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A Tale of Two Thailands

Sky-top restaurants, sleek new hotels—seven years after the crash, Thailand is booming. Austin Bunn reports on the country's exhilarating, unsettling growth spurt.

On the second floor of Bangkok's outrageously busy Pantip Plaza mall—in a riot of video-game demos, ringing cell phones, and computer gear bong-ing to life—a Buddhist monk wants my advice about an iBook. "Is this a good buy?" he asks, in his indelibly Thai-orange robe and sandals. When I register surprise (are monks even allowed to shop?), his face beams with delight. Buddhism teaches that the source of human suffering is our attachment to the impermanent, like Windows 98 or those laptops that have a nipple in the keyboard. Though Pantip Plaza is a giant altar to the transient, the problem isn't buying, the monk explains to me. It's becoming attached to what you own. "The pain comes from wanting to have, wanting to be," he says, laying one hand on my arm and the other on his new, gleaming machine. But won't the computer distract him from his meditation? He answers, "Don't worry—it won't have Internet."

Seven years ago, Thailand had the dubious distinction of serving as the pin that popped the Asian economic bubble. A roaring real estate market in the 1990s transformed Bangkok, christening new malls like Pantip at a fevered clip. But developers overspent, and the investment firms that supported them racked up staggering debt. In 1997, after forcibly closing 16 finance companies, the Thai government became the first in the region to call in the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, a move that kicked the Thai baht (and, soon enough, the rest of Asia's currencies) into free fall. Afterwards, abandoned projects—skyscrapers and block-long shopping districts—littered Bangkok with the remains of this boom-era arrogance: eerie concrete shells lined with exposed rebar like raw nerve endings. But Pantip, long surrounded by these husks, is now one of the anchors of the city's audacious "crucible of construction," a run of hotels, condos, shopping complexes, and office buildings in the Ploenchit and Ratchadamri roads area. Pantip, now finished, is one of four gargantuan construction efforts (vacancies are at an all-time low), along with 40 upscale condominium projects in the city's core and a new $2.7 billion international airport.

The culture of the crash has come to an end, and in its place Thailand has found a way to square its boundless energy with its undeniable poise. A decade ago, tourists came for an almost Disneyland-in-Asia experience, a taste of the bubble; now resorts are targeting sophisticated visitors who want to see beyond flashy exoticism to Thailand's traditional (and everyday) elegance. Conservative prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a former cop turned telecom tycoon, has cracked down on drug dealers and on Bangkok's roiling nightlife. He's also helped guide the country to one of the highest growth rates of Southeast Asia (6.7 percent in 2003) and reignited the stock market. Tourism to northern Thailand, considered the Napa Valley of the country, is climbing. The only potential brake to this upswing is the fear of terrorism, as Muslim extremists have made violent incursions in the remote, southern part of the country.

But in Bangkok, the lived experience of this economic resurgence is the sense that the city is transforming beneath your feet. The week I arrive, an outdoor restaurant named Sirocco has opened on the vertiginous roof of a skyscraper left unoccupied since the crash. "It's been six or seven years since there's been anything in the building," says Deepak Ohri, the general manager of the restaurant. "Now we've got a Mediterranean restaurant, a whiskey bar, a champagne bar, and oyster bar all on the 63rd floor and we're doing twice the business we thought." At that height, the city goes quiet below and lays out like one more delicacy on the tables, next to the steaming Phuket lobster and tuna roulade. Sirocco is booked solid for weeks so Sky Bar, a glass outcropping perched at the very edge of the roof, serves as the observation deck. They say the sublime is the beautiful plus fear. No doubt: The strongest dish on the menu at Sirocco is delirious, intoxicating vertigo. But this place appears to me the pinnacle of Thailand's new soaring ambition: to overcome the failures of the past by embracing transience with possibility—single malt and lamb served al fresco in the sky.

Historically, Thailand is the only country among its neighbors never to have been colonized, largely because its rulers skillfully negotiated treaties with both England and France and purposefully westernized the country. Thailand's beloved kings learned English and how to drive on the wrong side of the road. All along, Thailand has marketed its traditions well—almost too well. "Westerners come here looking for massage spas, smiling girls in silk wraps, and all the swoopy roofs on the houses," Bangkok-based designer Scott Edwards told me. "And for the most part, Thailand has built up a 'Thailand' that is precisely what the tourists came to see." But if Thailand exoticizes itself for tourism—by far the country's largest industry—the country keeps the caricatures in check. "Last year, the police found a guy selling a DVD of one of the versions of The King and I and they threw him in jail," my friend (and Bangkok resident) Willi Pascual told me. Thais deeply respect the monarchy, and the various film adaptations of Anna Leonowens' memoir of her experiences as a governess at the Siamese court are considered insulting and have been banned here since 1956. "And that was the Jodie Foster version!"

