If there is one road in Bangkok that has seen more changes over the city’s history than any other, Sathorn Road might be it. It didn’t start out as a road at all, but rather Khlong Sathorn, a Chao Phraya River-linked canal constructed in the late 19th century by Luang Sathorn Rajayutka, a Chinese businessman and distant relative of HM Queen Sirikit.
Soon afterward, roads were established along either side of the canal, and the resulting thoroughfare was eventually lined with large homes built by the Siamese aristocracy, who preferred the relatively uncrowded area over Ko Ratanakosin and Chinatown.
Foreign embassies also moved into the area, creating the city’s first embassy row, an enclave which eventually extended northeastward into Withayu Road. Increasing land prices prompted many Thais to sell their family property in Sathorn, and one stately mansion after another was demolished and replaced by modern office buildings.
One of the last majestic residences still standing is Luang Sathorn’s home, which following his death became the Hotel Royale in 1911, later changed to Hotel Thailand. In 1925, King Rama VI gave the residence to Bangkok’s first governor, who later sold it back to the Crown Property. In 1948 the mansion was leased to the Soviet Union for use as their Bangkok embassy. Although the Russians let the property go in 1999, many people still refer to it ‘the Russian embassy’ rather than its official name, Luang Sathorn Mansion. It now stands empty.
Many city residents still remember Khlong Sathorn, which was finally covered over in 1979. To build parallel bridges across the river, 200 beautiful old mango and mahogany trees lining both sides of Sathorn were felled.
Around this same time international backpackers began adopting an area off Sathorn Soi 1, along Soi Si Bamphen and Soi Ngam Duphli, as their Bangkok stopover. Although Khao San Road rivalled and eventually surpassed Sathorn as a backpacker centre, at least one remnant of its glory days remains in the form of Wong’s Place, everyone’s favourite late-night louche.
More recently we’re seeing an influx of quirky, independent and very inviting standalones in the neighbourhood. Some say the aggregation of hip newcomers signals a movement away from Sukhumvit Soi, Thonglor and Ekamai, although in truth the trend in Sathorn serves a very different clientele.
Lower rents, along with the presence of fewer tourists, have been a huge draw for expats seeking alternatives to Sukhumvit. Many houses and apartments along lanes running off Sathorn Tai Rd in particular have proven popular.
Once home to Thai immigration headquarters, Soi Suan Phlu is a favoured address for its affordable apartments and Talat Suan Phlu, a charmingly self-contained neighbourhood market.
A cluster of cosy eateries along Suan Phlu Soi 8 – notably La Rucola, Nando Kitchen and Uncle John – provide quality Western fare at much lower prices than one will find along Sukhumvit.
Beginning late last year, new arrivals in Sathorn raised the ante to provide serious gourmet and entertainment alternatives in the area. Rocket Coffeebar, deep in Sathorn Soi 12 on the north side of Sathorn Rd, serves the best-tasting espresso beverages we’ve yet sampled anywhere in Bangkok, with beans supplied by artisan roasters RootsBKK.
The building occupied by Rocket also houses Lady Brett, a New York-style tavern under the direction of Chef Rene Michelena serving such sturdy fare as fire-roasted mustard chicken and braised lamb shank, with sides of baked zucchini with onion and cheddar and grilled buttered corn.
Neighbourhood bars complete the portrait. In 2012 a few art-and-music-minded Thais opened Jam on Charoen Rat Soi 1. A mini Rain Dogs, Jam focuses on indie music and film nights, plus a reliable bar serving comfort food and strong drink.
Need more evidence that Sathorn swings? Last month David Jacobson, the American who kicked off the highly successful Sukhumvit 11 club scene when he opened Q Bar in 1999, set up shop in Soi Suan Phlu. Leaving behind the posh dance club world, Jacobson and his French partner Bruno Tanquerel have established the appropriately named Smalls in a three-storey 1960s building at the corner of Suan Phlu Soi 1 that formerly housed the now-defunct Chez Pepin.
It’s decorated by artist and architect Tanquerel with a vintage furniture, custom built-ins, quirky found art, and his own sculptures and paintings. And, as at Q Bar, spirits are dispensed in stout New York-style 45-cl servings rather than the wimpy European 30-cl pour.
“Sathorn was an obvious new frontier for us, as there isn’t that much out this way, in terms of bars and restaurants,” Jacobson says. “At the same time, a lot of people live in this community.
“Why would they have to travel all the way to Thonglor or Ekamai for an evening out, if they have places to go here?”