Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Mandopop at the Oriental Residence Bangkok

One of the best meals I had in Bangkok was my dim sum lunch at Mandopop in the Oriental Residence on Wireless Road. Nestled among the fancy embassies, this elegant hotel and Chinese restaurant couldn’t have a better location – shopping is just around the corner and the Ploenchit  skytrain is only a five minute walk.

The vibe at Mandopop is elegant and chic, yet comfortable from the moment you enter. Floor to ceiling windows showcase the antique Chinese décor and pop art, and a dramatic bar is anchored by an open dim sum kitchen.
The Mandopop menu puts a contemporary twist on dim sum and I loved every dumpling!  All were light and tasty and so juicy that my chopstick skills were definitely put to the test… When you go, don’t miss the steamed scallop dumplings. Oh yuuuuummmmeee! Of course there’s more to the menu than dim sum. I can’t wait to go back for dinner and order foie gras, lamb, duck….  


More restaurant faves in Bangkok:

ERAWAN CAFE, Erawan Plaza
            Chic, cool, modern and home to great salads, light meals and fab Thai iced tea, this is a good spot for a break while shopping near Erawan Shrine and CentralWorld. Enter behind the Shrine, go up the escalator, turn right and you're there.

SIAM PARAGON, the Food Court
        This massive venue will satisfy all your cravings, from McDonalds and Dairy Queen (28 cents/9baht for a single dip cone!) to upscale Thai dishes. There's takeaway, eat in, and lotsa gawking. There are more upscale restaurants on the upper floors of Siam Paragon; Floor four has some good choices.

SPICE MARKET, in the Four Seasons Hotel
       Featuring authentic Thai cuisine, Spice Market is a favorite among locals as well as visitors; it's always my first dinner stop in Bangkok, regardless of where I'm staying. The menu includes a wide variety of fish, pork, beef and chicken dishes, along with unique Thai fresh fruits and exotic cocktails and desserts. I recommend the corn fritters, stir-fried morning glory and soft shell crab. Spice Market is open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. 

CELEDON, in the Sukhothai Hotel
         This ultra-chic restaurant is located in the middle of a lotus-pond with open air terraces overlooking the water. With an extensive a la carte menu, Celedon offers a taste of Thailand's finest dishes and is a perfect choice for a romantic night on the town. They have an excellent wine list. The Sukhothai also hosts one of the best Sunday brunches in town, with a room dedicated to chocolate and sweets!

THIPTARA, in the Peninsula Hotel
        This has always been my go-to place for a special celebration, be it a birthday or just to celebrate being in Bangkok.  Actually, I don’t need an excuse; I eat here as often as possible. Everything about this Thai restaurant is perfect – the setting on the Chao Praya River, the innovative Thai food, the service, the cocktails – I could go on and on. Just take my word for it and book a table the next time you’re in town.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Best Shopping in Bangkok

Jim Thompson

Here’s my guide to Bangkok’s best shopping, by category:

     Oh my, let me see. Antiques in Thailand are fake, very expensive and/or illegal to export. The best places for serious stuff (and reputable dealers) are River City Mall and OP Place.  Auctions are held regularly at River City. There is an antiques section of the Chatuchak Market, but frankly, it’s filled with fakes.

Boots, Ploenchit Road, among others; Skytrain: Chidlom   
    There are a number of Boots in Bangkok although not nearly as many as in the UK. I use this particular Boots because it is across the street from the InterContinental Hotel and near Erawan and the Center of my Shopping Universe. They do sell the skin cream everyone is crazy about (Boots No. 7 Protect & Perfect Beauty Serum) as well as their own line of locally made spa products. I love the scent of jasmine and discovered a local line named Sabai-Arom which reminds me of nights in the souks of North Africa. It’s available in hand and body lotions, bath gel and more.
Harnn & Thann, Siam Paragon, Central World Plaza and others; Skytrain: Chidlom for Central World Plaza; Siam for Siam Paragon
     This range of spa and well-being products made from rice oils is now sold around the world and in this snazzy boutique. The products are excellent, even if you have to pay about $3 for a small, oval bar of soap and $20 for a gift kit of products in rattan. Travel sizes are sold from the airport branches for $3 each. The oriental shampoo is a big hit in my shower. 

