The spicy tastes and fiery skies of Bangkok
When my friend suggested a relaxing escape to Bangkok I viewed her suggestion with some scepticism.
I'd been there many times, usually briefly and while rushing for a flight. Thailand's capital is not only home to more than eight million people, it is also one of the world's biggest transit hubs. It welcomes more visitors than any other city in the world but it has always seemed too intimidating, too vast, too chaotic, too tainted by sleaze and pollution for me to explore it in its own right. In short, I mistakenly viewed the city as somewhere to be avoided or passed through on your way to somewhere else, and not a place to relax and unwind.
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Any reservations that I may have had, however, were quickly dismissed upon arriving at my hotel. The Siam is the passion project of former indie rocker and actor Krissada Sukosol Clapp, and designed by celebrated hotel guru Bill Bensley, it is effortlessly cool and chic. It combines elegant Art Deco aesthetics with more traditional Thai influences throughout. Large airy marble corridors are arranged around an impressive central courtyard, and wandering around, you feel as if you are lost in a private museum that can only have been designed by Keith Richards. It is packed full: there is a staggering and seemingly endless array of antiques, original artworks, curios and maps. There is also a library, a cinema and even a menagerie of animals and stuffed peacocks.
My suite combined old colonial architecture with bohemian touches. There were high wooden ceilings, a luxurious bed, a large bathroom and a giant bronze ceiling fan. This was complemented with classic Thai movie posters and photographs of Thai stars on the walls.
I spent my first day lounging by the 23-metre pool, looking out on to the Chao Phraya River, while sipping delicious but dangerously potent cocktails.
The hotel offers a host of other experiences: traditional cooking lessons, yoga, meditation, and Muay Thai boxing sessions. More adventurous guests can even receive a 'sak yant': a sacred Thai tattoo, steeped in Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
I could happily have spent all my time there, but the prospect of an evening cruise in a traditional rice barge was too much to resist.
Bangkok is a city populated by temples, or 'wats'. There are at least 400. They are at their most impressive at sundown when the neon signs begin to dazzle, and the major temples are dramatically illuminated, giving the city an almost dreamlike beauty.
The soaring prangs (spires) of the Wat Arun date from the 17th and 19th Centuries. They are decorated with porcelain and are extraordinarily well-crafted.
We left the boat several times, taking time to explore our surroundings, and there was much to see. We made our way through a maze of back alleys, home to a bewildering assortment of shops, malls, flower and food markets.
Thai street food is justly famed: it is also remarkably cheap. Much as I was tempted to sample most of what was on offer, I was on a specific mission to locate Thong Sai E-Sarn Food. This unassuming street stall is the kind of place you could easily miss, but it is one of the most sought-after spots in town. The focus is placed on fresh local produce. The staff are extremely friendly, but - be warned - they will serve your food as hot as you can handle it. I would advise caution if you are not used to the spiciness of northern Thai cuisine.
Next morning, I woke early and headed to the Grand Palace. Construction of this sprawling 18th Century complex began in 1782. There are miles of walls, enclosing a city of ornate throne halls, demon guardians, royal chambers, ministries and servants' quarters. There are also meticulously manicured gardens, and even a prison.
It seems that a succession of Thai kings were anxious to outdo each other and leave their own distinctive legacy. As a result, there is a splendid but eclectic range of different architectural styles that at times is hard to fathom. It is all too easy to become overwhelmed by the incredible wealth of ornamentation and decorative detail. I decided that I needed to decompress with some crisp local beers at Smalls, a rickety three-storey jazz club.
It's an understandable source of pride for many Thais that Thailand has never been fully colonised. However, it has at various times been occupied or dominated by foreign powers, and one of the most significant of these was by Japan during World War II. A couple of hours outside of Bangkok in the west of the country is Kanchanaburi, a province steeped in the dark history of that war, and home to the legendary Bridge on the River Kwai.
Siam, as it was then called, was invaded by Japan in December, 1941. The Japanese wanted to create a transport route through Siam into Burma. The Japanese already occupied Burma, but their plans for an invasion of British India needed a land route along which they could move their supplies. This took the form of the infamous Death Railway, built by the Japanese using the forced labour of hundreds of thousands of civilians from Southeast Asia, and thousands of prisoners of war from the Allied powers.
The Death Railway earned its name from the sheer number of lives lost during its construction. The Khwae Noi River became immortalised through the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. In reality the conditions endured by Allied prisoners were much more brutal than was shown on the big screen. Estimates vary, but, of more than 60,000 prisoners of war enslaved on the Death Railway, almost 13,000 are believed to have died - in addition to as many as 90,000 Southeast Asian civilian forced labourers. It is claimed that every foot of this railway cost a human life.
Chungkai War Cemetery and the Jeath War Museum contain many harrowing artefacts, photos and sketches but perhaps no area is as evocative or as aptly named as Hellfire Pass.
Walking through this abandoned section of the railway in the heat and humidity, it was hard for me to stop thinking of the horrific living and working conditions that the prisoners suffered. Not only did they have to hack their way through a sheer mountain face with the most basic of equipment, they also had to endure monsoons and a climate where diseases spread like wildfire. There were constant food shortages and a total absence of medical care. And, of course, that does not account for the inhuman violence and torture inflicted by the Japanese soldiers upon defenceless prisoners.
The American James HW Thompson was an unlikely hero. He arrived in Thailand as an OSS operative - the precursor of the CIA - just at the end of World War II. He is now widely credited as almost single-handedly having saved Thailand's vital silk industry from extinction.
Two notable incidents helped Thompson's silk achieve worldwide fame. Firstly, he sent a portfolio of hand-woven silks to the editor of Vogue who loved his fabrics enough to feature them in the magazine. Secondly, he supplied all the fabrics for Rodgers and Hammerstein's sumptuous musical The King and I when it ran on Broadway.
Thompson was a passionate and tireless collector of Thai art, and used the majority of his vast fortune to create a unique collection. Following his death, his collection remained in Bangkok, and his home is now a museum with its own foundation.
In a sense, this represents his personal masterpiece, seamlessly combining elements from six different styles of traditional Thai dwellings - some more than 100 years old - with his own contemporary vision. The result is an enchanting complex of peaked villas surrounded by a lush garden located in the heart of the city on the banks of the khlong (canal) where Bangkok's silk weavers once lived and worked.
The house is preserved largely as Thompson left it. It is possible to tour the rooms, which are decorated with a wonderful range of local Thai Buddhist stone carvings, Benjarong earthenware, exquisite pieces of Chinese blue-and-white Ming, Cambodian and Burmese statues and carvings, Victorian chandeliers and a dining table which was once used by King Rama V of Thailand.
Bangkok can certainly be bewildering and chaotic, but it is also bewitching. It is not without its faults and dangers, but to dismiss this intoxicating city - as I once did - solely on the basis of its reputation, is to miss out on something that is extraordinary and utterly unique.
Take Two: Top attractions
Bo lan restaurant
Bo Songvisava, co-chef and co-owner of this remarkable Michelin- starred restaurant, once feared traditional Thai food and cooking techniques were in danger of being lost forever. www.bolan.co.th/2014/
In 1955, a grimy plaster statue was being moved, when it fell and smashed — revealing the world’s largest solid gold Buddha statue. It is 4.5 metres tall, is made from 83pc pure gold, and is worth €220m-plus.
Rooms at The Siam start from THB 18,900 (approx. €555) per night based on two adults sharing a Siam Suite including daily breakfast. Price excludes service charge and tax. For further information and reservations, contact +66(0) 2206 6999, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.thesiamhotel.com.
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