Historically, the Chao Phraya has been the cradle of life and prosperity in Bangkok. For almost 200 years, the river has served as the country’s commercial artery. Boats haul goods from the sea, up the wide flowing water, to the towns and villages that spread out from its banks. This helps explain why the first Europeans to settle in Bangkok established themselves along the Chao Phraya.
Between 1900 and the late 1930s, Charoen Krung Road turned into the centre of European life. The area included all the symbols of modernity, such as paved roads, electricity, a public transport system, luxury Western-style hotels, hospitals, and department stores. Today, over 50 monuments and buildings here recall the influence of European heritage in the city—not to mention the glory days of the riverside. Here is a (very) small selection of emblematic buildings which tell a bit of Bangkok’s colourful history.
1 – The Protestant Cemetery
Lost in the shuffle of massive development around Asiatique, the River Front, the Protestant Cemetery houses the remains of the first foreign Protestants to arrive in the early 19th century. Concessions for the location were granted by King Rama IV in 1853. The cemetery is purely European, with angels and vestals mourning the dead and graves protected by centenarian trees. Particularly attractive is the neo-gothic memorial that King Rama V dedicated to his advisor, Henry Alabaster.
2 – Former East Asiatic Trading Company and Banque d’Indochine Headquarters
Next to the Mandarin Oriental, two bright white buildings evoke the ghost of colonial Europe. The first, built in Venetian Renaissance style, was the head office of Denmark’s East Asiatic Trading Company until 1995. Next to it was one of the first two foreign banks in Bangkok, the Banque d’Indochine, in neo-classical Palladian style. Fortunately, it was spared the fate of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation building, a Roman-style structure demolished in the late 70s to make way for a parking lot.
3 – The Customs House
Nestled next to the residence of the French ambassador, the Customs House is in many ways the most symbolic building looking over the Chao Phraya. Designed by the Austrian architect Joachim Grassi—who was more Italian than Austrian, as he was born in the vicinity of Trieste—the structure was inspired by neo-classical Palladian villas. It was where King Rama V disembarked from long-haul travels in Europe, and it was where most travellers at the turn of the century had their first contact with Bangkok. Half abandoned, the building completed in 1888 is now home to a team of firemen and their families, but there are plans to renovate the structure. Museum, hotel, art gallery? Its future remains unclear.
4 – Residence of the Portuguese Ambassador
Portugal was the first country to start a diplomatic mission in Bangkok, way back in 1820. The residence was built in Sino-Portuguese style and served as the Consulate General from 1860 to 1875. Today, it’s the official residence of the Portuguese Ambassador, and the house is only visible from the river.
5 – Holy Rosary Church
Though not the largest church in Bangkok, the Holy Rosary Church, built in 1898 in gothic style, is probably the most beautiful. The exquisite stained glass, the pastel colours of the nave, the delicate sculpted columns, and the holy wooden statue of Jesus dating back to the 16th or 17th century—only shown on special celebration days—make the church a must-visit.
6 – Memorial Bridge
The metal structure was commissioned and inaugurated by King Rama VII in 1932 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Chakri Dynasty. The 230-metre-long bridge was designed by British steel company Dorman Long, which also built the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was the last large infrastructure designed and built by Europeans in old Siam.
7 – Post and Telegraph Building
Next to Memorial Bridge, hidden by trees in a small park, the Post and Telegraph Building was Bangkok’s first postal facility, run in its early years by the British. With its long belfry, pilasters, and large windows, the building has a distinct Venetian style. It is, however, only a reproduction of the former Post Office, which was demolished in the 80s as the streets were widened.
8 – Royal Seminary, Rajini Secondary School
Visible from the river, this is one of the most exquisite baroque buildings on the Chao Phraya. It was opened in 1880 by King Rama V in memory of Queen Sunandha and her daughter who drowned in the vicinity of Bang Pa-In Palace. It stands on the grounds of one of the most prestigious schools in Bangkok.
9 – Bank of Thailand, Wang Bang Khun Phrom
Entering Wang Bang Khun Phrom is like getting transported to Vienna. There’s an abundance of painted frescoes, golden frames, and crystal chandeliers. The Italian architect Mario Tamagno was inspired by the baroque movement, whose air of opulence becomes evident upon entering the palace. Next door is Tamnak Somdej, designed by German Karl Döring in the German art nouveau style, “Jugendstil.” Built in 1913, the imposing structure is the only example of German architecture along the river today.
10 – Praya Palazzo
What today is a boutique hotel was yesterday a Thai nobleman’s mansion. Finally finished in 1923, Praya Palazzo features a grand Palladian style embellished by terraced gardens. Under threat of being demolished, the house—which had been converted into a school—was saved over a decade ago by a Thai professor who then spent years restoring the decaying structure. Praya Palazzo received its first guests in 2011 and now stands as one of Bangkok’s most romantic getaways.