The raw cool of Bangkok
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
“Discover Thainess” has long been the hobby horse of Thailand’s upper echelons. Since the eponymous tourism campaign launched almost a decade ago, the Tourism Authority of Thailand has spent billions of baht on billboard ads, influencer trips and virtual-reality tours around the kingdom’s rural corners to show the world that there’s more to the country than gilded temples and buckets of booze. In government debates, ministers spitball cha yen (Thai iced tea), muay Thai and durian as vehicles of soft power. Decoding Thainess, a permanent exhibition in Bangkok’s Museum Siam, translates the concept into everything from Red Bull tank tops to herbal inhalers.
But what does Thainess mean? Not Bangkok’s higgledy-piggledy street food jumble, apparently, which has been swept from pavements since a clean-up launched in 2014 saw beloved kerbside hubs such as Sukhumvit Soi 38 and the On Nut night market cleared out to make way for skyscraping condominiums. The century-old Werng Nakhon Kasem neighbourhood on the northern fringe of Chinatown has met a similar fate: by 2027 it will have been replaced by a faux-nostalgic multiplex backed by Thailand’s super-billionaire Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi. And the old-timey Scala cinema, a beloved art deco gem in the Siam district? Its footprint has been earmarked for a community mall by retail conglomerate Central Pattana.
But where the old guard sees Bangkok’s future in yet more gleaming towers and air-conditioned shopping malls, the city’s burgeoning creative class champions a rootsier past. “We’ve had time to look inwards,” says Saran Yen Panya, founder of design agency 56th Studio. “What’s our soft power? What’s our national identity? It’s not patriotism in the same old sense, but it’s an exploration of what we want to keep, and what we want to leave behind.” Panya has been at the forefront of a creative shift that privileges a renewed appreciation for all things Thai. His works, which draw on everyday themes – upholstered noodle-shop stools, benjarong ceramics, bamboo sticky rice baskets emblazoned with naughty, tongue-in-cheek profanities – have caught the attention of clients including W Hotels and Cartier. Two years ago, his passions culminated in Citizen Tea Canteen, an eye-catching showroom and cha yen tea parlour hidden in the labyrinthine lanes of Bangkok’s rapidly gentrifying Chinatown.
“The pandemic gave us back many Thais who were studying and living abroad,” says Mook Attakanwong, curator of a contemporary art gallery called ATT 19. Its launch in 2019 rang in a revival of Talad Noi, a once-tumbledown riverside district where the wafts of incense from shrines now mingle with fresh-roasted arabica, and timeworn family noodle shops sit next to slick new cocktail bars and brunch cafés. “With their experience abroad, they’ve been able to shed a new light on Thai craft and traditional know-how.”
Among those recent returnees has been Paris-based fashion designer (and 2021 Chanel Métiers d’Art winner) Rukpong Raimaturapong, who worked with Bangkok’s centuries-old Baan Krua silkweaving community on a collection inspired by the city’s neon-lit nights. In 2020, Bangkok-born designer Thanaporn Amornkasemwong returned home after graduating from London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture to set up Seire Collective, a research platform and fashion label celebrating Thailand’s textile crafts through collaborations with rural weaving communities and farmers foraging plants for natural dyes. Similarly, creative director Chomwan Weeraworawit, together with her partner (and their brand’s name-bearer) Philip Huang, creates tie-dyed garments with indigo from north-eastern Thailand in their ateliers in Bangkok and Brooklyn. “We’re living in an increasingly fast-paced world and the idea of handcrafted designs and products is a comforting reminder of our human potential,” Attakanwong says.
The same soul-searching has swept through Bangkok’s food scene. While it has never been difficult to part with a pile of baht for chi-chi French dégustation menus or fancy fusion, Bangkok’s toughest – and priciest – table reservations are now mostly Thai. Chefs have started rifling through the recipes of their childhood, and guests have to plan months ahead (or call in serious favours) for a taste of Supaksorn Jongsiri’s khao yum rice salad at Sorn, his southern Thai fine-dining venue. Similarly, Pichaya Soontornyanakij’s progressive Thai-Chinese restaurant Potong (set in her family’s former herbal medicine dispensary) and Prin Polsuk’s intimate Samrub Samrub Thai already require bookings well in advance.
“When I was growing up in Bangkok, there wasn’t a lot of appreciation for Thai ingredients. Thai food was seen as cheap and very accessible,” says Tam Chudaree Debhakam, a chef who earned her chops at Eleven Madison Park and Jean-Georges in New York before opening her urban garden and elevated Thai restaurant, Baan Tepa, in 2020. “Now a younger generation, of whom many have returned from working abroad at renowned restaurants, is discovering the abundance of the unique ingredients we have. And they want to showcase that to the world.”
If culinary accolades are any indication, the world has taken notice: contemporary Thai restaurant Le Du took the coveted top spot in this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, and on the global longlist, Bangkok has more entries than the traditional culinary powerhouses of New York City and Tokyo. And while the great red dining bible is still predictably French-leaning, Michelin inspectors bestowed a total of 15 stars on Bangkok’s Thai restaurants in the most recent edition. “What sets Bangkok apart from, say, Hong Kong or Singapore is the raw energy and the natural creativeness,” says Choti Leenutaphong of restaurant group Foodie Collection, which operates, among other addresses, the beloved after-hours drinking den Vesper. “Because of the relatively low start-up costs, chefs, bartenders and owners have freedom to experiment more, with less fear of failing. The perception now is that if you have what it takes, you can work in Bangkok and get the same recognition as chefs working in Europe or in the US.”
It is no wonder then, that global hospitality brands are betting big on Bangkok. Last year saw The Standard make its Thai debut on the top floors of the pixel-swirled King Power Mahanakhon tower, while the Soho House group operates its new colonial-styled clubhouse in downtown Sukhumvit. Next year, Aman will open an urban retreat amidst the lush embassy grounds of ritzy Phloenchit, while five new hotels (an Andaz and Ritz-Carlton among them) are slated to open in the One Bangkok mega-complex that’s currently rising above the ancient banyan trees of Lumpini Park. Even on Chinatown’s neon-glowing main drag, which is having a moment with fresh arrivals such as David Thompson’s retro-tinged Chop Chop Cook Shop, scaffolding around every other block signifies that there’s change on the horizon.
All of which means that Bangkok feels, at times, on its way to being gobbled up by the ever-expanding blandness of globalisation. But it only takes a flash of marigold, a near-miss with a rattletrap tuk-tuk, or a nose-tingling waft from a roadside som tum stall to remind you that the Thai capital is, still, in south-east Asia – and one of its most electrifying corners.
Models, Channatip Chanvipava, Christine Gulastree, Philip Huang, Eric Tobua, Kunnalin Satearrujokanon, Nikhom Pangphu-Nga, Paepailin Chinnarat, Piya Leo Fyot, Rungrat Noisuwan and Chomwan Weeraworawit; Kodchakorn P at Akiz Management; Thanapat Tungthanakornkit at Ugly Model; Thitawan Jaemmangkang at Very Model. Casting, Kunnalin Satearrujokanon. Make-up and hair, Issy Kachapond. Make-up and hair for Paepailin Chinnarat and Rungrat Noisuwan, Suki San. Local production, Ruben Moreira