New ideas meet rich heritage on Bangkok’s Charoenkrung Road

Along Charoenkrung Road, Bangkok’s first paved road and home to several of the Thai capital's historic landmarks, old spaces give rise to new ideas in one of the city's few remaining heritage areas not swallowed by rapid development

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October 12, 2020
New ideas meet rich heritage on Bangkok’s Charoenkrung Road
A street scene along Charoenkrung Road. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

As the streetlight turns green, a public bus and a swarm of motorbikes whizz by, followed by a pink taxi, and then a grandma leisurely riding her bicycle with her groceries. Along the street, shophouses are open for business with the owners sitting outside, some reading newspapers, others watching crowds of students walking along the footpath as the school day ends. 

Moving down Charoenkrung, the first paved road in Bangkok, parallel to the Chao Phraya River, there‘s a blend of the old and the new that seems to defy the urban sprawl of anonymous high-rises that has grown around it in the Thai capital. An old community with a contemporary art gallery; a mix of European neo-classical architecture, shophouses, and condominiums among the array of buildings. There’s also a mix of cultures and religions: Chinese and Buddhist temples, mosques and churches. 

“It’s a rare part of Bangkok today where that interaction still exists,” Thai architect Chanin Trisuriyatumma told the Globe. “Charoenkrung has seen many waves of development, with recent being a more conservation and renovation effort – that comes with the push for a creative economy and supporting the road to becoming an attraction.”

Charoenkrung Road, with its many titles – the ‘Creative District’, simultaneously known as both Bangkok’s oldest road and the ‘New Road’ – shows how historic places can give rise to new voices and ideas, changing with the times. 

“Now titled as Bangkok’s Creative District, there is an emphasis on developing the community along Charoenkrung road to become a destination for tourists and locals by highlighting the mix of creative new businesses with pre-existing ways of life,” said Chanin.

The area’s success in cultivating this combination of old and new, however, could prove its own eventual downfall. It’s unclear how long the area can retain its charm as luxury developments spring up, capitalising on Charoenkrung’s novelty as one of the few remaining historic pockets in the fast-modernising Thai capital.

Map of Bangkok in 1903. Supplied: Chanin Trisuriyatumma

But while regeneration and gentrification may seem part of a modern trend in Charoenkrung, the neighbourhood has been fast-evolving and adaptive to the demands of the changing society around it since the road’s early pre-paved days. 

In the mid-19th century, as the road hosted a growing population of European expats plying international trade from Siam, the area became a hub for neo-classical architecture and modern infrastructure.

“In between the Chao Phraya River and the Charoenkrung Road lies important buildings at the time they were built,” Chanin said. “The Portuguese and French embassy, the Siam Commercial Bank, the Grand Postal Building and the East Asiatic Company building – all that supported Thailand’s trade and commerce.”

Then, in 1864, during the reign of King Rama IV, Charoenkrung became Bangkok’s first paved road and ran from the Grand Palace area to Chinatown. At that time, Bangkok’s economy was heavily based on water transport facilitated by canals. In light of that kind of infrastructure, Chanin said construction of the road was “quite revolutionary” and served the community of foreign traders that wanted a road for on-land transport. 

“On the map, the road’s name in English is the ‘New Road’,” Chanin said. “For Westerners, with the already established buildings along the River, the road provided another means of transport aside from the waterways, such as walking and horse-drawn carriages. The road was very modern and new and even had an electric tramway at that time.”  

Later, inspired by trips abroad, King Rama V further developed buildings along Charoenkrung as part of the vision to modernise Siam, and consequently the area boasts several Thai historic architectural monuments.

In 1883, the monarch commissioned Thailand’s first postal office, the Praisaniyakan Post Office Building, while in 1888 the Customs House was constructed on the road to collect taxes from trade as Siam shifted to a free-trade economy. Later, in 1927, the road saw the construction of the capital’s first high-rise building – a seven-storey building built by Nai Lert – and in 1950 the first branch of the Central department store, now Thailand’s largest retail conglomerate, opened in Charoenkrung. 

