A stroll along the river uncovers charm and history nearly obscured by high-rise hotels
In 19th century Bangkok, when trade between Siam and the outside world grew precipitously, most imports and exports came and left by ship from a cluster of moorings at Bang Rak. Originally settled by Indian immigrants in the 1860s, the area attracted hotels, trading companies, embassies, warehouses, and several key government offices, including the original Central Post Office and Customs House—both now defunct—simply for the convenience of docking ships.
Nowadays, ocean-going freighters dock at Khlong Toey, well south of here, but The Oriental, a modest hotel built in 1876 to accommodate ship crews, has expanded and upgraded over the years to become today’s Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, one of the world’s most esteemed lodgings. It has been joined by two other posh hostelries in the neighbourhood—the Shangri-la Bangkok and, just across the river, The Peninsula Bangkok.
The presence of these grand dames, along with luxury boutiques, antique shops, restaurants, and galleries targeting the well-heeled guests, tends to obscure the history and local charm of Bang Rak. But take a stroll from Saphan Taksin BTS station north, along sois leading to the river from Charoen Krung Road, and you’ll re-discover at least some of Bang Rak’s original nature.
Coming from the westernmost exits of Saphan Taksin BTS (or from Saphan Taksin Pier), walk away from the river and take the first left, a back lane which leads to the Shangri-La Bangkok. On the way, you’ll pass the back end of bustling Bang Rak Market on the right (open morning to night), a reliable stopover for cheap Thai eats, and at night for cold beer and snacks.
Further along on the right you’ll come to diminutive Ban Ou Mosque. Built by Javanese Muslim immigrants in the 19th century, it’s the oldest registered mosque in Thailand. Nowadays the congregation includes many other nationalities, and every Friday morning a cluster of food vendors offer tasty halal dishes hailing from several different ethnic origins.
Continue past the Shangri-La on your right until the soi ends at Charoen Krung Soi 42/1, more commonly known as Soi Wat Suan Phlu. A jog to the right along this soi takes you to Wat Suan Phlu, one of the most charming smaller monasteries in Bangkok. All buildings except the ordination chapel are built of either teak or Asian rosewood, including the two-story, yellow-and-maroon monks’ quarters—a splendid example of Bangkok’s post-colonial tropical architecture—which features lacy gingerbread trim under the eaves and ventilator panels carved in floral patterns over the doors.
Back in the other direction, past Wat Suan Phlu, make a left to reach the main soi leading to the legendary Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. The original Victorian-style structure, now called the Authors’ Wing in reference to the many celebrated authors who lodged here in the 19th and early 20th centuries, underwent a $14 million facelift last year, so it’s well worth a visit if you haven’t been in a while. The wing’s Authors’ Lounge, open to the public, has expanded to include four separate rooms containing historical exhibits dedicated to Noël Coward, James Michener, Somerset Maugham, and Joseph Conrad.
Walk back along the soi away from the river and turn left to arrive at Charoen Krung Soi 36, re-christened Rue de Brest in 2013 in honor of Brest, the French port city where Siamese emissaries arrived in 1686 to visit King Louis XIV. At the river end of the soi is the majestic colonial-style French ambassador’s residence, originally built around 1830. Entry is by invitation only, except for the third Sunday in September every year, when the grounds and some rooms are open to the public.
Just around the corner from the ambassador’s residence, heading along the river, is the aforementioned former Customs House, a set of three grand neo-Palladian buildings built in 1888 to collect import and export duties on all goods coming in or out of Siam by ship. Joachim Grassi (1837-1904), the first Italian architect to work for the Siamese crown, designed the edifice (considered one his finest achievements). Its patina of advanced decay makes it a favorite location for fashion photographers. It also famously appears in several scenes in Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai’s film In the Mood for Love.
Back up the soi towards Charoen Krung Road is the alley entrance to Haroon Mosque, one of city’s oldest places of Muslim worship. It is also the heart of a spirited neighborhood of more than 500 residents, most of whose forebearers immigrated to the city from Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. A one-story wooden mosque established here in 1828 was replaced by a larger brick building in 1934. Some of the wood salvaged from the old building was used in the construction of a second story, which today is the most beautiful section of the mosque with its arched windows topped with delicately carved ventilators. As with the aforementioned Ban Ou Mosque, the best time visit the neighborhood is on Friday, when vendors fill the adjacent alleyways from early morning till early afternoon, offering everything from rich Muslim curries to rose-scented rice pudding.
If you haven’t eaten by this point, stop at Home Cuisine Islamic Restaurant, located between the French ambassador’s residence and Haroon mosque. It serves some of the best khao mok kai—a Thai-Indian biryani of spice-infused rice baked with chicken, beef, or mutton—in Bangkok.