — with its snaking Art Space for exhibitions and the delightful Café Madeleine bakery fronting the river — and the chic Capella Bangkok are literally joined at the hip with lobby taxi drop-offs metres apart in the manicured and green Chao Phraya Estate.

Both hotels serve up clean straight lines with the Four Seasons favouring massive imposing grey stone structures, the Capella, more delicate lines and chiselled wooden screens. Reviving an old luxury trend, the Four Seasons offers small cloth hand towels in the public toilets. Its service is brisk and intuitive within darkly elegant interiors. The hotel offers a refreshing spa, an 'urban wellness centre' as it likes to call it. Its signature 60-minute massage will set you back Bt4,000. Or opt for a mindfulness session.

Café Madeleine merges into Capella's riverfront Phra Nakhon Thai restaurant, a flavourful hangout. The birdlike and affable John Blanco hovers attentively over Capella. He is a general manager keen on connecting with guests in the old-fashioned manner. Here, think large soaking tubs and an impressive spa with exotic black sesame scrubs.

Bangkok hotel spas abound but two classy old timers are still giving many a run for their money. At The Athenee Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Bangkok, an elegant well-lit spa offers everything from body scrubs and wraps to massages, facials and waxing. One thing you can be reasonably sure of is that unlike at many places where pretty young things will attend to you in a friendly if mindless fashion, your masseuse here will be experienced and scrupulously attentive. As one satisfied customer remarked, "My masseuse found all the right pressure points and intuitively lightened the massage strength as she saw me slipping into sleep." The Athenee Spa scores high marks.

The elegant Athenee is managed with unrelenting passion by general manager Choo Leng Goh who has mastered the art of being a woman in a man's world. "It's the little things," she says. "I want staff to make eye contact and respond." Her grooming and care shows in the level of service the hotel provides. Early in 2023 she suffered an unfortunate setback after fracturing a foot falling off an exercise bike. "It was stationary," she says with an embarrassed laugh. "And it completely changed my focus. Sometimes we all need to change our perspective. Suddenly I was in a wheelchair. So I started checking out our handicapped facilities." Handicapped guests can thank her for new grab bars and revised procedures. One lady can make a difference. Even in Krungthep, the City of Angels.

CRAFT at Kimpton Maa-Lai Bangkok (left), curvy Sindhorn Kempinski, a tasty bite at Rongsi Pochana, and stately poolside at Athenee Bangkok, photos: Vijay Verghese

CRAFT pet-friendly cafe at Kimpton Maa-Lai (left), curvy Sindhorn Kempinski, palate pleaser at Rongsi Pochana close by, and the stately pool terrace at Athenee Bangkok/ photos: Vijay Verghese

At the nearby Conrad Bangkok with its revamped rooms (smart but still a tad tight) and buzzing Diplomat jazz bar, the shoeshine seat has disappeared along with an F&B outlet that has morphed into a medical clinic. Still, this was the one that set the bar as an uber cool business hotel with off-the-shoulder uniforms when it opened in 2003. Sharp service here is matched by the popular Seasons Spa that includes whirlpools, a steam room and hydrotherapy on the menu. Excellent massages here too but without the more experienced veteran touch.

Another newish hotel complex making waves on Langsuan in Central Bangkok between the Chidlom BTS Station and Lumpini Park, the city's green lung, features the heel-clicking Sindhorn Kempinski Hotel, family-friendly Sindhorn Midtown, and its bopping neighbour, the Kimpton Maa-Lai Bangkok.

This is an odd couple though well camouflaged and separated by greenery, one stately with a classic business feel, the other young and swinging. Looking at the exteriors you may not easily discern which is which. Sindhorn Kempinski, has a raw concrete arched entrance reminiscent of Charles de Gaulle Airport. It rises up with a jolly distended belly and an austere flat top with a scooped out mid-section like someone took a bite out of it. The cantilevered pool juts out from the ninth floor like a probing silver tongue. That said, it's classic Thai on the inside, hushed and elegant and slathered in plenty of natural light. The wellness menus here are second to none. Think Arabian hammam, salt-water flotation tank, hydro-massage, Vichy shower, and all the usual lotions and potions you might dream of. 

