One of the first things that jumps out at friends and family who visit Bangkok for the first time is all the food. It’s true, there’s a ton, something like three vendors and five restaurants for every one of the city’s 9 million residents. The other thing? They can’t believe how modern it is.
Traditional Bangkok is, obviously, an essential part of the city and one that’s more immediately fascinating and foreign for travelers who’ve never been to Thailand or Asia before. Old Town is so fun to explore. Still, writing off the glitzy malls, the trendy nightlife, and the other hyper-modern parts of the city is just cheating yourself. (You’re also cheating yourself if you linger at Khao San, but that’s another story for another post.)
I live in Pratunam, the eye of the city’s commercial center. Right around the corner is CentralWorld Plaza, the largest lifestyle complex in Southeast Asia. Since extensive renovations were finished in 2006, CentralWorld has endured as one of the most spectacular showpieces of modern Bangkok. What exactly makes it a “lifestyle complex”, and not just another megamall?
Because it’s so much more than a mall. First and foremost, with somewhere around 100 restaurants, including a new branch of Taiwan’s Michelin-starred Din Tai Fung, it’s a foodie’s heaven (or nightmare, if you’re on a diet). I eat here more than I’d care to admit, but hey, you would too if it were only a few minutes walk away. At CentralWorld, you can also…
Stock up on groceries, baked goods, fresh seafood/fruit/vegetables, and liquor at the high-end Central Food Hall
, which has become increasingly obsessed with Japanese products (perhaps because of the profit margin?). It also has a few street-food style stalls, a handful of small restaurants, and of course a fantastic food court. Right next door on the seventh floor, you can also…
See a movie in style at SF World Cinema
. The “regular” theaters here are amazing in their own right and make the overpriced cinemas back in the States look like hell holes, but for a little bit extra moviegoers can upgrade themselves into silly territory. The Happiness cinema offers seating on cushy recliners, day beds, or bean bags, while the First Class Cinema ups the ante with a welcome mocktail, pre-show buffet of light bites and drinks, unlimited flavored popcorn and drinks during the movie, and service at the touch of a button from a plush recliner. It gets chilly in there, so blankets are provided too. It’s like having your own personal movie theater.
During the cool season (November – December) and for occasional special events from January to June, you can also head to CentralWorld to…
Get drunk and listen to live music at one of four outdoor beer gardens
. Singha, Chang (my favorite), Tiger, and Federbrau all set up their own dining areas and performance stages on the massive plaza in front of CentralWorld’s main entrances on Ratchadamri. Each one has its own vibe and its own theme, and though Singha and Chang tend to be the busiest since, well, they have the best beer, all four do brisk business on a nightly basis. Food is reliably good and affordable, and the three-liter towers pictured here, which have an ingenius enclosed tube of ice down the middle to keep the beer cold, are very popular with the communal-oriented locals.
Back inside the building, you can strap on some skates and…
Shred some ice at The Rink
. Located on the first floor, the ice rink opened in September 2010 and provides some great people-watching opportunities; something about Thais twirling around on ice skates is absolutely mesmerizing. It costs 250 baht for 30 minutes, and yes, hockey sticks are available to accommodate the Thais’ feverish
obsession with the sport. Seriously though, there are hockey instructors available for hire, including Thor, the Challenge Cup U.A.E. MVP, and Nui, who won Hardest Shot, Woman Division, in the 2008 Hong Kong Tournament.
There are also super-cute plastic penguins (on skis!) for beginners to skate around with and hold onto. Not that, er, anybody I know, uh, needs to use one. Finally, it wouldn’t be a real lifestyle complex if you couldn’t…
Address balding patterns, zap skin blemishes, or, at the Slim Up Center
, “care and solve body shape problems for those who get weight and body proportion problems, by using advanced technology to help one who wish to lose weight and firm up bodies.” Oh, CentralWorld: you’ve thought of everything!
All photos copyright Brian Spencer
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Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.