Look beyond pop­u­lar haunts to es­cape the Thai cap­i­tal’s crowds

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION | THAILAND - IAN LLOYD NEUBAUER

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.


“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.”


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.”


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.


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.


“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.

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