Neighbourhood: Bangkok

Thailand's capital may be big and brash in places, but it's got plenty of soul, whether you're exploring the back streets of Chinatown or the hidden bars and vintage stores of its new hipster heartland

By Lee Cobaj
Published 24 Jan 2018, 08:00 GMT, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 16:00 BST
Photograph by Getty Images

It's known as the Big Mango, and just like the tropical fruit, Bangkok is bright, bold, bursting with character — and can get a little bit messy when you take a bite. Saddle up for a seat-of-your-pants tuk-tuk ride through the city centre and you'll pass technicolour temples, abandoned skyscrapers, street markets, mega malls, motorbike gangs, monks on mobiles, troops of masseurs in pink pyjamas… It's enough to make your head spin (or maybe that's the petrol fumes). But don't think this sprawling metropolis is total chaos. Life here is rooted in routine and tradition: markets setting up with the sun, monks receiving morning alms, commuters crisscrossing the city by Skytrain… Go on, take a bite, but don't forget to savour it.

In 1782, on the orders of the recently crowned King Rama I, the new Thai capital was established on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, first in Thonburi and later across the water on the eastern bank. Over two centuries later, this remains the country's most important royal enclave and home to some of its most magnificent sights — the colossal Grand Palace, the bejewelled Wat Pho, and Wat Arun, the ceramic-clad Temple of Dawn — as well as a slew of large luxury riverside resorts.

Scenic and less frenetic than the rest of Bangkok, the riverside is an unmissable part of town. Most experience it with a cruise down the river, either in a little wooden long-tail boat or one of the dirt-cheap public ferries, hitting up the star attractions along the way — but delve into the tree-lined lanes that unfurl along the waterfront and a more nuanced picture of Bangkok's oldest corner emerges.

On the Bang Rak side of the river, a walk down a shady soi (side street) might lead to decrepit 19th-century godowns (warehouses) and the crumbling shell of a palladian-style customs house — remnants of Bangkok's time as an European trading hub. Another might take you to the tiny Muslim enclave of Haroon, with its wooden houses, pocket-sized mosque and street stalls selling juicy lamb skewers. There's cutting-edge and contemporary to be found here too. After years of being largely ignored by the city's youth, the riverside is undergoing something of a renaissance, with cool Bangkokians reclaiming the waterfront with art and design spaces — for example, the Thailand Creative & Design Center, commandeering a corner of the Grand Postal Building, with its all-white co-working spaces, rentable recording studio and niche exhibitions (showcasing some surprisingly interesting seating designs during my visit).

From here, you can cross the water on the four-baht (10p) barge to the Klongsan district for lunch at The Never Ending Summer. Designed by trendsetting Thai architect Duangrit Bunnag, the restaurant is located in an airy former warehouse threaded with iron beams and lush tropical plants. The menu focuses on retro Thai recipes and the portions are bountiful. Bunnag is also responsible for The Jam Factory, next door. It has a bookshop, an art gallery and a terrific home decor store, where you can pick up earthy, glazed ceramics, including bowls from £3, teak picture frames for £10 and natural-fibre floor mats for £50. The whole complex is wrapped around a glorious bodhi tree — old and new comfortably growing together, much like the rest of this fascinating neighbourhood.

Snaking through Bangkok for over two miles, Yaowarat Road is the main artery of the world's longest Chinatown. Huge ceremonial gates, glitzy neon signs, bobbing red lanterns and colourful, open-fronted shophouses announce its presence. The malls and high-rise residences that have subsumed much of the centre have yet to arrive here. Instead, you'll find an intoxicating network of ribbon-thin alleyways crowded with Taoist temples, gold shops, herbal medicine stores, coffin-makers and stalls selling everything from (faux) silk pyjamas to elephant-shaped neck pillows and fidget spinners emblazoned with swastikas (an ancient Buddhist symbol of good luck, with unfortunate associations in the West).

Despite the vast, often overwhelmingly eclectic, array of goods on offer, Chinatown is an area that rewards shoppers. Most vendors are wholesalers selling to the local community, so prices are lower than more touristy areas like Prathumwan and Sukhumvit. Fashion accessories are a good buy; on my last trip, I picked up a haul that included a butter-soft leather belt for £4 and a basketful of costume jewellery for under a tenner. A good place to start your spree is Sampeang Market; then just dive in and throw away the map — you'll always be able to catch a tuk-tuk back to where you're meant to be.

And then there's the food. Bangkok's street food scene first burst forth among the Chinese diaspora. Avoid the tourist traps on Yaowarat Road, and seek out some of the neighbourhood's popular seafood joints — try Odean Crab Noodle, by the Odeon Circle gate, for rich, tangy bowlfuls of slurpy crab noodles; or R&L Seafood, on Soi Texas, for griddled prawns and feathery lobster omelettes.

There's a sense, however, that Chinatown's clock is ticking. Dozens of families who'd lived here for generations — selling everything from kitchen utensils and festival decorations to herbal medicine and funeral wares — have been displaced to make way for a new MRT subway line. The Blue Line Wat Mangkorn station is already in situ, with the first trains due to arrive in 2018. Property developers are already circling. For now, though, you can still arrive by boat, catching the Chao Phraya River Express and alighting at Ratchawong Pier to the scent of ginseng, the chatter of Teochew (a dialect of Southern China), and the sight of an industrious community seemingly far too busy to pay attention to what might come tomorrow.

"You'll pay nearly double the rent here than you would one BTS stop away in Ekkamai," Brent, a Los Angeleno, told me over tacos. We'd matched on a dating app and met for lunch at The Commons, an open-air arcade with zigzagging staircases leading to minimalist decks, manicured lawns and a dozen different food kiosks orbiting around a central eating area — a good choice on his part. I'd been staying down the road at the Akyra Thonglor Bangkok hotel, a fashionable five-star set in a former apartment block, with a glam rooftop pool and spacious rooms decked out in moody hues of grey, moss-green and aubergine. It's one of the first design-led hotels to hit the area, but unlikely to be the last as Thonglor metamorphoses at an astounding pace from sterile suburb to the only place to be.

I'd set off for my date early to see what changes the past year had brought. Organic restaurants with polished concrete walls: check. Coffee shops where the beans have passed through the bowels of an animal: check. Beauty salons offering face-freezing cryotherapy treatments: check. Speakeasy-style bars, old-school barbers, vintage boutiques: check, check, check. I arrived at The Commons in little doubt that Thonglor is at the epicentre of Bangkok hipsterdom.

Brent, it turns out, works for a financial tech firm based in New York that allows him the option of working remotely. Of all the places in the world he could have thrown down his laptop, he chose Bangkok. "I get a great lifestyle here," he tells me. "I live in an awesome apartment with a gym and swimming pool in the building, all for less than $800 a month — I'd pay five times that for the equivalent in the States. The cost of living is low, the food is amazing and the people are great."

High-flying Americans aren't the only ones to have flocked to Thonglor; there's also a large community of Japanese businesspeople — predominantly working in the car industry — who've brought low-lit whisky bars, atmospheric yakitori (skewered grilled chicken) restaurants and steaming onsen to the area's leafy backstreets.

Meanwhile, Thailand's hi-so (a term used to refer to the country's super-rich youngsters) wouldn't dream of living anywhere else. Bangkok has many incarnations and cool, capricious and maddeningly modern is one of them.

Indus Experiences has seven nights in Thailand, including three nights in Bangkok with a sightseeing tour, and four nights in Krabi, from £1,495, B&B. Includes flights with Thai Airways.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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