But beyond construction and development, it was in the late-19th century that the French Embassy on Charoenkrung would be at the heart of a nation-defining moment for Thailand.

The night before Bastille day in 1893, French naval vessels Inconstant and Comete attempted to join French gunboat Lutin, which was docked at the Embassy’s pier off the banks of Charoenkrung. In violation of the Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1856, the Siamese forbade the French boats from entering the Chao Phraya river, but a missed telegram and weather conditions conspired to bring French and Siamese forces together upstream.

The conflict escalated to be known as the Paknam Incident, part of the wider Franco-Siamese War in July 1893 that resulted in Siam ceding large portions of land to the east of the Mekong River (modern-day Laos) to the French Empire in Southeast Asia. The negotiation is remembered as a cautionary tale of compromise and sacrifice often emphasised in Thai national history showing how Siam lost territory but maintained its independence. 

First branch of the Siam Commercial Bank on Talad Noi. Photo: Wanpen Pajai
House No.1 on Charoenkrung Road. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

Today, more than 150 years after its paving, Charoenkrung Road remains bustling with life and fast-evolving. That much is highlighted with its contemporary moniker the ‘Creative District’, as developers attempt to market the area as a destination for culture, lifestyle and entertainment.  

The Talad Noi area, an old Chinese community off the Charoenkrung Road, has attracted a young crowd with hip events, cafes, and galleries. Throughout the year, the Creative Economy Agency brings together the businesses and artists in the area to bring about design weeks and exhibitions – the latest one being ‘Colors of Charoenkrung’ street murals.

As visitors take photos in the area and enjoy exhibitions on the street, they share occasional glances with the community that are going about their day, now used to this interaction of residents and newcomers.

Portrait of Charoenkrung exhibition by Metal Print Lab. Photos: Wanpen Pajai

“There are a lot of younger generations coming to sightsee and visit this area around the Sois,” said Grandma Noi, owner of a duck noodle shop in the Talad Noi area of Charoenkrung. “Old houses are interesting and worthy of a visit.” 

Known as the ‘Duck Noodle House’, the noodle shop has been in the area for more than 40 years. In front of the shop laid more than a dozen braised ducks, with the owner busy chopping away as she talked to a lottery ticket seller and a motorbike driver. The interior reflects the shop’s legacy, with photos of reviews and celebrity customers from recent decades plastered across the walls.      

She explained that her duck noodle shop used to be an opium den, but the building was transformed and divided into shophouses around 40 years ago. When asked about her thoughts on the new changes to the community and road, she quickly responded that it’s “much better”. 

“Before it was not as trendy and up to date with the times. Nowadays, the old houses have been renovated and there’s a lot of visitors,” she said. 

One of the driving forces behind the ‘creative district’ is the Thailand Creative and Design Center (TCDC), housed in the Grand Postal Office building – a heritage building constructed at the height of global fascism in 1940 that today has been partially repurposed as a design centre. 

The exterior of the Grand Postal Building. Photo: Wanpen Pajai
 Inside the building as TCDC library. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

“The Grand Postal Building is a neo-fascist architecture style. It was built when Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram was in power and was markedly different from the earlier types of architecture on the road. Phibunsongkhram was inspired by Benito Mussolini’s Italian fascism and commissioned the building’s construction,” Chanin said. 

With the rigid design and minimal details, the Grand Postal Building stood in stark contrast to Charoenkrung’s pre-existing architecture boasting elaborate roofs and ornaments, particularly that seen on the Praisaniyakan Post Office Building. 

