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Industrial chic at The Never Ending Summer restaurant

Bangkok heritage: riverside rebirth

Legendary modern day Bangkok has evolved into a city of lush urban grandeur, startling contrasts, and sophistication.

Bangkok the ‘Venice of the East’

Legendary modern day Bangkok has evolved into a city of lush urban grandeur, startling contrasts, and sophistication. It’s winding rivers and canals help lay out a signature skyline with panoramic views that tower over character driven neighbourhoods, bustling markets, neon-lit nightlife, and a delicatessen of steamy street fare. Enter a tropical metropolis that harbours many hidden gems.

Just behind modern skyscrapers, you will discover Zen-like parks, between first-class shopping malls, quiet temples, under a modern sky train network, traditional heritage buildings, and a thriving art and culture scene. Hot, cool, spicy, soothing, rich, humble, frantic and at peace with itself, it’s Bangkok; the city of contrasts where modern design meets heritage buildings!

Not so long ago, Bangkok thrived with travellers and traders from China, India, and Europe, who witnessed life on Chao Praya River and major canals filled with riverboats, rafts and rice barges. Countless visitors then compared the Thai capital to Venice and nicknamed Bangkok the ‘Venice of the East’.

Fast forward to present days, and another similarity with Venice; the Venice Art Biennale is one of the oldest and most prestigious international exhibition of its kind. It’s also in Venice that the first Bangkok Art Biennale was officially announced last year in May 2017 at The Europa & Regina Hotel. The upcoming international Bangkok Art Biennale (B.A.B.) will put Bangkok (Krung Thep Maha Nakhon) back into the international spotlights and position it onto the worldwide art biennale circuits. Over 75 international artists will be shown at various sites and famous landmarks along the Chao Phraya River, at the historic East Asiatic Company building, Bangkok Art and Culture Center (B.A.C.C.) and Lumpini Park; while ancient temples like Wat Pho (Temple of Reclining Buddha), Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) and Wat Prayoon (Temple of Iron Fence) will be the sites for cultural encounters.

Bangkok Art Biennale Oct. 19, 2018 – Feb. 3, 2019 bkkartbiennale.com

Potent Yadong served at Tep bar

Over the last few years, Bangkok Riverside has witnessed a renaissance with an abundance of new boutique hotels, restaurants, cafes, independent galleries and bars popping up along the banks of the Chao Phraya river.

Leading the way, the Asiatique riverfront complex, with its distinctive giant Ferris wheel landmark, turned the riverbank into a destination for tourists and shopping lovers. At the centre of this river renaissance, Bangkok River Partners is a foundation lead by David Robinson and other members of the Creative District, a coined name given to the area’s clutch of arts and lifestyle venues. They have invigorated new energy and brought public awareness into an area that used to be destitute landmarks, abandoned warehouses, and run-down factory buildings.

Charoenkrung road was already rich with historical and cultural assets along with its unique cultural diversity. As the very first street and the former leading business area of Bangkok, Charoenkrung has been the hub of architectural buildings and creative businesses for over a century. Around 150 years ago, Charoenkrung was one of Bangkok’s first paved road and rapidly became the city’s centre of commerce, thanks to its proximity to the Chao Phraya river.

In 1876, the legendary (Mandarin) Oriental hotel was founded off the Bangrak section of the road, along the Chao Phraya River. The iconic hotel has since welcomed numerous heads of state, captains of industry and a host of world-renowned writers and celebrities for over 142 years. The hotel recently completed a comprehensive renovation of the historic Authors’ and Garden Wings to mark its 140 years’ anniversary.

Located a stone’s throw from Mandarin Oriental hotel, Thai Home Industries is an enduring and endearing custom-made Thai craft store housed in an eye-catching temple styled building. The 50-year-old shop sits beneath an elegant upturned roof with mirrored shingles. Housed in a simple airy room, naturally lit by a skylight, Thai craft works range from custom-made cutlery, soft organic-cotton Thai farmer pants and mother-of-pearls serving spoons. The flagship of their collection is their kitchen silverware. Every spoon, fork, and knife is hand-made to precision and with a focus on design, ergonomics and quality. Having been in operation for more than half a century, their mission is to make the best Thai craft home goods by hand and let the quality speaks for itself, which reflects through their growing customers, visiting mostly from word of mouth.

Another historic landmark, the Grand Postal Building was built in the mid-thirties on the site of Thailand’s first post office (opened in 1883). A monumental building sitting next to the all-glass modern CAT Tower. The low and wide building mixes the long and clean lines of art deco architecture with touches of traditional Thai adornment. Two mythical garuda birds are clinging at both corners of the central structure. It once served as the centre where all posts were received and sent out. The original structure was transformed to house the new TCDC (Thailand Culture and Design Center), which moved in last year.

Marking and initiating the slow shift, from the main artery of Sukhumvit towards the past-era original commercial centre of Charoenkrung, from Emporium mall to Bangrak district, the enhanced TCDC housed in a 9,000 square meter facilities, initiated a new wave of development that is revitalising the area. The mission of TCDC is to be a hub of knowledge with an extensive library of over 75,000 books, an incubator of creatives and related businesses. Material Connexion introduces visitors to innovative materials made in Thailand, while temporary exhibitions focus on design and new creatives projects.

Accessible from the back building of TCDC, and following in the footsteps of his first warehouses remodelling along the river, renowned Thai architect Duangrit Bunnag, opened Warehouse 30. For years, the seven large warehouses inside Soi Captain Bush sat unused. The team behind The Jam Factory saw the potential of the complex in becoming a creative centre and restored the warehouses for contemporary functions.