This retreat is not to be confused with the older 397-key Royal Thai Siam Kempinski Hotel Bangkok with its soaring cream marble columns, incredible floral arrangements, service on rails, direct access to the buzzing Siam Paragon mall and BTS, and refreshing resort feel. The Siam Kempinski has recently recrafted its 40sq m cabanas with direct pool access as well as its family suites with playful animal themes and beautiful story-walls painted by a local artist. Luxury spa? Of course. A gracious retreat in the heart of town.

Kimpton Maa-Lai Bangkok is no slouch when it comes to partying and the beat begins the moment you step into the lobby… well, into CRAFT, the pet-friendly café and bar. The focus is on Thai-sourced coffee beans. Vacationing dogs, cats, or whatever oddities you bring are welcome as long as your pets fit in the lift and can get to a designated floor, albeit not by themselves. Mutts sit outside perusing glorious green walks. Owners sign a form to ensure they clean up after their pets though of course, there is help on hand if your Labrador went for the beer instead of the biscuits. Kimpton Maa-Lai Bangkok is a young woman, "independent and spirited", as one hotelier likes to put it. Before leaving this area, try a bite at the lip-smacking Rongsi Pochana in the Velaa Sindhorn Village.

Best Bangkok rooftop bars, Spectrum at Hyatt Regency (left two), wood-floor Speakeasy at Hotel Muse, and classy CHAR rooftop bar at Hotel Indigo (right), photos: Vijay Verghese

Spectrum rooftop bar at Hyatt Regency Bangkok (left two), wood floor Speakeasy bar at Hotel Muse, and the very classy CHAR Rooftop Bar at Hotel Indigo (right) on Wireless Road / photos: Vijay Verghese

In Bangkok where once hoteliers squabbled over the best pools and rooms with a view, the battle has moved to rooftop bars. These have sprouted as everyone with a half-decent roof, a BTS view and two chairs has sprung into action. Fortunately, there are some excellent offerings. Kimpton has its Bar.Yard up on the 40th floor that serves craft beer by the yard along with signature barbecue bites. This is not far from Hotel Muse Bangkok (from MGallery) and its stylish conspiratorial Speakeasy Rooftop Bar on the 24th and 25th floors.

Across Lumpini Park, HI-SO on the 29th floor of the dark and madly artistic SO Bangkok, is a classy place for breezy views, cocktails and events. A little farther along, accessed from the Chong Nonsi BTS Station, is Sky Beach, on the 78th floor of The Standard Bangkok Mahanakhon. This is a vertiginous eyrie — the highest such bolthole in the city — with stepped theatre-style seating. Entry tickets, start at Bt880 per person (morning and afternoon) going up to Bt1,080 for an evening or night stint. Size up your date and decide on what time slot he or she deserves. The more savvy might head to its Mott 32 Bangkok for some inventive Cantonese.

Launched with much fanfare in late 2018, the Hyatt Regency Bangkok Sukhumvit, had its own good-sport GM Sammy Carolus 'launched' by zipline off the highest point of its Spectrum sky bar on the 29th floor for a showy media splashdown. The Spectrum Lounge & Bar offers three alfresco levels with a DJ as well as an airconditioned indoor area.

Winds whip around here as vast views beckon. Think pastas and grills. Genial and laidback, Carolus has a sharp eye for detail. Having emerged from his high-flying entrance unscathed he recently penned a handbook for staff, modestly described as a "self-reflection" titled, My 12 Years, 12 Rules of Life as Hotel GM. In this he talks about hospitality, faith, food allergies, challenging guests, unforeseen events, and learning from mistakes. He sums up his experience with a simple phrase: "it is better to give than receive". This is all part of the charm of this hotel (in a saucy neighbourhood) that punches above its class.

