'Neighborhood tourism' - actually it's a term I've invented myself (I think!) - but it's something that's becoming more and more popular among 'middle-class' Thai Bangkokians.
Here's how neighborhood tourism works. You pick an area of Bangkok - preferably a suburb that you haven't ventured into for many a year - and you stay for one night in an expensive fancy hotel and amble around the area taking in any interesting cafes, parks, temples and street art, etc that might come your way. That's all there is to it. It's a sort of one-night, 24-hour luxury vacation that should be, if nothing else, a welcome change of scenery.
We decided to do Yaowaraj Road, the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown.
Choice of accommodation is crucial. You aren't looking to cut corners and save money here so please - strictly no backpacker hostels or bland hotel chains. You're going to splash the cash on the quirkiest, funkiest hotel in the area. You want to book somewhere decidedly upmarket and fashionable because you're going to be spending much of your time in the hotel, enjoying their facilities.
We opted for The Shanghai Mansion, right in the middle of Yaowaraj Road. To quote from its website - Bangkok Chinatown's best boutique hotel,. Romantic, opulent, seductive - 1930s Shanghai comes to life in Bangkok’s historic Chinatown. Perfect!
It turned out to be a great choice. You couldn't help but admire the brilliant entrepreneurial mind behind The Shanghai Mansion. The attention to detail was mind-blowing.
The hotel offers twin-bedded and double rooms with classic four-poster beds and larger deluxe rooms, ranging from about 1,800 - 2,700 Baht a night.
We went for the Mu Dan Suite one night package - 49 square metres of luxury with a complimentary 'experience' thrown in.
Here's your 1930's Shanghai style bathroom and bathtub. There was also a separate modern shower and toilet for those who don't do baths.
As you can see, plenty of space and a huge bed. There were no windows in the room though so no natural light coming in (and I suspect that's the case for most if not all the rooms) - but on the plus side, everything in the mini-bar was free!
Every room had a couple of chairs and footstools outside the door so you could watch life go by on a Shanghai street. I didn't see a single guest doing this though apart from us.
On the second floor, where the Mu Dan suites are, the rooms open out on to a beautiful ornamental fish pond - and of course some great photo opportunities.
As I mentioned earlier - book a room (any type) and the room rate entitles you to one of three complimentary 'experiences', which you have to choose upon checking in.
You can go for either an organised morning Chinatown walk, enjoy alcoholic drinks in the Red Rose Bar - or stuff your face with an afternoon dim sum high tea.
It was an exceptionally easy decision for us. I'm not a huge fan of organised walking tours. Alcohol sales and the drinking of alcohol were banned because it was a Buddhist holiday (we didn't pick the best of weekends did we?) - so the dim sum high tea it was. And it was splendid!
The downstairs restaurant and bar / cafe is a relaxing place to linger unhurried. There is an air-conditioned section inside and an open area (next to the main street) which welcomes smokers, non-residents and those who want to listen to some live music in the evening. There is even a European front of house manager, walking around in his black suit and making small talk with guests.
On social media, someone had told me to 'bring plenty of money'. He wasn't wrong there because drink prices were certainly not cheap. Cocktails were in the ballpark of 350 Baht ++ (had you been able to order one) and fruit shakes and mocktails were around the 200 ++ mark. Definitely what I would call 5-star hotel prices.
After our delicious high tea and a mango smoothie or two, we decided to take an afternoon stroll around at least part of Chinatown, although it must be said we didn't have a great deal of enthusiasm for it. If you run down the Chinatown must-see list, it includes the golden Buddha at Wat Traimitr (I saw it many years ago and couldn't be bothered going again) shopping in Sampeng Lane (my wife went fairly recently and said the vendors were the rudest she'd ever encountered) Wat Mangkol Kamalawat (a temple? no thanks!) and a few other sights equally unappealing (to us anyway) I had hoped to persuade my wife to take a stroll around Romaneenart Public Park but her reaction - "a park! in this heat? Are you nuts?" - meant I would either have to go alone or not at all.
However, we did decide to walk the 400 or so metres to find Soi Nana.
Soi Nana is not the dreadful soi that you and I think of whenever we hear that name. Not that awful soi in lower Sukhumwit where ladies do favors for sailors. This is Soi Nana in Chinatown, and if the travel forums and articles are to be believed, one of the hottest, up and coming nightlife destinations in the city. However, when a nightlife area boasts such a moniker, you instinctively know it's going to end in disappointment.
Frankly though, I can't tell you if Soi Nana lives up to any reputation. The alcohol ban put the mockers on our research as all the bars had clearly decided to close for the day. What did surprise me though was just how small and insignificant-looking the street was. You could walk from one end of the soi to the other in a couple of minutes. Several rather lost and bewildered souls (what do you mean there's no beer!) seemed to be doing exactly that.
At the one end of Soi Nana (behind me in the photo above) is 103 Bed and Brews, a major player in the Chinatown coffee shop / cafe scene. We thought it would be rude to pass it by but the shop's open frontage made it a rather sticky and sweaty place in which to enjoy a latte. The beautiful old house apparently used to belong to a medical merchant. I'm not sure how much the old boy made out of selling his medical bits and pieces but I wonder if it comes close to what they make on 120 baht coffees and 150 baht slivers of lemon tart. This might be Chinatown, but these are Thonglor prices. The 103 Bed and Brews also has spacious and clean rooms above the premises that go for about 2,000 baht a night.