AsiaBooks, Ploenchit Road among others; Skytrain: Chidlom
    This is a chain of bookstores with a branch in every major trading area. They are bright and easy to use; books are in various languages—there’s a good selection of guides and tomes about Thailand. This is a good place to go if you want to grab a map or a guidebook. There’s a branch in almost every mall and department store in town.

Doi Tung, assorted locations, also in Department stores
What becomes an opium dealer most? Government programs that move growers away from poppies and into the arts. Doi Tung is a foundation in Chiang Rai that has re-patriated (so to speak) opium growers into craftsmen and has opened a network of stores.  The wares are often of rough woven, northern hill tribe nubby slubby style, but are totally stunning, like what you’d expect to buy at a crafts fair. Prices begin at $10; jackets are about $140. Their motto is ‘from the hands of the hills’ which I find very cute and smart and clever and even a little ironic since these are the same hands that once used these same hills for the poppy trade.
Narai Phand,   Skytrain: Chidlom
     Essentially, this is some sort of co-op that is like a department store with a healthy dose of TT (tourist trap) thrown in.  It sells Thai crafts and even has a jewelry (as in serious jewelry) department. While the main thrust of the crafts department store is basic—think Friendship Stores goes Thai—there are also many of the items you’ll find at the weekend market, without the headaches. It’s even air conditioned. This is a good place to buy silk elephants and souvenirs.
Thai Home Industries, 35 Soi Burapha (Oriental Lane), Charoen Krung Rd. Skytrain: Saphan Taksin
     You’ll find good quality temple bells, cutlery (bronze and stainless steel), and baskets here.  This is the kind of place I like: dumpy. But I confess it was not very impressive when I visited. In fact, it was dark, a little smelly and somewhat creepy. But if you are staying at the Oriental Hotel or exploring the shopping district around there, you will pass automatically and might want to stop in.

Central, 1027 Ploenchit Road; Skytrain: Chidlom
     This is basically the Macy’s of town, with the notion of serving both the local community and tourists. They do VAT refunds; there are various services for foreigners and you can get there easily on the skytrain. The store is large, about 70,000 square feet and is totally inclusive; there’s even a good supermarket.  Open 10am-9:30pm
Emporium, 622 Sukhumvit Road; Skytrain: Phrom Phong
     Excellent department store with many European designers, often sizes to fit western bodies, a supermarket, a good crafts department, nice cafes and a Neiman-Marcus kind of environment. Can easily be one-stop shopping, although there is nothing funky or Thai or foreign about it. Open 10-am-9pm.
Paragon, Siam Paragon Mall; Skytrain: Siam
     This department store (which is the anchor store to the famed Siam Paragon Mall) may look ho-hum as you approach it in the mall, but it is better than Bloomingdales and a lot of fun thrown in. I am particularly fond of the crafts department and the adjacent office and school supplies. The fourth floor has a very good homestyle selection; I bought a set of flatware with faux bamboo handles that is the envy of all my dinner guests in California.
Playground, Soi Sukhumvit 55; Skytrain: Thong Lor
    Playground! Is a specialty store, a department store or a concept store—three full floors of stuff to insure you know that you are cool.  It is not in my Center of the Shopping Universe but is worth seeing, especially academically. The largest magazine selection in town is here; you can eat or just stare at everyone while you shop for novelty items and gifts. Yes there’s a Starbucks and of course you can bring your iPad. Fashion meets art meets gallery space meets furniture and design showroom. You might not buy a thing, but your vision of Thailand will be forever changed.
     This store is in an area called Thonglor where there are other hot stores,restaurants, clubs and innovative goings on. Nearby is H1, a similar concept store but more oriented toward home and design. 

     I’m not big on fake merchandise but for heaven’s sake, if you are going to do it—get a decent fake. I have not seen impressive fakes—better than what you find on the streets of any big US city, or similar quality but not good enough to pass. My advice: forget it.
      If you want to find out for yourself, head to the night market at the edge of the Sex District, Patpong. There are some so-so Birkin style bags in nice enough stores in Silom Village and River City. I like Hong Kong for these, but you can look.

