River Of Kings.

Iconic The storied banks of the Chao Phraya offer a kaleidoscopic portal to Bangkok’s past, present and future.

Ayutthaya, the gold-dipped ancient capital of Siam, was once the largest city in the world, described by European merchants as the Venice of the East thanks to its many canals and island position between three rivers. But when neighbouring Myanmar attacked in 1767, the city was burnt to the ground, a huge portion of its population killed, and its enormous trove of treasures either destroyed or carted off by the Burmese.

The Thai people are nothing if not superstitious, so when a new capital was being established downriver, first at Thonburi and then directly across the Chao Phraya on Rattanakosin Island, meticulous astrological planning took place to ensure good luck. This was called Duang Mueang, and after the catastrophic fall of Ayutthaya, royal astrologers of the new king, Rama I, were not taking any chances. They divined that the city pillar be raised at precisely the 9th baht (an archaic unit of time) after dawn of the 10th day of the waxing moon of the sixth month of the Year of the Tiger: 6.54am on April 21, 1782. But four snakes slithered into the hole as the pillar was slammed into the ground and were sacrificed under its weight, and Krung Thep Maha Nakhon – the “Great City of Angels” we call Bangkok – has been beautifully cursed ever since.

A crucible of old and new, naivety and sophistication, spirituality and seduction, few places are more beguiling than Bangkok. According to writer Philip Cornwel- Smith, “The City of Angels is one of the world’s ‘thin places’, a Celtic term for locations where the gap between heaven and earth so narrows that the divine animates the mundane.” Rama I, for example, spoke to the angels regarding the curse – Thai kings are incarnations of Vishnu and have a direct line to heaven – who agreed to postpone the fall of his brand-new Chakri Dynasty for 150 years. And exactly 150 years later, the 1932 revolution took Siam from absolute toconstitutional monarchy. It was rebranded Thailand not long after.

Despite the curse, 21st-century Bangkok thrives – as does the House of Chakri,now at RamaX – a Bladerunner-like jungle of skyscrapers and soaring digital billboards floating in a sea of street food vendors. But while prolific developers loved the city’s east, the banks of the mighty Chao Phraya River were ignored and now form a kaleidoscopic portal to the past. Head upriver for the full picture, where the prangs of temple ruins punctuate modern Ayutthaya and speak to the scale and grandeur of the former capital, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Neighbouring one of them is Baan Pomphet, a guesthouse of striking architectural components overlooking the river. Designed by architect M.L. Chittawadi Chitrabongs – Rama IV’s great-great-granddaughter – the small, red-brick construction references temple complexes such as Wat Mahatat and Wat Ratchaburana, both a short tuk-tuk ride away.

Bangkok River of Kings
Bangkok River of Kings

“Bangkok is a contradiction: at once one thing and the opposite,” says David Robinson of Bangkok River Partners. “It’s the past and the present sitting side by side. The authentic and the spurious. Natural charm and glamour. Intoxicating and exhausting. But at its core are hospitable, inventive people from all walks of life, both those born here and those, like me, who have chosen to adopt this city as home.”

Robinson arrived in Bangkok in 2002 as a volunteer with ActionAid. What he doesn’t know about the city is nobody’s business, especially when it comes to the intertwined river and creative scene. “I’d done a short contract with the Australian Conservation Foundation in 2010 and returned to Bangkok to join a brand agency specialising in the hospitality sector,” he says. “A neighbour was the general manager of The Peninsula and over dinner she told me about the riverside hotels wanting to promote the destination. As someone who grew up with Sydney Harbour and later the Thames, I’d always thought Bangkok’s Chao Phraya so majestic. I jumped at the opportunity to help out and at the beginning of 2015 started a company, Bangkok River Partners, to promote the destination.”

I first met Robinson in London in the ’90s and on a recent trip to Bangkok, we caught up for dinner at Restaurant Potong. The beautifully restored, pagoda-like building in a ramshackle side street in Chinatown – one of Bangkok’s hitherto “forgotten” riverside districts – was once the family pharmacy of Thai-Chinese-Australian chef Pichaya (Pam) Utharntharm and has just been awarded its first Michelin star.

