Rising on the River

In the neighbourhoods along Bangkok’s iconic Chao Phraya, a new generation of artists, designers, and chefs have created some of the Thai capital’s most exciting places to visit.

Guests enjoying an idyllic setting on the banks of Chao Phraya River at The Riverside Terrace, Mandarin Oriental Bangkok
Guests enjoying an idyllic setting on the banks of Chao Phraya River at The Riverside Terrace, Mandarin Oriental Bangkok

ASK ANYONE WHO, like me, grew up in Bangkok in the 197os, and they’ll tell you about suffering through interminable weddings at a riverside hotel in Bangrak, one of the Thai capital’s oldest districts. In those days, status-obsessed locals would shuffle over to Charoen Krung Road, Bangrak’s main drag, elbowing through steamy markets and stalls selling jok, or Chinese rice porridge, to submit to an eternity of long-winded wedding toasts.

a water taxi crossing the Chao Phraya River
a water taxi crossing the Chao Phraya River

My father, however, had better ideas. He and I would show up, make our rounds politely, then decamp to the nearby Oriental hotel, now the Mandarin Oriental , his old friend Nelson in tow. Over cocktails, the men would hatch outlandish plans. They dreamed of launching Bangkok’s first yoga studio, and a hospital-themed aperitif bar called The Pulse. My father, a physician, and Nelson, a flaneur who dressed in crisp linen suits, had no business sense, and when they did eventually put their schemes in motion, both immediately flopped. If they’d only waited a few decades, their ideas might have gone down better. Because today, Bangrak is the epicentre of Bangkok’s Creative District, a trio of neighbourhoods populated by artists, designers, chefs, and musicians. Lured by low rents and a post-industrial aesthetic, these upstart entrepreneurs are renovating shop-houses and using them to reinvent izakaya food, or experiment with artisanal spirits. Young and edgy, the Creative District has become the city’s must-visit destination. Although the Creative District is anchored in Bangrak, it includes neighbouring Talat Noi as well as Yaowarat, Bangkok’s effervescent Chinatown—all historic communities straddling the Charoen Krung corridor, Each borders the Chao Phraya River, and has roots in the river trading that was, in previous centuries, a mainstay of the Thai economy.

Jua, one of many fashionable restaurants in the Creative District
Jua, one of many fashionable restaurants in the Creative District

This was where merchant ships from the Far East, Europe, and the Americas made landfall in the Siamese kingdom; Bangrak was home to the city’s first European quarter. You’ll see this multicultural legacy in the area’s range of architectural styles and its mix of Hindu and Buddhist temples, mosques, Chinese shrines, and churches. “I remember coming here for weddings and scuba gear,” jewellery artist and Bangkok native Atty Tantivit told me as I browsed at Atta Gallery (attagallery.com), her contemporary jewellery store, which sits in a courtyard close to the Mandarin Oriental. Tantivit, who holds a master’s in marine policy, decided is years ago to trade her scuba mask for jewellers’ goggles.

live music at the second-floor bar of the FooJohn Building, a converted shop-house in Chinatown
live music at the second-floor bar of the FooJohn Building, a converted shop-house in Chinatown

When the time came to open a boutique, she decided against fashionable Sukhumvit and settled in Bangrak instead. “Back then, it seemed like the boonies,” she recalled. “Today, this is the best spot to be.” It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the evolution of the Creative District began. Some say it started around 2012, with the opening of an influential art space named Speedy Grandma (facebook.com/speedygrandma). That was quickly followed by the music venue SoulBar (facebook.com/livesoul barbangkok) and fashionable bars like the gin-focussed Teens of Thailand(facebook.corn/teensofthailand). Then, in 2016, the organisers of the BukRuk Urban Arts Festival zeroed in on Charoen Krung and commissioned a number of new works of street art, adding to the area’s design credentials. A year later, the art institute Thailand Creative & Design Center (web.tede.or.th) moved into the 1940 Grand Postal Building, and Bangkok’s first-ever Michelin Guide listed several spots in the neighbourhood, including trailblazing Thai-fusion restaurant.

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