Monday, 8 March 2010

A Walking Tour: Up Old New Road

If winter happened at all this year (it did in Chiang Mai, I know, I was there, but apparently not so much in Bangkok), it’s definitely over now, with the sun unrelenting on the glass and concrete towers, and the Emerald Buddha having been changed into its summer costume. I recently wrote about hiding from the heat, but enough about that: the pavements are still there, and as worth walking as ever. There are areas that will be more pleasant to walk in than others, though – places near the river, or shaded by big trees, or populated with cafes and other oases. So I present my first walking guide: Charoen Krung or
New Road, the oldest road in Bangkok.

A bit of history: In the nineteenth century Western residents in this city of waterways petitioned for a road, blaming their ill health on not being able to take carriage rides in the fresh air. Construction of the ‘New Road’ began under King Rama IV in 1861. The completed soil road ran along the east bank of the Chao Praya and much of its route is the same today, with its commercial and multicultural history still very visible all along it. This walk focuses on the central stretch of the road, between Saphan Taksin bridge and Chinatown – north of the area I cover here are Yaowarat and Rattanakosin, which need their own entries. It would be impossible to cover every point of interest, and as well as the places mentioned below are plenty of smaller temples and shrines, plus hotels and restaurants for every budget, vendors of all sorts, tailors, jewellers, galleries, cafés, gallery-cafés, and so forth.

Saphan Taksin is a good place to start, and can

be reached by skytrain, express boat, the 1, 15, and 75 buses or the 1256 songtaew. The area under and around the skytrain station is open and often breezy, with decent street food, a small park and a Chinese shrine. Coming up from the river or out of the station onto Charoen Krung, I turned left and went a little way down to Wat Yannawa, or 'Temple of the Junk'. This boat-shaped temple was built under Rama III when trade with China was blooming, as a monument to the Chinese junk. There are stairs inside the boat-building leading up to the 'deck' and and a cabin with statues and incense.

A more recent piece of economic history: on the other side of the road from the wat is the creepily beautiful Sathorn Unique building, a 47-storey tower half-built and abandoned in the ‘97 economic crisis. Frilly balconies, ivory-white two thirds of the way up and then unpainted weathered grey, metal rods fraying out. There are quite a few ghost constructions like this in Bangkok, slowly disintegrating. People squat inside, or visit to graffiti the walls.

Back past Saphan Taksin and you're in Bang Rak, one of the original districts Bangkok was divided into. Districts were often named after what was made or sold there. Was this literally 'Love Village', or is that a coincidence, the spelling having evolved as place names do from something different? The covered market here sells dry goods at the front, dark interior smelling of spice, then becomes a fish and meat market - not for the squeamish.

Further up the main road, straight through the Assumption College grounds, is Assumption Cathedral, a building that touches several points in Bangkok's history - commissioned by a French missionary in 1809; refurbished after damage from the Allied bombings in WWII - and a few in my own (I was in a nativity play there as a small thing). As a lapsed Catholic I have an uneasy relationship with churches, especially ones built by missionaries, but on purely architectural grounds it's gorgeous. The area around is full of flaking colonial-age grandeur; a shortcut through the car park and down an alley that could have been sliced out of Italy (complete with elevated corridor-bridge between two buildings) brings you to the Oriental hotel, established in 1876 and visited by Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham - part of the modern hotel is still called the Author's Wing, and the Author's Lounge is a veritable paradise of macaroon-coloured palm-fronded pristine indulgence where the flaneur can rest her weary feet before heading back out to the real world.

Out of the hotel and left, up the street, left again and past the O.P. shopping plaza brings you to a street of green-painted shutters and weed-sprung concrete facades, at the end of which is the Old Customs House. Designed by an Italian and built in 1890, it was known as the southern gateway to the city by foreign merchants coming upriver from the sea, who would have to stop there. It's now used by the Bang Rak fire brigade, who park their engines there, but you can still wander round and look at its crumbling elegant front, which faces the river. Back up the street there are tiny alleys leading into Haroon Village, a Muslim community with shaded streets and a small mosque. This was the first mosque I've ever visited in Bangkok where the building was divided between women and men's sections, and not realising this at first I went in through what looked like the main entrance only to be tutted at and told to go around the back. A few years ago this would have sent me off in a huff, but if urban exploration has taught me anything it's that you see and hear and learn and think a whole lot more if you stay curious and stay patient. Inside it was quite beautiful and calm, and the people there were happy to show me around.

Beyond the Haroon Village, Charoen Krung carries on past the imposing General Post Office, and you can carry on to Captain Bush Lane (named after a British ships' captain employed by the Siamese court in the nineteenth century; Bush later became an admiral and is buried in the protestant cemetery further south on Charoen Krung) and River City shopping centre, where you can embark on river tours, or take the express boat back to Saphan Taksin. Or carry on up to Chinatown, or the Rare Stone Museum, or the Bangkokian Museum (the home of a local family preserved as it was during WWII, recommended).

I found myself a pavement café with no name down a shady soi that did a very decent toastie and banana-coffee shake. I'd recommend it but, well, no name.

View A Walk up Old New Road in a larger map


  1. Hey, great site you have here! I try something a bit different over at Interesting post here, I live just up from Captain Bush lane in the Talad Noi area, and love the neighborhood. Seems we have the same penchant for exploring. :D

  2. Hi Greg, thanks for stopping by. I love the tilt-shift photography!

    I do love that there's a street called Captain Bush Lane amongst all the Thai soi and road names. The fragments of history you come across are a big part of exploring for me.

    Nice blog, too, thanks for the link :)

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  4. I finally "discovered" Haroon Village, even though it has been a short walking distance from one of my preferred hotels in Bangkok after more visits then I care to remember.

    As I wrote on Instagram, "As I walked down one alleyway I saw a lady baking outdoors. Communicating through smiles and gestures she allowed me to photograph her at work. The heat of the tiny oven was intense. Despite my basic desire to taste one of the delicious looking little cakes, I thought I had imposed too much on her generosity. "

    That is a small moment I shall treasure. Sometimes the Fortune not only smiles on us, but also showers us with such opportunities and good luck.

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