To mark the “Bangkok That Was: Photographs 1956-1961” exhibition by Fabrizio La Torre at the Serindia Gallery and the launch of the accompanying book, we spoke to Bangkok residents and asked them for their memories of old Bangkok and whether they could let us into any secrets, stories or hidden gems within the city. Here are their recommendations.
Managing Director, fin-fabulous is needed
Tah Din Deang Street has more or less remained the origin for the Chinese community, not only in this street but also neighbouring streets like Chiangmai Road (or Wat Tong Tammachart) and what is known as Lhong. Walk along the narrow alleys, and you’ll smell the incense burning. Chinese people have always loved to shop at markets in the morning for their fresh ingredients so you’ll find different markets all busy with women buying produce for the family dinner that evening. Markets and local groceries replace supermarkets here. You’ll also find old and authentic stationery shops and a Chinese pharmacy, which remains integral to the community. The pharmacy has this old-style front open fridge, stocked with Chinese medicinal tonics (jubliang) and cold Chrysanthemum, which is very refreshing and full of health benefits. If you’re hungry, then explore the sub Sois too, and discover hot desserts like bean custard with ginger soup and crispy Chinese doughnuts. Alternatively, how about egg noodles with fish balls or gui chai(a Chinese chive dumpling) and carrot cake? Not many people see or read the sign for “Sor Rad Na” but this second-generation restaurant is a local and chef favourite, run by two sisters, daughters of the owner. The father still cooks, and he’s easy to spot as is usually shirtless.
Director of Bangkok River Partners & Co-Founder of Creative District Foundation
The Chao Phraya River today remains the most important waterway for the people of central Thailand. The river is an important transport link for the shipping of products such as rice to Bangkok. Locals have made the banks their home since ancient times and created their livelihoods from its environment. It is no wonder that the river is regarded as the bloodline of Thai people. Today, locals living along the Chao Phraya Riverbanks maintain an authentic lifestyle, so it’s well worth exploring along the banks of the river. The river also plays an important role in Thailand’s vibrant festivals such as Loy Krathong, held every November when thanks are expressed to the goddess of water, and Songkran—the Thai New Year celebrations.
Writer & Editor
Bangkok has transformed out of all recognition into a global metropolis over the 25 years since I have begun observing it as founding editor of Bangkok’s first city magazine, Metro. Just as it had modernised from a rural backwater in the preceding quarter of a century since the era of “Bangkok That Was”. Change is constant here and notions of heritage are mostly limited to royal and religious structures, not to retain coherent everyday streetscapes that set the imagination racing. The riverside on both banks has the oldest urbanism and still offers the best evocation of the past, especially Songwad Road and Talad Noi. A district that still evokes the particular 1950s era of Fabrizio La Torre is Samsen, less in landmarks thanin its patrician old school feel. And order lunch at Khrua Apsorn to try the sort of dishes like Fabrizio would have been served.
Director of Sales and Marketing at Renaissance Bangkok Ratchaprasong Hotel
Over two million people visit Grand Palace every year but not many pay a visit to the white building next to the inner entrance. This Italianate office building had previously served as the Ministry of Finance and the Office of Royal Ceremony. It underwent top-to-bottom renovation that transformed it into a state-of-the-art building and is used as The Museum of textiles. Not many people know about the 22 year long working relationship between Her Majesty and French couturier Pierre Balmain. Her Majesty determined that she would need to use mainly Thai Silk, since it was impossible for the Queen to visit Paris in order to be fitted for her clothes. The fabric was cut and the pieces sent to Lesage to be embroidered. When they were finished, they would go back to Balmain, and they would be seamed together and fitted on Her Majesty’s dress form. That’s how Balmain was able to get her full wardrobe to Bangkok before her departure.
Managing Director, Smiling Albino
Branching north from Captain Bush Lane I love to weave through the labyrinth of Sois of Talad Noi, which is an old mercantile community at the foot of Songwat Road in Yaowarat. Between Talad Noi and Songwat Road lies a treasure trove of visualand aromatic discoveries, old world cottage industries, a mix of Thai, Chinese, European, Islamic heritage and religious shrines, and some of the more stately shophouses in old Bangkok. This is a journey back into late 19th Century Bangkok, requiring little imagination to visualise how life was, and always presenting something charming and remarkable for the multi-time visitor. Hidden gems along the way include tiny Song Serm Lane, as well as Soi Wanit 1, and the original Trok Khao San.
I like wandering back in time through the neighborhood surrounding Soi Phat Sai in Chinatown. Phat Sai is home to Bangkok’s oldest coffee shop, Eiah Sae, where the same family has been roasting and grinding its own robusta blend to brew strong Hokkien-style coffee since 1927. While sipping caffeine at one of the little tables outdoors, look back towards the Wat Sampatawong end of the soi, and imagine what it might have been like when the world’s largest opium den, HengLak Hung, stood there. When authorities finally closed it down in 1954, the denboasted 5,000 permanent boarders, and averaged another thousand opium consumers a day. Down the opposite end of the soi stands the city’s first Chao Zhou (TaeJiu) restaurant, Yim Yim, now run by the founding family’s third generation. Roasted suckling pig here is excellent, and if you’re brave, try heu sae, a Chao Zhou sashimi in sliced raw fish.
Korakot ‘Nym’ Punlopruksa
Writer & Presenter
For me, the Bangkok I grew up in consisted of small villages strung together. Each village or district had a special character that was determined by its people, their careers, specialities in food, and of course, location. There are still a few of these places left with the same atmosphere. Never feel discouraged bychange, and I suggest seeking out what’s left of the old city. As a food lover, I can tell you that there are some interesting communities where intrepid explorers can inhale the aromas and character of an old village. Nang Loeng is a community that has local food markets, narrow streets to venture through and temples to observe. Another old community called Kadee Cheen is across the river from the Flower Market. Here, there’s an old Portuguese church and a lovely cluster of Thai wooden houses still alive with activity.
Author of “22 Walks in Bangkok: Exploring the City’s Back Lanes and Byways”
I like exploring Captain Bush Lane and the nearby blocks that contain a wealth of history. This stretch of the riverbank is where Bangkok’s European community settled in the middle of the 19th century, when the signing of the Bowring Treaty in 1855 opened Siam to Western trade. Walking the streets on the riverside reveals much of the Old Bangkok that Captain Bush would have known. He would certainly have known the Portuguese Embassy, next door to the Sheraton Hotel (you can peep into the ambassador’s garden from the higher floors).