Business trip: Bangkok

Over the last decade, the Thai capital has evolved from a humid riverside city known for its tuk tuks and street food into a modern, rapidly growing Asian commercial hub.

Over the last decade, Bangkok has evolved from a humid riverside city known for its tuk tuks and street food into a modern, rapidly growing Asian commercial hub. Business travellers will appreciate the city’s dramatic advancements in public transportation, its world-class airport and a growing selection of four- and five- star hotels near the city centre.

The 2006 opening of the lofty Suvarnabhumi Airport, located 25km east of the city centre, marked the emergence of Bangkok to the big league, and it continues to be a key engine of growth, with arrivals increasing by 19% from 2011 to 2012. A modern, convenient elevated rail link, which opened in 2010, connects the airport to the city in 30 minutes, helping visitors avoid Bangkok’s infamous traffic jams.

The city’s modern public transportation system – a combination of soaring skytrains (BTS) and underground subways (MRT) – has transformed the bustling city centre into a futuristic warren of street-level sidewalks, skywalks (elevated sidewalks) and skytrains.

The Chao Phraya River flows along the western edge of the city centre, along which stand many of Bangkok’s grandest luxury hotels, including the famous Mandarin Oriental Bangkok and the plush Peninsula Bangkok. But the draw of big business has shifted the upscale hotel scene to key commercial hubs to the east, such as Ratchaprasong, Sathorn, Silom, Siam or Sukhumvit. 

Getting to or from Suvarnabhumi Airport is a breeze using the elevated rail link. But travellers with heavy luggage or those who do not feel like riding the frequently crowded trains should arrange for a private car through their hotel or book the airport’s limousine service (1,500 to 2,500 baht one way). Taxis (about 350 baht) are also an option, but queues can be long and scams frequent. Depending on traffic, the drive between the airport and city centre is 45 to 60 minutes.

Business travellers who like to try out new hotels are in luck: Bangkok is in the middle of a boom in luxury hotel development.

The 227-room St Regis Bangkok opened in April 2011 and has quickly become the high-end hotel hotspot for visitors and locals. Oversized butler-serviced rooms overlook the horseracing track and golf course at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. Have a Siam Mary cocktail at the St Regis Bar or a power lunch at the 12th floor Viu restaurant – both are popular among the city’s movers and shakers. The hotel is located in the busy, central area around Ratchaprasong (full of offices, shopping malls and embassies) and conveniently connected via skywalk to the Rajadamri BTS Skytrain station.

Nearby, the new 240-room Okura Prestige Bangkok oozes Japanese style and elegance, from its chic brown marble, wood- and copper-trimmed lobby to its dramatic rooftop infinity pool. The hotel opened on the top floors of a futuristic mixed-use office building on Wireless Road in May 2012 near the Phloen Chit BTS station.

Out by the Chao Phraya River, the 39-villa Siam hotel is spread over three acres in the exclusive northern Dusit district.  Although the hotel is new, antiques, art and touches like teakwood floors and private plunge pools give it a historical feel.

French fashion icon Christian Lacroix collaborated with five Thai designers to create the lavish, whimsical interiors of the 238-room Sofitel So Bangkok, which opened in March 2012 in a glass tower at the intersection of busy Sathorn and Rama IV Roads, within walking distance of both BTS and MRT stations. Book a room on the posh executive club level and enjoy evening cocktails and canapés in a private perch high above the smoggy skyline, where attendants are decked out in uniforms and shoes specially designed by Lacroix. The 27-storey hotel overlooks Lumphini Park, Bangkok’s big green central-city lung, which offers guests a chance to wander (or jog) among its trees and lakes away from city’s grit and noise.

Nearby in the Sathorn district, the super-chic, 407-room W Bangkok hotel opened its doors in December 2012 (parts of the hotel are still under construction). In typical, edgy W style, oversized, stuffed and sequined Muay Thai boxing gloves serve as accent pillows on all hotel beds. At night, the hotel lobby’s popular Woobar pulsates with a crowd of curious locals and hotel guests. The W is connected to a unique terracotta-topped 19th-century building that at one time served as the Russian embassy, but will soon become event space for the hotel.

Vertical gardens, warm wood flooring, silk wall panels and contemporary room design are hallmarks of the glamorous 94-room Hansar Bangkok, tucked into a quiet side street in busy Ratchaprasong. In a nice touch, breakfast and wi-fi are included in the rate.

Expense account
Make reservations early to nab one of the hottest tables in town at Bo.lan, an upscale Thai restaurant in Sukhumvit run by a Michelin-star husband and wife team. Even though a steady stream of expats and visitors frequents Bo.lan, prepare your palate for the fire and flavours of authentic Thai cuisine. Feeling adventurous? Allow the chef to prepare a balanced meal composed of five essential dishes: Thai salad (yum), chilli relish (kreung jim), stir fry (jan phat), curry (keng) and soup (nahm keng). 

Enjoy the relaxed, open-air atmosphere of a 1920s Thai home at the Issaya Siamese Club, where local celebrity chef Ian Kittichai turns out dishes seasoned with herbs grown in the house garden, such as red chilli-glazed seabass (pla aob prik) and jasmine flower flan (kanom dok mali). Outside tables usually go first. 

If you tire of Thai fire and spice, tuck into meticulously prepared Italian classics such as veal carpaccio, fillet of baccala (cod), or dry aged steaks from the open kitchen at La Scala, located on the lush, tranquil grounds of the Sukhothai Bangkok hotel on Sathorn Road. Chef Maurizio Menconi frequently shares the kitchen with visiting celebrity chefs from around the world.

At popular Quince, located in a loft-like see-and-be-seen space in Sukhumvit, Australian chef Jess Barnes prepares international dishes with fresh local ingredients such as albondigas (lamb meatballs) with cumin, tomato and pickled chilli, or pan seared mackerel with hummus and lemon paste, paired with an excellent selection of wines.

Off the clock
Bangkok’s latest major attraction, Asiatique the Riverfront, is a cross between the city’s steamy, chaotic night markets and its clean, orderly shopping malls. Join the festival-like atmosphere with a mix of locals and visitors drinking and dining al fresco in restaurants and beer gardens, enjoying live music, people watching, and of course, shopping in an open air market full of carefully curated, locally-made handicrafts and souvenirs.

To get there, take the BTS Skytrain to Saphan Taksin station, and then walk to the Sathorn Pier for a free 10-minute ferry ride. Weekend nights can be especially busy with long queues for the ferries, so consider taking a taxi instead. Asiatique is open daily from 5 pm until midnight.

Like a local
Shopping for inexpensive, quickly made bespoke clothing in Bangkok is a popular pastime for visitors, but since finding a reputable tailor can be difficult, ask for recommendations from your best-dressed Thai colleagues or hotel concierge.

Despite the heat and relaxed atmosphere you will undoubtedly feel in Bangkok, you should know that Thais are very status conscious, so dress up. To properly woo a new partner or close a deal, dress the part with suits or jackets, long-sleeved shirts and ties for men and conservative dresses, skirts and blouses or jackets for women. Thankfully, it is acceptable (and very common) to take your jacket off and carry it.

Don’t do this
When dining at Thai restaurants, do not expect to eat with chopsticks. Thais typically use a spoon and a fork. Hold the fork in your left hand and use it to push food onto the spoon. Then use the spoon in your right hand to bring the food to your mouth. Knives are rarely, if ever, necessary because most Thai dishes come in bite-sized pieces.

Another surprise: due to the year-round hot, muggy climate, do not be surprised if a server pours your beer over ice – a common practice throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia.