Unlike Singapore, trees in Bangkok are an elusive bunch. So much so that the Asian Green City index measured just 3 sq m of green for each person in the metropolitan area last year - against an average of 39 sq m for other cities and 66 for Singapore alone. What few trees you do find are straggly and weak - no match for the relentless spew of traffic fumes, and not much for shade either. So they stand alone and ignored, kind of like the city's stray dogs - dusty, unkempt and unloved.
But there is a flip side to this scenaro. You can find pockets of green in the Thai capital if you know where to look - prized finds in quiet residential sois, small lovingly-tended parks or, in the case of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, a sprawling 18-hole golf course smack in Central Bangkok.
You can see it while on the BTS Skytrain running from Siam Station to Silom - an unexpected swathe of green amidst glitzy malls and concrete detritus that give Bangkok its pulsating, squalor-chic heart. Already impressive from a distance, it's worth scoring an invitation to visit by a club member - so you can enjoy the view over a languid lunch of home-style Thai cooking at its outdoor cafe. The club itself is an institution - the Thai version of Singapore's SICC - steeped in old-world charm and privilege, playground of the city's elite that sits on prime royal-owned land; and probably a sore point with the less well-connected masses who live and work beyond its landscaped boundaries.
You can see just how big the club is from the upper floors of the Hansar Hotel - a trendy all-suite abode on Rajdamri Road, designed by Singapore architects WOHA as an eco-friendly tropical structure that works plant life, natural lighting and ventilation into a streamlined space that doesn't compromise on comfort or amenities. It's all understated elegance in boutique surroundings - no noisy tour groups congregating in the lobby here - while at the same time offering a fresh twist to a conventional hotel stay.
By the same token, it prods regular visitors to Bangkok to look at this oft-visited city in a new light. Hansar, for one, is poised on the edge of Central Bangkok that is steadily shaping its own identity as the luxury district of the Thai capital. Most people are already familiar with the teeming, steaming streets of Yaowarat - Bangkok's Chinatown and source of street food delights/hygiene challenges; the fast fashion hotspot of Siam Square; the bars of Sukhumvit or the myriad temples in Rattanakosin. But the near perfect square formed by the roads of Ploenchit, Wireless, Rama IV and Rajdamri offers within its perimeter a compact destination for subscribers of an upscale lifestyle.
Even if you fail to enjoy the greenery of the sports club up close, there is more than enough to compensate at Lumpini Park on Rama IV, between Rajdamri and Witthayu Road. Most people know it as the home of Suan Lum night bazaar, without realising it's actually attached to a 57ha green lung complete with a man-made lake and occasional natural-born monitor lizard. The night market is long gone but the park's appeal is strong with both locals and health-conscious expats who jog regularly from one of the numerous luxury condos in the vicinity.
These expats and the growing well-heeled travel market are fuelling the demand for upscale products and services in Central Bangkok, and both hotel and retail operators are quick to ramp up supply. Central World - the mega-shopping and dining complex which was once devastated by fire, has come back swinging with enough retail options to boggle the mind. For the happening crowd, Heaven is where it's at - perched atop the Zen World Tower which houses the coolest collection of restaurants and cocktail bars high enough to offer a panoramic view of the city. Every taste from international dining to Japanese is catered to, and Shintori is shaping up to be a favourite with its modern take on Japanese/Asian cuisine. The fusion is fun and tasty -the Peking duck roll, for example, is a successful deconstruction of the classic Chinese pancake, morphing into a bite-sized wrap of tender roast duck slices rolled into Vietnamese rice paper, artfully drizzled with sauce and complemented by cubes of tender ox tongue.
If you're staying at Hansar, which boasts its own compact kitchenette, the option of in-room dining takes on new meaning when you bring home culinary delights from Central Chidlom department store's massive food hall.
The entire world is represented in this award-winning food emporium housed in the newly renovated department store that has swopped its previous old-fashioned demeanour for a tricked out tribute to urban tastes. The fast food options attached to the supermarket are not worth your while, but the fresh food, fruit and vegetables - including a comprehensive take-out section comprising local curries, snacks and condiments - are worth staying in your hotel room for.
If you fancy local handicraft to take home with you, ignore the myriad makeshift stalls that line the streets around Erawan and grab a tuk-tuk to DoiTung Lifestyle's new flagship store and gallery on Rama IV Road. It's a well-stocked repository of intricately woven scarves, apparel, ceramics and home accessories made under the auspices of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation which was started by the late Thai Princess Mother in the 1970s to offer opium farmers in the Golden Triangle an alternative trade. Not only did her work transform the way of life for these farmers and craftsmen, it's created a line of products acclaimed for their quality and design. You can spend a couple of hours here exploring the history of the foundation as well as browsing the comprehensive range of products from DoiTung coffee and macadamia nuts (in addictive flavours like wasabi and seaweed) to lovely table runners and rugs.
As an additional reward for making the short trip, there's afternoon tea at the new St Regis hotel for sustenance, or a spa treatment.
Or if you're smitten with the lifestyle on offer in the area, you could even make an appointment to view one of the hotel's residential apartments that start at a mere 99 million baht (S$3.9 million). If that sounds pricey, think about what it would cost to buy a similar property in say, Central London, or even Hong Kong's Central district.
Besides, where else can you find happy, well-adjusted trees, co-existing with luxury hotels, malls and upscale condos all in one compact neighbourhood? Bangkok is a city of surprises but maybe the biggest one is to discover a distinctive neighbourhood taking shape right in front of our eyes.
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