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.