“My grandfather brought me to see the building three years ago and when I saw the original ‘Potong’ logo up on the 5th floor, I knew this would be my next restaurant,” says Chef Pam. “I grew up in a family of four generations of Traditional Chinese Medicine producers. This was our origin and I was thrilled to pay respect to my family legacy by doing what I’m good at: cooking!” Guiding her culinary philosophy are the five senses and five elements, with wild and wonderful dishes such as black chicken, and blood clam with pomegranate, fermented chilli and lily kimchi, drawing on the memories of the local Thai-Chinese community. As does Opium Bar, the restaurant’s fourth-floor watering hole, an actual opium den back in the day.

Bangkok River of Kings
Bangkok River of Kings

Over the course of the evening, Robinson recounted his tale of collaborative and entrepreneurial philanthropy, including the formation of the Creative District. “A group of us, including Thai and expat business owners, artists and journalists, wanted to improve the liveability of the area and the livelihood of those working in it,” he says. He’s now a walking advocate for old and arty Bangkok. (Private tours alongside a local guide can be booked through Abercrombie & Kent.)

Most of the action takes place in Bang Rak, a melting pot of street art and historic buildings on the “Bangkok side” of the river. Hundred-year-old shophouses have been converted to cafes and bars, including the trailblazing Sarnies, while quirky artisan outlets characterise the city’s creativity. They include Mala, florist by day and organic wine bar by night, and neighbouring fashionistas I Wanna Bangkok. Meander along Charoen Krung Road and the maze of historic sois (alleys) of the European Quarter to Khun Mook and sister Cher’s fabulous art-food-fashion enclave, Att19. (Khun is a non-gender specific form of address that speaks not only to the Thai creed of respect for others but also their open attitude to gender and sexuality.) Down the same soi is Warehouse 30, a 1920s factory sensitively restored by Thai architect Duangrit Bunnag, and home to showrooms and galleries such as ATTA and super-slick furniture makers P. Tendercool.

One of Bunnag’s ancestors was a Persian merchant who settled in Ayutthaya in the 1600s and became adviser to the king. Another married the sister-in-law of Rama I. Despite the regal lineage, he’s somewhat the bad boy of Thai architecture, and a counterweight to the mindset of demolish and build. His gentle restoration of The Jam Factory on the “Thonburi side” in 2012 – now home to his design practice and restaurant, The Never Ending Summer – was a driving force in the revitalisation of the river and a springboard for the Creative District.

“It’s easy to fall in love with Bangkok because there’s always a version of the city you can embrace,” says Bunnag. “A lot has changed on the Chao Phraya since the arrival of The Jam Factory and I’m really excited about the direction it’s taking. Art is core to the Creative District; local communities add to the urban fabric.”

One such community is Talad Noi, a compact explosion of colour and culture and now home to singular cafes such as Mother Roaster, crafting a deliciously convincing “Old Fashioned” from Honduras Whiskey beans, and the super-cool Citizen Tea. The much-Instagrammed Hong Sieng Kong does food, live music and antiques in a complex of crumbling riverside buildings with giant trees growing through the cracks. Even more ethereal is So Heng Tai, a c.1782 Chinese mansion serving iced tea on shady verandas.

The cavernous and hyper-luxurious shopping mall Icon Siam was another game-changer for the river when it opened on the Thonburi side in 2018. But for something more intimate, head to the sleepy sois of nearby Khlongsan – dropping into Princess Mother’s Memorial Park and My Grandparents House to cool down along the way – and Kudeejeen, where Thai- Portuguese bakeries have been making the same Portuguese cakes since the 18th century. (If wheels are more your thing, you can cycle Thonburi and other riverside districts with Smiling Albino.) Continue on to Wat Arun and cross the river to Sala Rattanakosin to admire Bangkok’s most iconic temple from the roof terrace, cool drink in hand, as the sun sets.

Directly behind Sala is the city’s most important temple, the magnificent Wat Pho, where you can sit quietly on the floor of the ordination hall at the end of the day, enveloped in the mesmerising chant of orange- robed monks. It’s a short walk from here to the Grand Palace, also seen in all its resplendent wonder from a longtail boat or colour-coded ferry on the river – and the just-renovated National Museum, home to a fantastic collection of Thai and Southeast Asian antiquities.

