Bangrak, one of the country’s most important business and tourist centers, is also – if one looks hard enough – a place to catch a glimpse of what Bangkok was like in the past
by Michael Moore
Bangkok, as is often pointed out, is a city of contrasts. Nowhere is this more evident than in Bangrak, the area adjacent to the Chao Phraya River where Bangkok first began to assert itself as a commercial center. Although Bangrak is now a postal code area, most people mean the neighborhood wedged between the Chao Phraya River and the Rama IV and Sathorn roads when referring to it.
Perhaps the most important thoroughfare in Bangrak is Charoenkrung Road – sometimes called New Road. Paralleling the Chao Phraya River, it was built by King Rama IV in 1861 and was Bangkok’s first paved road. It quickly became a place where foreign consuls and rich businessmen paraded their horses and carriages for all to see.
Bangrak is also where sailing and steamships from all corners of the world initially docked along the banks of the Chao Phraya, connecting long-isolated Thailand with the rest of the world. And perhaps most importantly, it is where foreigners first settled, bringing with them different foods, architecture, languages, religions, and ways of looking at the world. Bangrak quickly became a mirror for the world for Thais eager to learn about the world outside of their kingdom.
Although the area is now a commercial and tourist center, if one looks carefully, remnants of the past can still be found wedged between office buildings and the massive tourist hotels. Most people start their investigations of Bangrak at the skytrain station (BTS Saphan Taksin). It is located right at the river’s edge and provides easy access to the Saphan Taksin Pier, where a variety of boats can be caught for traveling along the river (see www.chaophrayaexpressboat.com).
It is also the pier where shuttle boats – often converted rice barges – stop to take tourists to their riverside hotels. Of these hotels, the “must-see” is the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, the legendary hostelry built in 1876. An old wing of the hotel has been preserved and contains the Author’s Lounge, a capital place to enjoy tea as luminaries like W. Somerset Maugham did in the past. If you do opt to enter the Oriental, remember this is an elegant hotel so be sure you know the dress code.
There are several buildings near the Oriental that are reflective of the past. Perhaps the most interesting is the Assumption Cathedral, the main church of the Archdiocese of Bangkok. The current structure was constructed in 1909 on the grounds of what is now Assumption College, a famous school for boys that has been in existence since 1885.
Another good way to get into the heart of Bangrak is to take a boat from Saphan Taksin to either the River City Shopping Center or the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel. Nearby are the Bangkok Folk Museum and the conjoined Bangrak Museum. The latter provides an insight into what Bangrak was like and contains numerous artifacts and photographs depicting the district’s history. A short distance away is the Neilson Hays Library, with a large selection of English medium books and a never-ending series of art exhibitions.
If you are feeling peckish while in the area, visit one of the numerous Indian restaurants. Bangrak contains a large Indian community, many with roots in Bangkok extending as far back as the 19th century. There are also some fantastic Chinese restaurants that often specialize in only one or two dishes and some of the city’s best Muslim restaurants.
Perhaps the best way to explore Bangrak is on foot. To do this, take the Saphan Taksin BTS station exit that leads to Charoen Krung Road and turn left, so that you are walking along Charoenkrung toward Silom Road. The walk is interesting as the road is still a polyglot of nationalities with numerous humble, but excellent, Chinese restaurants.
At the junction of Charoenkrung and Silom, you will see the massive 68-floor State Tower Building. On top of the building are several restaurants and a bar with some of Bangkok’s most spectacular views. Although a bit pricey, a visit to the Sky Bar is always an exhilarating experience and a fabulous way to view most of Bangkok.
Once you are at the intersection, most of Bangrak’s most popular sights can be reached on foot or by a short taxi or tuk-tuk ride. Something that shouldn’t be missed is Sri Mahamariamman Temple, known as Wat Khaek in Thai. Located on the corner of Pan and Silom roads is a Dravidian-style Hindu temple built in the late 19th century by a Tamil immigrant to Thailand. The temple is not only an important shrine for Bangkok’s Tamil-Hindu community; many Thais and Chinese also view it as an important religious center.
Bangrak, the district where Bangkok first began to connect with the world outside of Thailand, is one of the country’s most important business and tourist centers. It is also, if one looks hard enough, a place to get a glimpse of what Bangkok was like in the past.