Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river has morphed into a sybaritic hotspot injected with youthful energy, writes Angela Goh.
A NEW high-speed luxury water taxi, the sleek X2, slices through the choppy Chao Phraya river, zipping past traditional longtail boats and passenger ferries. Funky, retro shops blend in harmoniously in-between vintage shophouses.
Taking shape on the river’s edge is the much-anticipated gigantic shopping complex, IconSiam.
Inside River City Bangkok (the first shopping mall by the river founded in 1985), alongside shops devoted to exquisite antique treasures is the studio and showroom belonging to fresh-faced pint-size artist Paintfa Chan, 11, who holds her own against ancient talents.
This is the new face of old Bangkok. Amped up and audacious. Young and ebullient. Armed with impressive historical credentials and confident of its exciting future as the new lifestyle hub.
Tourists often only venture to the waterfront to visit temples and tour the canals or klongs. Now, it rivals Singapore and Hong Kong as the next lively nexus of modish appeal.
“Bangkok’s riverside social scene is definitely one of a kind with its vibrancy and mix of old world and highrises,” says Linda Cheng, managing director of River City Bangkok, a premier arts and antiques mall.
Indeed, Bangkok was a river trading post and is still a major transport link. Today, this River of Kings, as King Rama I named it, remains a working river carrying brisk traffic.
Small brightly-hued tugboats pull mighty barges, passenger ferries and longtail boats cruise past luxury hotels, residences, towering temples and historic but derelict edifices such as the Customs House (soon to be refurbished), where the king received foreign dignitaries.
It was also referred to as “Venice of the East” for its network of canals flanked by rickety stilt houses and floating markets.
“Old Bangkok along the Chao Phraya river is the real Bangkok. The river is the lifeblood of the city linking history, culture, environment and trade,” says David Robinson, director of Bangkok River Partners, a collaborative effort by stakeholders in hospitality, retail and transport to revitalise the riverfront.
“I have lived in Bangkok for 14 years and love the authenticity of this part of the capital. Families have lived along the river for generations. Temples, mosque, churches and shrines sit side by side,” Robinson points out as we walk along the city’s first road, Chareonkrung (New Road).
The former elephant track is a journey through history, bypassing Chinatown, Haroon village (a Muslim enclave of houses, small eateries and a mosque), Assumption Cathedral, the Portuguese Embassy (the city’s oldest embassy building) and the resolutely elegant grand dame, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (still referred to as The Oriental).
A youthful, cheery addition is the recently-opened pastel-hued Darun Bannalai children’s library housed in a facelifted old mansion.
NEW ENERGY IN CLASSIC SETTING
Deep in the maze of lanes springs youthful bohemian chic establishments among old establishments. Keen to preserve rather than disrupt, traditional features are painstakingly restored and melded with slick-to-chic eyebrow-raising design.
Daytime mum and pop shops shutter for the night, ceding to a new generation of enterprising souls whose LED and neon lights energise what would have turned into a dark, lifeless neighbourhood.
At the end of one lane is Tep Bar of wonderful food and drinks. Calling itself a cultural bar, the highlight is a band of young musicians who play traditional music.
On the main street, Teens Of Thailand operates a gin-only bar behind an aged, weathered wooden front door. A few doors away is a beer bar decked out in classic Chinese pub design.
In the next block is a restaurant with a boutique two-room loft-style guesthouse above. This is the brainchild of a group of young professionals (by day) and forward-looking entrepreneurs (by night), whose inventive ideas and unfettered spirit are the driving forces behind the area’s rejuvenation.
“Many of these new places are run by the young with fulltime jobs but have their own businesses after hours or on weekends,” says Robinson.
This burgeoning social hub is becoming an increasingly desirable place to be and be seen. “I prefer the riverside mainly because of its spectacular view,” says writer Tong Deerak.
“The area has changed dramatically. There are more interesting restaurants and bars that serve delectable dishes in sophisticated ambiance such as Attitude, the rooftop bar at Avani Riverside Hotel and Viva & Aviv at River City Bangkok. At the same time, there are more luxurious dinner cruises such as Supanniga Cruise.”
Navigation can be confounding for new visitors but the suitably swift X2 (also called Cross To) speedboat taxi with a smartly dressed crew delivers comfortable door-to-door service.
The boat arrives on-time at the pier of Chatrium Hotel Riverside where I stay.
The trip to Tha Maharaj community mall about 10km away takes a mere 15 minutes compared to the 40-minute commute by public boat (including waiting time).
Other than that, several restaurants operate their own private boat transfers for diners, such as the Mango Tree outlet at Yodpiman Riverwalk.
A few hotels, including the Hilton and Anantara Riverside, provide (in addition to their regular boats to the main transport hub of Saphan Thaksin pier) shuttles to the boisterous upscale night market Asiatique The Riverfront opened in the former warehouses of the historic East Asiatic Company.
The riverside has not only attracted party types but also artists, designers and other creative types. Such appeal has coalesced into an initiative which has redefined Bangrak and Klongsan on both sides of the river as a Creative District (a fertile hub to sprout creative energy from a rich heritage of artistic flair).
Spearheading the creative movement is Duangrit Bunnag, an architect of high acclaim and chairman of the non-profit Creative District Foundation.
