Down a narrow sandstone lane off Bangkok’s Phra Athit Road, a graying man on a brisk walk stopped and bowed his head before a Buddhist shrine adorned with twirling dragons and golden Chinese characters. As he prayed, the wind rustled the leaves of some nearby frangipani and bougainvillea trees. Water lapped against the banks of a canal, and a snack vendor’s bell jingled in the distance.
Otherwise there was silence, the roar of one of Asia’s most frenetic cities magically and improbably held at bay.
Few visitors come to Bangkok seeking serenity. But that’s exactly what I found during long, rambling strolls in the Old Town district, a collection of neighborhoods that make up the city’s historic center. Although Old Town is an unofficial designation with informal borders, most residents agree that it is delineated on the west and south by the Chao Phraya River and on the north and east by a looping canal.
Here, in two-story shop houses built as long as a century ago by Thais and traders from around the world, families live and work as they have for decades, in close quarters with neighbors they’ve grown up with. The district’s streets, including the food nexus of Tanao Road and the village-scale lanes off Phra Athit Road, offer visitors a slower-paced, Old World alternative to the sense-saturating cacophony that is greater Bangkok. The area has what aficionados consider to be the city’s best street food, and it provides easy access to major tourist sites, including the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, but is far enough removed from them to feel off the beaten path.
Meanwhile, Bangkok has modernized and expanded around Old Town. The sprawl has marched steadily outward from the Chao Phraya River, once the city’s heart, stretching for miles along the nightlife corridors of Sukhumvit Road and the mall-lined shopping paradise of Rama I Road. Tourism has largely followed suit, leaving Old Town behind — and largely untouched.
In the past few years, though, in an effort to tap into the district’s considerable charms, a number of boutique tourism businesses have reversed the trend and moved in. Previously, a visitor searching for lodging had to choose between the glass-and-steel chain hotel towers lining the Chao Phraya River or the backpacker dives of Khao San Road, and nightlife options were scarce. But now, artfully designed hotels are opening in historic shop houses and European-style villas, and cafes, galleries and bars are popping up on hidden side streets, making it easier for visitors to immerse themselves in the area’s unique atmosphere.
Two notable examples are the Asadang and Bhuthorn bed-and-breakfasts, which Chitlada Senghluang opened with her husband, Direk Senghluang, after years of traveling to such regional cities as Luang Prabang in Laos and Macau, which have made efforts to preserve their historic buildings. “We love staying in old hotels that have that classic feel,” Chitlada told me. “We realized that there wasn’t anything like that in Bangkok.”
The couple, both architects, bought the three-story Sino-Portuguese shop house that is now the Bhuthorn in 2005. Renovating the 110-year-old building was complex, in part because they wanted to keep as much of the original structure as possible, a novel concept in a city focused on the future. “There were problems every day,” Chitlada said, including contractors nearly sawing through a beam that would have caused a neighboring building to collapse.
The three-room Bhuthorn opened in 2009, followed in 2011 by the nine-room Asadang. With their collections of antique furniture, floral-patterned floor tiles and original wooden ceilings, the hotels draw mostly Western guests and a steady trickle of former Old Town residents who want to reconnect with their old neighborhood. Even though some natives have left for the suburbs, urban flight in Bangkok has been slow compared with the rate in other regional cities, primarily because of cheap rents, which hinder gentrification, and the difficulties of restoring dilapidated buildings. “This has kept things authentic,” Chitlada said.
As the scorching midday sun reached its peak in the cloudless sky one recent day, edging temperatures toward 100 degrees, Chitlada and I walked along Phraeng Bhuthorn Road, the leafy square off Tanao Road where the Bhuthorn is located, popping our heads in to say hello to her chatty neighbors.
We wandered into the garage of car mechanic Chien Bie, who has lived his entire life above the repair shop his father founded 75 years ago. As Bie fiddled with the crankshaft of an 80-year-old Austin, he looked amused when I asked, through Chitlada, whether he’d ever considered living anywhere else. “No, I know all my neighbors,” he replied. “It’s quiet and peaceful, and the air is clean and cool. Why would I want to go anywhere else?”
