04/12/2011 01:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2011

One Night in Bangkok

I wasn't sure quite what to expect when I landed in Bangkok on a Tuesday afternoon. I had visions of massage parlors, bargirls, open bars, solicitors and endless unidentifiable street food in carts next to local dive restaurants. I wasn't that far off. Walk any soi (alleyway) in Bangkok and you're likely to run into Western men being comforted by Thai women, karaoke bars blaring Madonna songs from the late 1980s and the scents of Thai spices wafting from kitchens along the street. My immediate thought: this city is a cross between something from Bridget Jones' Diary and a Saturday Night Live sketch.

While Bangkok does have a notorious nightlife, there's more to this city than what you'll find walking down Soi Cowboy on any night.

I checked into the Renaissance Bangkok, located in the city's business district and only a few blocks from some of the best shopping malls in Bangkok, and was pleasantly surprised by my surroundings. The open lobby was adorned with sofas, chairs and ottomans, and guests on the Mezzanine level can look down to the lobby area (which proved beneficial for that night's Ferragamo fashion show at the hotel). After I settled into my room, admired the views from my oversized wrap-around windows and freshened up, it was time to head out and explore Bangkok. I had three hours to spare before presenting at a conference to see what I could see, so I went to the hotel's "Navigator" desk for help and posed a simple question: "What would you do?"

Instead of throwing a map at me and sending me to the main tourist attractions, the concierge replied, "What's your style?" An intriguing question, especially for Bangkok, but I appreciated his desire to get to know me a bit better so he could craft a good 3-hour sightseeing plan.

Understanding my penchant for culture over kitschy tourist markets, and my time constraint, the concierge called a car for me and whisked me off to learn more about Jim Thompson, the designer who helped revive the Thai silk industry from the 1950s-1960s. Known widely as a troubled but talented soul, Thompson mysteriously disappeared in 1967 but his story lives on in his house in Bangkok.

The Jim Thompson House -- now a museum -- is a complex of various old Thai structures and expansive gardens, widely regarded as one of the architectural "wonders of the East." The mini-jungle habitat made up of six Thai houses shows off Thompson's collections of Ming pieces, Belgian glass, Buddhist and Cambodian art, stone statues and Victorian chandeliers. Buddha's are perfectly placed in private corners around the house, where silk weavers used to work. After a peek through the gardens and quick tour of the house, I stopped into the gift shop to buy some silk and left with two scarves.

With only an hour left before my presentation, I hopped in a car and asked the driver for a scenic tour back to the hotel. What I observed:

  • There are no traffic laws in Bangkok. People drive where they want, when they want, and surprisingly, there are very few accidents (although I did hold my breath a few times).
  • Bangkok has some of the most beautiful public gardens, thanks in part to its tropical climate but also because of the Thai's love of lush landscape.
  • On every corner in every section of town you'll find food carts and lines of people waiting for a bite. While I didn't have a chance to taste the street food, I have to believe just based on the lines of people that it's good grub.
  • Bangkok is a juxtaposition of poverty and luxury, which also gives this city it's unique soul. Next to the Gaysorn Bangkok (one of the city's most luxurious shopping malls) you'll find worn down buildings, rusted bicycles and abandoned cars.

Despite the unpredictable Bangkok traffic, which I'm told can be as waiting three hours to go 10 miles, I made it back to the hotel in time for my presentation. That night, after a walk through Bangkok's Red Light District in search of one of the city's best (and hidden) authentic restaurants, I paid close attention to the people in the streets. From catcalls to sing-alongs, there is no denying that Bangkok is indeed a city of highs and lows. While the humanitarian in me wanted to educate the women on their "better life" options, and take home every feral cat and dog on the street, there's also a side of Bangkok that appeals to any traveler. Despite one's economic status or profession, Bangkok always seems to be smiling.

That night in the restaurant, my waiter brought me the typical spicy Thai food dishes including mint minced beef, spicy Pad Thai and shrimp curry, and laughed at me when I tried to order the dishes in Thai. He helped me with my pronunciation, brought me a Singha Beer and reminded me what Bangkok is all about: its' soul. With only one night in Bangkok, I found a way to embrace all the city has to offer, from art to culture and chaos, and even got in a good meal and a language lesson.