Exploring Bangkok’s Old Town
Bangkok continues to grow by leaps and bounds, with many neighborhoods becoming less recognizable by the day. Some see it as progress and inevitable, but many of us longtime residents still love the Bangkok of old, and there’s nowhere better to still find this than in the area of Sanam Luang, around the magnificent Grand Palace, Thailand’s top place of worship, along with nearby Wat Pho. It only takes wandering around to some of the side streets some five to 10 minutes’ walk away to discover the most alluring parts of the area known as Old Town.
If you head east from the Grand Palace across the Atsadang Canal, you will come to a small tucked away square called Phraeng Phuton, which remains one of my most favorite places in the city. The charming square, well off the tourist route, is far more reminiscent of an Italian piazza than anything in Southeast Asia.
The square, which features a park and health clinic set in the middle of it, is surrounded by European neo-classical shophouses, built by King Rama V in the early 1900s, and today they are immaculately cared for, and gaily painted in bright colors. The square sees little traffic, locals sit outside and talk to one another, watching the world go by, and Phraeng Phuton is famed for its hole in the wall restaurants, many of which just serve one dish, which they have been doing for several generations.
There is an ice cream shop here, Nuttaporn, which has been churning out some of Bangkok’s best home-made ice cream for over 75 years now, specializing in coconut and also mango flavors, with the mango being made from the prized maha chanok mangoes. You’ll pay a fraction of what you’d have to shell out for Ben & Jerry’s or the latest gourmet ice cream at Siam Paragon, and the surroundings are far better to boot, although you most certainly won’t be getting air-con.
Speaking of mangoes, you’ll find Kor Panich, an 80-year old establishment noted for dishing up some of Bangkok’s tastiest khao niaow mamuang, mangoes and sticky rice, just around the corner. The renowned one-dish eatery is noted for strict adherence to its premium ingredients. In addition to the top notch mangoes, they only use fine sugar from Kanchanaburi province and coconuts from Chumphon province.
Other options in Phraeng Phuton include Samong Moo Thai Tham, noted as being the best pig’s brain noodle soup in town, and despite its nondescript appearance regularly receiving Thai celebrity chef visits as well as being the recipient of a Shell Chuan Chim gastronomy award, and Krua Som Hom, run by an elderly cook who whips up delicacies like pla tod samoon prai, made of fried fish pieces smothered in fried galangal, Thai basil, and peppercorns, and phla goong, fresh shrimp showered in a sauce of tamarind paste, lime, and herbs.
Should you get the urge to stay in this atmospheric spot, The Bhuthorn is a stylish and intimate B&B housed in a 1906 colonial home that is registered with the Fine Arts Department, which has been refurbished by the two architect owners and lets you appreciate all of Phraeng Phuton like a local. Handmade floral motif floor tiles, maintained metal balusters, and gingerbread eaves are just some of the painstakingly worked features here in this ode to the past.
Perhaps the best place to eat in this area is also one of the oldest. Head over to Dinso Road and join the queues of families, older women with bouffant hairdos, and foodies all making a beeline for Krua Apsorn, an old-school restaurant that serves some of the city’s best royal Thai cuisine and traditional comfort food. The crab dishes here are hands down the best you will find anywhere, and if you look around the restaurant, you’ll see that every single diner has a plate of poo pad phong garee (crab with yellow curry) on the table, along with a crab stuffed omelet.
Old Town is not a place for bar crawls. The entire area pretty much shuts down at night, and you’ll need to head over to the river to find some evening places to chill or enjoy sundowners. However this is a great spot for day jaunts, and if you get thirsty, there are some very cute little cafes to get out of the heat into. The Old Town Café heads the list, with red brick and antique decor, plus a selection of travel magazines to settle down with. There is also the Café Velodome over on the west side of Sanam Luang, a hub for the cycling community, where you can get an espresso affogato (espresso shot with a scoop of ice cream) if you need a pick up buzz.
If you are after some real retro, head for Kopi Hya Tai Kee, a Chinese-style cafe that has been here since 1952 and is crowded daily with gossiping regulars who sit at the marble-top round tables surrounded by old grandfather clocks drinking cafe boran (traditional Thai coffee made with lots of sweet condensed milk). If you simply must have a strong drink while in this neighborhood, newcomer Ku Bar is a hidden speakeasy located just north of Democracy Monument along the Khlong Banglamphu canal. The mixologist owner here used to make drinks in New York at the famed Angel’s Share.
Old Town is far more about the sights than it is about the trends. For sunset or blue hour, bring your camera to either Democracy Monument or the Giant Swing (Sao Chingcha). Both spots are quite magical as the day fades to dusk, the sky colors glow, and the lights come on. For a birds-eye view of it all, head up the Golden Mount (Wat Saket).
Few people know this, but during the early 1800s, Bangkok was decimated by a cholera outbreak, with over 30,000 residents dying. At that time, it was forbidden to cremate the dead inside the city walls, and Wat Saket housed the only gate through which corpses could be transported. Thousands of dead bodies littered the hillside, and it became an open food court for vultures. There are still vulture statues at the Golden Mount kept as a reminder of the days of old.
Fortunately, most of the memories of the days of old in and around Old Town are far less macabre than this, and the area remains the city’s best place to walk, get lost, and explore, feasting on great traditional food and forgetting, at least for a few hours, about all the condos, malls, and trendy spots which seem a million miles away from here.
Café Velodome: 2 Phra Chan Alley, Tel. 02 623 6340
Kopi Hya Tai Kee: 37 Soi Samranrat, Tel. 02 621 0828
Kor Panich: 431-3 Tanao Road, Tel. 02 221 3554
Krua Apsorn: 169 Dinso Road, Tel. 02 685 4531
Krua Som Hom: 81 Phraeng Phuton, Tel. 02 622 1279
Ku Bar: 3rd Fl. 469 Phra Sumen, Tel. 02 067 6731
Nuttaporn: 94 Phraeng Phuton, Tel. 02 222 2686
Old Town Café: 130/12 Fuengnakorn Road, Tel. 081 810 8456
Samong Moo Thai Tham: 28/1 Phraeng Phuton, Tel. 02 221 7612
The Bhuthorn: 96-98 Phraeng Phuton, Tel. 02 622 2270