Bangkok By Design

Bangkok has long been a compelling place to visit, a culturally rich Southeast Asian capital that has managed to retain a strong national identity despite rapid development. What has given the city an additional edge for luxury travelers today is that, as well as being home to gilded Thai temples, craft emporiums and markets rich in color and culture, it has developed a booming urban arts scene and remarkably sophisticated eating and drinking venues.


When exactly Bangkok changed from being a hedonistic backpacker paradise and temple city into a budding food and shopping destination is difficult to pinpoint. Some argue that it was the arrival of designers such as Ashley Sutton, who created the iconic Bangkok bars Maggie Choo’s and Iron Fairies, that has propelled the city into the future far faster than other tourist favorites such as Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Pen. Others believe Bangkok’s rise to fame as the cool kid in Southeast Asia arrived when locals started to merge hip Western trends with local culture. “All the successful launches in the last five years have been of lifestyle establishments that have involved something else,” says Daniel Fraser, co-founder of luxury tour group Smiling Albino. “For instance, open art forums at night that also work as bars, restaurants that operate as art galleries and bars that double as performance theaters.”


The food, too, has evolved enormously in the city, he adds. “People always came for the street food, and still do. But now they might have street food at a market one night and a five-star dinner by a Michelin-starred chef like Joël Robuchon the next.”


As in many cities, some of the richest experiences, both contemporary and historical, are best accessed with the help of knowledgeable local guides or insider information. Here we offer a handful to make the best of your stay.


Design a custom suit


A trip to a tailor is now as synonymous with Bangkok as a dizzying ride in a tuk-tuk. Just like the tuk-tuks, tailors occupy practically every corner, jockeying for business from passing pedestrians. Enter Tailor on Ten, the antithesis of the typically crowded shop lined with fake designer fabrics. Run by Canadian brothers Ben and Alex Cole, the spacious store features private fitting rooms, on-site master tailors and fine Italian fabrics by manufacturers such as Loro Piana. What keeps international businessmen and ambassadors alike returning to Tailor on Ten is the attention to detail. Customers come for three fittings during a week and the Coles’ team personally selects every shoulder pad, interlining, button and thread used in the making of the shirts and suits. For men, sipping beer and crafting a new wardrobe or tuxedo gives them the ultimate kid-in-a-candy-shop feeling.


Suits from $400;



Fresh fruit and flowers en route to the market (Photo: Corbis)

Train with a martial arts star


On the outskirts of Bangkok, hard-bodied Thai men in brightly colored satin shorts enter the black-and-red-checkered ring at Luktupfah Muay Thai Academy for a full day of classic Muay Thai lessons with world-renowned trainer, Chinawut Sirisompan (known as Grand Master Woody). Spending the day with the Muay Thai pioneer, who was among the first to bring the sport to the West and is the founder of the Amateur Muay Thai World Championships, is equal parts history lesson and intense physical training. A day camp starts with a brief history of the sport and a breakdown of the rules and techniques before a warm-up run through nearby rice fields and villages. Back at the gym, there’s time to spar in the ring while a videographer captures the moves. When the grunting and combat is over, students can enjoy a Thai massage, time in the sauna and lunch before returning to Bangkok in a private car – with a few bruises and a new-found respect for the ancient Thai martial arts.


From $12 a session;


Fly over the city in a helicopter


The noise from the churning rotors quickly rises as the helicopter lifts above Bangkok’s crowded streets. The most shocking discovery of this 50-minute aerial trek is just how disorganized the Thai capital is, lacking the city planning, wide sidewalks and defined downtown areas of many major cities. But that lack of polish and orderly chaos is exactly what gives Bangkok its buzz, its magnetism, its charm. Whizzing above the Chao Phraya River, it’s possible to get a bird’s-eye view of the most iconic sights in town: the intricate canal systems, and the ancient Wat Arun and Grand Palace. Back on land, the journey ends with a private car back into the city.


