Kenneth Barrett has spent two decades living in Bangkok, writing about its history and best-kept secrets and presumably acquiring enough anecdotes to fill several dinners’ worth of conversation. Still, when he set out to write about Bangkok and the best ways to experience the city on foot, he realised he had only begun to scratch the surface.
“I thought I knew Bangkok pretty well but I was overwhelmed by the little details and the stories that emerged,” he says of his research for his recently released book, 22 Walks in Bangkok. “In the 1990s, I wrote a series of columns, helping people explore the old districts. This book was informed by that – I think we all know the big setpiece landmarks but the old districts not so much.”
“When you’re talking about the history involved, though, it can become a bit of a blur if you go on about Rama one two, three and four. But if you can describe why these things happened, why certain decisions were made, then I think you start to get a bit more of a human element to it. I wanted to bring it all to life, make these districts more accessible.”
For his research, Barrett owes plenty to Bangkok’s finest libraries. Still, he insists there was no substitute for pounding the pavement.
“The research proved difficult because the information is fragmented but it’s easier these days because there are more sources generally available,” he says. “In the end it still comes down to shoe leather – I should be a lot fitter.”
As a result, Barrett unearthed several gems, all of which are included in his book. For example, the uninvited guests who made their home in Wat Liab in front of Memorial Bridge.
“Inside Wat Liab, there’s a Japanese temple,” Barrett says. “And I didn’t know this but during the final days of the Second World War it was used as a hideout by fleeing Japanese war criminals.”
For Barrett, the Thonburi side of the Chao Praya remains a treasure trove of historical curios but he also loves the energetic helter skelter of Chinatown.
“The Thonburi side is fascinating for anyone with an interest in the history of the city, that old harbour near the Santa Cruz church,” he says. “But the Thonburi side never really came alive the way the Bangkok side did. Everything began to emanate out from the Grand Palace and Chinatown.
“I divide Chinatown into three different sections because taken as one it’s a terrible sprawl. My favourite part of Chinatown is Songwat Rd because you can still see the old, working Chinatown. There’s also a mosque there which looks more like a mansion – it was built for Malay and Muslim merchants. On the fringes of Chinatown, there’s also a department store that opened in the 1960s and hasn’t changed a bit.”
There are, of course, more unsavoury sights as well. It’s not all temples and kitschy retail.
“In Chinatown, there’s a temple called Wat Kanikapon, which was built by the owner of an old brothel,” Barrett says. “Mrs Faeng had done well for herself and the tradition was that you did that, using contributions from the girls who worked for her as well.”
Given his devotion to understanding Bangkok’s past, it would be understandable if Barrett felt a sense of nostalgia for all that has faded away, replaced in the headfirst rush into modernity. Instead, Barrett marvels at Bangkok’s rapid ascent.
“In the 1980s it was quieter – it’s all happened over the past 20 years. There’s very little in my book about Sukhumvit, for example, because it was swampland, delta country,” Barrett says. “It’s all changed because of the free-booting attitude of the Thais – they’ll just go for it. The way Bangkok has emerged as a regional hub is very interesting – despite being up against places like Singapore, it’s managed to emerge as a really important point within southeast Asia.”
BARRETT’S BEST WALKS
The Road to Golden Mountain
Bamrung Muang Rd runs through the area that supplies the country’s temples (above). Shophouses line both sides, selling alms bowls, saffron robes, bells and candles. In the backstreets, you’ll find the workshops that produce all this.
The Old Harbour
Head to the Thonburi side of the Chao Praya and explore Bangkok Yai, where you’ll find remnants of the area’s original communities, including temples, shrines and mosques, as well as one of the city’s leading leather markets on Charoen Rat Rd.
The Grand Palace
After checking out the Grand Palace, cross over the green spaces of Sanam Luang to see the Front Palace, which was the residence of the deputy king and the second centre of government. Rama II used land here to breed rabbits.
Along the Riverbank
Walking along Maharat Rd, you’ll pass the headquarters of the Royal Thai army as well as the grandest shophouses in Bangkok, built in the 19th century. The area near the Siam Commercial Bank was once used for bathing the royal elephants.
The Shady Ladies of Sampeng Lane
Yaowarat may be the main thoroughfare of Chinatown but Sampeng Lane houses the district’s origins, built by merchants and craftsmen. It was once a hotbed of gambling and opium dens and became Bangkok’s first red light district.
Along the Dragon’s Back
In the newer parts of Chinatown, you’ll find the Leng Buai Yia Shrine on Yaowarat Soi 6. It’s the oldest Chinese shrine in Bangkok, predating the city itself, built in 1658, long before the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya and forced the move south.
The Hidden Island
The Chao Praya river loops round on itself just underneath Khlong Toei and the area within is known as Bang Krachao. It remains almost totally undeveloped and is a huge expanse of green space. But watch out for the mosquitos.
The Jim Thompson Legend
Return to central Bangkok to visit the Jim Thompson House in Pathum Wan. The story of Thompson – a spy-turned-silk trader who mysteriously disappeared – is already famous but the remaining weaving sheds on sois 9 and 11 are less well-known.