Duck noodle shop owner Grandma Noi. Photo: Wanpen Pajai
Porntip Attakanwong, creative director of the ATT 19 gallery on Charoenkrung. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

We were always the creative district. We were the original street for art in Bangkok. We were the one-stop destination for everybody that came to visit Bangkok and wanted to buy art

From postal buildings to warehouses, today buildings scattered across Charoenkrung Road are being repurposed for new uses. Though it seems the result of a concerted contemporary effort reimagining the area’s identity as the ‘Creative District’, Porntip Attakanwong, creative director of the ATT 19 gallery on Charoenkrung, argues that this creativity has always been what the road is known for. 

“We were always the creative district. We were the original street for art in Bangkok. We were the one-stop destination for everybody that came to visit Bangkok and wanted to buy art and beautiful things, to get their suit cut in silk, to get jewelry made,” she said. 

Nestled in between shophouses, ATT 19 is hidden behind a lush entrance with clusters of ferns and bird of paradise plants. The gallery’s building is a fusion of recycled wood and elements of a Chinese temple, connected together with bare concrete and glass panels. Inside, Asian antiques blend together with Bauhaus-inspired chairs. 

The building was originally a Thai-Chinese school before Porntip’s family, already running an antique business Lek’s Gallery neighbouring the school, took over the space and developed it into a gallery, not wanting to “destroy [the space] and turn it into a high-rise”. 

“The first floor is retail – I bring the heritage of my mum and dad through the antique business. On the second floor, I give the space to people that may have not even printed their work before. We present new ideas through art on the second floor,” explained Porntip. “I think coming here, you might not expect to see both being together and it just shows that something new isn’t always good and [what is good] doesn’t always have to be new. We can always reuse and repurpose and recontextualise things.” 

ATT-19 sees itself as sitting in the past, present, and future of Charoenkrung Road simultaneously. 

“We try to merge those two worlds here so that people can understand it better. That actually you don’t have to make it all modern, maybe you can include some history of pieces that act as a conversation starter in your home as well. Not everything has to be new,” Porntip told the Globe.

 Inside the ATT 19 gallery. Photo: Wanpen Pajai
Exterior of ATT 19 gallery. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

Yet, regeneration and gentrification efforts in the area also raise concerns for Porntip about pushing out the existing community.   

“It’s always a good thing to improve the area, sometimes I have mixed feelings. Because we are very careful with what we do here to be a part of the community,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re a new business, you have to really think if you’re bringing in something that is worthwhile or if you’re bringing in more waste or trouble for people in the area. I would hate to see Charoenkrung turn into something that is gentrified.” 

In that vein, elements of wider Bangkok, home to an endless sprawl of high-rises and luxury property developments, are slowly encroaching upon Charoenkrung’s small oasis of heritage and history. The five-star Four Seasons hotel, set to open in December this year as the latest luxury hotel in the area playing on its appeal as a trendy and innovative heritage area along Bangkok’s riverside, is one such example.

“We’re at that fork where the area is being known as an ‘artist hub’ and we need people who are responsible not just here to make money because now there’s traffic,” Porntip reflected. “It’s more about etiquette. If you’re going to build a business and make money in an area where someone lives you need to be mindful of the crowd you’re bringing in.”

The luxury Four Seasons hotel (left) is set to open in December. Photo: Wanpen Pajai
Bangkok’s skyline with Charoenkrung Road. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

These concepts continue to adapt and reinvent themselves, mixing the same elements of old and new, modern and traditional, staying true to Charoenkrung’s charm since the beginning

Chao Phraya River. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

But while conversations are arising between preserving heritage and unwelcome development in the area, on this long road, once Bangkok’s first stretch of paved land, there remains space for tradition and new ideas believes Chanin. For the architect, redesigning and repurposing old spaces for new voices has been at the heart of Charoenkrung throughout history. 

“Historically, the road has been the heart of modernity in Thailand. Though most things are now labelled as heritage, it was once new and revolutionary,” said Chanin. “Today, these concepts continue to adapt and reinvent themselves, mixing the same elements of old and new, modern and traditional, staying true to Charoenkrung’s charm since the beginning.”

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