Locals feel proud of the area’s connection to the revered Thai royal family, he added. Princes and princesses once kept residences here, and when they died, many of their staff members started businesses, including former palace chefs who now churn out some of Bangkok’s best street food.
Chawadee Nualkhair, who was born in Thailand but grew up in Pittsburgh, writes about the best of these dishes in her blog, Bangkok Glutton, and book, Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls.
“This is my favorite neighborhood for eating,” she told me one April morning in Bangkok, when we met to sample some of her favorite Old Town eateries. Food is a major draw for the civil servants who work in nearby ministerial buildings; they descend in legion upon their favorite stalls during the weekday lunch hour. Most dishes are made using decades-old family recipes and can be had for a dollar or two.
Yet many stalls are in danger of disappearing, as the children of proprietors look to career options that are more comfortable and lucrative than the hot, labor-intensive business of cooking on the sidewalk. “You have to eat this food while it’s still around,” Chawadee said. “It will all be in malls eventually.”
That would be a shame, because it’s not just the stellar dishes that make these places special. At Somsong Pochana food stall, on Wat Sangvesworawiharn side street across the canal from Phra Athit Road, Chawadee and I attacked plates of kanom jeen sao nam — a sharp and creamy concoction of rice noodles topped with pineapple, raw garlic, ginger, dried shrimp and coconut milk — while longtime residents communed with one another. Old couples chatted at scuffed tables and slurped noodles and kao fang piak, a mashed sticky rice dessert with pandanus leaves and coconut milk, as the wait outside for a table grew to half an hour. The owner packaged takeaway bundles while his son manned the wok, a rare example of intergenerational street-food cooperation.
Much of Bangkok’s street food originated in the Chinese community. As these immigrants assimilated, they altered the recipes of their homeland to suit Thai tastes, adding ingredients such as coconut milk, chili and galangal to the noodles and soups they sold from carts or sidewalk stalls. But while China’s imprint on Thai cuisine is enormous, it’s far from the only outside influence.
“Thais are open-minded when it comes to food. If we like it, we borrow it,” said Kitichai Siraprapanurat, one of three foodie friends who run Bangkok Food Tours, which focuses on Old Town’s leading role as an incubator of Thai food’s cross-culinary interactions. During half-day excursions, local guides lead six-person groups down winding alleys into scruffy gems like the 70-year-old Muslim Restaurant, which, true to its name, offers Thai dishes with Muslim influences, such as curry lava on boiled egg, a coconut milk-based curry with Indian spices.
While Old Town’s food options are plentiful, cafes and night life are a little harder to come by. But this is slowly changing. Art lovers looking to soak up Thailand’s renowned aesthetic and design sense head to Club Arts and Gallery by the River, a quick ferry ride across the Chao Phraya near Wat Rakhang, where Thai hipsters wearing ascots and chunky glasses sip iced coffee and watch barges slide by through oversized windows. Opened last year in a lofted warehouse, the space showcases local painters and performances of traditional Thai music on weekend evenings.
Meanwhile, for a cheap beer and a glimpse of the city’s thriving indie rock scene, there’s Hlung Raak, a pleasingly shabby bar and performance space that opened six months ago in a century-old villa that resembles a Carolina beach house. For a more sophisticated tipple, the nautical-chic Viva & Aviv, 10 minutes south by ferry on the Chao Phraya, serves such forward-looking cocktails as the Cuban Smuggler, made with cigar-smoke-infused rum.
Farther south along the river, just beyond the borders of Old Town, sits the new Asiatique shopping and entertainment complex, which opened in April. Housed in a century-old pier originally built for the Danish East Asiatic Co., the massive development draws on Bangkok’s history but, with a planned 1,500 shops and 40 restaurants, on a scale never before seen in this part of town. Despite not yet being fully operational, the complex is already drawing large crowds, and the developers talk of it sparking a commercial revival of historic Bangkok.
Back on Phraeng Bhuthorn Road, Kachaceevar Teerapon, a local community leader, spoke cautiously, as an English-speaking neighbor interpreted, about the changes looming over Old Town. “Tourism is good, because it provides income for residents. But we want to keep the numbers low,” he said. “This area is like a small family. We want to preserve that.”
With that, he excused himself and hopped on his motorbike, eager to catch up with his neighbors.