THE OTHER SIDE OF BANGKOK
Look beyond popular haunts to escape the Thai capital’s crowds
Last year, Bangkok attracted a whopping 21.5 million visitors, making it the world’s most popular travel destination, according to an annual ranking by Mastercard. But with so many visitors, it can pay to dig beneath the surface. Here’s our top pick of things to see on the other side of Bangkok.
THONBURI – THE FIRST CAPITAL OF BANGKOK
“On this side of the river you get the best views of Bangkok because there are no other buildings around us,” says Christian Hoechtl, general manager of Avani Riverside Hotel, a new cutting-edge hotel set in a skyscraper in Thonburi – the land on the east side of the Chao Praya River.
“And because Thonburi is where Bangkok was founded, it has many secrets.”
To help uncover some of those secrets, I call an expert, Chin of Chili Paste Tour, a former schoolteacher who takes food and history tours in Thonburi. My day with Chin kicks off with a boat ride across the Chao Pray River. Instead of hitting Wat Arun the Temple of Dawn, one of the most photographed sites in Thailand, we visit nearby Wat Rakhang, the Temple of Bells – a place few foreigners know of.
A symphony of bells greets visitors at Wat Rakhang; they are rung by devotees to bring them luck in business.
Inside the complex is a 250-year-old teak house housing the library of King Taksin, the monarch who moved the Thai capital to Thonburi after the old capital Ayathua was sacked by the Burmese in 1767. The library’s walls are covered in frescoes depicting life in Ayathua: ancient arts such as noodle making, copper bowl making and puppetry that are still practised in Thonburi.
And Chin knows exactly where to find them, including a hole-in-thewall that makes one of Bangkok’s best duck-noodle soups. “Thonburi still feels old,” Chin says over lunch. “Even this food, duck noodles, it was a speciality of King Taksin’s people.”
BANG KRACHAO – THE GREEN LUNG OF BANGKOK
Also on the other side of the Chao Praya River but south of Thonburi is Bang Krachao, an artificial island that Thailand’s late King Bhumibol turned into a park in the 1960s to give Bangkokians a place to get away from the big smoke.
Bang Krachao is huge – 16sq km. The smartest way to see it is on two wheels with The Other Side of Bangkok, a tour company formed last year to show tourists unique places they can’t easily find by themselves.
To ensure I don’t get lost, The Other Side sends a driver to pick me up from my hotel and take me to Bangkok Port, 10km south of the CBD, where I rendezvous with company owner Peach. From there, a longtail boat whisks us across the Chao Praya River to a rickety wooden jetty on the eastern shore.
The reward is a sudden slice of rural Thailand – a quiet calm place with bamboo shacks, crumbling old temples and raised walkways that snake through mangrove forests and fruit plantations.
“This land is farmed communally by the local villagers and they make special sweets and iced teas with them at the local market that we’ll visit for lunch,” says Peach.
“There’s one ice tea called Bael fruit you have to try.”
PRA ARTHIT RD – BANGKOK’S RIVIERA
A short stroll from Khao San Rd, Bangkok’s famous backpacker district, is the bohemian riverside district of Pra Arthit Rd.
If you’re not staying on Koh San Rd, the quickest, cheapest and most scenic way to get there from just about anywhere in Bangkok is on the Chao Phraya River Express Boat.
BECAUSE THONBURI IS WHERE BANGKOK WAS FOUNDED, IT HAS MANY SECRETS
Jump on at Sathorn (Central), Chinatown or the Grand Palace, and jump off at Phra Arthit, pier No. 13.
The first thing that’ll catch your eye on Phra Arthit Rd is a large white conical castle that wouldn’t look out of place in Game of Thrones.
It’s Phra Sumen fort, one of two remaining forts built in the 18th century by King Rama to protect the city from raiders. The manicured gardens surrounding the fort – Santi Chai – is one of Bangkok’s nicest parks. In the mornings you can see seniors citizens doing tai-chi, in the evenings it attracts buskers, and the weekend hippie market is crammed with art, books and fashion.
Any district in Bangkok worth its salt has its speciality food, and Phra Arthit is no exception: along the treeshaded footpath, between a row of old shopfronts reinvented as cafes, barbershops, juice bars and boutiques, is Roti Mataba. Since 1948, it has done a roaring trade selling Mataba, parcels of unleavened bread stuffed with spicy southern Thai curries said to be the ultimate fusion of Thai and Indian cuisine.
CHINATOWN – BANGKOK’S NEW COOL
“When I started working here, only Chinese tourists would come to Chinatown,” says Woralak Bangprasert, manager of Shanghai Mansion, a retro boutique hotel and spa in Bangkok’s historic Chinatown district that invokes the nostalgia of Shanghai in the 1930s. “But now tourists of many nationalities have started come here to try the food and see the old beauty.”
Directly outside the hotel’s lobby on Yaowarat St is a neon-lit street food extravaganza that would leave Chef Ramsey lost for words.
From Peking duck to fried crab and to bird’s nest soup, the colours, textures and flavours of the street food here are over the top – even for Bangkok.
From Yaowarat St head south to Kuan Yim Shrine, where an intricate red arch leads to a soulful 200-yearold Chinese temple. Across the road lies an even more impressive sight – Wat Trimit, the Temple of the Golden Buddha – a white palace home to a five-tonne solid gold Buddha statue, the largest of its kind on Earth.
Behind Wat Trimit is a maze of candy-coloured terrace buildings concealing Sio Nana (Nana Lane), a compression point of shabby chic cocktail bars spreading like the tentacles of an octopus.
The newest, Ba Hao (No. 8) is an oriental-style speak-easy named after its auspicious address.
“In Chinese, eight is a lucky number,” owner Phoom says.
Wat Trimit and the Chinatown area in Bangkok city.
Inside the Avani Riverside Attitude rooftop bar.