Five years is a long time between visits and, wow, has Bangkok changed. It's still the noisy and chaotic city that makes a Los Angeles traffic jam look like a Sunday joy ride, but it is also a peaceful, spiritual place with serene Buddhist temples, historic colonial architecture and modern glass skyscrapers that are invariably home to shiny new shopping malls.
In the U.S. you would generally have to drag me kicking and screaming to a shopping mall, but in Bangkok the lure of these pristine shopping centers with diverse stores, an eclectic mix of products and much-coveted air conditioning, is too strong. In the past five years, it seems that every vacant block has been built on and the central business district is now back-to-back edifices of marble, steel and glass. They've even pulled down a few to make way for newer, bigger and better examples. Much to my sadness, the 1980's World Trade Centre on the corner of Ratchadamri and PloenChit Roads has been demolished and replaced with the massive Central World Plaza complex -- due for completion this month. Thankfully the appealing Zen department store that was in the World Trade Centre is being retained.
So why am I so enamoured with Bangkok's malls -- enough to write an entire article dedicated to their charms? The answer lies beyond the chain stores, fashion boutiques and quirky stalls (which are in themselves unique and fantastic) and in the form of the newly re-invented Thai food hall.
Food halls located in shopping centers in Bangkok put their U.S. counterparts to shame. With barely a KFC or Pizza Hut in sight, their food halls feature dozens of international gourmet selections, healthy alternatives and an abundance of choice. Most work on a system of swipe cards. What that generally means is that upon arrival at the food hall, you need to walk around the stalls, add up the prices of the items you would like, and then go to cashier and add that value to your card. Any unspent value can be refunded on the same day
My favourite has to be Mah Boon Krong on the corner of Rama I Road and Phayathai Road. Although the seven-floor shopping center itself is older than and not as glamorous as some of its neighbours (hence the fact that there are still lots of bargains to be had), the fifth floor is a diner's paradise. Called Fifth Avenue, it looks more like a slick designer restaurant that a mall, with architecturally designed fittings, funky leather seats and banquettes, day bed sofas, soft mood lighting and the cleanest bathrooms I saw in Thailand. It's the kind of place you could take a first date, or even your mother-in-law if you were trying to impress her. A live band plays music in the evenings and daytime meals are made more pleasurable with the sounds of cool jazz.
Instead of paying at the beginning and anticipating all the tasty morsels you would like to try, you are given a blank swipe card upon entering and each food vendor then adds the price to your card. When you finish, you just take you card to a cashier for the final tally. Cuisine choices include Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Vegetarian, Italian, Thai, Seafood, Steak, a juice bar, alcoholic drinks and sumptuous desserts. Food is prepared by expert chefs before your eyes including a pizza chef who delicately throws the dough in the air and pounds it on a huge marble slab. Meals are served on fine white china with the sort of tableware you'd be proud to call your own, and although you do initially collect your food on trays, servers help you to your seat, set a place setting for you and remove your tray with a smile.
My homemade pumpkin soup followed by delicately prepared shrimp dumplings was finished off perfectly with a coconut pastry. My daughter's penne Bolognaise was authentically Italian and my husband's roast duck with noodles was superb. Fifth Avenue was slightly more expensive than other halls we had experienced, but three of us dined like royalty with multiple courses and drinks for $20. I suspect that if we had stuck to more traditional local Thai food, rather than indulging in a variety of different international cuisines, the cost would have been considerably lower.
Another exceptional example of modern Thai retail design in the Siam Paragon complex located close by on Rama 1 Road, Here the entire basement is dedicated to food in the form of more formal eat-in restaurants, the food hall itself, countless dessert bars, bakeries and a designer supermarket full of exotic imports and the best deli products from around the world. Huge ten-foot high fish tanks are creatively set in amongst the tables and chairs so you can enjoy the ambience of frolicking fish while you dine. My most difficult decision was to choose between the dozen or so varieties of cheesecakes when it came to dessert while enjoying an Italian coffee. I was like a kid in a candy store in the supermarket, sampling six different types and colors of organic rice from individual rice cookers, nibbling on local fruits from durian to sala and surveying the never ending fresh produce section. All of this set in state of the art architectural surrounds that looked like it had just stepped out of a design magazine.
The Platinum is another new mall located on Petchburi Road across the road from the labyrinth that is Pratunam Market. Apart from housing 1,300 fashion stores (of which I can personally say I visited 1,250), there is a wonderful and very inexpensive food hall on the top floor. A two course lunch for two, including freshly squeezed juices came to less than $8. The food is predominantly Thai here but there is plenty on offer, most staff speak English and are very helpful.
Of course almost every shopping center in Bangkok, regardless of its size or market (including the wholesale garment complexes around Pratunam Market) has food outlets of one sort or another with prices starting from as low $1 for a decent meal of noodles or curry. Choices may be greater and the décor more appealing at the more upmarket centers but value for money is always guaranteed. And the shopping is pretty good, too.
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