Being the hottest city in the world, Bangkok is often best experienced after dark. Temperatures drop slightly, street vendor carts, prangs and golden stupas are illuminated and sanuk – having fun – animates the evening. The restaurant and bar scene is dazzling, with Australian chef David Thompson’s new venture, Aksorn, an essential stop on the trail of great Thai food. Situated on the top floor of the original Central Department Store in Bang Rak, Aksorn sports an open kitchen and contemporary interior, akin to what you might find in Sydney. But the cutlery is old fashioned and a set menu of sophisticated comfort food arrives on mismatched vintage plates, taking you back in time, en famille Thai style. Thompson collected more than 500 funeral cookbooks, a compilation after a person dies of the recipes they were known for, despite the fact said recipes were probably conceived and invariably prepared by the dead person’s cook. Sardines on toast whet the appetite, sated when six mains are served at once, including apple aubergine salad with grilled beef and crispy catfish (a staple of the Chao Phraya), and minced prawns simmered in coconut cream.

Bangkok River of Kings
Bangkok River of Kings
Bangkok River of Kings
Bangkok River of Kings
Bangkok River of Kings

Towards Talad Noi is the cool Izakaya bar, Jua – “hit me” in Thai, as the corner shop was an illegal gambling den in a past life – where you might take a tequila shot with your sashimi before heading to cocktail bar Tropic City in the same soi. Cross the canal to Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem for mouthwatering southern (aka spicy) Thai food at Charmgang. A cluster of once abandoned shophouses in Soi Nana nearby is now home to cool, compact venues such as gin bar Teens of Thailand and Tep Bar, where herb-infused Thai whiskey shots are said to arouse sexual desire. Kanvela House, a historic building along the northern shore of the same canal in Bangkok Old Town, is now the cafe (by day) and fabulous jazz club (by night) Buddha & Pals. If mornings are more your thing, take a longtail boat to Natura Cafe and the otherworldly Poomjai Garden in the placid backwaters of Chom Thong.

Nurturing the city’s budding creative scene is not without its challenges, although Thailand’s first national portrait prize was a recent breakthrough. “I long had the ambition to establish a national portrait competition for Thailand and was thrilled when River City agreed to host and sponsor it,” says Robinson. “Portraiture is a great way of recording history and modern-day culture, providing insight into the psyche of a country at a particular point in time.” A haunting picture of a 74-year-old woman who became a sex worker to feed herself during the pandemic, Khun Yai Buaphan by Manop Momin, took home the THB500,000 prize.

Further fuelling the river’s art-centric spirit is Four Seasons Art Space by MOCA Bangkok –  MOCA being a private museum owned by telecommunications tycoon and collector Boonchai Bencharongkul. “Many of the artists exhibited at MOCA were disciples of Professor Silpa Bhirasi, the Italian-born Thai sculptor, who was one of the most influential figures on the Thai art scene back in the 1930s and established Silpakorn University of Arts,” says MOCA’s director, Kit Bencharongkul. The museum contains 800 pieces in its permanent collection, spread over five floors, while temporary exhibition halls rotate work every month to support both established and emerging artists.

The Art Space, a collaboration between the museum and the new Four Seasons at Chao Phraya River, showcases contemporary Thai art across different audiences, such as the current group show of local street artists, appearing as if transplanted from the tattooed walls of the Creative District and Talad Noi. “The Bangkok art scene has really blossomed over the past few years and is now more vibrant than ever,” says Bencharongkul. “It’s fun to watch and be a part of the art community, not just in Bangkok but across Thailand.”

Protecting the historic districts along the Chao Phraya is more precarious. I heard, for example, a terrifying rumour of a plan to line both banks of the river with a three-lane expressway. “It was taken extremely seriously by many parts of business and society, and sparked a major campaign and the threat of litigation,” says Robinson. “Luckily the pushback was successful and the project has been shelved, for how long no one can say.” Likewise, improving the ecology of the river remains a monumental task, although electric ferries have been introduced and on his first day the new Bangkok governor met with groups focused on cleaning the khlongs. The Chao Phraya remains defiant, with catfish, enormous monitor lizards and white storks perched on buoyant clumps of water hyacinth as reminders that this is still a natural habitat.

“There must be balance: development that is too slow will fail to attract attention and interest, while change that is too fast and superficial is not sustainable,” says Robinson. “Covid took the wind from the sails but Thais have great perseverance, ambition and creativity, and things are slowly but surely coming back to life. I believe the next big opportunity in Thailand will be wellness. The country is already one of the leading medical tourism destinations in the world, with state-of-the- art facilities, world-class medical services, renowned hospitality, and some of the best places in the world to recuperate, recharge and relax.”

Photography by Chris Schalkx, Jason Mowen and courtesy of The Siam, Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, Capella Bangkok and Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok at Chao Phraya River.

From a story originally published in WISH. 

Bangkok River of Kings