     As an author with copyright pride, I have trouble suggesting that you buy illegal DVD’s. On the other hand, as a consumer and Global Shopper, I know you need to know. Especially since the crack-down in China, DVDs from Thailand are easier to buy and export—provided you don’t buy too many. The going rate is 100baht (about $3) per DVD. The new release movies will have been recorded from inside a movie theatre and not of the best quality. You may even see some heads from the audience, but you will not smell the popcorn. DVD’s are in Thai and English. Subtitles are in anglo-gibberish.

     I have never been the kind of person who related to or understood people who collect animals, be they frogs or horses or, well, elephants. Then I made my first trip to Bangkok and can only say, it’s one of those things that touches you inside your soul—you have to be there to become obsessed with elephants. Elephants exist in both Buddhist and Hindu mythology—the elephant head Ganesha is the god of arts and learning. If you read John Burdett, you will learn that elephants in Bangkok must wear tail-lights in traffic at night. (Could I make this up?)
     You will find elephants in all sorts of merchandise, from fridge magnets to plush toys to notecards and decorations on fabrics and clothes. I am most fond of the small sized, colored silk elephants, sold everywhere in a multitude of colors. Prices on these elephants vary enormously depending on the going rate in the TT of your choice; I have found the least expensive are sold at the airport. Jim Thompson sells a plush toy elephant that I use as a travel pillow and give as a baby gift. 

      Bangkok is famous for good buys in jewelry and while there are a large number of jewelry stores and showrooms, I had a frightening experience which has convinced me that you do not want to buy important jewelry in Bangkok unless you really know what you are doing or who you are buying from. There’s a much better buy in inexpensive jewelry and ethnic pieces. 
   At The Peninsula one day, a friend fell in love with a diamond and sapphire ring that she knew she could not live without. The asking price was $1500 which she did not think unfair; it was just too much to spend. She mentioned to the then-GM of the hotel that she was in love with the ring and the GM urged her to bargain like a madwoman. This is surprising as who would think one could do this in a fancy store, let alone in a fancy hotel. Bottom line: the ring is hers. Cost: $750.
Lotus  Arts de Vivre, assorted locations
     This is a small jewelry and accessories firm that follows the Vedura School of design and makes everything from rolling pearl rings to jeweled bangles to fancy handbags. Each piece is truly a work of art. Think ebony bangles with pave diamond frog heads. Considering what it is, the prices are not that bad—things get going around $1,000 and go up, up and away.
Kabul Emporium, Charoen Krung Road
     The Kabul brothers own several shops, all located within a couple of blocks on Charoen Krung road just off the soi leading to the Oriental Hotel.  I first visited on the recommendation of the head chef at the Pen (he had a stunning necklace made for his wife) and have been going back for years. The Kabuls sell loose and strung beads just waiting to be made into jewelry and also have ready-made necklaces which can be yours for about $10 - $40 apiece. You can design your own, and of course, the more you buy, the better the price.

Anita Silk, Siam Paragon, 4th Floor; skytrain Siam, and Silom Road, just outside of Silom Village
     This store specializes in upmarket silk smalls – accessories – and silk by the bolt. Their best item is the silk flower pin, but there are all sorts of zip bags for the handbag and assorted gift items, table top and decorative touches. Items are $10-50.
Jim Thompson, 9 Surawong Road
     Jim Thompson is responsible for reviving the silk industry in Thailand and has created what became a design empire.  Indeed, what makes Jim Thompson work is that the basic silks are re-created in a fashion vein and have become a lifestyle brand. Note that many items can be bought from other sources without the Thompson logo for less money. Most items are so unique that they are worth the big bucks, or the moderate bucks depending on your choices. There’s everything from the usual silk suspects—ties, elephants, scarves—to home style, note cards, handbags and totes.  The average price for a tote is $100-125.
     There are a handful of stores dotted around Bangkok, there are even two stores in some malls—usually divided between home and regular. The best store by far is the flagship on Surawong Road which has several floors of stuff plus a nice café. The outlet store  which used to be down the street from the flagship just closed,  and all merchandise was transferred to the larger outlet store on Sukhumvit Soi 93.  If you’re looking for upholstery fabric, don’t miss this! I bought 18 meters (almost 20 yards) of dense chenille for $320. The sales team wrapped and taped it up in a sturdy box to checked as a piece of luggage on my return EVA flight. That fabric will cover two chairs in my home, and would be priced close to $2000 in the designer showrooms in San Francisco.
      Insider’s tip: Jim Thompson’s house is a museum with a tour, gardens, café, book store and small store. The store here is OK, but nothing to write home about. You can get to the house by skytrain (National Stadium station) or walk from the Siam station, although this is a walk frought with lousy concrete and sickly sidewalks. 


