I have called Bangkok home for the past decade and then some. While the city has changed tremendously over the course of the last 5-10 years, with new condominiums and glitzy shopping malls going up seemingly by the day, and many of the old neighbourhoods being decimated in the name of “progress,” still the city remains with vestiges of its old self. Part of the reason I moved here was that nowhere else in the world could one find such an astounding blend of both old and new, a melange of East and West, and a seeming meeting point for the best of all worlds.
While most developed cities like Tokyo, Singapore, London, and Paris have refined museums, spacious parks, well planned transport, and a general sense or order to them, for me they can be a bit sterile. I’ve always gravitated towards the places of chaos and disorder, precisely because they seem to go hand in hand with liveliness. In India, you’re assaulted to every sense just walking down the street in places like Kolkata or Mumbai. Pungent smells, vivid colours, streets just teeming with humanity, poverty beyond words. At times it is all a bit too much, but it’s real life at its best, and is the perfect cannon fodder for material if you’re a photographer or writer.
Yet India is precisely a place to visit as opposed to live in because it is so overwhelming, which is why Bangkok comes in somewhere right in the middle of the two extremes. In Bangkok, you can wander through Chinatown, joining thousands of tightly packed sweaty shoppers trying to fit through the semi-outdoor market of Sanpeng Lane, or wander through rough looking streets filled with collections of rusted auto parts and chain smoking men creating apparent order out of the chaos that surrounds them, and yet just fifteen minutes later you’re enjoying high tea in the frigid air-conditioned splendour of uber-upscale Gaysorn Shopping Plaza. One minute you are sampling the world’s best beef noodle soup on a street corner, with tuk tuk exhaust in your face and taxi horns blaring as you eat, and the next meal finds you sitting 65 stories above the city enjoying a fine dining Thai experience made with imported Wagyu beef, looking out at the neon lights below.
One of my favourite places in Bangkok to go is no more than a ten-minute walk from the tourist frenzied Grand Palace, and yet not too many visitors seem to make it here. It’s a small square known as Phraeng Phuton. The square dates back to the early 1900’s, when King Rama V built a series of European neo-classical row houses on a site formerly used as a palace by Prince Putharet Thamrongsak. A Red Cross health centre now occupies the spot where the Wang Nuea Palace was, along with a public park area that is surrounded by colourful shophouses which feature narrow facades, balusters in the windows, and tables set out in the street, allowing for community life and socialising. With the painted shophouses surrounding a central park, it feels far more like a piazza in Italy than somewhere in tropical Southeast Asia.
The square is noted for some hole in the wall specialty restaurants, a couple of which serve pig’s brain soup, and all of which have recipes handed down some three plus generations. There is an ice cream shop called Nuttaporn that has been making its own ice cream for almost 80 years. They sell out each day by late afternoon, and specialise in coconut and mango flavours, the mango made with the famed maha chanuk mangoes, renowned for their sweetness. Old folks sit out in front of their shops, young men play sepak takraw, the Southeast Asian national sport which is like a form of volleyball played with the feet instead of the hands, in the park, and its an aesthetically pleasing spot to come while away the afternoon.
Come sunset time though, nowhere is better to be than the Chao Phraya River, and it is here that one will find new and old Bangkok merging together more than ever. The Chao Phraya was Bangkok’s original lifeline and road of commerce, back in the day when the city was a conglomeration of canals that substituted for what are now traffic choked boulevards and streets. Catching a ferry along the river is still the fastest way to get around, and passing by places like the old Customs House, built in 1880, or the East Asiatic Company, a Venetian gem that dates from the early 1900s, built to handle freight trade routes that connected Bangkok to Europe, you can still get a sense of what this city must have been like ages ago.
Yet at the same time, the riverside caters to the young, the hip, and the new. Just near the Grand Palace, spots like Sala Rattanakosin, the Arun Residence, or Supanniga Eating Room X Roots Coffee provide cutting edge food, well mixed drinks, and a dapper and fun atmosphere from which to watch the sun go down over Wat Arun, the iconic Temple of Dawn, which is directly across the river. All these places are in what were formerly old shophouses or run down buildings along the river that have been given a facelift.
This blend of the old and new continues as you make your way along the water. Just south of Wat Arun lies the Church of Santa Cruz, also known as Kudi Jin, the Chinese church, due to the assistance of the local Chinese community, who helped build and renovate it. The church dates from 1769 and the plaza and narrow lanes built over canal water are home to Bangkok’s Thai-Catholic community. Here, one finds Jesus portraits hanging over house entrances, and even a five-generation old bakery named Thanusingha, where the family continues a tradition of baking Portuguese cakes and pastries. There are no cars in the alleys here, and if you wander upriver, you come to a Taoist temple and then a mosque, showing off all of Bangkok’s diversity. You can dip into this world for a few hours, and then hop a cross river ferry for all of two minutes, which brings you to the Yodpiman River Walk, which features gourmet coffee shops, trendy dining niches, and even a branch of Peppina, the popular Napolitan pizza restaurant which has branches in trendy Thonglor, and some of the city’s most fashionable malls. Here, you’ll see BMWs in the parking lot, and upper-middle class families out for a meal, again, Bangkok at its latest and former greatest.