About $1,600 for two,


Take Thai cooking lessons


Blue Elephant restaurant has long been Thailand’s unofficial culinary ambassador, showcasing the beauty and diversity of Royal Thai cuisine. Lessons are led by the restaurant’s leading chefs or, on request, the founder and executive head chef, Nooror Somany Steppe. Each student has a cooking station and wok, and time is spent both in the classroom and in the kitchen. A single morning’s lesson might involve taking an hour-long trip to the nearby Bangrak Market to shop for such typical Thai ingredients as bird’s eye chili and dried shrimp, then learning to cook four authentic dishes such as massaman curry with beef, pomelo salad, Thai fishcakes and a hot and sour soup. Lessons are in a beautiful colonial-style mansion, and at the end of the lesson students can feast in the elegant living room filled with dark rattan furniture and Asian artefacts.


From about $150,


Tour the flower market


Pak Khlong Talat, Bangkok’s 24-hour flower market, is a place in which almost every visitor experiences a slight sensory overload. Exotic fragrances fill the air as fast-speaking Thais quickly exchange their crumpled baht bills for bushels of flowers. An astounding number of blooms come to the market daily from around Thailand, including orchids in myriad colors, roses, lotus buds sold chilled on ice and marigold blossoms strung into garlands. Navigating the maze of passageways and warehouse rooms is best done with a guide and, better yet, a botanist. The most renowned is Sakul Intakul, the director and creator of the Museum of Floral Culture in Bangkok, who specializes in flower art and installations. A tip: it’s worth buying not just flowers but a vase to create an arrangement for your hotel room.


From $800 for two;


Hunt for Asian antiques


House of Chao, a slightly dusty three-story antique house, is decked out with antiques and curiosities from Thailand and neighboring Asian countries including Myanmar, China and India. Known mostly to antique collectors and aficionados of teak furniture, the emporium harbors an assortment of genuine curiosities, ancient treasures, pseudo-antiques and impressive-looking replicas sourced by its charming owner, Khun Chaovanee, who also attends to their restoration. Among the ornaments, carpets, textiles, Thai silk and artwork there are some serious collectibles and one of Thailand’s largest selections of traditional Burmese furniture. Chaovanee is authoritative (and honest) on the provenance of her wares, and can happily arrange for goods to be shipped all over the world.


9/1 Decho Road, Silom; +662 635 7188


Meditate with a yoga teacher


With American founder Adrian Cox at the helm, Yoga Elements Studio has garnered a reputation for being not just the best yoga center in Bangkok, but one of the best in the world. Situated on the 23rd floor of a high-rise near to Chit Lom BTS skytrain station, the studio’s teachers instruct in vinyasa and ashtanga yoga in classes that run through the day from 7am until 9.15pm. Cox, a yoga teacher for more than 15 years, has devoted himself to the study of meditation, philosophy, Ayurveda and linguistics, and trained with gurus in New York City and India. In addition to taking yoga classes, he offers a meditation session to those who want to chill out completely on Saturday afternoons. For those who want to take the discipline further, he also offers a 200-hour teaching training course.


From about $15 for a drop-in class;


Commission a bespoke table


Belgian former antique dealers, Pieter Compernol and Stephanie Grusenmeyer, set out to create a line of bespoke, hand-crafted tables after unearthing large antique wooden boards in a remote Asian village and deciding to remodel them. The result of their creative efforts is P Tendercool, a chic studio-cum-showroom near the Chao Phraya river that sells the sort of bespoke contemporary pieces that are snapped up by top interior designers around the world. Tabletops are made from antique wooden slabs salvaged from Asian homes or kiln-dried reclaimed beams from colonial buildings. Bases and legs are hand-cast from bronze, aluminum or brass and forged by expert Thai craftsmen. Those who don’t want to design their own furniture can choose from ready-made pieces ranging from dining sets and desks to stools, benches and consoles. International shipping can be arranged.


Your address: The St. Regis Bangkok


Learn to make a traditional curry at one of the city’s cookery schools



Thai martial arts



Buying flowers at the market



Bangkok is famed for its many bespoke tailors


The Line of Beauty

During fashion’s flirtation with Surrealism in the late 1940s, Carmen Dell’Orefice, still in her teens, found herself at The St. Regis New York on a wildly extravagant set designed by the self-anointed high priest of the movement, Salvador Dalí. Cecil Beaton, a friend of Dalí’s, who was working at the Condé Nast studio on Lexington Avenue that day, dropped by to check on proceedings (the photographer was the matinee-idol-handsome Horst P. Horst).


