Soi Lang Suan — Bangkok’s Little Italy

In the heart of Bangkok, just off the Chid Lom Skytrain station, lies a district of Bangkok well known by locals and expats, but that few tourists ever venture to. Between the leafy streets of Lang Suan Rd and Soi Tonson, strategically located between the busy business and shopping areas of Sukhumvit and Silom, is a cluster of serviced apartments, diplomatic residences, local boutiques ? and Thailand’s greatest concentration of Italian restaurants, with at least a dozen competing in the space of a few blocks. And here, “Italian” doesn’t mean “Pizza Hut”: the people living around Lang Suan know their rigatoni from their ravioli, and so do the restaurants. Here’s a tour of a select few.

Air Plane, 63 Lang Suan Rd, tel. +66-2-2524630

When it first opened 15 years ago, Air Plane instantly became the place to be and to be seen for Bangkok’s high-flying society elite, and after a recent renovation is again at the top of its game. Unlike some of the more purist Italian restaurants here, Air Plane is not afraid to mix other influences into its quirky decor, which manages to incorporate reindeer statues and framed Time covers without looking tacky, or its food, which has absorbed some Thai touches but remains Italian at heart. An appetizer of classic beef carpaccio comes in a generously sized portion with shavings of parmesan drizzled with a unique, slightly sweet sauce. Both the spinach ravioli and its tomato-basil sauce are lovingly made by hand, but for a spicy kick, try the Spaghetti “La Mana” with Thai dried fish and lashings of dried red chillies. While not as low as they used to be, prices remain affordable, with most mains clocking in under 300 baht. The restaurant hosts live music performances on weekends, but fear not, the volume is kept low.

Calderazzo, 59 Lang Suan Rd, tel. +66-2-2528108

One of the newer entrants on the Italian dining scene, this popular restaurant is run by Italian-Australian chef Marco Calderazzo. “Our food is southern Italian, from the Campania region”, says Marco, “with very little cream and butter. We use the freshest imported primary produce, cooked to exact time constraints.” The menu changes frequently, but favorite dishes include the hand-rolled Fettucine Calderazzo with oven-baked bell peppers, capers and anchovies, and osso bucco served on saffron risotto. A split-level restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, downstairs packs in the Thai hi-so crowd, while upstairs features an intimate cocktail lounge famous for its wide spread of Italian grappa spirits. Expect to pay at least 1000 baht per head for a full meal here, and that’s assuming you skip the extensive wine list. Alternatively, the recently opened Calderazzo Bistro (map #3), just down the street in the Marriott Mayfair, offers a more casual version of the Calderazzo experience.

Gianni, 34/1 Soi Tonson, tel. +66-2-6522584

Gianni has been at the forefront of fine Italian dining in Bangkok for eleven years, and is often credited with bringing the idea to the city. “Our food is absolutely Italian”, says chef and patron Gianni Favro. “We cook classic food using modern techniques and a bit of southern Italian style: more olive oil and less heavy cream, to fit the tropical climate.” Gianni is very particular about quality — “for us, the food is the most important thing!” — and ingredients are flown in twice weekly directly from Italy. The menu changes every ten days, with specials changing daily, but long-running favorites include their goose liver salad and real buffalo mozzarella. “Most customers just ask me for recommendations,” suggests Gianni, and goes on to wax eloquent about today’s special of tender veal, gently stewed for no less than eighteen hours until it just melts in the mouth. Dinner at Gianni doesn’t come cheap, but “the value for money is far better than in Hong Kong or Singapore”, says Gianni, hinting at one of Bangkok’s best-kept secrets: at lunchtime on weekdays, you can get a three-course meal for only a little over 300 baht.

