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.