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Palates and Palettes in Bangkok

In the absence of a major modern-art museum, the city's trendy cafes draw crowds for a bite of contemporary culture

March 19, 2000|ANDREW BENDER | Andrew Bender is a restaurant reviewer for The Times' Westside Weekly section. He has lived in Asia and travels there often

BANGKOK, Thailand — It's easy to get rich in the culinary business here, says restaurateur Piti Kulsirorat. Tourists pay big money for a supposedly authentic Thai experience, he says, which often means country-style decor and antiques--tacky antiques at that.

But Kulsirorat chose a different path. Bangkok has long had great museums, but none dedicated to contemporary art. So in 1994, he and his wife, Natenapit Worasiri, opened Hemlock Restaurant and Culture Club, Bangkok's first art cafe.

Their recipe: Take a cool space. Add tables and the work of up-and-coming painters, sculptors, photographers or video artists. Mix in some good music and serve with inexpensive food (mostly Thai) and a variety of drinks.

To some, opening Hemlock seemed like career suicide, a risky venture in a place where contemporary art did not have an established following. But six years later, the cafe not only has survived but also has spawned a raft of imitators that are among the city's hottest nightspots. Kulsirorat's fame even has earned him a post as an art lecturer at Bangkok University.

When I first visited Bangkok a dozen years ago, it bore out its reputation as dirty and sleazy. But when I returned for a week in January as part of a millennial visit through Southeast Asia, I barely recognized it. The art cafes were hardly the only change.

In response to worsening traffic and air pollution, the Skytrain elevated railway opened in December, serving much of the city center. The national government also has launched a public education program on food safety. A new "green star" inspection system lets diners know which ubiquitous open-air food stalls meet safety standards, and many hotels and restaurants now have purification systems for water and ice (although it's still wise to ask first).

These changes are coupled with Thailand's young, vibrant demographic palette--45% of the population is 15 to 39 years old, with about 9 million people in Bangkok alone.

I started my tour of art cafes where the trend began. At Hemlock, art is exhibited in a 60-seat, two-story space in the bohemian Banglamphu district near the National Gallery on Phra Athit Road. Kulsirorat says it's the perfect setting--"the most beautiful street we have in Bangkok, similar to Chiang Mai," an ancient northern capital.

"We try to pick the new generation who will be the best artists in the future," he says. The cafe, whose exhibits change year-round, recently featured unflinching photos of the ravages of war in Southeast Asia by Philip Blenkinsop, a Bangkok-based Australian.

Windows and high ceilings brighten Hemlock's Mediterranean-style interior, and diners can find contemporary or traditional Thai specialties from a menu in a tiny sketchbook. Customer favorites are Grand Lotus Rice (fried rice with mushrooms, lotus seeds, shrimp, pork, Chinese sausage and a reddish-orange egg yolk, all served in a lotus leaf), num prik pla too (tuna with chile sauce and vegetables), and several vegetarian specialties. Most dishes are less than $2, with a few around $5.

Go on the right night, and you'll catch a classical music concert or a "Midnight Museum" lecture by scholars from Thailand or abroad discussing antiques, the history of Thai art or other topics.

A hundred yards or so up Phra Athit Road is Comme, a white-walled, Bauhaus-like space that opens onto the street. By night, it serves popular Thai fare. But by day, it doubles as the teaching studio of owner Surachet Rawang, an art tutor who helps students assemble their portfolios for admission to university art programs.

The works on the walls--on my visit, lifelike charcoal sketches of primates--are by Rawang's friends and colleagues, but some of his students' work is so strong that I wouldn't be surprised to see it exhibited here in the future.

Given the student clientele, nothing on the menu (fried rice, noodles, omelets and salads) costs more than $2. I had delicious chicken, lightly grilled in Thai fish sauce and sliced into thin strips, which proved to be an excellent snack with beer. With Thai rock 'n' roll playing in the background and MTV Asia broadcasting in the bar, I felt as though I was back in college, and it's hard not to love the sidewalk-cafe vibe, with banana trees and areca palms. Visitors can view, along with the art, the comings and goings of backpackers and commuters at the Chao Phraya River ferry pier across the street.

With this kind of success, the art pros moved in, and what a nice job they've done with About Studio/About Cafe, in a former warehouse in Chinatown. Meo Yipintsoi, the owner, has a degree in visual arts administration from New York University and is from a well-known family of Thai art benefactors.

No food, drink or smoking is allowed in the upstairs gallery. But downstairs, Yipintsoi says, "I have tried to make it a big sitting room, where people can do whatever they want."

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