The 35-year-old Edwards, then, is something of a provocateur in Bangkok, part of the team that designed one of the city's youngest, hottest, and least traditionally "Thai" nightspots, the one-and-a-half-year-old Bed Supperclub. Bed is a hovering fuselage far from the hotels and tourist zone. Diners and cocktail drinkers (typically, Bangkok's young entrepreneurs and high-end travelers) lie on immaculate white beds while they survey the Barbarella-like interior. It's a spectacular, Eero Saarinen-inflected environment that would be "impossible to build in North America," says Edwards, because of the strict building regulations Stateside. It's the same with Sirocco, whose low, translucent railing is the only thing standing between you and a 63-floor drop. "We wanted to say to people that Bangkok architecture doesn't have to be self-referential," explains Edwards. "We wanted to prove you didn't need the swoopy roof."

The most obvious effects of the strong economy can be found along Thailand's pristine but vulnerable coastlines, where dirt-road fishing communities are making the leap to resort destinations inside mere months. Leaving behind the clamor that is street-level Bangkok, I head south for scuba diving at one of Thailand's least transient, most undeveloped, sea-level institutions: the national parks, specifically, the stunning Similan Islands chain, 40 miles off Thailand's west coast in the Andaman Sea. Inaccessible during the wet season—when rough waters render the approach too difficult—the Similans are ranked one of the top destinations in the world for scuba diving and snorkeling and offer a sanctuary from the stormy chop of life in the city.

The Similan National Marine Park is the definition of sustainable growth—there is none. Of the nine spectacular, verdant islands, only one, Ko Miang, has a ranger station, a restaurant, and about 20 simply appointed cabins with jaw-dropping views. The Royal Forestry Department has already closed all but two of the islands to the public and has banned commercial fishing from the coral reefs that ring them. Thailand's impressive conservation system outranks that of the United States, with national parks comprising 14.3 percent of the country (compared with our 10.5 percent and Japan's 6.5 percent). The Similan Islands, where the king's youngest daughter keeps a "Royal Stay," are the crown jewel.

But you've got to get there first. Which means traveling through some of Thailand's most unsettling development. The fishing towns along the seacoast are now rushing over each other, Bangkok-style, to become world-class destinations on a par with Phuket, Thailand's resort island to the south. Walking along the idyllic beach, every hotel I pass from Bang Niang to Khao Lak, the departure point for speedboats going to the Similans, is in the midst of construction. "The bungalows here are five years old, the restaurant is three, the hotel is one, and your room . . . ," says the receptionist at my hotel, "was finished last month."

The Similans are a two-hour trip by speedboat or a full afternoon's sail from Phuket. While the boats leave often, finding one that will take you precisely where you want to dive (among the 20 potential spots) is another matter. I have my mind set on East of Eden, a protected cove off the island of Ko Pabu, which required a two-day wait. Finally, the Similans come into view over the side of the speedboat, a line of ghostly hillocks arcing above the powder-blue horizon. The waters are scattered with dive boats along the islands' rough, granite coasts. The western side of the Similans, facing the sea, offers plunging underwater drop-offs for diving. The protected eastern edges are home to acres of coral heads with clown fish hiding in the luminescent fingers of stinging anemones, banner fish that look like zebra-skin purses, and innumerable restless forms of indigenous sea life. The Great Barrier Reef might offer more in the way of acreage, but the Similans cannot be beat for their peaceful isolation.

What I never counted on, though, was myself. Afloat in rented scuba gear, I dive nine feet down and hover, failing to equalize the pressure in my ears. Could there be anything more transient—or more poorly timed—than a cold? The pressure feels like a rail spike heading for the back of my eyes. I try a few times and succeed only in giving myself a nosebleed.