Asiatique On the Chao Praya River; Take the free shuttle boat from Saphan Taksin skytrain pier

     For many years, Bangkok had a fabulous night market called Suan Lum, located near Lumphini Park. It was possibly the best night market anywhere in the world but alas, good things come to an end and it was torn down to make way for condos and other necessary buildings.
The new Asiatique, which has been billed as a replacement “only better” doesn’t even compete in my eye. There may be a few vendors who made the move, but for the most part, Asiatique is a very commercial enterprise catering to the teen, tween and twenty-crowd. The stalls sell inexpensive clothing and accessories in Barbie-doll sizes and the music in the restaurants is so loud, you can’t hear your pizza sizzle. Don’t stop by on my account (unless you want to ride the gigantic ferris wheel).
Central World Plaza, Ratchadamri Road; Skytrain: Chidlom
     This is my favorite mall and I am not much of a mall person.  I come here almost once a day when I’m in town. There are tiny boutique stalls of up and coming designers, there’s a good Jim Thompson, there are assorted western stores and brands and even a row of local health and beauty brands. There’s a branch of Marks & Spencer if you need western fit; also a new Yacco Maricard boutique, a Japanese designer whom I adore.
Chatuchak; Skytrain: Mo Chit
     Mix 35 acres of stalls with a throng of 250,000 people and you get this weekend only market that sells, well, everything. There is an organization to the market; you can buy a map that tells you where everything is (better yet – ask your hotel concierge for one). Essentially the market is overwhelming: hot, crowded and very confusing. Still, where can you buy 10 squeaky toys for your dog for $3? Who cares if you can’t find the antiques area?
MBK ( Mah Boon Krong), 444 Phayathai Road at Rama I; Skytrain: Siam
     My mother said that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say it, but my mother did not write guidebooks. Although MBK is a famous mall-stall sort of shopping space that gets a lot of ink, I think it is disgusting and hate that you might waste precious time here. But okay, you came for information. This mall/market is geared toward kids and teens and is for people who like mobs of people, KFC and phones that bleep in the night.
Pantip Plaza; Skytrain Ratchadamri
     The local computer and electronics market right off Sukhumvit and convenient to much. Geeks go wild here. You can buy everything; let’s not talk about illegal DVDs.
River City; Skytrain: none nearby
     Mall that specializes in upscale antiques stores and some art galleries. This is on the river (duh) and near the Sheraton.
Siam Paragon, 991 Rama I Road; Skytrain: Siam
     Fancy mall with tons of western brands and really upmarket names, such as Armani and Louis Vuitton. Several of the luxury hotels have cafes here; the food court is one of the wonders of the world. The fourth floor is devoted to Thai entrepreneurs. This is a must-see, must-do part of the mall. At the far side of the complex is a multiplex movie theatre. The anchoring department store is named Paragon and it is very good. Note that if you hate to shop (ha), there is Siam Ocean World, which is actually quite spectacular. Hours: Mon-Sun 10am-10pm; ground floor restaurants open until 11pm.
Silom Village; 286 Silom Road; Skytrain: Surasak
     This tiny mall village is a mix of cute shops, some sources for fake designer handbags, antiques, silks and souvenirs. There’s also a good nail salon where you can get a midday mani/pedi  special deal for 400 baht (about $13)

     Okay so you remember Jim Thompson, all the silk worms and the fact that Thailand is famous for its silks, right? Silk worms eat mulberry leaves. Therefore there is a large craft industry in mulberry papers and paper goods; don’t miss the large selection at assorted stalls in Chatachak Market. The paper is also available in a cute boutique in Silom Village and at Paragon Department Store.

