Bangkok's oldest street reinvents itself - now it's the hippest place to be

The Chao Phraya river runs alongside Charoenkrung, arguably Bangkok’s hippest neighbourhood, a key feature of which is the new Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok at Chao Phraya River.
PHOTO: Four Seasons

Bangkok's oldest paved road runs through what has become arguably the Thai capital's hippest neighbourhood, thanks to regeneration efforts that were accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic.

The paving of Charoenkrung Road, along the east bank of the Chao Phraya river, was ordered by King Mongkut (Rama IV) and began in 1861.

For years, the neighbourhood attracted people newly arrived in Bangkok, but many of its homes and stores had become run down by the turn of this century.

In a process that began in earnest in 2016, dilapidated shophouses have been reborn as boho chic lifestyle spaces, cafes and bars, and hotels are bringing tourists into an area that is finding new life by leveraging its well-established, if confusing, history.

"It's only recently that Charoenkrung is being recognised as a district of historical importance, but there aren't many clear records so everyone has their own version," says Shane Suvikapakornkul.

He runs The Kolophon, a library-cum-research centre within Central: The Original Store, one of the new businesses to have set up in the district.

"The history here is as haphazard as the development and architecture – neighbourhoods, shops and spaces intersecting [with] one another. Nothing is clear or clear-cut."

As well as the five-storey, multi-concept Central: The Original Store, other attractions to have sprung up in Charoenkrung in the past couple of years include the similarly diverse Charoen 43 Art & Eatery, which occupies 10 whitewashed old shophouses, and Hong Sieng Kong, a cafe whose courtyard opens onto the Chao Phraya.

Leading the revival on this stretch of the river – where the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok opened as The Oriental Hotel in 1876 – is the 299-room Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok at Chao Phraya River.

Pools at the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok. The hotel opened in Dec 2020.
PHOTO: Four Seasons

The hotel opened in Dec 2020 and is the jewel in the crown of the Chao Phraya Estate, a three billion baht (S$116 million), 5.75-hectare (14-acre) Country Group Developments project that also includes the 101-room Capella hotel and the world's largest Four Seasons Private Residences property.

That the Four Seasons brand chose this location, and that the Country Group invested five years in a complicated acquisition from the 300 or so stakeholders who laid claim to plots of what had been a fish market, speaks to the potential of this waterfront area and the Charoenkrung streets to the immediate north.

Central: The Original Store is, among other things, a homage to Thailand's largest retail group, Central, which started in 1950 on the same site. Both are owned by the Chirathivat family.

The Siwilai Sound Club credits Charoenkrung as being the birthplace of jazz bars in Bangkok.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

The new "store" opened at the end of 2020 and houses a bookshop, the Siwilai Cafe, Thai restaurant Aksorn and The Kolophon.

Although the original, 1900s building had been demolished by the '60s, most of the replacement '70s structure has been retained, and enhanced with the use of traditional terracotta - a throwback to the original store's frontage.

Exhibition space on the first floor tells Central's story with the aid of English-language magazines from the 1950s to the '70s, of which the retailer was once an importer.

It also celebrates Charoenkrung's status as Bangkok's first commercial and residential street. The Siwilai Sound Club – a bar spread over two floors of the building – credits Charoenkrung as being the birthplace of jazz bars in Bangkok.

C43: Fashion and Inspiration Space is a vintage clothing boutique that hosts artists-in-residence and art workshops. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

A three-minute walk away is Charoenkrung Soi 32, home to Charoen 43 Art & Eatery. It is made up of 10 shophouses that have been transformed into a cafe, a bakery, a jazz bar, a vinyl record store and outlets such as C43: Fashion and Inspiration Space. The last is a vintage clothing boutique that hosts artists-in-residence and art workshops.

Also in Charoen 43 is the restaurant Small Dinner Plates, which has dishes made with unusual Thai ingredients on its menu.

Among the other property owners who have sought to take advantage as Charoenkrung gentrifies are the Sae-be family.

Dechar Sae-be has renovated six adjoining shophouses that are between 150 and 200 years old and a 10-minute walk from Charoenkrung Road. With exposed rafters, bare brickwork and the roots of centuries-old trees wrapped around crumbling walls, threatening to cleave them apart, the cluster is an Instagrammer's dream.

The paint may be peeling and the roots of trees are threatening to tear apart the walls, but one of the most Instagram-friendly spots in Bangkok lies within these grounds.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Behind this facade of decay is the fruit of Dechar's labours: the Hong Sieng Kong cafe. Despite Covid-19 restrictions, the renovation of the 2,000 square feet (186 square-metre) space was completed within a year and the two-storey cafe opened in April 2021.

A 150-year-old staircase of golden Burmese teakwood has pride of place.

The cafe menu is modern, but although the butterfly-tea sorbet, Talad Noi coffee (a mixture of orange juice, soda water and espresso) and Thai fusion food on offer are pleasing, the crowd-pullers are the interiors furnished with antiques and the views over the Chao Phraya river.

Dechar says his father had been keen to turn his properties into a cafe and gallery and that, in the months before his recent death, he would spend hours gazing happily from the newly opened business, surveying the mix of old and new buildings that flank the river.

Hong Sieng Kong opened in April 2021.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

About 3km downriver, water features have been installed inside and out at the Four Seasons in tribute to the Chao Phraya's status as Bangkok's lifeblood.

These pools and other features reflect the movement of the river, while high ceilings and glass walls amplify the space.

The hotel's bars and restaurants give a nod to the nationalities that settled in Bangkok in the past and visit in the present.

One-Michelin-star Yu Ting Yuan, for instance, serves Cantonese fare, and Brasserie Palmier turns out French classics light enough to be enjoyed in the tropics.

In an area gaining attention for its bar scene – first came TEP bar, which uses traditional Thai medicine in its concoctions, then Tropic City, which placed 17th in this year's Asia's 50 Best Bars rankings – the Four Seasons' BKK Social Club, which came 10th on the same list, has been drawing crowds.

They arrive to find rich velvets inspired by the art nouveau in Buenos Aires.

The Four Seasons’ BKK Social Club came 10th in this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Bars rankings.
PHOTO: Four Seasons

Along with the regeneration of its buildings has come the growth of street art in Charoenkrung.

This began with the staging of the Bukruk Street Art Festival (named after a three-eyed child in a rabbit suit made famous by Thai street artist Alex Face) in 2016.

In 2017, Portuguese artist Vhils was commissioned to depict the friendship between Thailand and Portugal on the walls of the Portuguese embassy just off Charoenkrung Road.

Now there's also an Alex Face Bukrak mural near Charoenkrung Soi 32 and a painting of the Chinese God of Fortune by another Thai artist, Taeogawa, next to a shrine near the Hong Sieng Kong cafe.

An Alex Face Bukrak mural near Charoenkrung Soi 32.
PHOTO: Instagram/Alexfacebkk

The relocation of the Thailand Creative and Design Centre to Charoenkrung in 2017 cemented the area's status as an arts hub, and the Four Seasons has plugged into that reputation by partnering with the Museum of Contemporary Art Bangkok to present Art Space, a part of the hotel that hosts exhibitions by Thai artists.

It may have a haphazard history and its development may be chaotic, but the first road in Charoenkrung is once again being paved with riches.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.