Patrons at Foo John building bar

Much of the architectural elements have been preserved with the exposed pillars, beams and steel structures along with the original wooden floor. The row of buildings inside Soi Captain Bush comprises a series of abandoned World War II-era warehouses that was renovated and retrofitted into a 4,000 sqm. complex for shops, cafes, a spa, an event space, a co-working hub, and screening rooms. Professionals can work in co-working space ‘One Big House’ or rent out the event space occupying the first and second warehouse.

Take a break at Summer Heath cafe or cross the road to admire handcrafted contemporary tables at P. Tendercool. With such a slogan ‘We make tables and we make them well’, one could wonder what this showroom is all about? Cross-cultural creations of unique and very limited edition handcrafted tables, Belgian designers, Pieter and Stephanie teamed up with a plethora of talents to create superb tables indeed and by extension, chairs, stylish objects d’art with a unique European flair and savoir-faire. Their lofty showroom is often the canvas for creative pop-up events.

Further up, towards the Portuguese Embassy, Maison Chatenet is an all-day café and bakery offering a respite from the usual Thai milk tea or instant coffee. The menu centres on French pastries and sandwiches. Cafes are made from beans sourced and roasted in Chiang Mai. Minimalist architecture and polished concrete with exposed wood-beams over white tiled floor add a European flavour to the French bistro menu.

Upstairs at Tep bar
Upstairs at Tep bar

Two steps away from the French Embassy, housed within OP Garden, Serindia gallery is in such a beautiful house that you might want to move in immediately. Step inside and you can almost feel the dedication to the art. The gallery’s focus is on fine art from the Himalayas, Tibet, and South East Asia. With the owner’s worldly connections through his publishing company in Chicago, you can expect to see higher-calibre exhibits. Opposite, Atta gallery is the first and only wearable art and contemporary jewellery gallery in Bangkok. All the jewellery on display is ‘one of a kind’ or in very limited editions made by international and local artists who are regularly invited to show their unique piece of ‘wearable art’.

Further up and towards Talad Noi, Speedy Grandma is a new contender on the art gallery scene. The independent art space originated from two good friends, Lee and Thomas, who wanted to create a space to showcase emerging Thai or international artists. Here, any kind of contemporary art is welcome, from the more traditional such as photography and pop/urban art to the more rarely seen like comics, illustration and graphic design surrealism. Make sure to browse through the unique vintage objects scattered around, and don’t forget to stop at their bar, a lively place where Bangkok’s artists often drink one too many.

Stylish dining and drinking options within the Old Town

Located in the older part of town called ‘Talad Noi’, Soul Bar took over an old shophouse turned tastefully into a live bar playing hosts to jazz and soul/funk bands every Wednesdays to Saturdays. It may be cramped and noisy at times; regular patrons often spill over onto the street or go for quieter conversations upstairs to the laidback lounge and terrace.

One of the main partners, Romain Dupuy also opened another venue nearby, Foo John building.

Step inside this retrofitted Chinese shop-house which reminds of a Hong Kong diner with warm lighting, carefully positioned mirrors, vintage mosaic tiles. Downstairs you’ll find a hip bistro serving cold cuts and crepes alongside wine. A prohibition era-themed cocktail bar sits upstairs, where French spirits are spotlighted in classic cocktails based on The Savoy Cocktail Book.

Explore further onto Charoenkrung road into the heart of Chinatown towards the iconic Hua Lamphong train station to find the bohemian street of Soi Nana, a cluster of renovated shop houses which became quickly the ‘in’ place in town. One of the first bar to open on Soi Nana in Chinatown, El Chiringuito, attracts a young and hip crowd into this once forgotten part of town. Complete with retro ambience courtesy of the reclaimed wooden furniture, sewing tables, old posters and chalkboard menu displaying the drink-du-jour. Owned by Victor hailing from Spain, expect Spanish tapas in the menu along with strong Spanish Xoriguer gin.

Chao Phraya River Pier Jacks Place
Chao Phraya River Pier Jacks Place

A late contender inside Soi Nana, Tep Bar leans more towards its Thai heritage in an industrial urban-chic bar hidden from the main road. Located in a dimly lit shop house inside a lane of charming residential houses, Tep bar emphasises on Thai traditional music and infused herbal drinks called ‘yadong’. Some cocktails have creative names like ya sanae, which translates to “love potion”. Thai snacks like the dry-aged grilled beef or the crispy fried fish with tamarind sauce are available to accompany the potent drinks.

Back towards Sathorn Pier and the Skytrain Saphan Taksin, make a quick stop at Jack’s bar, a casual spot with one of the best views along the Chao Phraya river. Offering similar views as the surrounding luxury hotels, Jack’s bar will make your wallet happier with reasonably priced drinks and Thai food on the menu.

On the other side of the river, next to Klong San Plaza, The Never Ending Summer is a converted industrial warehouse inside the Jam Factory complex, that is now a chic restaurant. The modern Thai cuisine draws an eclectic crowd and has an exceptionally solid following among fashionable young Thais and clued-in travellers.

With so many new creative venues near or around the river, it’s no wonder why big malls like Icon Siam and luxury international hotel chains (Mandarin Oriental residences and Four Seasons Private residences) are developing private luxury residences along the River of Kings. ◼

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© This article was first published in Aug-Sept 2018 edition of World Travel Magazine.

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