Farther east along Sukhumvit, Octave at the Bangkok Marriott Hotel Sukhumvit (on Thonglor) is well worth a visit and in EM District there's the Mojjo Rooftop Lounge & Bar with Cuban accents at the SkyView Hotel in a luxe shopping district. Back in the centre of town (with direct access from the Ploenchit BTS Station) is the Okura Prestige Bangkok with its minimalist but stylish sliver of a bar perched on one side of the 24th floor Up & Above Restaurant. Grab a drink and park outside. The service is exceptional, the seating cosy and uncrowded.

Also linked from the opposite side of the road is the elegant Rosewood Bangkok and its superbly designed Lennon's speakeasy rooftop bar, which boasts one of the largest vinyl collections anywhere. There are over 6,000 records to choose from — with a record player of course — for a decent taste of nostalgia while you sip on cocktails named after familiar tunes. In our first look we described this as "old time magic at its best". Lennon's retains its charm and offers a cigar lounge for the intrepid up a spiral iron stairwell. If you're pottering about early, check out the excellent afternoon tea set at the lobby level Lakorn European Brasserie. The cornmeal fried oyster has just the right savoury crunch and flavour to get a fine evening started.

Luk Kai Thong airport bites (left), Siam Kempinski marble lobby, Rosewood's Lakorn and tea treats, and Okura Prestige alfresco bar (right), photos: Vijay Verghese

Delicious fried pork at Luk Kai Thong, Suvarnabhumi Airport (left), the stately marble columns and flowers at the Siam Kempinski, Rosewood's Lakorn and tea treats, and stylish Okura bar (right)/ photos: Vijay Verghese

Also connected to Ploenchit BTS via the Central Embassy mall, the Park Hyatt Bangkok is a quiet cream and pale gold confection with lots of feminine curves — draped in seemingly alien steel that ignites at sunset. While the Embassy Room does great tea sets with a violinist in accompaniment, the Penthouse Bar & Grill offers four floors (from the 34th) of lavish views and tastes. Check out the Whiskey Room and the Rooftop Bar. Expect a classy New York vibe. One stop away, via the Central World mall (Chidlom BTS) is the Centara Grand and Bangkok Convention Centre and its 55th floor Red Sky Restaurant.

The Waldorf Astoria Bangkok's 56th floor Loft Bar is all class and sophisticated Art Nouveau for the discerning set. Or bring your mum to the cream pastel Peacock Alley overlooking the Royal Bangkok Sports Club.

The one that started the Bangkok sky bar buzz in 2001 was lebua at State Tower on Silom with its hugely photogenic 64th floor rooftop Sky Bar (that featured in The Hangover) and the alfresco fine dining Sirocco. Another old timer, the dark and matchbox-slim Banyan Tree Bangkok, often marooned in Sathorn traffic, was a hit and remains so with its spectacular Vertigo and blue-lit 61st floor Moon Bar that launched in 2002. Close by, is the 40th floor ZOOM Sky Bar & Restaurant.

The sleeper hit in all this is the Hotel Indigo Bangkok's 26th floor CHAR Rooftop Bar. This is a quiet and classy construct perched not too high but with a fabulous open view (thank the US ambassador's sprawling leafy residence for this) and wonderful skyline vistas. It is convivial, friendly and uncluttered, a place to have a conversation without shouting over the din. Nice music and great cocktails, a short stroll from Ploenchit BTS Station.

For those on the other side of the Chao Phraya River, the two best options are the Avani+ Riverside Bangkok with its hip and Instagrammer-friendly 26th floor infinity sky pool, and the more conventional Millennium Hilton Bangkok (closer to ICON Siam), which offers the relaxing ThreeSixty Rooftop Bar.

But before you say goodbye, at Suvarnabhumi Airport near the F/G Gates (or in town at Siam Paragon and EmQuartier malls), pop into the aromatic, welcoming and comfortable Luk Kai Thong restaurant that specialises in royal Thai cooking. The fried wagyu beef or pork will hit the spot. The startling rooster call when you press the service button on your table will let you know you're at the right place. The chef learned from his mum. You can't really go wrong with that.

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