Pan Pan, 45 Langsuan Rd, tel. +66-2-2527104

A squat building with darkened windows hidden behind a thicket of unruly greenery, Pan Pan doesn’t look like much from the outside, but most evenings it’s packed with locals, mostly Thai, enjoying a cheap Italian treat. The decor inside is unpretentious, with a brick tiled floor, scuffed wooden furniture and creamy yellow walls, but that’s perhaps why it’s the only Italian restaurant in the area that actually looks like a working-class trattoria. The menu is a solid collection of Italian staples, no fusion or Thai touches in sight, with the biggest crowd-puller being their thin-crust pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, with generous toppings and lashings of oozing mozzarella cheese. Prices are very reasonable, with a basic pizza margherita starting at 140 baht and few entrees going over 200. Leave some room for their homemade gelato ice cream.

Originally written for and separately licensed to JetAway, the inflight magazine of JetStar Asia.

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Soi Ari — A Visit to Millionaire’s Lane

Most Bangkok visitors heading north on the Skytrain make a beeline for the Weekend Market at the end of the line, but next time, stop two stations before at Ari. Also known by the Thais as “Millionaire’s Lane”, the sois of this quiet residential district hide some of the most opulent mansions in the capital — and some of the quirkiest hotels, restaurants and boutiques in town.

At the Skytrain station, take exit 3 and turn at the first left into Phahonyothin Soi 7, better known as Soi Ari. The first block is taken up by the frenetic Ari Market, a veritable gallery of street eats worth an article in itself, but today we’ll just plow straight through the often crowded sidewalks. Soon, shortly after you cross past Soi Ari 1 (just keep going straight), the bustle disappears and, after a few upmarket boutiques selling Thai handicrafts and antiques, you’ll arrive at the unmistakable neon pink monolith of Reflections. Without a doubt the most famous Ari landmark, this wacky hotel-restaurant-bar-shop complex only opened in 2004, but it has already been written up in the New York Times and Newsweek, and regularly stages fashion shoots where Thailand’s top models strut their stuff. Every room in the hotel has been designed by a different artist, with over-the-top themes ranging from disco balls (room 201) and a maharajah’s harem (407) to a day at the beach, complete with sand, hammock and a palm tree (404), and they can be yours for a night starting from 2850 baht. PR Manager Kanchana Pimthon says, “We hope to inspire some ideas for guests to add more colors for their lives, such as hanging more paintings in their house for a better, more creative look and more artistic surroundings.” Next to the hotel is the equally zany Reflections restaurant, which serves up a wide menu of Thai, Chinese and Japanese favorites and, at night, often hosts live bands and other performances to draw in Ari’s fashionista set. In fact, the restaurant predates the hotel by a year, and its runaway success was what inspired the Reflections team to expand. If you fall in love with a particular piece of pop art — say, a fuzzy purple Buddha statue or their trademark mutant teddy bears — you can probably bring it home from the gift shop.

In the lobby of the Reflections hotel Isaan food at Som Tam Bangkok

Across the street from Reflections are a few more interesting shops. Ari Bar, or maybe that should be “Aaari babar” like the sign says, is a quiet neighborhood bar with an eclectic selection of music and drinks. Deli House, a few doors down, serves freshly baked European-style pastries as well as a daily selection of German meals like sausages with mashed potatoes and beer sauce. But perhaps the best eating option lurks just behind Reflections in Soi Ari 2, where behind a thicket of greenery you’ll find a small white house hosting Som Tum Bangkok. True to the name, the first page of this little restaurant’s menu is dedicated to the papaya salad som tum in its many versions, but there is a wide range of northeastern Thai (Isaan) favorites like minced pork salad (larb) and grilled chicken to go alone with it. Complete your order with a little handwoven basket of sticky rice and a cooling glass of sweet, milky, orange Thai iced tea, and dig in — but remember to ask for less spicy if you can’t handle the heat! You don’t need to be a millionaire to order either: they have an English menu, and a full meal here won’t cost you more than 300 baht for two.

From here on, the shops peter out and Ari shows its residential colors. The tall, elaborate wrought-iron fences painted with gold lining the road on both sides often hide gigantic houses with Romanesque columns and Mercedeses parked in the driveway, but some gates are so high that you can only wonder at the splendour that lurks within. If you’re not in a hurry, walk along the soi past hip nightspot dbaa until you reach the next main road, then turn left twice to double back into Ari Soi 1. Halfway down the road you’ll find the oddly named Banana Family Park, which is not a fruit-themed playground, but a hip spa and restaurant complex. The leafy Coffee Garden here provides some welcome air-conditioned relief from the heat, not to mention a variety of caffeinated beverages (from 35 baht) that puts Starbucks to shame.

