My weekend trip to Chinatown reminded me of the time when, freshly turned 18, I arrived in Chennai, India and experienced the rudest awakening of my life. This was certainly not the dreamy, Merchant Ivory image I’d naively held of ‘India’, but a suffocatingly hot, heavily polluted traffic-packed metropolis seething with people and teeming with every form of life. All these memories came flooding back the moment I stepped into Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Chinatowns – in every capital city – hit you one way or the other: you love ‘em or you hate ‘em. Either way, Bangkok’s Chinatown is a truly fascinating experience, simultaneously intoxicating and alienating.
I wandered around open-eyed at herbs I had never seen before and at animal entrails I never imagined could be edible. All around was the usual pushing, jostling, spitting, hawking of any Chinatown, of course, but close your eyes here and you breathe in a special Bangkok mélange of durian fruit, deep-fried duck beaks and temple incense. You have to watch your step though: the pavement tiles often come loose under foot, and you can easily get a sudden upward spritz of fish juices slopped out onto the street from restaurant kitchens.
And then I stepped into Hotel Shanghai Mansion and my body immediately relaxed and my spirits rose.
Shanghai Mansion is an exquisite 4* boutique haven. In the very heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown, it's within walking distance of the main train station, Hua Lumphong and a mere 15 minute tuk-tuk ride (which the hotel provides free-of-charge) from major tourist attractions such as magnificent The Grand Palace or the pulsating nightlife of the Chao Praya River.
The hotel, hidden away on Chinatown’s busiest road, takes you into a parallel world of 1930s Shanghai. Owned by the Burasari Hotel Group, it’s a place deeply rooted in history: the building itself was built in 1892 and served as a trading house for Chinese merchants. In 1908 it was transformed into Bangkok’s first Chinese Opera House, a feature that is echoed in its opulent feel. Its 76 rooms are all uniquely decorated with sumptuous silks, delicate china and vibrant art creating an ambiance of exclusive luxury.
Greeted in the lobby by immaculately dressed staff, I was served a cold eucalyptus-scented towel and a lemon tea, a most wonderful and welcome retreat from the chaos outside.
My enormous room was right next to a tranquil fresh pond filled with glistening golden carp. All around I marvelled at the sumptuous satins, richly gilded chairs and the intricately-worked details of décor. It’s the best of the old juxtaposed with the best of the new.
After a delicious dinner of traditional Chinese home cooking at its Red Rose restaurant, I treated myself to a plum wine cocktail and a spot of effortlessly smooth live jazz at Shanghai Terrace. It was as if I’d been airlifted out of the mad mayhem outside and transported to another world on a magic carpet.
Back in my boudoir, I slipped into my silk dressing gown, lathered on some of the Burasari Spa’s coconut moiturising cream and lounged on my velvet chaise-longue, savouring this moment of blissful calm deep within Bangkok’s frenetic core.