One of my favourite ways to explore the city is to get lost on the small streets of Old Bangkok. On one of these excursions—while walking toward the community of Nang Loeng where the local food market is located—the peacefulness of a shophouse caught my attention. It was ancient, clean, quiet, and serene. I pivoted and walked inside.
The words Nam Heng Lee were written in Thai and Chinese above the doorway. It was a coffee house. But unlike so many modern day cafés, it didn’t have a coffee counter or even a coffee machine. The handsome high-ceilinged space was minimalist. A few small white marble café tables paired with bent-wood chairs against faded stucco walls.
Customers were patiently attended by two older sisters with cropped white hair. I sat at the table closest to them; better for conversation and to observe the rhythms of the place. I peeked into the back room and saw their simple coffee counter—the coffee strainers, the steam rising from the boiling hot water, the cleanliness and order—and thought to myself, “This will be good!”
I addressed my momentary thirst by ordering o-liang (black ice coffee) with a little sugar. The snacks menu was brief: only two items. I ordered both—khai louk, or poached egg, and khanom pang sangkhaya, or bread with egg custard.
One of the sisters was assembling a little wooden car. She explained that she learned woodworking from the carpenters who used to have a furniture-making studio behind this very house. Using the skills she acquired, she fixes all the old wooden chairs in the café.
Both of the sisters get up and disappear through the back door to prepare my order. One made o-liang utilizing the sock-like coffee filters that have been used for generations to make kafae boran, a traditional coffee. Her movements are precise and humble; she has clearly been doing this for many years. She then poured hot water from the same pot to poach the two eggs. Meanwhile, the other sister was preparing toast and sangkhaya.
I am taken in by the simplicity of this type of coffee shop—there are so many stories in every cup. The sisters then tell me the story of the shop itself, which was founded by their father more than 70 years ago. He was a Hainanese Chinese immigrant who saved up money until he had enough to rent this particular shophouse.
Nam Heng Lee shop embodies the legacy of the old café community where people would flock to such coffee shops, converse, and read newspapers. These days, it is not quite the same, and “to-go” orders are popular. I guess life is busier, leaving no time to sit.
My order, by the way, is delightful. I love the way they serve the poached eggs—in a glass cup with a dash of soy sauce and white pepper. The eggs are warm and have the perfect texture for me. After finishing my savoury selection, I slide to my sweet dish. Eating sankhaya is as simple as dipping the toast into the custard, but the reward is pure satisfaction. And for those who want something other than coffee, there are offerings such as Thai black tea and Thai milk tea (hot or on ice).
This neighborhood is part of the charming Old Town but has less pedestrian traffic. If you want to throw yourself into an unexpected Bangkok milieu, this café is a great starting point for wandering through the nearby small alleyways and visiting other shophouses, many of which have been converted into modern boutique businesses such as restaurants, bars, and ice cream parlours. Nam Heng Lee, however, has resisted such changes… enjoy it while you can!
ADDRESS: Nam Heng Lee is on Thanon Charkrapong, closer to the Lan Luang Junction. It’s open from 6am till 3pm. The sisters speak English well, and are knowledgeable in many topics so feel free to ask questions.