     Glow little silk worm glimmer, glimmer…I don’t want to bore you with the fifth grade version of how silk got from the worm to the bathrobe, but please understand that all silk is not created equally. Thai silk is known as a thicker and often nubbier silk, often best demonstrated in plaids or sheens created from a different warp and weft. Although tensile strength is one of the properties of silk, silk from Vietnam is decidedly thinner, less strong and less long-lasting  (also less expensive) than Thai silk. You can easily spot the difference. (Most Vietnam silks have a jacquard pattern in them and feel light and thin to the touch; they fray easily.)
     The most famous purveyor of silk is, of course, Jim Thompson – which is also one of the most expensive sources in town. Almeta is considered an insider’s source-- the product is custom woven to your specifications; Sukhumvit Soi 23. For silk accessories including Chanel-like camellia flower pins, check out Anita Silk in the Siam Paragon mall, 4th Fl, or on Silom Road. 

     My experience in the search for local tailors to recommend was ugly, and this adventure, plus the fact that I have the world’s best tailor in Hong Kong, has lead this section to be brief.  Note that the tourist and rip-off tailor I was sent to was suggested by the shopping service of one of the world’s most famous hotels…uuuurrrgh.
Cotton House, OP Place; Skytrain: Saphan Taksin
     This is the only tailor I have personally tested. I got this source from a neighbor in California and had a wonderful experience—a truly stunning navy linen blazer was mine for the price of two fittings and $100. This tailoring house specializes in women’s clothing, which is much harder to make than men’s. It’s equally difficult to fit a western body. There is a good tailor for men next door.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bangkok Shopping Neighborhoods


                This is an older neighborhood, less crowded, and located along the river just north of the big temples. It's an easy ride by boat to the Phra Athit pier. On Phra Athit Road, you'll find art galleries, charming little gift shops and around the corner, Thailand's National Gallery. 


     The good news about Chinatown is that it’s cute (in a funky sort of way) and it operates in a fashion known to Old China Hands; if you’ve been to Hong Kong or China you may know how to cope better here than in the depths of Bangkok, which are very different and, uh, foreign. Chinatown is where you go to eat, or find cheap markets and, well, Chinese merchandise.  While there are old temples here and places of interest, the shopping districts are Sampheng Lane, which is really an alley and Yaowarat, the main drag.

                Sampheng Lane used to be full of opium dens and brothels, but now you won't find anything more illicit than hair clips and rubber flip flops. There's also lotsa cheap clothing (in small sizes) and thousands of Hello Kitty schoolbags...

                Yaowarat Road is a neon-lit orgy of juice vendors and satay grillers along with souvenirs of the cheap, tacky kind. Don't stop by on my account.

                Note that stores in Chinatown tend to be closed tight by 5pm, when the street scene cracks open .


    The 10 minute walk from the Oriental Hotel to the Saphan Taksin skytrain station (via Charoen Krung Road) may take all day, if you’re interested in gems, beads and trinkets. Almost every shop sells jewelry or jewelry supplies – the goods range from fine 18k gold and silver pieces (prices are about the same as in US wholesale showrooms) to strands of semi-precious beads, horn, turquoise, coral, and pearls. The Charoen Krung prices are higher than those at Chatuchak, but the selection is endless, the quality is better and yes, you can politely bargain. 


     The area around the American Embassy is not actually a shopping district, although it is served by a mall that is attached to the Conrad Hotel. This area is not far from the Erawan area and is home to many hotels used by diplomats and businessmen and is also near the freeway for easy access to the airport.


     Anchored by the Erawan Shrine, this district can be reached by two different Skytrain stations (Childlom or Ratchadamri) and is a great central location for stores, hotels and fast food. At the crossroads of everything, you’ll find big, western style malls and fancy pants hotels (Hyatt, Four Seasons, Oriental Residence, InterContinental).


     Although this is the name of one of the most famous hotels in town, I refer to the neighborhood as that which surrounds the hotel, from the river over to O.P. Place (see below). There is shopping within the hotel itself and on the little roads and lanes in the main thoroughfare under the skytrain. This area leads to the Silom district. It also abuts OP Place, with its antiques shops, art galleries and tailoring shops. Use Saphan Taksin Skytrain. This ‘hood is adjacent to Charoen Krung.