Let's go down memory lane a while - back to 1990 - and the very first edition of the Lonely Planet Thailand guidebook, written by the brilliant Joe Cummings. I can remember clearly that Joe recommended three main areas of the city if you were looking for cheap digs. The first place was the notorious backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road in Banlampoo, the second was the area around Soi Ngam Duphli, a short walk from Lumpini Park and finally there was Chinatown, where you could still find the 100-baht a night fan room with minimal effort. I also had a teaching colleague in those days who reckoned Chinatown was the last remaining fertile hunting ground for the 200-baht a night female companion, but we won't go there. Let's just say that times have definitely changed.
We ambled up Soi Nana, more out of duty than anything else. All the bars and drinking dens were shuttered up but on the left-hand side of the soi was The Nahim Cafe - and that was certainly open for business. I'm sure I had read on several blogs that this was one of the most instagrammed cafes in Bangkok. A quick look at their website - Possibly the cutest cafe in the city, Nahim Cafe combines adorable homemade crafts with drinks and nibbles you’ll want to capture on Instagram. I would have happily swerved it but my wife had read the description over my shoulder and was now chomping at the bit and already half in the door.
When we walked in, every seat in the establishment had been 'taken'. It was extremely busy but most of the customers were just walking around taking pictures and had left bags or jackets on chairs to reserve them. I didn't see an awful lot of coffee being drunk or food being eaten. We didn't fancy it and left.
We did give the Nahim Cafe a second chance though and returned later in the evening. This time we were almost the only customers. The polka dot milk shake wasn't the manliest of drinks I've ever necked on a Saturday night but the specialty of the house - the peanut butter waffle with ice creams and almonds - was truly glorious.
At 6.00 pm, with darkness beginning to fall, our thoughts turned to where to go for our evening meal. We were in Chinatown, so of course it had to be Chinese food, only it felt like half the world had the same idea. Yaowaraj Road was rammed - as I'm sure it is every Saturday night. The restaurants were filling up fast (particularly the budget joints with plastic chairs arranged on the footpath) Fruit vendors selling cherries and mangoes were doing a roaring trade, as were those selling the traditional Chinese stuff like cheap candies, dried health food and nuts. At some food vendors (selling takeaway pathong-ko and steamed dumplings) there were already lines of hungry punters snaking around the block. The whole street was buzzing as the familiar neon signage flickered into life.
And yet truthfully, I didn't warm to any of it. I've lived here 28 years and Yaowaraj Road is no longer anything special. Even though I never come to Bangkok's Chinatown, I've been to Hong Kong a dozen times. I don't want to come across as some dreadful travel snob but once you've sampled the culinary delights of Temple Street Market in the heart of Hong Kong and eaten the street-food in Mong Kok, every Chinatown I've ever been to pales into insignificance. It's just another Chinatown. The Chinese food in Hong Kong is the best I've ever tasted. It's on another level. It's the reason you go to Hong Kong.
That said, I saw European families walking around with eyes like saucers, pointing at things excitedly and taking photos of everything that swam in tanks, slithered on metal trays or got grilled on skewers. I was like that the first time I ever came here, clutching my well-thumbed Lonely Planet guide. But the novelty fades.
Eating dinner back at the hotel (as well as high tea and breakfast) was never part of the master plan, but after half an hour of Yaowaraj Road, squeezing ourselves past slow-moving pedestrians and almost getting flattened by push carts, it felt like our best option. We had perused the dinner menu earlier and although pricey, there was a mouth-watering selection of dishes on offer.
So back to the hotel restaurant we went. I opted for chicken and peppers in a spicy Szechuan sauce. My wife went for a Chinese fried rice dish served up in a lotus leaf. My chicken and peppers was the driest thing I had ever eaten. I'm not sure if the chef had forgotten the Szechuan sauce but it sure took some getting down. It was awful. And it was a bitter disappointment because in Hong Kong this is probably my go-to dish and they serve it so delicious, you have to close your eyes between mouthfuls so you can fully appreciate what you are eating. My wife gave her fried rice in a lotus leaf four points out of ten. My wife is known for her over-generous food ratings - but four out of ten? Man, that's low.
But the hotel redeemed itself the following morning with a superb breakfast buffet in the breakfast room on the third floor. I'll let the photos do the talking but we couldn't have been more impressed - not only with the exceptional selection of Western and Chinese foods - but also with the speed and friendliness of the waiting staff. And what a lovely environment in which to eat breakfast, sitting on plush leather sofas in a room full of Chinese objets d'arts. Shanghai Mansion, you certainly ended on a high.
So then, we've dipped our toes into the world of neighborhood tourism. Where do I stand on it? My honest answer is 'not really sure'.
In reality, does Bangkok possess a single neighborhood that merits an overnight stay anyway? A while back my wife and I had a fun afternoon photographing the street art of Charoenkrung / Lower Silom - but a few hours in the afternoon was all it warranted.
I wonder if the considerable amount of money spent on just one night away from home might be better put towards a proper three or four-day trip to some of those gorgeous provinces in Northern Thailand.