Find out where Bangkok’s real heritage gems are hiding
Bangkok has hundreds of places to visit, including iconic landmark buildings, but if you, as a visitor, enjoy architecture or history, there are some heritage “diamonds” hiding in the rough.
Tourists generally visit the same places around the world. What would a trip to Paris be without a photo session in front of the Eiffel Tower? And what’s a selfie in Australia without the Sydney Opera House in the background? Bangkok also has its fair share of these must-see monuments—The Grand Palace, Wat Arun, Wat Pho, the Giant Swing, the Marble Temple—but to go beyond these popular attractions you often need to venture a few streets away from the crowds. So if Vinmanmek Mansion is overcrowded with Chinese tour groups, try these alternative icons.
By walking along the outside wall of The Grand Palace you can find several more heritage highlights, such as the Ministry of Defence, a huge yellow coloured European style building that used to serve as barracks for the Royal Guard (it’s also another Joachim Grassi design). Next to it is Saranrom Palace—another European building, this time a salmon colour—constructed by German architect Egon Müller. It used to serve as a residence for the King’s brother before being turned into the residence for members of royal families visiting Siam.
PHRA NAKHON: This district is the historic core of Bangkok, and home to many of the city’s most iconic landmarks. Chief amongst them is The Grand Palace, but while there be sure to visit Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, located within the royal palace compound. The European style structure used to be the Siam Ministry of Finance, built by Austrian-born, Italian architect Joachim Grassi. The elegant structure was carefully restored back in 2003 to accommodate the superb royal textile collection, celebrating the splendours of Thai silk and the wonderful collection of ageless, classical dresses belonging to HM Queen Sirikit. Discover some of Thailand’s most exquisite fashion pieces, and be sure to admire the building’s classical rotunda and figures over the windows.
Continuing in the direction heading away from The Grand Palace you will soon cross a canal and find yourself on Atsadang Road, home to Wat Ratchabophit, one of Bangkok’s most impressive temples—a true gem which is highlighted in many guide books but still mostly ignored by tourists. It was built in 1870, and serves not only as a temple but also as a Royal Cemetery. It’s also an amazing blending of architectural styles. The multi-coloured Thai-style Benjarong ceramics covering the outside walls of the temple stand in contrast to the temple’s Ubosot (main hall), built in Venetian neo-gothic style with dark green and gold walls and heavy crystal chandeliers. Around the temple, the various mausoleums for members of the Royal family are a succession of different styles, mixing Angkor or Sukhothai traditional architecture with Gothic or Palladian-style pavilions.
Leaving the temple by the backdoor, one can find an architectural gem of a different sort. Across the street here you’ll find a small yellow house of classical style, called 123 Baan Dee, which is probably the most charming ice cream shop in all of Bangkok. Situated in a 100-year old Thai-Chinese mansion, it is filled with antiques (most of them for sale), and serves many unusual ice cream flavours, including Chinese plum, and pineapple with chili.
In the north end of the district, past Sanam Luang (the Royal Field), lies Khaosan Road, the de rigeur pit stop for backpackers and foreign students on budget holidays. Venture beyond this non-stop party street and head towards Phra Sumen Road (via Soi Rambuttri). You will arrive to a long round-about, bordered on one side by a massive temple complex. This is Wat Bowonniwet, another amazing structure with a succession of temples, a throne hall, monks quarters, and a school.
Once more, the overall eclecticism of the style makes this a place worth visiting—the equivalent of an open-air architectural book. The 180-year old temple, with its golden chedi, is a pure example of Rama III era religious architecture, except that the columns supporting the entrance to the Ubosot strangely evoke Greek or antique Roman columns. By contrast the Throne Hall is a pure masterpiece of Art Nouveau, with Oriental-style architecture and floral motifs. The pavilion, opened in 1914, boasts expansive marble floors and a delicate wooden roof, and was reserved for (until recently) the Supreme Patriarch. Behind it are the main monk headquarters, which have similar patterns to Italian classical villas, while the former seminary (today a school) is constructed in, of all things, Gothic style!
DUSIT: The end of Rachadamnoen Nok, a tree-lined imposing avenue modelled after the Champs Elysées in Paris, is where you’ll find the majestic Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. This imposing structure of marble has been deemed as one of the most expensive buildings ever constructed by the State, as it cost over 15 million baht 100 years ago. While worth visiting, it is also victim of its success with hordes of tourists turning the place into an overcrowded experience.
A better bet is to just pass the structure, and walk through the gardens linking Ananta Samakhom to its predecessor, the Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall. Completed in 1904 by Turin-born influential architect Mario Tamagno (he was head of the Royal Department of Public Works), the Abhisek Dusit Pavilion is a gracious structure with an Orientalist flavour. While the museum inside is of mediocre interest, the architecture of the place is worth spending a bit of time observing. The classic Italian building bears Art Nouveau details along its façades, with delicate carved flowers, an intricate main door and, above all, a pre-eminent peristyle (a row of columns surrounding a space within a building) built in wood. The carvings are so delicate that they seem to be made of lace. It’s a true masterpiece of craftsmanship!
BANG RAK/YAOWARAT: The heart of Thai-Chinese authentic culture is preserved in Yaowarat (aka: Chinatown). The district also offers visitors a chance to see many historical structures, with entire street blocks that have barely changed in the last hundred years. Some of the Charoen Krung areas are still lined with old shops and minuscule European-Chinese houses, and one of the most interesting streets is Songwat Road, a long narrow street that remains a testimony to Bangkok’s early cosmopolitan life.
Located next to the warehouses of Sampheng docks, the street attracted various trading communities—Indians and Chinese—and some of the houses in the street echo Rangoon’s British-Indian architecture (particularly the building at the corner of Ratchawong and Songwat Roads). Some properties are like the shophouses of Singapore or Penang, but one not-to-be-missed building is the Luang Kocha Isahak Mosque. Built around 1895, its style evokes a neo-Palladian villa from Northern Italy. Another interesting building is Pei-ing School located just behind the Lao Pun Thao Kong Shrine. The school was opened in 1920 and became the most prestigious education facility for Thai-Chinese communities. Its imposing Western influenced façade, with majestic stairs, loggias, and galleries, emulates European boarding schools.
THONBURI: Many local Bangkokians would say that the most authentic part of the city is on the other side of the Chao Praya River, in Thonburi. And probably, the Kudi Jeen district around the Santa Cruz Church best reflects the old spirit of Siam community life. The church is a typical construction from the team of Mario Tamagno and Annibale Rigotti, constructed in neo-renaissance style. Strolling around the district is to discover Bangkok’s last truly Eurasian community.
Portuguese moved to this area following the fall of Ayutthaya at the end of the 18th century. Today some of the district’s inhabitants still have distinctive Portuguese features, while their houses are decorated with religious catholic imagery. The Baan Kudi Chin Museum was recently opened—owned by one of the last Thai-Portuguese families (17 families are recorded as “Kudi Jeen” today)—and it’s the best place to discover more about the community’s ancestral life and traditions. There’s even a small coffee shop offering some local specialty snacks and cookies.
In a way, the Thonburi area is a true blend of the cultures which have cohabited in Bangkok for centuries. The Kuan An Keng Shrine, with its beautiful murals, is one of Thailand’s oldest surviving Chinese temples, and it stands next to the impressive Wat Kalayanamit, home to Thailand’s largest sitting Buddha. The shrine also stands next to the Bang Luang Mosque, built around 1840 in the shape of a Thai temple. This trio of heritage gems is just another symbol of Bangkok’s incredible capacity for tolerance.