Thai VIP Mercedes Mansion in Ari

A few more steps brings you back into the Ari Market and to your right, you’ll see the Skytrain station beckoning on the other side of a narrow passageway. Stop by the row of stalls lining the way to pick up a few bags of munchies to bring home. “The rich, they’re not like you and me”, said F. Scott Fitzgerald, but at least in Bangkok they seem to like the same things the rest of us do.

Originally written/photographed for and separately licensed to JetAway, the inflight magazine of JetStar Asia.

 

RTW2007: Bangkok part 2, wherein our juggling journalist is hard at work enjoying free spa treatments, finding out how Thai millionaires live and gorging himself with four Italian meals in one weekend.

I was supposed to arrive at Bangkok about an hour before my friend Z, but due to the take-off delay got there only 15 minutes before, and as the plane parkedwaaaaaaaaay at the other end (why does TG discriminate against itself like this? they did the same in Don Muang too!) I ended up catching her — literally — just before Immigration.

This visit, though, was work. I was on assignment, or more specifically three of them: review the Amari Watergate hotel, with a focus on its new spa; write an article about Ari, my favorite neighborhood, and eat at as many Italian restaurants as possible in Soi Langsuan. (I know, it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.) I’d actually spent the better part of three months at the Amari a few years ago, and it was still a very good hotel, albeit in a mildly awkward location. Recently renovated, the Executive Lounge continues to have the best breakfast views in town, and I’m reliably informed that the spa was pretty good too. As for Ari and Italian chow, I’ll let my stories speak for themselves:

And that, as they say, was that: another 30251 miles in economy class notched on my belt, with surprisingly little pain at that. Picking your long flights carefully helps, and having a laptop with insane battery performance helps even more. Next time, it might be time to up the tempo a little and try flying around the world on low-cost carriers.

TG648 BKK-FUK A300 seat 34K

The plane turned out to be the flying museum piece I expected, a crunky old Airbus (the oldest in Thai’s fleet, if I’m not very much mistaken) with all the aesthetic charm and usability of a Commodore 64. I can understand Thai flying these domestically, or even making the occasional hop to Singapore and back, but medium-range redeyes with these things is pushing it. But then again, flying to FUK instead of KIX/NGO/NRT saved some time and (for NRT/KIX) a pretty painful transfer, so beggars can’t be choosers…And it could’ve been worse. The flight was around 70%-ish full, but my neighbor jumped across the aisle, leaving me with two seats to use. After a “light meal” that consisted of a pastry and a cup of juice, I strecthed out diagonally and, much to my own surprise, slept for ~3 hours of this 4.5 hr flight.Breakfast was big but bad. Yogurt, fruits and juice I could deal with, but the centerpiece was a “crepe omelette” gruesomely splattered with a vomitous white sauce so foul I could only eat one — I can’t remember ever running across literally inedible airline food before. What happened at TG catering, which is usually pretty good?

The sky over Kyushu was cloudy as we flew in, only the shapes of a few hills peeking through the mist. I girded myself for the battle that awaited.

RTW2007: Bangkok, wherein our intrepid explorer sits on a bus, crams himself with Thai chow and goes flying from a new shopping mall.

Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok

Before this trip, I’d just spent six weeks in India, dealing with difficult customers and managing to contract amoebic dysentery. After I arrived back in Singapore, I had a little over 24 hours to sort out a couple of months of accounting, personal and corporate taxes, my remaining shreds of social life, pack for the next 6-week trip and head back out to Bangkok, where I’d booked my RTW from, and where this story starts.

After a shamefully long absence, this was my chance to pop into Thailand for all of eight hours and pop my Suvarnabhumi — Bangkok’s new airport — cherry in the process.

