Worlds collide on Bangkok’s Charoenkrung Road. The first paved road in the city is today a melting pot of museums, restaurants, bars and cafes that stand side by side with decades-old family shophouses and businesses, from rice factories to jewellery dealers.
The 8.5 km road runs from Saphan Taksin to the old city centre, weaving past Bangkok’s Chinatown en route. Before all the ma-and-pa shops arrived, Charoenkrung was the first port of call for western travellers, who were met with dirt roads and potholes that blocked their horse-drawn carriages, until the entire stretch was paved at a cost of 28,038 baht in the early 1860s and soon flourished as a commercial hub.
As the new trams and ferries helped to open up other parts of the city, Charoenkrung’s popularity waned. Remnants of the old strips remained, like the Bangkokian Museum, which houses old artefacts and furnishings in a lush compound of wooden bungalows dating back to 1937.
This old-world charm first attracted Belgian designers Pieter Compernol and Stephanie Grusenmeyer of P. Tendercool to open up their showroom in the area. “Fifteen years ago we decided to move to Bangkok, specifically the oldest part near the river, which had kept a very authentic character," says Pieter.
“We loved the NY meat-packing feel of the area, rents were low and spaces huge, we thought if we’re good enough people will find us, if not, well, we’d better find another job. We never looked back." Pieter puts the road’s enduring appeal into perspective. “Charoenkrung remains a multi-faced artery along the river, where the 21st and 19th centuries play cat and mouse."
For the last 10 years, they have been producing unique, handcrafted tables in Bangkok for eager interior designers, restaurants and private buyers. They use antique and reclaimed wood to create stylish, bespoke furniture.
While the Belgian couple did witness slow changes, it wasn’t until about 2017 that the road’s creative reputation really started to awaken. Porntip “Mook" Attakanwong, the creative director of ATT19, has seen a new wave of changes partly due to her family growing up in the area.
“My parents have been in the antique business for over 40 years and we have always been in the Bangrak-Charoenkrung area since the beginning," says Mook. “ATT 19 was more of a coincidence and a fluid expansion as our third branch of my parents’ antique business, Lek Gallery. We were able to take over the space of the Arthorn Suksa School, after the headmistress approached us in hopes that the old teak wood structure would not be taken over by a big conglomerate and torn down to become a commercial building."
ATT 19 brings together the best of the creative world—art, food and fashion—in a renovated space that pays homage to its predecessor. The gallery boasts contemporary art and antiques from local emerging artists that have been carefully curated by Mook’s family.
A driving force in Charoenkrung’s rebranding has been the 2017 relocation of the Thailand Creative and Design Centre (TCDC) to Charoenkrung Road, which spearheaded its rebranding as Bangkok’s “creative district". Apisit Laistrooglai, Vice President of the Office of Knowledge Management and Development (OKMD) saw the chance to rejuvenate the area with design spaces, libraries, workshops and a multitude of resources.
Adding to the list of movers and shakers in the area is Duangrit Bunnag, who was also one of the founders of TCDC and one of Thailand’s most influential architects. His brainchild is Warehouse 30, a creative community mall, opened in 2017. The initiative is situated in a complex of World War II-era warehouse spaces that now boast hip boutiques, cafes, changing art exhibits and even a co-working space. Warehouse 30 also plays host to the annual Bangkok Design Week.
The emergence of new businesses has only helped to enliven those that existed and bolstered the now-and-then contrasts. Thai Home Industries dates back to the 1970s, when it’s then-young founder, Javid Rangthong, had the idea to make cutlery from Thai farming tools. His unfinished utensils currently sit in a collection in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and are still available for purchase at their shop, set in a vintage Thai house near the river.
Roserose, a unique fashion brand known for its bespoke bags and accessories, is also worth a visit. French owner Armelle Cohen creates products made from discarded leather and skins from brand name fashion houses.
OFF THE EATEN PATH
For gourmands and gluttons, the crème de la crème of the city’s foodie scene have set up operations here, like the newly Michelin-star crowned 80/20, which has been luring diners from all over the world with its seasonal, modern Thai tasting menus. Joe and his partner/wife Saki team up to showcase the best of Thai flavours and produce in a more refined way that lean on French techniques.
In contrast, 100 Mahaseth, led by one of Bangkok’s most respected young chefs, Chalee Kader, specializes in nose to tail, root to fruit dining while also emphasizing that eating ethically comes first. Chalee sources top quality wagyu Thai beef from Khon Kaen, uses local produce from farmer friends and showcases them in his aesthetically pleasing, mouth-watering dishes. The traditional Isaan and Northern Thai specialties like their famous Sai Oua “hot dog" have a loyal following of regulars.
Right behind them is SamRub for Thai, a semi-private, Thai omakase-style restaurant that recently re-emerged as one of the buzziest spots to check out. Prin Polsuk, ex-head chef of world-famous Nahm, offers an all Thai tasting menu focusing on ancient recipes and once-lost/now-found ingredients.
Supanniga Eating Room has had a strong following of local Thais and expats for years and just recently popped up near the Mandarin Oriental. They focus on regional Thai food and recipes passed on by the owner’s grandmother. Don’t miss the special menu with dishes like coconut curry with lotus stems and mackerel or fried rice with crab roe chili paste.
If you want to stick with the staples, walk a bit further down the road to discover Casa Sapparod, where pineapples are both mainstays and motifs, from the colourful decor to myriad menu items like the signature pineapple fried rice served in, what else, but a pineapple.
Next door is Baan Phadthai, located in a rustic shophouse. As the name suggests, they specialize in Bangkok’s legendary dish using a top-secret, 18-ingredient sauce that is then tossed through some of the best “Sen Jan" rice noodles around. The restaurant was recently awarded a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin Guide Bangkok 2019.
Just steps away is Sarnies. Hailing from Singapore, this super hip cafe located in a 150-year old shophouse specializes in all-day breakfasts and brunch. The coffee, which is sourced everywhere from Lampang to Laos and Chile to Brazil is served in tasty, innovative creations like their popular Iced Coconut Long Black and Iced Orange Mocha.
As day turns to night, the street becomes as vibrant as ever with cool bars like Tropic City, a local favourite for over two years thanks to its airy, colourful murals, and neon-doused setting. Ranked at #31 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2019, the space serves up a mix-match of tropical, Caribbean flavours from countries close to the equator, designed by head bartender Arron Grendon, who was recently awarded The Rising Star award at the prestigious Bar Awards of Asia.
Just 100 feet away from Tropic City sits Jua, a modern, laidback izakaya that focuses on classic kushiyaki (skewered meats) and fresh vegetables grilled over binchotan (Japanese charcoal). The plates are served tapas-style. Paired with handcrafted cocktails and artisanal sake, Jua is the perfect spot to start your evening adventure or wind down after a day marvelling at the contrasts and surprises in and around this road that has never hit a dead end after more than 150 years.