                PatPong, as most people know, is the red-light district. The area is not huge and is located between Silom Avenue and Surawong Avenue (Chong Nonsi skytrain). There’s a street market down the center of the main alley between the X-rated bars—this market sells horrible fakes and junk and is not worth anyone’s time. I do not care what you’ve heard or what guidebooks say—this is really junky. The back alley Soi Cowboy is mentioned often in the John Burdett police stories.

                The highlight of one visit to this district was the Porn Clinic (honest!), where Dr. Tana Porn gave me $300 worth of Botox to eliminate a few wrinkles over the bridge of my nose. Walk-in Botox clinics are in malls, sidewalks and street corners all over town. I’ve also used Health Avenue for botox; it’s located in the mall just off the lobby of the InterContinental Hotel. I like this clinic better. 


                This is about a ten-minute walk from Erawan; cross over Ploenchit Road and head north up Ratchadamri Road. Just past the canal is another major junction with Phetchaburi Road. Here, you'll find the legendary Pratunam Clothes market, loaded with knock-off cheapies, textiles, and tiny teen blue jeans for about $10 each


               Located across the street from Pratunam, the Platinum Mall is another mecca for fast-talking traders and your teens may find it their cuppa jasmine tea.  I recommend ignoring the first four floors and head straight to the jewelry and accessories on five and six where "Cartiere" trinity rings are sold for $3 each, along with other big name inspirations.

                Now, head back out to Phetchaburi Road and turn left. You'll soon come to  Panthip Plaza. This indoor market is computer geek paradise; I love it. Full of electronic gadgets, some very suspicious software and DVDs, I also found knock-off perfume... Note: I bravely downloaded a $10 Microsoft Office software disk onto my travel laptop with no problems.               


              If you are between the ages of 12 and 22, you are likely to think of this as the Center of Your Universe. With Siam Paragon on one side of the road and MBK on the other, this is a zoo of shopping packed with kids and families and weekend and night time shoppers. There are alleys filled with tiny stores near MBK that specialize in up and coming designer fashions. Note that you can actually walk to Jim Thompson’s house from this area, although it is about a kilometer. (Siam BTS station.)


                Bangkok is a city of trading districts; Silom is a business center of high rises with a large selection of multiples and shopping sources, most of them Western brands with small local stores dotted here and there.

                There is the Silom Village, a cutie-pie cluster of tiki huts that looks like what a Trader Vic’s might be if there was shopping involved. It's a small plaza centered strip mall with a handful of little shops including places for silks, fake designer handbags and some start up local designers. There are about two dozen stores here and the theme is “night market light,” with some souvenirs but also some drop-dead, stunning and very sophisticated merchandise.  If you need a mani/pedi, the nail salon has a midday special – both for 400 baht. They did a very good job on my nails and threw in a fab neck and shoulder massage. When you walk out of the Village and turn right, you’ll immediately see Anita Silk, one of my favorite sources for silk accessories – handbags, photo frames, scarves… Don’t miss those gorgeous silk flowers to pin on your lapel or hat.


    This is the crowded, pushy, crazy, trafficky heart of downtown Bangkok where there are a number of malls and department stores for locals. The main part of the road stretches for several  Skytrain stops, although most shoppers here will use Phrom Pong or Thong Lo stations. The department store Emporium is located in the center of it all.

                In the evening, street vendors ply their wares on the streets near the big hotels. You'll see some decent jewelry and lots of Thai handicrafts.


      Consider Thonburi Bangkok's twin city, just as you think of the US city of St. Paul, the other side of the river from Minneapolis, the lesser known part, the less visited part. This is also where The fab Peninsula Hotel Bangkok stands at river’s edge on the far side of the river. This isn’t really a shopping district as such. While Bangkok is a largely modern city, the canals of Thonburi are a glimpse of the Bangkok of thirty to forty years ago, with fruit orchards, houses built on stilts, and simple shops and grocery stores.


     Design district for the Wallpaper crowd, many concept stores including Playground! This is a district partly made up of renovated warehouses; it’s not unusual for a store to be in a hangar like space.  Home to fads and fashions and today’s cool which could change by tomorrow. The area is actually in two parts, J Avenue is one part— a mall development--home to various boutiques and galleries. Further down, at Soi 55, is the infamous Playground!—the exclamation point is part of the name, don’t look at me. This destination is sometimes written Tong Lor, which is also a BTS station not far from Sukhumvit.