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Bangkok Diary

Live shows, great food, unbeatable hospitality and lots more. The pessimists were wrong. Bangkok has bounced back from its political troubles and is packed with tourists once again.

india Updated: Feb 26, 2011 16:23 IST

Some months ago, when the political troubles in Bangkok filled the newspapers, some people predicted the imminent collapse of the Thai tourism industry. I refused to believe the pessimists. I had seen Bangkok go through worse times over the years and it always bounced back.

And sure enough, Thailand is packed with tourists once again. Arrivals from India have gone up nearly 30 per cent over the last few months, the Europeans and Japanese have returned and the hotels are full again. I have an unfair advantage in that I can lean on Deepak Ohri to find room for me at Lebua out of friendship but this time I had the distinct sense that, with Lebua running to capacity, Deepak had to struggle to manage my booking.

On my second day in Bangkok I am eating delicious Thai food at the Kalpapruek restaurant when I get a text from a famous media/advertising professional, who uses the handle Scarpa Amante for her excursions on the Internet. She is in Singapore and has just seen Eric Clapton perform. Despite his age, he was great, she says. Oh really! I respond. What a shame that I am in Bangkok, not Singapore. No problem, she responds, Eric is playing in Bangkok tomorrow night.

I call Sam, the coolly dependable Head Concierge at Lebua. Can he score tickets for tomorrow night? He has heard that tickets are hard to get, he says. But not to worry. He will find me some. And, indeed he does. I find myself at Impact Arena in the Bangkok suburbs waiting, along with hundreds of well-behaved Thais and excited expats, for Eric to arrive onstage.

I’ve done a detailed review of the show ( if you are really interested but here are the headlines: Scarpa is right. When Eric stands and plays guitar, he is like the Eric of old, full of great guitar solos and a voice that has largely withstood the ravages of time. But, in the middle of the set, he decides to sit down, slips into MTV Unplugged mode, and the show drags. He plays mediocre songs, some with a distinct music hall touch and suddenly begins to look his age.

The highlights of the show are a great version of the Cream classic Badge (co-written with George Harrison whose favourite guitar figure characterises the song), a fast-paced I Shot the Sheriff, and a long work-out for the band, book-ended by JJ Cale’s Cocaine. Scarpa tells me he did not perform Cocaine in Singapore, a concession, I guess to the city-state’s puritanism. In Bangkok, nobody minds what he plays.

Afterwards, I thank Sam. “Lots of bands coming to Bangkok,” he says. “So difficult to get tickets. Santana next month. The Eagles on Sunday.”

The Eagles? This Sunday? No kidding! Can he score tickets? Sam probably regrets having mentioned the show. I’ll do my best, he says, but the show is completely sold out.

“Come on, Sam,” I tell him. “You can do it.” He looks a little worried.

A hotelier friend of mine flies in from Delhi for two days. He has very little experience of Bangkok so we resolve to hit as many restaurants and hotels as we can to get a sense of the hospitality scene in the Thai capital. We start with Sirocco, Bangkok’s most famous restaurant with a glamorous, open-air, roof-top location, jazz band and hard-to-get tables. (You must book a couple of days in advance.) It helps that Sirocco is on top of Lebua so they find room for us. My friend is blown away by the sheer theatre of the experience and the high quality of the food (the best Japanese beef, oysters from all over the world, chefs from France, America etc.) and is a little disbelieving when I tell him that Mezza Luna, the hotel’s modern European restaurant, has food that is even better.

We decide to check out three hotels in quick succession. Sam arranges for us to be shown around the Sukhothai and the new Siam Kempinski. The Sukhothai must be one of the world’s most influential hotels. Many of its innovations (the spread-out design, the water features, the air of Eastern serenity) were novel when the hotel was designed over two decades ago but have been widely imitated ever since.