Before I surface, I take another look down. Visibility through the water is 90 feet, close to the physical limit, and the seafloor looks unreal, another Bangkok bustling beneath the tide. I keep thinking, "Detach, detach" and that "the path of suffering is wanting to scuba," but nothing can cut my disappointment. Kit, a lithe Thai dive master, lifts me up onto the deck and grins while I wrestle out of the suit. "Mai pen rai," he says. "In Thai, that means 'What can you do?' You want to be in Thailand, you must learn this." Then he adds, "You have blood in your eyebrow."

Days later, my back seared to a shade of lobster from snorkeling, I make my way farther south, to Krabi, right on the edge of Thailand's expanding electricity grid and home to one of the country's most famous temples, Wat Tham Seua (Tiger Cave Temple). Here, tourists looking to sample the Sangha (the community of monks) get one of the best, most unfettered views of the simple life, where Thai monks live in immaculate, one-person cabins nestled against karst formations, bathe in stone troughs (that's off the tour), and meditate. For generations, monks and the visitors tagging along have climbed the 1,237 steps—623 fewer than the Empire State Building—to the shrine at the top of the limestone karst, the backdrop for the temple. "Tomorrow, when King Rama IX comes here," my cab driver tells me, "he lands on the top with a helicopter." The queen had already arrived and had spent her day consulting, at ground level, with the head monk.The royal visit has flooded the normally quiet temple with gawkers.

I escape the fray by hovering near the Buddha, which at this point no one seems to notice. A monk, clearly European, sweeps the floor. Thai wats, according to tradition, accept all who show up at their door. This new acolyte points to a handwritten signthat he's taped to the rock face: 99% of life is suffering, 1% of life is living, it reads. He is proud of his Buddhism.

"Which part are we in right now?" I ask.

"You guess," he says.

That night, on a starlit beach off the power grid, I'm putting my money on the one percent. I sit on a mat rolled out on the sand surrounded by giant karst formations, watch a fire show (juggling with flaming pins), and eat a simple, delicious meal in a peacefulness I haven't found anywhere else in Thailand. Ton Sai Beach, only accessible at low tide or by long-tail boat, is a necklace of restaurants and bars, all powered by generators. Ton Sai isn't easy to find and compared with Krabi, it's the edge of the planet.

When I run into the owner of the restaurant, a thirtysomething Thai man with improbable dreadlocks, I thank him for the meal. He'd opened one restaurant ten years ago on a popular nearby beach, but the tourist crush got to him and he opened this place as a kind of secret. But Thailand's electricity grid is finally extending to Ton Sai, he says. With electrical power will come everything else that is his country's future: speculators, investors, hotels, and tourists. "I don't own this land, I'm just renting," he says. "It's the same with everything in Thailand. Enjoy it while it lasts."


Bangkok on the Verge

All too often, the traveler's experience of Thailand begins and ends in the lobby of a resort—insular compounds that could be anywhere in the world. Fortunately, Bangkok is currently swimming in a wave of small, elegant boutique hotels and new restaurants that provide a more authentic entrée into city life.

Hotels
TRIPLE TWO SILOM (rates, $85-$120; 222 Silom Road; 66-2-627-2222) mixes traditionally opulent Thai style with a sleek, modern aesthetic. The result: pleasingly spare rooms awash in rich colors. Bangkok's original boutique hotel, THE DAVIS (rates, $150-$600; 88 Sukhumvit Soi 24; 66-2-260-8000), is just a little bit all over the place (like Bangkok itself): Authentic Thai villas ring a garden and pool; inside the main building, Indian-, Balinese-, or Western-style rooms are available. The rooms at the recently opened METROPOLITAN (rates, $140-$2,000; 27 South Sathon Road; 800-337-4685), sister to the London hotel of the same name, are sleek and modern but not a bit chilly.

Eat and Drink
FACE BANGKOK (dinner, $45; 29 Sukhumvit Soi 38; 66-2-713-6048) actually has four faces: both a Thai and an Indian restaurant, a Chinese-style bar, and a pastry shop run by the former chocolatier for the French embassy. Local favorite BED SUPPERCLUB (dinner, $50; 26 Sukhumvit Soi 11; 66-2-651-3537), an all-white space with a fuselage feel, represents the flashy edge of the nightlife scene of Bangkok. Al fresco VERTIGO (dinner, $150; Banyan Tree hotel, 21/100 South Sathon Road; 66-2-679-1200) and SIROCCO (dinner, $160; State Tower, 1055/111 Silom Road; 66-2-624-9555) are the vertical versions, perched 60-some dizzying stories in the sky.