Beaton had returned to New York after a tour of duty as a war photographer and was staying at The St. Regis New York, where his neighbors were Dalí, his wife Gala and their pet ocelot, Babou. Knowing that the artist was on the lookout for a model and that Carmen could use the extra money, Beaton had introduced the two over lunch at Le Pavillon – later La Côte Basque – and Carmen had agreed to pose. It’s the way things happened back then. “He was a showman,” says Carmen of Dalí. “It was all a performance, but one he very much enjoyed. He pretended he couldn’t speak English, but that was just part of the ruse.”


Carmen was supposed to represent La Primavera – a painting by Botticelli also known as The Allegory of Spring – and to be naked to the waist. “That didn’t bother me,” she says nonchalantly, “and it didn’t bother him.” Of much more interest were the charcoal drawings of horses that littered the floor of Dalí’s suite. One day he offered her one in lieu of payment. “I was getting my regular $12.50 an hour, so I said I’d have to go home and ask my mother about it. Now, my mother wasn’t stupid, but we needed the money so badly. She said no.”


Carmen Dell’Orefice has dozens of extraordinary tales to tell, and since she is celebrating 70 years working as a professional model, this would seem to be the perfect time to share them. Born in New York in 1931 to an Italian concert violinist and a Hungarian dancer, she began modeling at the age of 13 after a bout of rheumatic fever and a preternatural growth spurt left her too weak (and too tall) to pursue her early passion for ballet. Deemed to be “too mature-looking” for Seventeen and Junior Bazaar magazines, she began her career as a high-fashion model under exclusive contract to Vogue. Within weeks Carmen was working with the defining photographers of the era: Irving Penn, Erwin Blumenfeld, John Rawlings and Horst. “They were mentors who provided a gateway to the rest of my life and the world,” she says.


While Carmen spent her days modeling designs by Charles James and Mainbocher, life at home was somewhat different; with her father absent, she assumed the role of breadwinner and was soon paying the rent on the fourth-floor walk-up apartment she shared with her mother on Third Avenue. There was no telephone (until Horst eventually insisted she get one), so Vogue would dispatch a runner whenever her presence was required.


Photographs taken in the 1950s show Carmen variously as a blonde bombshell à la Monroe (with whom she modeled hats for society milliner Mr. John), a raven-haired society swan, and everything in between. “I was a chameleon, a silent actress. I was never an ‘It girl’,” she says. Her career reached a high-water mark in 1957 when she shot the Paris collections for Harper’s Bazaar with Richard Avedon, under the fashion direction of Diana Vreeland and the all-seeing eye of graphic genius Alexey Brodovitch.


David Downton’s first drawing of Carmen Dell’Orefice, wearing Thierry Mugler, which he drew in her Park Avenue apartment in April 2000

Although Carmen never officially retired from modeling, in the mid-1960s she scaled back her work to concentrate on family life. She had married for a third time and had a daughter, Laura (today a psychotherapist), by her first husband. When that marriage ended in divorce a decade or so later she found herself in need of a job and made tentative steps back into the industry.


At a party she ran into her old friend Norman Parkinson, who declared that she “didn’t look bad for an old bag”, and flew her to Paris for French Vogue, relaunching her career. The resulting pictures were a sensation and revealed a new Carmen: sexy, silver-haired and on the brink of 50. Her old agency, Ford, opened a new division specifically to handle her, and once again she was working with the greatest photographers: Helmut Newton, Patrick Demarchelier, Arthur Elgort, Peter Lindbergh and Steven Meisel.


Things had changed radically since her heyday, with models now expected to be personalities as well as faces. Carmen quickly adapted. She wrote a beauty book, hit the chat-show circuit, took cameo roles in movies by Woody Allen and Michael Cimino, and appeared on the catwalk in earnest for the first time in her sixties. Along the way she made it into the Guinness Book of World Records (as the oldest professional model).


I first met Carmen in April 2000 after pestering her agents to see if she would consider sitting for me. She eventually agreed, and we arranged to meet at her apartment on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. When I arrived she was whipping her hair into its trademark white squall, “to give you something to draw”. She posed all afternoon with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald on the sound system, changing clothes, thinking things through, finding the line, and paying me the compliment of taking things seriously.


