Bangkok’s hotel industry has been transformed by a fresh breed of quirky art-driven hotels.
When importer-exporter Anusorn Ngernynang opened the 32-roomed hotel Reflections in 2004, he changed the face of Bangkok’s lodging scene forever. Startling in raspberry-pink, its guest rooms festooned with kitsch pop art, the hotel sent shock waves through the relatively conservative neighbourhood of Soi Aree – once dubbed “Millionaire’s Lane” for its plethora of old mansions- and started a flurry of rumours that Aree would become Bangkok’s answer to SoHo.
“When we first opened (Reflections), many people thought the hotel was just plain weird” says Ngernynang sitting on a plastic chair covered with bright pink daisies and matching shag at his feet. “But after couple of years, locals even started to paint their houses the same color as the hotel”.
Ngernynang is now putting the finishing touches on another Reflections in nearby Pradipat Road, having closed the Aree hotel. Like the original, the new one is employing up-and-coming artists to design the guest rooms. Each is whimsical and unique: Audiophiles should check into “Listen” (No: 305), which practically glows in retro pink, with a piano couch, bright pink headphones on a black scull and ballerina figures on the walls. Accessory designer Wannasiri Kongman’s Fitting Room (No: 206), reminisces on the trivial nature of the fashion world, with paper cut-out Channel bags in display cabinets and clocks set for the homes of the world’s top fashion designers- Valentino for Rome, McQueen for London and – perhaps a little ostentatiously- Reflections for Bangkok.
“Before we opened there were so many underground artists and designers in Bangkok, but a very weak arts “scene”, with few places to display work”, says Ngernynang. “So we decided to open a gallery inside a hotel”.
Ngernynang’s boldness has since prompted a wave of young, experimental hoteliers to come to the fore, transforming Bangkok’s lodging scene from mass-formula chain-hotels to self-conscious and sometimes outrageously designed spaces, adding a fresh vibe to the cities humid, congested streets.
Art, architecture and design in Thailand have come a long way since the hyper development of the 90’s when skyscrapers were built to look like a gaudy three legged elephants and Byzantine palaces. No longer a haven for cheap rip-offs invented elsewhere, the Thai’s are forging their own homegrown identity. Thai design shops like Propaganda and Anyroom fill the top floors of cities glitzy shopping malls and several Thai-language interior-design magazines – including Wallpaper*- line the newsstands.
The fashion industry is booming. Retailers like Soda, Fly Now and Greyhound are competing with big European labels and every year scores of hot new Thai designers make it to the catwalks of Paris and Milan. Bangkok even has its own annual fashion week.
Hotel wise, the cities big architectural transformation came in 2003 with the opening of Christina Ong’s Metropolitan Hotel. Moody with dark makha wood trimmings, clean lines, ambient lighting and references to traditional architecture, its minimalist but distinctly Thai design became the benchmark for a style now mimicked in hotels, bars and restaurants from Surin to Koh Samui.
At Seven, a petit townhouse turned six room hotel, minimalist design has been combined with a liberal dash of tradition. Themed on the seven colors that accord to the seven days of the week in Buddhist philosophy (the seventh room is the lobby), stark white rooms blaze to life with ceiling-to-floor murals inspired by traditional Thai art.
Some people say this new found inspiration is a spin-off from the Asia Financial Crisis of 1997 which sunk the Thai Baht and made it more difficult for people to study and travel abroad. As a result, they started looking inwards, reinventing the regions tremendously rich artistic legacies, rather than borrowed ones from the West.
“In Thailand people used to live and work inside the frame. Now they are starting to move outside of it. It’s like they are finally daring to dream”, says Sanya Saengboon, the genial General Manager of nine-month old hotel Siam@Siam. Having spent the last twenty years abroad and interstate, including Berlin and Chiang Mai, Saengboon recently returned to Bangkok to “live the city’s new vibe”.
“Daring” and “extreme” is how Saengboon describes Siam@Siam: industrial chic, with a Nissan Figaro convertible in the lobby, two angels greetings guests as they pull up to the front door, a big blue foot on the pavement and crooked lamp shades held up by spindly unpolished tree branches. Built with raw concrete, recycled timbers and scrap metal, the hotel almost feels like a factory, but a distinctly Thai one, with graceful service and Mae Fah Luang (a non-for profit foundation using Thai hill tribe weavings) rugs and Thai silk.
What’s more, you don’t have to compromise on facilities- there is also a swimming pool (don’t miss the views over the city at night), a 1000 square meter spa, bar, restaurant and even an executive club.
“It’s really quirky”, Californian Charles Thomas tells me at the breakfast bar one morning. “I usually stay at one of the five star properties in Bangkok, but this is much more entertaining”.
Quirk seems like Bangkok’s new hotel theme. Vikram Chatwal, the 36 year old New York socialite dubbed the Turban Cowboy- opened his second Dream Hotel on Sukhumvit 15 (his first is in New York). Sleek and glamorous, there are three mosaic tiled Buddhist stupas submerged in a pool of water in the lobby. I find the mish mash of stripes and stars in the Flava Bar a little too busy on the eye, but the bright pink leopard and blue- almost to the point of being fluorescent- tiger guarding peaking behind glittery screens are outrageously eccentric and fun.
The hotel is what Chatwal calls “Hautel Couture”, although this version seems decidedly more casual than catwalk; most people checking in are European travelers heading to the beach or flashpackers splurging on a night or two in the city.
Concerned with style, frequently design hotels are more pretty than practical. The Dream Hotel nails both: in guest rooms ethereal blue lighting seeping out from under the bed sets a surreal tone and wenge-wood furniture, spacious glass top desks, ipod dockets, and allergen-free goose down- make it both contemporary and convenient.
At nearby Le Fenix, coolness surpasses practicality. Just steps from Bangkok’s most iconic high-design landmark- the restaurant and night club Bed Supperclub- the six month old property is already fading at the edges- its terrazzo furniture chipped, the swirly carpet stained scuffed. To emphasis a jigsaw look on the outside, big slabs of concrete block both views and daylight in the rooms.
But these are early days for art and design hotels in Bangkok. Aloft- the little sister of W Hotels- has announced its plans for a 308 room property on Sukhumvit Road. Designed in conjuncture with David Rockwell, it will set new standards for design and style in the city.
When that happens, no doubt Bangkok will become even cooler.
Reflections: 224/2 Pradipat Road, Sapan Kwai; +66 22703344; www.reflections-thai.com; Double rooms from $65
Seven: 313/15 Sukhumvit 31; +66-2 6620951; www.sleepatseven.com; Double rooms from $100
Siam@Siam: 865 Rama 1 Road, Siam Square; +66 (0) 22173000; www.siamatsiam.com; Double rooms from $120
Dream Hotel: 10 Sukhumvit soi 15; +66 22548500; www.dreambkk.com; Double rooms from $140
Le Fenix: 33/33 Sukhumvit Soi 11, Tel: +66 (2) 3054000; www.lefenix-sukhumvit.com; Double rooms from $60