A history-filled stroll in and around Asiatique
Anyone who resides in Bangkok probably knows about Asiatique the Riverfront, one of the most successful entertainment, dining, and shopping districts in the city. However, the shopping complex and its surrounding area is also one of the most historic places along the Chao Phraya River, as it used to be—for centuries, in fact—the main trading port of the Siamese capital.
They are two ways to go to Asiatique: using the free shuttle boat departing from the Saphan Thaksin bridge, or by bus, car, motorcycle, or foot along Charoen Krung Road. Although the boat is a fast, convenient, and comfortable way to reach the area quickly, walking along the road—a mere 20 to 30 minutes from the Saphan Taksin BTS station—will give you more of an insight into the area, and allow you to discover many interesting attractions.
The part of Charoen Krung Road beside Saphan Thaksin bridge used to be in the vicinity of Bangkok’s first international port, and so most of these activities were consequently linked to trading. There are still docks and warehouses along the road here—interrupted only by the silhouette of temples—as well as rows of Chinese shophouses that were hives of activity a hundred years ago. Among the best-preserved row of houses is the one at the corner of Chan Road and Charoen Krung. These properties retain the typical architectural characteristics of the houses of that time, with Italian design influences visible in the pediments over the windows, and some sculptures over the main door. Some have recently been repainted in bright colours, as they have been turned into trendy eateries or bars.
A few metres away from Saphan Thaksin BTS station stands Wat Yannawa, one of the oldest temples along the river—constructed during the reign of Rama III. Inside the temple compound there is a vessel-like structure which is actually a pagoda that was ordered built by the King to recall the memory of Chinese junks trading with Siam and bringing Chinese workers to Thailand 160 years ago. Behind the junk-style ubosot is a more traditional temple with beautiful carved doors decorated with ornate paintings.
Another notable temple is Wat Ratchasingkorn. The traditional Chao Praya Express commuter boat can take you to this pier, just north of Asiatique, providing an opportunity to explore the area, but with less walking. Have a look at the carved windows of the temple, as well as the pediment decorating the roof with multi-coloured ceramics in the typical Rama IV style.
After the temple, pay a visit to the Protestant Cemetery. Located on Charoen Krung Soi 72, this is the oldest European cemetery in Bangkok and a true open-air history book. The land was donated in 1853 by King Rama IV to foreign residents who asked to be granted a location for their deceased loved ones to rest eternally. This serene spot is worth visiting today, and there are some 1,800 graves. Most are very simple, in the form of obelisks, or bearing only the shape of a cross—in the pure protestant tradition of modesty. A few are, however, adorned with columns, statues of angels, and cherubins. The most spectacular is the mausoleum built in neo-gothic style for Henry Alabaster, British Consular Official and also a private adviser to King Rama V. The mausoleum was executed following orders of King Rama V with this inscription: “In recognition of faithful service”. Another important grave is that of Admiral John Bush, the King’s harbour master, styled in the shape of an obelisk.
Walking between graves, other names linked to the architecture and history of Bangkok and Siam appear: John Clunis, the architect of the iconic Chakri Maha Prasat Hall inside the Grand Palace, and Carl Sandrezcki, the architect who built the Borom Phiman Mansion also located inside the Grand Palace.
The first Presbyterian priests are also buried here, and are neighbours to Danish, Dutch, German, and/or British naval officers, traders, Chinese Christians, Jewish personalities, and consular representatives. It demonstrates how Bangkok has been a cosmopolitan city as far back as the middle of the 19th century. Today, the cemetery is still taken care of by the British Consulate.
Finally, we come to Asiatique the Riverfront. Although often packed with tourists, it still retains a bit of old world charm and can give visitors some idea of the pioneer spirit of traders a hundred years ago. Panels provide explanations about historical buildings to discover, and tell how the port used to belong to Denmark’s East Asiatic Company (hence the name it bears today).
Nowadays, shoppers stroll along a boardwalk that was once lined with warehouses and some beautiful European style mansions—which accommodated the headquarters of foreign trading companies. One of these mansions still stands, although it is empty. Built in 1912, the delicate structure is waiting for a restoration, although some believe that the lack of restoration is due to the fact that the house might be haunted. At least it offers a sharp contrast to the brightly-lit, thoroughly modern Mekhong Ferris Wheel.
At one time this port was home to the largest warehouse in Siam, where teak lumbers were stored, awaiting to be put on ships sailing to Europe by what was then the first modern crane in the Kingdom. Many of the original warehouses have been preserved, and are now filled with restaurants and shops, while others have been added in similar vintage style, giving a certain unity to the area.
INFORMATION: Asiatique is open everyday from 4pm to midnight. The Protestant Cemetery is next to Pier S3 at Wat Ratchasingkorn, and is open everyday until 6pm.
Words and photos by Luc Citrinot