B angkok neighbourhoods that maintain a sense of history and local character have become painfully scarce in the 21st century. Nang Loeng, which occupies a large truncated grid of lanes between Nakhon Sawan Road to the northwest, Krung Kasem Road to the northeast and Phaniang Road to southwest, is one of these rare places.
The community’s name is derived from loeng, a Mon word for large clay water jars that Mon immigrants from Ratchaburi province brought to sell along the banks of the Phadung Krung Kasem canal beginning in the mid-19th century. Originally nicknamed E Loeng, a derogatory epithet that Bangkok Thais applied to the migrant female jar vendors, the district replaced “E” with “Nang,” a more polite honorific.
A notice from the Royal Privy Purse Department engraved in stone and dated 1887 can still be seen in the back corner of Nang Loeng market. Admonishing market-goers to ensure receipts bear the department seal, the plaque’s message appears in Thai, Chinese, and English, testament to the neighbourhood’s cultural diversity at the time.
The perimeter of the neighbourhood is lined with dignified two-story shophouses with plastered brick walls and classic 19th-century colonial embellishments. Meanwhile, the web of interior lanes is studded with more humble wooden architecture, revealing a class divisionbetween Chinese merchants on the outside and Thai craftsmen and produce peddlers on the inside.
A few streets away, well-endowed villas were built during the reign of King Chulalongkorn for wealthy Thai nobility. One of the more well-known nobles living in Nang Loeng was Khet Udomsak, Prince of Chumphon, who founded the Thai navy before passing way in 1923. A shrine to the prince inside Nang Loeng Market still receives daily offerings of flowers, and each year on December 19 the local community celebrates his birthday with parades and musical performances.
Legendary Thai actor Mitr Chaibancha, who appeared in more than 300 Thai films between the 1950s and 1970s, lived in Nang Loeng with his parents and attended school here from 1942 to 1954. Following his tragic death, pre-cremation rituals at local Wat Sunthon Thammathan (Wat Khae Nang Loeng) attracted 100,000 fans.
Mitr’s movies no doubt saw many screenings at the Sala Chaloem Thani, a huge, barn-like wooden structure adjacent to the market. According to Philip Jablon, creator of the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project, this is the oldest standing theatre in all of Thailand. Also known as Nang Loeng Cinema, the theatre opened its doors in 1918 and closed in 1993. During the cinema’s early years, silent films were accompanied by a live brass band.
Today the imposing wooden cinema stands empty, yet still carries a majestic presence despite its decaying condition. The Crown Property Bureau, which owns the land upon which Nang Loeng is built, announced a few years ago that it would renovate the theatre for conversion to a museum, but so far there has been no activity in that direction. A very unattractive ceramic-tile courtyard in front of the building blocks the view of the old box office and poster walls, but the upper story, including the original cinema sign, is still clearly visible.
Much livelier is Nang Loeng Market, filled with merchants purveying cooked foods and, to a lesser extent, fresh produce. Several vendors specialize in traditional Thai sweets made with rice flour, coconut, palm sugar, and fruits, delicacies which would have been very popular among the Bangkok wealthy in the early 20th century. Khao chae, a labour-intensive dish in which rice is soaked in water scented with jasmine and a fragrant cooking candle, and then eaten with an assortment of savoury sides, is available here year round. Elsewhere in Thailand, it’s typically only made in the hot season.
Narrow lanes adjacent to the market contain sit-down eateries serving traditional Thai and Chinese fare. The most famous, Khao Kaeng Rattana, is a classic rice-andcurry shop operated by a family whose forebears cooked for the royal palace. Must-try dishes include kaeng kati sai bua (lotus stems in coconut cream), phat fak thong (Thai pumpkin stir-fried with eggs), and kaeng khiaw waan (green curry, here prepared with coconut shoots). Also delicious is pla kraphong neung manao, fresh whole sea bass steamed with lime juice and a generous helping of chopped chilies. Nearby Sor Roong Roj serves tasty roasted and stewed duck with noodles or rice. Most sitdown shops are open from 10am to 2pm, while market vendors open earlier and close later.
Beyond the market grazing and building-spotting, Nang Loeng is Bangkok’s last stand for Lakhon Chatri, a highly developed Thai dance-drama tradition that originated in Nakhon Si Thammarat. Several experts in Thai traditional dance believe Lakhon Chatri may be the oldest existing form of Thai traditional performing arts and possibly the prototype for all Thai dance-drama.
The Thai word lakhon means “dramatic performance” while the translation of chatri is a bit trickier. Some think the word might be a Siamese corruption of the Sanskrit word kshatriya, meaning “king,” since the costumes and storylines favour royal themes.
Lakhon Chatri enjoyed widespread popularity in southern Thailand before it was introduced to Bangkok in the mid-18th century. Original troupes featured an all-male cast who performed shirtless. In later years in central Thailand, female performers came to dominate, adding blouses to the costumes.
Nang Loeng is the home of Bangkok’s last living master of Lakhon Chatri, Khru Kanya “Ja” Tippayosot, whose family moved to the city from Nakhon Si Thammarat 150 years ago to perform and teach. Her mother performed chatri in Phnom Penh for the court of Cambodian monarch Sisowath Monivong (reg 1927- 1941), the only Thai dancer ever to be offered this honour. The lithe, 70-year-old dancer is the only person alive who can play every role in Lakhon Chatri, leading a troupe that resides in Nang Loeng but still performs on request around Bangkok and beyond. The only Chatri teacher in the city, she trains children in the community as well as occasional foreign visitors.
To find out when Khru Ja’s Chatri troupe is performing next, or to commission a performance, contact her through tenkinramkin.com or call 08 5133 4724.