Loud and ludicrous, with a mind-boggling number of attractions and hotels to choose from, it can be a challenge to know where to lay your head in Bangkok. If history floats your boat, head for Rattanakosin, the old quarter skirting the Chao Phraya river, where you’ll find the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho temple. With its Khmer, Chinese, Buddhist, Muslim and European influences, Bangkok is one of the world’s best foodie cities. The city’s rooftop bars have also become something of an attraction in their own right — to see them make tracks for the glittering new skyscrapers of Sathorn and Silom. But, if you want to jump into the city head first, then Sukhumvit and Siam Square, with their street markets, gargantuan malls and endless bars and restaurants, are the neighbourhoods for you.
For golden age of travel: Mandarin Oriental
Bigger, flashier hotels have come and gone over the Mandarin Oriental’s 140-year history, but this grande dame remains Bangkok’s destination hotel. Its prestigious guest list includes everyone from Noël Coward and Graham Greene to Johnny Depp and David Beckham and the facilities are second to none — riverside restaurants, outdoor pools, award-winning spa and the historic Author’s Wing, where pinkies are raised over afternoon tea and Champagne glasses clink at evening soirees. Rooms are plush and perfectly put-together — neutral walls, gold armchairs, vases of fresh tropical flowers — and every one with at least a partial view of the river. The staff, some of whom have been with the hotel for over 50 years, are as impressive as the hotel itself.
Rooms: Doubles from £349, B&B.
For pools: W Bangkok
A flash skyscraper pad, in the happening hubbub of Sathorn, the W announces itself with a lobby decked out with black mirrors and crystal-clad walls, panels of flashing tuk-tuk lights and a swirling glass staircase. The spa — seemingly transported from the set of Barbarella — features mesh curtains, and treatment beds glowing pink, green and blue. The rooms, however, are slick but serene — subway tile bathrooms, Bliss toiletries and giant beds topped with sequined Muay Thai boxing glove cushions. Housed in a lovingly restored 19th-century mansion, Asian restaurant The House on Sathorn is one of the most glamorous spots in town. But the crowning glory is the swimming pool, with its cool city views and riotous weekend pool parties.
Rooms: Doubles from £146, room only.
For city slickers: Hansar
This is a seriously stylish all-suite offering with glossy wooden floors, squared-off lines, a subdued Thai vibe and switched-on service. Rooms are large restful spaces with limestone bathrooms, thick square sofas and vertical gardens climbing up through an interior glass wall. They come with a nice bundle of perks (a free cocktail, comp mini-bars and a lovely big breakfast). Elsewhere, there’s a 25-metre outdoor swimming pool with views of Ratchadamri and the Royal Sports Club racecourse; an attractive spa with steam rooms, saunas and heated pools; and a couple of suitably hip bars and restaurants — make time for a Tomyamtini (vodka, tom yam herbs and ginger syrup) at Rouge Bar.
Rooms: Doubles from £107, B&B.
For glam: Hotel Muse
This upmarket 174-bedroom address in Langsuan, near Chit Lom BTS station, may be housed in a sleek skyscraper but on the inside it’s a mad mash-up of Victoriana and Rama V-era art and objects. Fabulous all the way, you’ll be able to find opera singers giving live performances in Medici restaurant, teeny-weeny bikinis by the teeny-weeny outdoor pool and Bangkok’s most beautiful girls and boys shaking their tail feathers around giant, gold cupolas on an Astroturf lawn at the rooftop speakeasy bar. If you want to camp it up even more then you can head out to the nearby Soi Twilight and the nightly 11.30pm synchronised swimming show at The Classic Boys Club go-go bar.
Rooms: Doubles from £111, room only.
For street food: Shanghai Mansion
If you want to chow down on some of the best, most eclectic street food in Bangkok — sour/spicy soft-boiled cockles, crispy pork noodles, oyster omelettes — head for the joyfully chaotic streets of Chinatown. Located right on the main drag, Yaowarat Road, Shanghai Mansion taps into the neighbourhood’s rich mixed heritage in extravagant style. In the atrium lobby there are Chinese lanterns, decadent velvet sofas and pretty wooden birdcages looped around a water garden filled with lotus flowers and goldfish. The colourful palette extends to the 76 rooms — all pinks, limes and purples, adorned with four-poster beds, balloon lanterns and jewel-coloured silks. It’s all spick and span and gorgeous fun.
Rooms: Doubles from £65, room only.
Best for views: Banyan Tree Bangkok
The Banyan Tree Bangkok celebrated its 20th birthday in 2016, but with its clutch of fabulous bars and restaurants, as well as a smart new refurbishment, it remains at the top of its game. The suite-sized rooms, each with its own living space and marble bathroom, are perched between the 15th to 58th floors, meaning they come with spectacular views. There’s also a rooftop pool, a gym and a cavernous spa. But it’s the 61st floor Vertigo restaurant and Moon Bar that will set pulses racing. Knocking back a cocktail here as you gaze over Bangkok’s skyscrapers is a heart-stopping experience.
Rooms: Doubles from £110, room only.
For shopping: Siam Kempinski
Attached to the enormous Siam Paragon shopping centre and surrounded on all sides by street markets and mega-malls (try Central World for high-street fashion and MBK for gadgets), shoppers simply couldn’t be better placed. And when you’re ready for a post-shop flop, you’ll find spacious rooms, all pearl whites, mossy green and soft bronze, with chocolatey marble bathrooms — the best have balconies overlooking tropical gardens or access straight into one of the many swimming pools. There’s also an impressive array of restaurants on site.
Rooms: Doubles from £203, room only.
Three for city-slickers
For singletons: Dream Bangkok
The rooms at this hip, hidden-away hotel, in the backstreets of Sukhumvit, are comfortable, with floating beds (and 300-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets), blue therapy lights and free mini-bars stocked with beers, snacks and soft drinks. The Dali-inspired restaurant is terrific for a night in and the Flava dance bar, with its pink porcelain leopards, is popular with expats and locals alike. Sealing the deal are free tuk-tuk rides to nearby attractions, an ultraviolet-lit rooftop pool and terrific little spa.
Rooms: Doubles from £59, B&B.
For local sights: Arun Residence
If you were sleeping any closer to Wat Pho temple, you’d be a monk. Located just around the corner from Thailand’s most revered place of worship and the equally-spectacular Grand Palace, Arun Residence is where you want to be to beat the crowds. Set on the banks of the Chao Phraya river in a beautifully restored 1920s shophouse, the Arun has just six head-to-toe teak rooms; three split-level deluxe rooms and three airy suites with private balconies from which you can stare across the water at Wat Arun.
Rooms: Doubles from £69, B&B. arunresidence.com
Luxury hideaway: The Siam Hotel
Set in the upmarket neighbourhood of Dusit, down-water from Bangkok’s historic district, The Siam is a luxurious retreat frequented by Thailand’s high-society set. Doze off by the outdoor swimming pool, detangle at the Opium spa or pick up a permanent souvenir from the hotel’s Sak Yant tattoo studio. The rooms and suites have the air of a stylish country retreat; spacious, monochrome, with lofty ceilings, claw tubs and deco-inspired furniture. The river can be enjoyed from the hotel’s complimentary water limousine.
Rooms: Doubles from £436, B&B.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)