First impression: Wow. It’s big, it’s thoroughly modern, it’s funky (well, at least if, like me, you like steel, glass and raw concrete) and it’s just on a whole different level from Don Muang, where the only funk is the strange smell. Parts remind me of Incheon (the neverending travelators), parts remind me of Kansai (the two-layer arrangement of arriving and departing pax, separated by a glass wall), parts remind me of KLIA, only larger (the humongous departure hall). And there are Thai touches here and there, although it certainly doesn’t whack you over the head with them, and that too appeals to my Nordic-Zen sense of minimalism.

Unaccountably, Immigration was using the stupid “one queue per desk” model, and I was stuck in line for a while as the loud guy in front of me, in an equally loud Hawaiian shirt and too many Thai stamps in his passport, was raked over the coals. I didn’t find the infamous post-Customs arrivals crush too bad, although signage was pretty lacking — it took a bit of wandering around until I found my way to Departures (to check in for my connection), and a lot of wandering around until I finally found the shuttle bus stand (is it just me, or is there no signage at all for this?). Signage for the train in the basement was there though in the lifts and all around, just covered up in tape waiting for opening day…

Once I did find the bus stand, the spiffy new “express” shuttle showed up almost immediately and ferried me to the bus terminal, which was surprisingly nice. No sign of bus schedules though, and English signage there was a bit spotty, but asking around a bit confirmed that bus 552 was indeed going to On Nuch, and soon enough I was on my way. (Great to see construction on the Skytrain extension on Sukhumvit taking shape, by the way!)

The bus passed by the enormous Bang Na Central shopping mall and I kicked myself for not seizing this opportunity to save an hour and head there instead. But no, I trundled on to Skytrain terminus On Nut and, pleasantly surprised to find my stored value card still functional, zipped along to Chid Lom and Central World, which half a year after my last visit was still a work in progress. At least the FoodLoft upstairs was now open (mm, phad thai). I decamped to Paragon and whiled away a pleasant few hours in megabookstore Kinokuniya, where I deliberated between notebooks labeled “Sheep Note” and “No Jam, No Stress” (I opted for the latter, as this profound message was being conveyed by a mean-looking robot) and the basement’s mofongous gourmet supermarket, where I picked up a few packets of Fishy Nuts(tm). Then a bowl of kuay tiow naam with pork balls from the stall with the longest queue and a taxi back, which also provided a good chance to check out the progress of the airport link — long stretches already have the viaduct up and they seem to be moving at a good clip on the missing bits too, although there’s apparently still a gap at RCA where the Nasa Superdome was? Once we got on the highway, signage for Suvarnabhumi was comically plentiful, my favorite being back-to-back signs announcing “Suvarnabhumi 14 km” and “Welcome to Suvarnabhumi Airport”. The final approach by night, though, is seriously awe-inspiring — the vast airport spreads out on all three sides, bathed in a sea of light, with the blue-lit hulk of the main terminal building looming ahead.

One thing that struck me, though, is how packed with people the airport appeared on this perfectly ordinary Saturday evening — did they really have this many pax in Don Muang too in its hayday, and can the check-in facilities cope with any more expansion, or are they going to build an entirely separate terminal? It’s not uncomfortably crowded, yet, but it quite doesn’t have the same feeling of vast space as KUL, ICN and KIX do.

Exit immigration was painless and I finally realized why everybody compares the terminal to a shopping mall — the airside area looks just like Paragon, with blinding white walls, designer lighting and fancy boutiques, and I overheard a middle-aged couple whisper, in genuine awe, “this airport is beautiful”. I’m tempted to agree. But having already done my fill of that in the city, I made a beeline for the TG lounge, which also has vast depth and slightly too many people for comfort. Fortunately the PCs are misconfigured so that the network keeps flaking out randomly, so people leave in disgust after a while — a bit of poking around revealed that they’re set to connect to the nearest network, so whenever somebody brings in a laptop with peer-to-peer wifi enabled, bam. I set “aotwifi” as the automatic default and p2p into manual, and now at least two of them work OK.

All in all, for me Suvarnabhumi is looking pretty good, and once the airport link is up and running I’ll be as happy as a clam. Fixing up those cracked runways and such might be nice though…