The Siam Kempinski is Bangkok’s newest luxury hotel. Built at the back of the Siam Paragon-Siam Discovery-Siam Centre shopping complex, it has the best location of any hotel in Bangkok. I had a slight prejudice against it because it was built on the site of my favourite hotel, the 25 acre Siam Intercontinental with its acres of gardens (think of a Thai West End). The greedy (or business-minded, depending on your perspective) owners closed down the hotel, built Siam Paragon in its space and then gave over a tiny part of the plot to the new Kempinski. (By the way, Kempinski is now a Thai chain, owned by the royal family.)

But despite my prejudices, I have to say I like the hotel. It has a gleaming elegance about it and the staff are friendly and welcoming. The Kempinski has had its teething problems since it opened in September but hopefully, these have now ended.

What can I say about The Oriental that I’ve not said before? It is one of the world’s great hotels. As I explain to my hotelier friend from India, you don’t really get the point of The Oriental if you merely visit it. In that sense, it is a little like the Bombay Taj. You have to stay there to understand what the hotel is about.

Kurt Wachtveitl, the legendary general manager who ran the Oriental for decades, used to say that luxury is a dream. The Oriental epitomises that. It is more Windsor than West End (i.e. a recent construction – only the small main building has any history behind it) and the new buildings are not even aesthetically pleasing from the outside (think Delhi Oberoi rather than the Windsor, which, at least, looks good).

But once you get inside, it really is like being transported into a dream. You can’t tell which part of the hotel dates to the 1920s and which part to the 1980s; the property merges into a grand, old-world, luxury experience of the kind you rarely find these days.

Lunch with Sonu Shivdasani at the Pacific Club on top of the building where he has his office. Sonu is now the world’s most successful international Indian (well, in origin anyway: he has a British passport) hotelier and his properties – the Sonevas, Six Senses and Evasons – are an important component of the global luxury market. (I did a cover on Sonu in Brunch some months ago.)

While such properties as his two Sonevas in the Maldives and the new Soneva Kiri in Thailand are setting new standards for luxury (in the Aman category of high-priced resorts), he has no real presence in India. Nor do that many Indians flock to his hotels. (But then they don’t go to Amans either – and Aman is now an Indian chain, owned by DLF.)

Sonu agrees with me that this is a gap, given the growing willingness of rich Indians to take expensive holidays. Moreover, unlike Aman, which has three properties in India, Sonu has yet to open in the mother country. He says that he plans to set that right soon.

My hotelier friend and I decide to hit more restaurants. We start with Breeze, the Asian seafood place at Lebua which has now changed direction slightly with the introduction of Sam Leong as consulting chef.

Leong is Singapore’s most famous Chinese chef and the inventor (along perhaps with Susur Lee in Canada) of today’s nouvelle Chinese cuisine.

He worked for many years with the Tung Lok Group, kings of the Singapore restaurant scene, but has now struck out on his own, accepting such consultancies as Breeze.

Then we go to Hyde and Seek, Ian Kittichai’s gastro-bar which has been inexplicably quiet the last two times I have been there; a small neighbourhood Italian restaurant called Enoteca (okay if you happen to be in the neighbourhood). The Greyhound Café is a Bangkok institution, a chain of smart multi-cuisine cafes run by a local fashion house. There are Greyhounds at most malls and you can’t really go wrong if you eat there. (Order the Thai-Spaghetti, or the Elvis Burger and the Litchi Shake.)

The revelation is Face. Located in a magnificent wooden house (like the Oriental, it looks old but is actually quite new), it serves Thai, Indian and Japanese cuisine in each of its rooms. There is a lovely bar and even two spa rooms. I’d recommend it for a lazy evening.

Our best meal in Bangkok, however, is at Lebua, after all. Mezza Luna started out as an Italian restaurant but the German twins (identical so I don’t know how anyone tells them apart!) who function as the restaurant’s chefs worked at La Pergola in Rome with Michelin-starred super chef Heinz Beck but their cuisine is hard to classify as Italian, French or German.

