When thousands of Bangkokians took to the streets last year, their message was clear: Out with the iron fist of the establishment, in with freedom of speech and equal rights for all. Breaking long-standing taboos, students ditched their uniforms for outfits that made a statement. Sex workers stood up for the decriminalization of their profession. LGBTQ+ youth demanded the legalization of same-sex marriage. Even the king, protected by some of the world’s strictest lèse-majesté laws, was fair game, as protesters called for reforming the monarchy.
But the status quo isn’t being challenged just in the political realm. A savvy generation of influencers has emerged, fusing country charm with downtown cool. From trailblazing chefs to progressive curators, tastemakers across the city are rethinking what it means to be Thai. Fueled by folk music and local moonshine, they’re embracing the country’s historical architecture, deep-rooted culture, and rich bounty of regional cuisines. No longer are the capital’s top tables synonymous with chichi French or fancy Japanese. Artists and designers are heading up-country—not to New York or London—to seek inspiration. Here are the names and addresses to know for your next visit.
The designer: Saran Yen Panya
Returning home after finishing a master’s degree in Stockholm, multidisciplinary designer Saran Yen Panya wanted to break free from Scandinavian minimalism and explore his own voice. His work, ranging from pop-up installations to furniture, fuses the everyday with the elevated: seats made from plastic fruit crates with neoclassical-style legs, tongue-in-cheek fabrics printed with kitschy pinups and traditional floral patterns, and modern twists on benjarong (classic Thai ceramics). Panya also collaborates with Thailand’s forgotten craft communities, selling products such as contemporary reed tote bags, handwoven and embroidered by artisans in the country’s Isaan region, at his space, 56thStudio, in Bangkok’s Talat Noi neighborhood.
Inside Tip “I love discovering crafts and textiles at the old-school shops around Yaowarat. For something more modern, Objects of Desire Store in the Siam Discovery mall brings together work from some of the best young homegrown artists.”
The eco-warrior: Moh Suthasiny Sudprasert
Moh Suthasiny Sudprasert has hosted environmental innovation workshops for young people in Nepal and brainstormed sustainability solutions with a Berlin-based think tank, but the pandemic forced the crusading social entrepreneur to focus on issues closer to home. In March 2020 she cofounded Happy Grocers, a farm-to-kitchen grocery truck and delivery service, to help Thailand’s agricultural food chain become greener—especially important considering the rampant use of pesticides and plastic packaging. Popping up at greenmarkets and community fairs, the company connects Thai organic farmers directly to consumers, educating both about the benefits of renewably cultivated produce. The guided farm tours are especially attractive for travelers, who can also sign up for cooking courses and plant-based tie-dye workshops.
Inside Tip “The Kitchen at Yenakat is a small Thai-Isaan restaurant whose owner is very involved in supporting local farms and social entrepreneurship. I always leave with food for thought.”
The hotelier: Ananda Chalardcharoen
It took hotelier Ananda Chalardcharoen just five months to transform a dilapidated 19th-century Chinatown bank building into the Mustang Blu, and even less time for the boutique hotel to become one of the city’s most photographed stays. Drawing on her experience styling and directing shows for Thai fashion labels such as Asava and Mesh Museum, Chalardcharoen opened Mustang Blu as both an alternative expression of her eclectic style and a way of preserving the building’s storied past—an admirable approach in a city where heritage buildings are often demolished in favor of shiny new construction. Her team renovated only what was needed, keeping relics such as the original vault door intact and filling the paint-peeled hallways with her signature taxidermy mix. (A horse and a glass-encased ostrich skeleton greet guests in the lobby.) Artfully arranged books sit alongside European antiques—a style that continues throughout the 10 rooms, all of which have marble-tiled bathrooms, freestanding roll-top tubs, and velvet curtains. If Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel had been set in Bangkok, it surely would have been filmed here.
Inside Tip “I love TEP Bar, just a two-minute walk from my hotel. It’s Thai culture with a modern twist. There’s traditional Thai live music too, which isn’t usually found in other bars.”
The activist: Pangina Heals
Thailand’s outspoken LGBTQ+ advocate might have the name Pan Pan Narkprasert printed in her passport, but most people know the Thai Taiwanese entertainer by her drag queen moniker, Pangina Heals. Between dazzling appearances as a cohost of Thailand’s spin-off of RuPaul’s Drag Race and sashaying at shows throughout Asia, Narkprasert uses her influence as the country’s reigning queen to campaign for queer and transgender rights on TV talk shows and at fundraisers. She famously dolled up her dad and 93-year-old grandmother in drag to normalize gay acceptance within Thai family circles and recently opened her own venue—the glitter-dusted House of Heals in Bangkok’s Phaya Thai district, conceived as an inclusive and safe space for guests from all walks of life.
