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.