So Mezza Luna has now been recast as a 44-cover, elegant modern European restaurant (about $150 per head without wine) serving the kind of food Michelin stars are given for. I started with the twins’ take on pasta carbonara: delicate parcels made of the lightest pasta filled with a warm variation on carbonara sauce that exploded in your mouth. There was Wagyu beef with mushrooms in a ponzu (Japanese-citrus) sauce to honour the beef’s origins and excellent Mallard Duck.

Mezza Luna was full the night I went. If they can keep this up, it will become an Asian fine-dining destination on par with the big Singapore names (Gunther’s, Iggy’s, Les Amis etc.)

Sam never fails. He has scored tickets to the sold-out Eagles show. What’s more, he has got the same kinds of seats he managed for the Clapton show. This means that I will be near enough to the stage to work out what is going on without having to look at the monitors.

On the night in question, I turn up at the Impact Arena which is overflowing. The audience is younger and more Thai (fewer expats) than the crowd at Clapton’s concert. Worrying about traffic, I leave early, find the roads clear and land up an hour before the show starts.

No matter. The area around the venue is already full of Thais, eating and drinking. A party is in progress. The Eagles start out with an acapella version of their live standard Seven Bridges Road. The harmonies are as perfect as the recorded versions. The band has changed shape over the years but essentially, the Eagles are Don Henley and Glen Frey who write and sing most of the songs – when they are not fighting with each other.

This avatar of the band includes the delicately featured Timothy B Schmit who joined the Eagles after they had made it and Joe Walsh, who already had a solid (if not entirely flourishing) solo career by the time he became an Eagle. These four are backed by as many as seven musicians, one of whom, Steuart Smith, the lead guitarist, might as well be a full-fledged Eagle, given that, on this tour, he plays lead guitar on all the classic songs (including that famous solo on Hotel California) and has co-written tracks on the new album.

Speaking as somebody who knows the Eagles as a recording band, not a live attraction, I’d have to say that despite being an Eagles fan since 1973, I’d be hard-pressed to pick out any member of the group in a police line-up. The point of the Eagles has always been the group identity, rather than the individuals (which is why nobody minds when Smith reproduces all of Don Felder’s original guitar solos).

So, it is a tiny bit of a shock to see them up close. Glen Frey has aged to look like George Bush’s smarter brother – even his body language is like George W’s. Don Henley is a right fatty (which means – if you look at the positive side – that he’s not doing cocaine) in a cowboy shirt. He looks like one of those chunky truckers who are eventually revealed to be serial killers in such US TV shows as Criminal Minds.

The Bangkok crowd loves Timothy B Schmit, whose delicate features and long hair ensure, at least, that he looks like a rock star. Then there’s Joe Walsh, with skin like aged leather and hair bleached bottle-blonde who looks like an elderly Hell’s Angel who has misplaced his Harley Davidson.

The music, though, is entirely terrific. Hotel California is the real thing (with the horn intro familiar to those who have seen the live DVDs), not the tinkly Unplugged version; Best of My Love has all the right harmonies; One of These Nights works even without its 1970’s disco mix; Witchy Woman is properly atmospheric; the encores of Take It Easy and a Desperado sing-along have the crowd on its feet and even the interminable Lyin’ Eyes sounds better live than it does on the record.

The inexcusable omission is their single-best song Tequila Sunrise. (It’s like going to see Paul Simon and not hearing The Sounds of Silence or going to a Stones show and realising that Satisfaction is not part of the set.) And though the show is great, it sags in the last 20 minutes because Joe Walsh takes centre-stage. I have nothing against Walsh but his Neanderthal guitar-hero poses and his mediocre songs (including his solo hit Life’s Been Good) simply do not match up to Henley and Frey’s stuff.

Still, no complaints. These guys run a tight ship. They know how to work the audience. And their show is a lot better than Eric Clapton’s.

- From HT Brunch, February 27

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