Inside Tip “The Stranger Bar, a very cool, dive-y drag bar in the gay nightlife district of Silom Soi 4, is a fun spot. I always feel super free when walking in there.”
The curator: Mook Attakanwong
When Mook Attakanwong returned to Thailand after working as a fashion designer in New York City, she felt Bangkok’s art scene was missing an approachable gallery that showcased more than just the artistic elite. To fill that gap she transformed a century-old Chinese school building in Charoenkrung, Bangkok’s creative district, into ATT 19, a multidisciplinary arts hub highlighting upcoming Thai and international talent alongside affordable antiques and vintage fashion. As cofounder and creative director, she coordinates thought-provoking exhibitions and workshops exploring gender roles, identity, and youth culture in Thai society, offering a platform to artists and creators not typically represented in the traditional gallery scene.
Inside Tip “I see Shone Puipia, a Bangkok-based women’s wear designer, as the future of fashion. You can see his archive of Thai silk creations at his studio, Soi Sa:m. I also love FV, a café helping local farmers by putting the spotlight on Thai produce.”
The stylist: Jirawat Maan Sriluansoi
The contrasts of the capital’s cityscape, with its crumbling shop houses next to gleaming skyscrapers, inspired fashion editor turned creative consultant Jirawat Maan Sriluansoi to launch the Only Market, a line of cross-cultural souvenirs capturing the perseverance of Thai-ness in a rapidly globalizing society. Flipping the script on typical design, Sriluansoi remixes the idea of vacation tees and common household items (market bags, handkerchiefs) to create fashion-forward tops, pins, and accessories emblazoned with Thai phrases translated into Russian, Arabic, and Chinese.
Inside Tip “I often work with the brand Dry Clean Only, whose pieces have been worn by Beyoncé and Rihanna, and I admire the designs of Realistic Situation, which I think really represent the new Bangkok—modern yet nostalgic.”
The mixologist: Niks Anuman-Rajadhon
A kingpin in the renaissance of Soi Nana, the edgy nightlife enclave on the fringes of the city’s Chinatown, Niks Anuman-Rajadhon wants to infuse the bar landscape with a more authentic flavor. At Teens of Thailand, he blends native herbs and spices such as chrysanthemum and tea with top-shelf specialty gins, while at his other space, Asia Today, he uses ingredients brought back from foraging trips around the country (elephant garlic from Lampang, cocoa from Chanthaburi). He’s also the driving force behind Boom’s Reserve, a collection of wild honey sourced from the mountains of northern Thailand, which plays a starring role in many of his concoctions.
Inside Tip Junker and Bar and Q&A Bar are my other go-tos. The drinks are great and the vibe is easygoing.”
The music collector: Mark Salmon
Once more likely to be heard in Bangkok’s taxis and tuk-tuks than in its coolest bars, the hypnotic riffs of Thai folk and country music, known as mor lam and luk thung, are now fixtures at indie festivals and DJ sets at some of the city’s most progressive venues. In-the-know crate diggers hit up Thai British music collector Mark Salmon, one of the country’s preeminent experts on Thai musical history, for dead-stock vinyl and ultra-rare cassette tapes. After taking over the inventory of a now-defunct record shop, he launched the online store Golden Axe Records to share his finds with enthusiasts from Germany to Japan.
Inside Tip “Acts such as Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band and Rasamee have been at the forefront of the evolving sound scene. And Studio Lam, in the Sukhumvit district, hosts live performances by up-and-coming bands.”
The chef: Napol Jantraget
When Thai food trailblazer Napol Jantraget isn’t fermenting, smoking, or pickling local produce at his fine-dining spot, 80/20, in the riverside neighborhood of Bang Rak, you may find him scouring the countryside for little-known flavors and small-scale farmers. Jantraget’s locavore approach has earned him a devoted following and his restaurant a Michelin star, making him all the more determined to continue his path deep into the nitty-gritty of Thai cooking. A food lab/chef’s table is in the works, and he recently opened Krok, a humble shop-house joint that is gaining a citywide reputation for its excellent nam phrik, a punchy chile sauce.
Inside Tip “My friend Chalee Kader takes nose-to-tail dining to new heights at his Isaan-inspired restaurant, 100 Mahaseth. Or try scoring a table at Sorn; it’s hard to get a booking, but the southern Thai dishes are phenomenal.”
This article appeared in the March 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.
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