The bustling city of Bangkok is home to a great number of elevated sky bars, which make good use of the Thai capital’s intensely beautiful skyscape — tall skyscrapers, heritage buildings, and of course, the curvaceous and eternally busy Chao Phraya river. For this reason, sky bars attract the attention of tourists in search of the perfect Instagram-worthy moment to remember their trip. And rightly so. But if you are in Asia’s city of lights and hankering for a drink in a quiet, sophisticated setting, here are two centrally located hotel bars that are also a favourite among locals.
Named after the great number of foreign embassies and high commissions located along this stretch of tree-lined road in Bangkok, Diplomat Bar is thronged by locals as well as the occasional corporate traveller. As dusk falls on weekdays, scores of suited and booted gentlemen can be seen sipping a drink or two, or enjoying a snack over high-tea — could they be signing the next major deal? I could not get close enough to tell — in the sophisticated, sombre setting of this gorgeous hotel bar.
Its interior mirrors that of the property itself; the Conrad is your typical business inn that prides itself on exemplary service and quiet, comfortable surroundings. The bar can be accessed from the ground floor just off the entrance. Plush chairs lead invitingly to a large bar, above which a soaring ceiling creates a sensation of airy spaciousness — with lush greenery visible through floor-to-ceiling windows as the evening sun filters in quite beautifully on clear days.
The drinks menu is fairly extensive, and I must say I am quite a fan of the way classic cocktails are listed based on its country of origin — a kitschy, but effective way of driving home the Diplomat name, not to mention Bangkok’s intensely international appeal. There are some obvious ones, like the Italian Negroni, Cuban Mojito and Mexican Margarita, while slightly more obscure drinks include Cucumber Gimlet (a gin-based drink favoured by 19th-century British officers) and the Scottish Dunmore Sour (made from Chivas Regal 18 Year Old whisky and pineapple juice).
Of more interest to me was the bar’s signature cocktails, which play up on the typical flavours found in Thai cuisine. My favourite is the B Sweet, inspired by Thailand’s best-known dessert — the drink is a silky-smooth and creamy blend of aged dark rum, fresh mango and coconut. It is a wonderful amalgamation of elements that make for a flavourful drink without being overly sweet, which is sometimes the case with thematic cocktails. Chili Chill Chill was also quite interesting and uses the same aromatics you would find in a bowl of tom yam, with a base of vodka and a lengthy, strong finish provided by elderflower syrup and lime juice.
If cocktails are not quite your thing, Diplomat’s selection of whiskies has more than a decent range of Scotch, helpfully labelled by region. A quick browse through the menu also reveals a robust array of craft beers, choice of Armagnacs, ports, sherries and wines. Additionally, there is a whole section dedicated to Irish coffees, should your resolution be to explore Bangkok’s nightlife until the break of dawn, albeit with a delicious caffeinated buzz.
Diplomat Bar, Conrad Bangkok Hotel, 87 Wireless Road, Pathum Wan. Sun-Thu, 7am-1am; Fri-Sat, 7am-2am.
The enduring popularity of Mandarin Oriental’s Bamboo Bar has a lot to do with the hotel’s undeniably appealing history. As one of the oldest hotels in Asia, this beautiful river-fronting property boasts a number of fascinating details — its proprietor was once Louis Thomas Leonowens, son of Anna Leonowens (of Anna and the King of Siam), it was at one point partially owned by American silk tycoon Jim Thompson, and has been an inspiration to a host of legendary writers, including Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene.
In 2014, the Bamboo Bar closed for extensive renovations and later reopened to become a Bangkok icon — it is where the city’s rich, famous and popular come to see and be seen. Eschewing views of the river — readily available from the hotel’s other dining destinations — for a more intense aesthetic, the bar features elements like dark timber, marbled tables and rattan chairs, which successfully retains its colonial charm without feeling dated. This venue is one worth dressing up for, that is for sure.
People return not for the history or the décor, though — it is the quality of the cocktails that made Bamboo Bar famous. Classic cocktails like Sidecar and Caipirinha are indeed made with skill, but the real test is with Compass, a series of cocktails inspired by the various regions in Thailand and the flavours that reign supreme in each one. Take a liquid journey from the comfort of your seat, the menu beseeches guests, and I have to say it is a compelling call indeed. There are five regions with about three cocktails representing each one and they incorporate an interesting array of local ingredients — dragon fruit, Thai tea, sunflower seeds and lemongrass, among many others.
Cashew Down South (Chalong Bay rum, cashew nuts, basil, spiced pineapple and cucumber) represents Phuket in the south, and is utterly refreshing and bright without being too sweet. Even if you are not a fan of tequila, Hawker representing Silom, Central Thailand, was quite interesting even though I may not have it again — I prefer my coconut, lemongrass, kaffir lime and ginger in a bowl of soup rather than in a cocktail glass. Although, I did like Border Crossing very much, with its invigorating blend of Barrelhouse 53 vodka, guava, kaffir lime and lemon basil. From the East is the Aranyaprathet cocktail, which is named after a town located just 6km from Cambodia.
Prices at Bamboo Bar are higher than your average Bangkok hotel watering hole but is worth the experience, right from the exceptional service to the quality of the drinks. And of course, the setting — even on a holiday, it is always nice to dress up and have a fancy drink at someplace nice. There are bar bites available at Bamboo Bar, but we were on a strictly liquid diet that evening. With a cocktail menu this extensive, wouldn’t you be too?
Bamboo Bar, Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, 48 Oriental Avenue, Bang Rak. Sun-Thu, 5pm-12.30am; Fri-Sat, 5pm-1.30am.
This article first appeared on July 8, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.