I recall once being invited for a new menu launch at the swank Mezzaluna restaurant, located on the 65th floor of the golden domed Lebua State Tower. The top of the tower is one of Bangkok’s most fashionable and expensive tourist haunts. It is up here that the Hollywood comedy Hangover II was filmed, with the Sky Bar here even naming a drink in honour of the cast and film, the Hangovertini, which visitors come up by the elevator-load to sample. Mezzaluna serves haute cuisine Mediterranean-Asian fusion, and the gaggle of journalists that night were salivating over the seven course degustation menu that was on tap. While we got to sample fine Russian caviar, imported Hokkaido scallops, New Zealand lamb, and foie gras-laced sauces all paired with fine wines from around the globe, alas the portions were so minuscule that many of us left still not sated. Never mind, just around the corner several of us popped into Prachak, a dingy restaurant tucked into the bowels of Charoenkrung Road. Prachak has been open since 1897, and customers have lined up since that time to feast on the legendary roast duck that is served for a pittance. As we slurped our duck pieces served with egg noodles, it occurred to me that living in Bangkok, it seems like one is constantly travelling through time without ever having to really go very far.
Another novelty these days; you don’t even have to seek out the old in the back alleys of Chinatown or along the river, as newer forms of them are springing up in the most hi-tech modern spots in town. Walk into CentralWorld or Siam Paragon, or even the latest and glitziest designer mall, The EmQuartier. Wandering through the food quarters and restaurant galleries, large numbers of eateries now sport retro looks, many designed to evoke the Bangkok of old, as if this makes coming to the mall all the more comforting. Continuing on through the fashion floors, Thai design icons like Stretsis and Senada Theory aim their newest fashions at young women and shopaholics, and many of the designs don’t look anything futuristic, but rather are new plays on old vintage pieces from the 1950s, 1970s, or other eras gone by. Retro furniture, vintage clothing, you see these signs everywhere across town, and the most popular night market these days for locals is the Retro Train Market, where hipsters stroll through the grounds looking for vinyl LPs, grandfather clocks, and other antiquities that have become Bangkok’s latest rage. Even the tourist-focused Asiatique Night Bazaar, full of happening hip eateries, bars, and shops selling the latest gadgets, mostly aimed at the young and spendy Chinese crowd, has all of the establishments set in old warehouse hangars, an ode to when the site was a major international trade port bent on opening up Siam to the West. Even the Asiatique website makes sure to mention, “Here, we strike a balance between tradition and globalisation.”
Hotels are also getting in on the act. The Shanghai Mansion in Chinatown is the ancient neighbourhood’s first boutique hotel. It’s probably the most glitzy and stylish spot along bustling Yaowarat Road, which is filled with famed street food carts, gold sellers, and small shrines. Yet true to form, the entire decor of the hotel is 1930s Shanghai. You’ll sleep in a brand new bed yet be transported back almost a century.
Big spenders also have an option when it comes to five-star stays. You can opt for the cutting edge architecture and design of the Sofitel So, put together by a group of elite Thai architects and French haute couturier mogul Christian Lacroix, where rooms come designed around the five elements theme and feature open-plan bathtubs and free Mac Mini’s. If this is too up to date, you can instead head over to Bangkok’s Grande Dame, the colonial Mandarin Oriental, where you can join the literary luminaries like Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, and Joseph Conrad, all of whom have stayed here throughout its fascinating history and run as Bangkok’s link to its glorious past.
While the endless sea of cranes and construction sites can be hard on the eyes, and the extra x thousand cars that take to the roads each day hard on the ears and nose, much of the new is bringing foreigners here by the plane-load. Fifteen-twenty years ago, Bangkok was a place to be avoided, a den of inequity where rumours abounded about getting framed and stuck in prison, flophouses, sewage-filled streets, and tropical diseases running amok. One Night in Bangkok was its theme song, glorifying Patpong Road’s bars as the city’s number one attraction, and books on the Bangkok Hilton (the slang for its notorious prison) vying for the number one read. These days, digital nomads looking for a new life and gap year world travellers are making the city their number one pit stop. Co-working spaces sit above craft beer bars and Mexican restaurants, Michelin-starred chefs show up en masse (indeed, the city is getting its first Michelin guide in 2018), and young, educated, dapper Thais who have been abroad and fallen in love with Spanish tapas, Japanese izakayas, Scottish whiskey, and New York speakeasies are returning to open their own renditions, making the city as cosmopolitan as you’ll find in this part of the world.
For myself, my significant other, and my friends, we cook our Thai food at home, and go frequent Sri Lankan and Yemeni dive restaurants, pick up phone cards and pay bills via corner 7-11’s, and then cross the street to imbibe a shot or two of yaa dong, Thai traditional white spirits, pretty much the equivalent of local moonshine, still sold at corner tables, where construction workers and taxi drivers come to relax after a shift. The city encompasses a lot of history, and this exotic combination keeps it alluring and why I have called it home for as long as I have.