Take This Walking Tour Around the Historic Neighborhood of Bangkok’s First Modern Boulevard
Feb 10, 2021
“WONG KAR-WAI SHOT SEVERAL SCENES for his films In the Mood for Love and 2046 here,” says Kong Rithdee. “From time to time, I hear rumors of some big hotel group taking over the site, but so far nothing has happened for sure.”
We’re standing along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok’s historic Bangrak District admiring three neo-Palladian buildings built in 1888 by Italian architect Joachim Grassi to serve as the city’s original Customs House. The duties for all goods coming in or out of Siam by ship were paid here until a larger port opened in Khlong Toey in 1949, at which point the customs department moved and these classic edifices were turned over to employees of the local fire brigade and marine police, who now live here rent-free.
The grounds are closed to outsiders, but we’re allowed in part of the way to view the buildings’ charming patina of decay — which make it a favorite location among fashion photographers — only because the guards know Rithdee and his family.
Kong Rithdee is one of Thailand’s most famous living writers and cultural ambassadors. Rithdee’s expertise on local and regional cinema is probably unsurpassed, and he’s certainly one of Asia’s strongest minds in world cinema.
As a staff writer at the Bangkok Post from 1996 to 2018, he reviewed close to 1,000 films, and composed hundreds of columns on art, culture and politics. He’s also written for such respected film magazines as Cinema Scope, Variety, Cahiers du Cinema, and Sight and Sound. He first attended the Cannes Film Festival in 2004 and didn’t miss a year until 2020, when it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Since leaving the Post, Rithdee has been working as deputy director for the Thai Film Archive, where he’s engaged in both programming and film conservation.
Rithdee has promised me a walking tour of the neighborhood where he grew up, so we’ve met in front of his family home, the century-old two-story house in which he was born 48 years ago. The house stands alongside the leafy, park-like graveyard in front of Haroon Mosque, one of Bangkok’s oldest Muslim places of worship. Though originally established in 1828 by Javanese Muslims, over the decades the neighborhood attracted Muslim immigrant families from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Vietnam. Rithdee’s family hails from the last, and they’ve been on this site for four generations now.
Pointing to cement benches installed along paths threading between the graveyard’s tall shade trees and earthen funerary mounds, Rithdee notes, “Our neighborhood allowed kids to use this area as a kind of playground. Then there were more solemn days when someone was buried and a funeral was held.”
“Overall, the basic feeling around here hasn’t changed all that much since I was a kid,” he says, “Even though we’re hemmed in by tall buildings nowadays!”
During a quick tour of the mosque, a brick-and-plaster edifice dating to 1934, photographer Ian Taylor and I marvel at the upper-floor prayer hall, which makes beautiful use of wood salvaged from the original 19th-century Javanese structure, with its arched windows topped by delicately carved ventilators and, above that, verses from the Quran embossed onto the walls in yellow and green.
Out on Charoen Krung Soi 36, re-christened Rue de Brest in 2013 in honor of the French port city where Siamese emissaries arrived in 1686 to visit King Louis XIV, Rithdee leads us towards the river-end of the lane. We pass the majestic colonial-style French Ambassador’s Residence, originally built around 1830 and still occupied.
It’s only open to the public one weekend a year, for European Heritage Days (this year, September 18-19). In 2014, the French ambassador awarded Rithdee with the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) for his in-depth film critiques and efforts to promote cultural diversity. Not far away, we come to the lane’s piece de resistance, the aforementioned Old Customs House.
From here we stroll to busy Charoen Krung Road, often said to be Bangkok’s first paved street (actually built four years after Straight Road, now known as Rama IV, in 1861). For most of the 20th century, Charoen Krung was a shopping hub for foreign goods and vibrant center for hotels and bars — The Oriental and its Bamboo Bar, The Shangri-La, the British Dispensary, Chez Eve jazz club, Prom Photo Studio, and Central Trading Company. The latter evolved into the nationwide Central Group empire, which has recently opened Central: The Original Store in a modern building that includes a museum, library and memorabilia shop.
Many of these businesses were still around when Rithdee was growing up in Bangrak in the 1970s. He points out where the British Dispensary once occupied a wooden building that’s been replaced by a row of jewelry shops in a modern shophouse. Just past World Tailor, the most upscale haberdashery in the area, we come to the parking lot-cum-schoolyard for the red-brick Assumption Cathedral, built in 1809.
“The community here has always been a mix of different religions – Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists,” he notes. “Bangrak was easily the city’s most cosmopolitan district before Sukhumvit took off in the late 1980s and 1990s.”
Bangrak’s recently designated Charoen Krung Creative District now boasts the Thailand Creative and Design Centre in the original, Art Deco-style Central Post Office building, along with a handful of studios and art galleries in small alleys. Asked whether the designation has brought change to his neighborhood, Rithdee says. “I’m seeing a lot of new cafes, most of them opened in the last two or three years. But are creatives swarming in? I don’t see it, not so far anyway.”
Rithdee professes strong memories of Panlee Bakery, near the intersection of Charoen Krung and Silom. We pass through its vibrant red doorway for a look. Over a display of Euro-style pastries, a sign boasts “Eclairs Since 1950.”
“Back in the old days, this was the only western bakery in the neighborhood,” Rithdee says. “Panlee was highly respected for its bread, and for kids it was just about the only place you’d find fresh-baked cookies.” As we leave, a cashier mentions that Panlee only added air-conditioning (and an espresso machine) in 2008 to keep up with the times.
Further down Charoen Krung, we pass 60-year-old Jok Prince, a favorite of food bloggers for its luscious rice congee, and then dive down the adjacent alley. Rithdee’s future as a film critic may have been forged here at Prince Rama Theater. It was originally opened in 1912 as Royal Casino, where punters played games of chances while watching an all-male Chinese opera troupe. Next door were a brothel and an opium den.
The hall switched to projecting silent films when casinos were outlawed in 1917. By the time Rithdee was old enough to buy tickets, “They were screening a full roster of Hong Kong, Thai and American films here,” he says. “But shopping mall cinemas took audiences away, and by the late ’80s it was all porn.” The owners renovated and re-opened as The Prince Theatre Heritage Stay in 2018, offering guest rooms and a large restaurant-café opening onto the alley. A huge banyan tree, planted more than 80 years ago, still dominates the alley skyline.
“My aunts loved sticky rice and mango, so I came here a lot as a kid,” Rithdee says as we pass Boonsap Khun Luang (Boonsap Thai Deserts) on Charoen Krung near Robinson Department Store. Lucky kid. Since opening in the1940s, the shop has perfected a recipe of thickened coconut cream mixed with Chiang Rai sticky rice that many aficionados consider the best in town.
Before we leave Rithdee near the BTS Saphan Taksin station, I ask what he thinks about the movie business in times of corona. “It won’t be the same for a long time, I imagine,” he says. “It’s a good time for restoring and re-releasing historic films.” Very in line hopes for this neighborhood.