He is the mastermind behind the highly successful lifestyle venue The Jam Factory and the soon-to-be-launched mix-use creative arena, Warehouse 30.
For both venues, Bunnag resuscitated dilapidated warehouses and art-deco buildings, and repurposed them into thriving, throbbing funky spaces combining art-culture, fashion and fine dining.
As gorgeous art galleries take root, gallery-hopping has become a popular past-time, from the groovy Speedy Grandma, Soy Sauce Factory, to high-brow Atta (boasting contemporary art jewellery) and Serindia (Southeast Asian and Himalayan works).
An equally exciting proposition is the low-brow but intensely appealing “outdoor galleries” displaying vivacious, provocative street art, such as those adorning the vibrant street market at Charoenkrung Soi 32. These are stunning reminders of last year’s Bukruk Urban Arts Festival which gathered local and foreign artists.
Close by is the new Thai Creative and Design Centre (TCDC) anchored in the imposing Grand Postal Building. The government-backed TCDC, together with private grassroots initiatives, are poised to spur a multi-faceted renewal.
Just as the river enticed foreign traders in the past, today’s expats are still drawn to it. Near TCDC is P. Tendercool, a furniture design studio founded by Belgians, Pieter Compernol and his wife, Stephanie Grusenmeyer. “We offer bespoke, handmade furniture, by definition an intimate and private affair,” says Compernol. Each piece is handmade from reclaimed wood of storied character from around Indochina.
As for the nascent Creative District, “I am convinced the combination of TCDC and Warehouse 30 will be a game-changer. More will be convinced that working together is key to building communities which respect the past and consider the future.”
Encouraged by this promising prospect, Compernol says: “We just secured another huge work space, PT-lab, which will also allow us to invite artisans-in-residence to collaborate with. We are excited.” And so are Bangkok aficionados, especially those from the region where the Thai capital is only a one- to two-hour flight away.
Amid its metamorphosis, old Bangkok retains its original charm. Roads cluttered with vendors, small shops whose goods overflow onto pavements and huddled among them are the ubiquitous all-day dining street food. Its dynamism (or mayhem) is as magnetic as ever.
“Stephanie and I came to live in the area 13 years ago but we have been regular visitors for more than 25 years. The mighty river hasn’t changed much, still buzzing and bubbling with activity,” says Compernol.
Like them, many remain entranced by the heady mix. “Sometimes chaotic, sometimes blissfully calm. It’s intoxicating,” declares Robinson, appreciatively.
BANGKOK insiders divulge their selections of delightful eats, tasteful shopping and captivating spaces by the riverside.
NARISA CHAKRABONGSE, publisher and editor of River Books
River City Bangkok mall (Charoenkrung 24) has lovely shops for antiques. I go to Yodpiman mall (390/17 Banmoh Road) for a jewellery shop which makes things from horns (of non-endangered animals).
Farm To Table (179 Atsadang Road) is a nice little cafe by the canal near the flower market. For drinks and watching the sunset, the rooftop bar of Sala Rattanskosin (39 Maharat Road, Rattanakosin Island).
I like to go to Wat Suthat (Bamrung Mueang Road). Also, there’s a walk I really like, which starts from Yodpiman pier to the memorial bridge and across to Wat Prayoon (5 Khlong San) with a beautiful white stupa and a miniature garden. Then walk up the river to the imposing Wat Kalayanamit (Kalayanamit Pier).
FRANCISCO VAZ PATTO, Portugal’s ambassador to Thailand
In Chinatown, there are so many wonderful shops and options that is impossible to specify one. You walk around and get lost in its alleys and you always find new things and surprises.
Besides street food, my restaurant of choice is 80/20 (1052-1054 Charoenkrung Road) which offers delicious fusion food with locally sourced ingredients.
A walk in Kudichin, a neighbourhood with Portuguese roots reflected in the houses and alleys, places of worship, food and community.
LINDA CHENG, managing director of River City Bangkok mall
River City Bangkok. Besides the many wonderful galleries and antique shops, there are beautiful handmade leather bags and Thai silk dresses.
Le Normandie French restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (48 Charoenkrung 38) is my family’s all-time favourite. The delicious dishes, elegant ambience and attentive service are second to none.
Author’s Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel always provides a sense of peace to sit, think and read.
YUI CHUNGSIRIWAT, manager of BangkokEdge festival
Wanglang market (Soi 8, Khwaeng Taling Chan) next to Siriraj Hospital, is a local market with food vendors and cheap vintage clothing. It is like scavenger hunt. I once found a vintage cocktail dress for 100 baht (RM12.50).
Samsara (1612 Songwat Road) is tucked at the back of a used auto parts shop. It is a small wooden house where you can choose a seat right next to the river. Go before dark for the view and sunset.
I like sitting at the park inside Thammasat University (2 Prachan Road). It is a very serene park right next to the river. Crossing the river on a nice day also helps clear my mind.
MORE ATTRACTIONS TO COME
ICONSIAM mall will be a mega 500,000sq m of retail and entertainment, with Takashimaya as one of the retail anchors (2018).
BRILLIANT BANGKOK is a lights show and cultural event, illuminating Bangrak, Bangkok’s European Quarter (No date announced).