All cities change. But few change as quickly as Bangkok does. When I first started coming here regularly in the 1990s, I stayed at the magnificent Siam Intercontinental, then Bangkok’s top hotel with acres and acres of gardens (and a tiny zoo with exotic birds and animals) in the centre of town.
Now the Intercontinental is gone and forgotten; its place taken by a huge shopping mall (Siam Paragon), an apartment block and another large hotel (The Siam Kempinski). The Dusit Thani, where I stayed this time, is of roughly the same vintage as the Siam Intercontinental and though it still flourishes, its neighbourhood (Silom) is virtually unrecognisable with gleaming skyscrapers taking the place of the shop houses of old.
But as much as Bangkok changes, there used to be one factor that remained constant: the awe and admiration that ordinary Thais had for their King. Non-Thais have always found it hard to understand the regard in which King Bhumibol was regarded. Even his name – with its Hindu influences in a Buddhist country – caused some consternation.
The King’s official title was Rama IX because the Ramayana is an important element in Thai tradition. His given name, Bhumibol Adulyadej, came from the Sanskrit term bhumibal atulyatej, referring to the strength of the land and the incomparable light. The Thai monarchy has always had strong Hindu links and to this day, Brahmins are required to perform important ceremonies.
King Bhumibol ruled for 70 years and for several generations of Thais he was the one stable unifying factor through times of change. His reign saw 30 prime ministers and innumerable regimes. But whether it was a military coup (of which there were many) or a turbulent democratic movement (a significant feature of the last decade), the King’s solid and reassuring presence preserved a sense of continuity.
King Bhumibol died on October 13, this year. Though his death was not entirely unexpected – he was 88 and had been ailing for some years – it had the effect of plunging the whole of Thailand into unprecedented mourning. When I checked into the Dusit, there was a note from the general manager, explaining that “our staff will be honouring the memory of his Majesty by wearing black and white attire, but we would like to assure you that we will remain fully operational….”
And indeed Bangkok was fully operational. I arrived just as the new King (the former Crown Prince) accepted the crown (though the formal coronation will take place later) and the country was poised halfway between mourning and celebration.
But, no matter what the public mood is, it hardly makes a difference to the millions of foreign tourists who flock to Thailand every year. Bangkok airport was more crowded than I have ever known it to be and my Thai Airways flight from Delhi was jam-packed. Hotels in the city were full even though it was the long weekend and there were no business travellers.
I have written about Bangkok’s invincible status as a destination before. Nothing ever seems to affect the flow of tourist arrivals, not floods, not civil unrest and not even military coups. Part of the reason, I imagine, is that the Thais are the most hospitable people in the world, gracious to a fault, always smiling and naturally service-oriented.
But there are other factors. Bangkok has great shopping. Each year the malls get bigger and better, while prices remain the cheapest in Asia. Newer, fancier hotels open every month and are always competitively priced. Not only are they far, far cheaper than their counterparts in Hong Kong or Singapore but they are also much cheaper than Indian hotels. (And that’s despite the weakness of the Indian rupee.) Plus, fares to Bangkok are low. My club class ticket to Bangkok from Delhi cost as much as a club class ticket on the Delhi-Bombay sector which, frankly, is a little crazy.
Many people go to Bangkok to eat. The Thais have one of the world’s great cuisines but Bangkok has now become a global restaurant hub with excellent restaurants offering food from all over the world. Some Japanese acquaintances have told me that Bangkok has the most authentic Japanese food outside of Tokyo and there is a boom in European restaurants as well. (Though I have no real interest in paying the equivalent of hundreds of dollars to eat Joël Robuchon’s food at his Bangkok restaurant when I could eat better – and for virtually nothing – on the streets.)
There are great Thai restaurants in Bangkok now but I rarely visit them. The joy of eating in Bangkok is that the local cuisine is so good nearly everywhere you eat that you don’t need the upmarket restaurant experience. Even a Thai restaurant at a mall will give you delicious Thai food at reasonable prices.
My current favourite is Luk Kai Thong. I go to the branch at the EmQuartier mall because I like its lack of pretence (“It’s not fusion, it’s mom’s home cooking style” it says on the menu) and admire the expertise with which the kitchen turns out food for over 100 people at a time.
This time I was blown away by a perfect crab omelette. The Thais like omelettes which are a little like ours (crispy at the edges and full of spice) but this one was slightly Frenchier in style. At its centre were whole chunks of blue crab. The cook had managed to prevent the crab from crumbling inside the omelette and had preserved its fresh flavour. (Blue crab – which we don’t see in India – is the most flavourful crab of all).
At the Central Embassy mall, the branch of the Nara chain is always reliable (and fairly priced). This time, the standout dish was the northern pork salad (larb) turned into spicy balls and fried till it was deliciously crisp. Also at Central Embassy is Eathai, Thailand’s version of Eataly, the Italian emporium that combines a high class food store with many small restaurants serving regional cuisines. Eathai is huge and a must-visit if you like Thai food.
And then there was the obligatory visit to Gaggan. The great man was in Japan (as he often is, these days) but the kitchen has now reached a consistency where it makes no difference whether Gaggan is in the house or not.
I ate at his latest addition: the Lab. This is a counter area that seats around 12 people and does only two servings (at 6pm and 9pm). So far, the food is roughly the same as the cuisine at the main restaurant but I imagine that the idea is to use the Lab to try out new dishes, eventually. At present, the main attraction is the interactive element because there are no waiters. The chefs make everything in front of you and serve it themselves, cheerfully explaining each dish.
I loved the experience and I was struck again by how much Gaggan’s food is evolving. The old smoke-and-mirrors presentations have gone and if there is a molecular element to the dishes, it is only in the techniques used in the kitchen, not in service flourishes. If you book early (the waiting list is now three months because Gaggan has become a global foodie destination), then you will have a unique experience.
Garima Arora (who came to Gaggan from Noma) ran the Lab the night I was there. She will soon open her own place, under the Gaggan umbrella, next door to the main restaurant. Her vision is to take local ingredients and to cook them in a style that reflects Indian flavours. If she pulls it off – and my bet is that she will – then the Gaggan complex (the original restaurant, the Lab and the new place) will become the centre of innovation in Indian food.
Yet another reason to come back to Bangkok!
From HT Brunch, December 11, 2016
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