The drawings turned out well, and since then we have worked together whenever time and tide have permitted: in London, on the catwalk for Hardy Amies; in Paris, backstage at Dior; in Florence, in a deconsecrated church for Alberta Ferretti; and, coming full circle, last year at The St. Regis New York, almost 70 years after she posed for Dalí. For the occasion we hung one of Carmen’s own paintings by the artist on the wall, and felt the magic still.


What makes Carmen so inspiring to draw is that she has such an innate understanding of image-making. She has developed a sixth sense – or is it a third eye? – so that she sees what you see and “edits” herself accordingly for the page. There’s her beauty, of course, but that is just her opening play; she is also riotously funny, ribald when the mood takes her, and has the discipline instilled by decades on fashion’s front line.


Carmen has learned to be a gracious receiver of compliments, which is just as well, since they are the white noise of her life. “I know you hear this all the time,” gushed one lady of a certain age, when we were having dinner in New York recently. “I’ve never heard it from you,” was Carmen’s consummate reply.


And so she goes on. Standing sentinel at the age of 84 and staying true to her aim of representing her generation as positively as she is able. And although she is happy to talk about the past, she will not be pitching her tent there any time soon. There is a book to be getting on with, a documentary which is in the process of being edited, and the offers of work that keep on coming. “I am amazed by everything that is happening in my older old age,” she mused recently. “Perhaps today I am an It girl after all.”


David Downton: Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women is published in September by Laurence King


Your address: The St. Regis New York


One of Downton’s favorite drawings, made at
a rehearsal for a Hardy Amies couture show in 2003

A sketch made in London in 2011, with Carmen
wearing a print dress by Jackie Rogers


All That Jazz

Singer-songwriter Jamie Cullum’s obsession with jazz began when he saw The Fabulous Baker Boys. He was a 15-year-old piano prodigy at the time and had just started to get paid gigs in hotels. It didn’t matter that they were in Swindon, a small English town not noted for its rich jazz heritage. Teenage Jamie was just like his hero in the movie, the brilliant jazz pianist Jack Baker, though considerably less tortured.


Now 36, Cullum laughs this off as youthful folly. “When you’re a teenager, you grab on to certain icons to help you through the crippling nature of what it is actually to be a teenager,” he says. But in many ways he is still living the teenage dream. An acclaimed jazz pianist, he has released six albums and tours the world with his band. And this spring, he began a series of gigs Baker would have killed for: The Jazz Legends at St. Regis Series, an intimate set of live performances at St. Regis hotels around the world. Throughout the Jazz Age, the rooftop ballroom at The St. Regis New York played host to many of the jazz world’s biggest names, from Count Basie to Buddy Rich. Cullum has curated playlists and booked local acts to play alongside him as he celebrates St. Regis’ musical legacy.


Much of Cullum’s encyclopedic knowledge of jazz comes from his compulsive record-buying habit. “I’m almost permanently on the lookout for new sounds,” he says. As a teenager he dug everything from grunge to hip hop, but also loved to mine charity shops for old records. “I started picking up jazz albums by artists like Herbie Hancock, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk almost by accident. If there was a hip-looking dude in a kaftan holding a saxophone on the cover, that usually worked for me!”


This is how he acquired many of his favorite albums, such as Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle, which has “the rawness of a punk record”. He now owns somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 records, as well as about 5,000 CDs. “I’ve cut it down a little bit, but it’s actually quite a modest amount,” he says. “I know people with 15,000 vinyls, easily.”


He is not one to pay hundreds of dollars for rarities – if you know where to look, you don’t have to. And thanks to all the touring, Cullum has gotten to know many of the world’s best record shops. So where’s good? “In Paris, there’s a place called Oldies but Goodies. It’s the best store for old records in the world: a floor-to-ceiling library. America has a lot of good ones, too. Like Joe’s Record Paradise in Washington – for rock, rockabilly, jazz, hip hop… all the good stuff. When I’m in New York, I spend the most at Colony Records in Midtown, not too far from The St. Regis New York. Or Bleecker Street Records, another amazing one for collectors.”


One question remains. How much does his habit cost him a month? “Mmmmm, that’s a hard one!” he laughs. “I couldn’t even guess.”


Your address: The St. Regis Washington, D.C.; The St. Regis New York