A floral art class, a museum visit and a Michelin-star meal give Helen van Berkel respite from the buzz of the city.
Bangkok is not the kind of city that has secrets. It is noisy, it is brash and, reeking of cigarettes and beer, it whistles as it carries its stilettos in its red-nail-tipped fingers when it makes the walk of shame the morning after. Yet, it does have quiet places of contemplation and reflection. We visit four of them.
In a quiet residential area of Dusit, learn the language of flowers. Bouquets welcome squalling newborns, they congratulate, console and encourage us at high points along the gloriously messy paths of our lives and they farewell us as we depart. The museum, in a historic 1912 house in the middle of the administrative district of Bangkok, is a surprisingly interesting look at the part flowers play in cultures. Renowned flower artist Sakul Intakul, who designs what can only be described as floral sculptures for Thai royalty, explains his art and the importance of flowers in decoration, religious offerings, greetings and gifts. He explains the elaborate deconstruction and reconstruction that goes into traditional Thai arrangements; the significance of simplicity in Japanese ikebana and the ceremonial flower headdresses of Indonesia that demonstrate the urge to climb towards whatever god is worshipped. Intakul takes a few minutes to show how he manipulates petals into the shape he desires — and you can understand how the full-size sculptures he makes can take months to construct.
Nai Lert was an early 19th-century innovator and entrepreneur who, among his many business enterprises, is credited with bringing ice and public buses to Bangkok. He owned a large piece of land on the banks of the Saen Saeb canal in central Bangkok — parts of which are crossed by Sukhumvit Rd and now houses the British Embassy — and built his family home here. It is an open-sided, roofed platform, built of teak and today it is a museum. Rooms are set up as they would have been when Lert lived here with his family.
Beautiful furniture and table settings allow you to imagine sophisticated gatherings of well-dressed men and women kept cool by evening breezes. Little reference is made to why this house is significant and Lert's contribution to modern Thailand, but it's a rare insight into how the wealthy lived in early Bangkok, and an oasis of peace from the raucous streets. Nai Lert's daughter and heir went on to hold significant posts in the Bangkok Government. Obviously it pays to be a Lert in Bangkok.
SRA BUA BY KIIN KIIN, KEMPINSKI HOTEL
You might think you know all about Thai food. After all, should you fancy a pad thai or a red Thai curry you just pop out to your local takeaway. A good Thai meal is like a wine, it unfolds in layers, each mouthful bringing a new flavour. There's the sharp tang of ginger, the heat of the chilli, the salt of the fish sauce. Sra Bua takes the cuisine light years beyond the local Thai. Sra Bua takes Thai food apart and rebuilds it in infinitely tantalising ways. My spicy salad came with elegantly coiled cucumber and cubes of meltingly tender wagyu beef. And we all oohed and aahed at the Maine lobster salad and frozen red curry.
When I ate at Sra Bua they were waiting to hear whether they would be awarded a much-sought-after Michelin star. After my lunch I knew they would win and I was right — the restaurant is the proud owner of a single Michelin star, a rare achievement for a Thai restaurant, and especially one within a hotel.
You won't ever get Bangkok to yourself. This is the original city that never sleeps. But by walking you will see sights that will surprise, delight, confound and confuse you. I set off from my central Bangkok hotel early one morning and watched the city awaken. Street dwellers doze on benches and in doorways. The denizens of this heaving city aren't necessarily human either: although judging from the gathered crowd on one of my walks I don't think it is that common to see a large snake coiled in a roadside garden. Canals were the original transportation routes of Bangkok and longboats crammed to the gunnels with humanity will roar by as you cross the curved bridges. If you are lucky, you may see a water monitor sunning itself on the wooden steps of a canal house. I walked down a street selling life-size Buddha ornaments, which I could only assume were for hotels and offices. The fear of the excess-baggage charges kept me walking past the line-up of standing Buddhas, sitting Buddhas and reclining Buddhas. Walk the streets where the locals buy their garden ornaments and their day's dinner. Smile at the children in their immaculate uniforms walking to school — you may even get a shy smile back. Top tip: walk against the traffic if you don't want a tuk-tuk to pick you up; walk with the traffic if you're a hot, sweaty mess and need an easy ride back to the air conditioning of your hotel.
flies a Dreamliner service daily between Auckland and Bangkok. Economy Class return starts from $1055, with $3805 for Business.