Travel Story Bangkok's boulevard of dreams

Soi 4 Nana. Sukhumvit, Bangkok.
Picture: John Borthwick

Sukhumvit Road concentrates the spicy, seamy, shopaholic essence of the Thai capital.

Rip-roaring Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok’s great boulevard of dreams and schemes, is the city’s longest thoroughfare.

Stretching 490km to the Cambodian border, it is also one of the longest roads in the world. For most visitors, Sukhumvit’s first, hyperactive mile-and-a-bit might be more than enough — a glorious overload of humanity, shops, flaming woks and voluntary insomnia.

Rice paddies and patrician estates bordered Thanon Sukhumvit (its proper name) until the 1960s. For Thai novelist and composer S.P. Somtow, the aristocratic enclave there, where he spent his childhood, was “our remote little island kingdom on Sukhumvit Road”. The progress monster that ate Bangkok chewed its way through all the agriculture and elegance, and now the great artery is lined with condos, hotels and offices.

Street Markets

A Sukhumvit footpath constantly challenges you with its fascinating, infuriating anarchy of vendor stalls, utility boxes, excavations, fortune tellers, food carts and random pitfalls, more resembling a steeplechase than a sidewalk.

By night several blocks between Soi (sidestreet) 3 and Soi 15 form an almost claustrophobic tunnel that redefines the term “ambush marketing”. Hawker stalls, laden with cheap clothing, pirated media and every form of inessential yet somehow “must- have” gizmo, crush in upon you.

Price haggle for the sport of it, certainly, but don’t imagine you’ll beat the house. 

Thailand’s military junta has declared high-minded schemes for moving aside the city’s estimated 380,000 hawkers and food vendors but within a few weeks, on Sukhumvit at least, it’s same-same.

Shopping

Sukhumvit shopping is a vertical, mall-to-mall encounter, where the major institutions include Emporium (near Phrom Phong BTS Skytrain station) and the mammoth Terminal 21 (Asok BTS station). 

Add to those, hundreds of individual stores, plus traditional department stores such as Robinsons. The malls are towers of franchise power, selling all the name-brand bling — watches, cosmetics, footwear, clothing — we find worldwide. (Mall prices are fixed, so don’t lose face by haggling in the wrong place.) 

And yet a mall here is more than just another consumption trawl, with the big, up-market EmQuartier (Phrom Phong BTS), for instance, also featuring tropical gardens, waterfall, cinema, restaurants and quality food court.  

Getting Around

This iconic thoroughfare is named after Phra Bisal Sukhumvit, a 1930s chief of the Royal Siam Department of Highways.

Little could he have imagined his project — back then a modest, if not lengthy track — would today be so thronged an elevated light rail system, the BTS Skytrain, was the only sane way of travelling it. Like some deus ex machina come to save us from terminal gridlock, the BTS Sukhumvit Line zips you down the middle of the road, hurdling the motorcycle taxis, tuk-tuks and pedestrian melees that squall constantly below it.

Clean and air-conditioned, though often with standing room only, the Skytrain always beats the road. Go for a one-day pass, costing 140 baht ($5.60).

Meanwhile, at street jungle level, meter taxis are plentiful and cheap but always be sure your meter is on. On the other hand, tuktuks (unmetered and diligently opportunist) will rarely be cheaper for a tourist than a taxi; be sure to fix the price before you hop aboard.

The meter taxi fare from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Sukhumvit is $10-$12; on top, you pay any road tolls and a 50 baht airport service fee. Tip if you’re happy. Bicycles and city buses — forget it.

Nana 

Think Nana, think Indian tailors and “Hello, sailor”. The area around Nana (pronounced Naa-naa) BTS station comes out at night to party full tilt. Its exuberant Soi 4 (aka Nana Tai) is at the neon heart if not groin of nocturnal Sukhumvit.

Beyond its bars, spas, go-gos and “one-night-in-Bangkok” distractions, Nana also has plenty of good eateries and bargain shopping. 

But you’re only here for the tailoring — right — in which case you’ll find some of the best bespoke stitchers in town. Probably skip the “24-hour” cheapo shops displaying zoot suits that look like a Bollywood mobster’s cast-offs. A quality suit or dress tailor will want at least two fittings and it all might take up to a week.

Sleeping 

For a zone that sleeps so little, Sukhumvit has plenty of beds, keenly priced and ranging from backpacker to five-star. The usual hotel majors, including Marriott, Westin, Sheraton and Accor, are present in number.

One low-key but highly recommended retreat is the five- star Rembrandt, on Soi 18 near Asok BTS. Further down on the star scale, if you’re chasing history with a double shot of eccentricity, check out the Atlanta at the far end of Soi 2, with its superb Bauhaus-Deco lobby and 1950s diner.

When the original Ariyasom Villa opened in 1941, Sukhumvit’s Soi 1 was on the far outskirts of town. Today it is near the heart but this refurbished boutique hotel remains quietly cloistered, well down its soi near Saen Saep canal. Likewise, the white- suited Cabochon Hotel, tucked discreetly away at the end of Soi 45, is almost oblivious to the restless boulevard beyond. Its suites, studios and restaurant all tip their panamas and fascinators towards wicked, between-wars Shanghai.

Endless Eating 

Perhaps because it skimps on sleeping, the Big Mango (aka Bangkok) seems to always be eating. Sukhumvit steps boldly up to the plate, so to speak, with some of the best dining in town, from five-star restaurants to street carts selling fried crickets and grasshoppers.

And don’t dismiss the mega- mall food courts — in terms of taste and variety they’re well above what you might imagine. 

At Terminal 21 (Asok BTS), for instance, the fifth-floor food court is one of the best in town. Similarly, Emporium (Phrom Phong BTS) has some 50 quality restaurants and food outlets.

Meanwhile, the worthy Cabbages and Condoms restaurant on Soi 12 (Asok BTS) is operated by an NGO, the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), and does tasty Thai food with the hot chillies dialled down for temperate foreign tastes. 

For Indian fine dining, make a reservation at the Rang Mahal, atop the aforementioned Rembrandt Hotel on Soi 18. 

The Atlanta (Soi 2) has an impeccable 1950s, Los Angeles- style diner with specials such as steak Diane, of which the Fawlty-esque menu boasts, “Typically, the Atlanta is not moving with the times”.

Wherever you graze, be sure to sample the classic Thai dessert, khao niow mamuang, mango and sticky rice.

Tales of Sukhumvit

Thailand is the Italy of Asia. Great food, beautiful women, joyously corrupt, and totally dysfunctional,” says expat American author, Jake Needham whose Bangkok-based novels such as The Big Mango superbly net the tawdry dreams and ratbag schemes of places such as Sukhumvit’s Soi Cowboy bar strip, along with ripping good, whodunnit plots.

 The Wall Street Journal Asia noted: “Mr Needham seems to know rather more than one ought about these things.” The same can be said of ex-Hong Kong lawyer John Burdett’s work, a series of inventive detective tales, including Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo.

Irish crime writer Stephen Leather’s novel, Private Dancer, a cautionary tale about finding and losing love in all the wrong places along Sukhumvit, should be (according to a former staffer at the Australian Embassy) “obligatory reading” for males arriving in the kingdom — not that this will make much difference. 

Finally, there’s Somtow’s magical 1960s coming-of-age novel, Jasmine Nights, set in his family’s Sukhumvit compound, “with its four mansions, its arbours, its hidden rooms, its jasmine bushes, its labyrinthine love trysts”. For these and more, hit Bangkok’s best English language bookshop, Asia Books, on Sukhumvit Road between sois 15 and 17.

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