Posted inTravel

A Portrait of Old Bangkok

Photography by Charlie Colasurdo

Bangkok is a city of juxtapositions: the poorest slums of Khlong Toei slouch against angular glass-and-steel malls which jut into the sky; sweaty motorbike-riding men in white vests slither in between sleek, sleuthy ferraris; quaint barges on the Chao Phraya river inch slowly past electric speed boats which whip the still, murky water up into a frothy white foam. 

As the sun rises over the sleeping city, casting an undiscriminating amber light over its ancient temples and modern apartments, the city is both two and one. The city awakens: students and business people shuffle into trains and pile into cars; street vendors serve breakfast to hungry commuters who sit on pull out plastic chairs which spill out over the curb; and monks walk barefooted, their alms bowls full with food received.

Yet, a few kilometres away, a hectic hypermobility is in the midst of action. It’s loud on the senses: pushcarts selling glistening flowers park in their usual spots; fishmongers slap their freshly caught produce onto round metal trays; breakfast stir-fries sit in plastic bags tied taut with rubber string. Catering primarily to a crowd of homecooks, this is Trok Mor market – by 9am, most things have already been sold. 

A short walk away from the busy Trok Mor Market is Phraeng Phuthon, one of three streets which make up the Sam Phraeng neighbourhood. 

Converging on a central square of greenery, Phraeng Phuthon is characterised by the yellow and turquoise Sino-Portuguese two-storey shophouses which line its streets. Once a bustling commercial district home to members of the royal family, it is now a quaint area easily missed by those drawn to Old Bangkok’s louder attractions such as the Grand Palace.

Yet, this unassuming street is home to a number of locally loved food vendors. Stop by the 60-year-old Phraeng Phuthon Egg Noodles for a lunch of old-school handmade egg noodles; like most Thai-Chinese restaurants, the name of the restaurant indicates what is served.

Round off your meal with a scoop of homemade coconut ice cream served with roasted peanuts from Nattaporn Ice Cream, or a glass of Thai iced coffee – sweetened with condensed milk, of course – in the charming street level café of The Neighbour Boutique Hotel.

Old Bangkok is expansive, encompassing areas on both sides of the river.  At Tha Chang pier, hopping onto a cross-river ferry carries you away from Trok Mor market and Phraeng Phuthon, docking at the foodie-favourite Wang Lang market, situated on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. If you have an appetite and sufficient energy to spare, navigating this maze of a market can make for a rewarding adventure. Alternatively, follow the lunchtime crowds – they already know what’s good. 

A 10 minute tuk-tuk ride away from Wang Lang market lands you square in “Portugal”, albeit situated in Soi Kudee Jeen.  Note that Thailand was never colonised (Thais will proudly remind you of this), and these streets are a reminder of that: they were bequeathed to the Portuguese by King Rama III for their services to Thailand.

A tuk tuk parked by the road. These three-wheeled vehicles don’t have distance meters – be prepared to haggle for a price. 

Each corner of this quiet neighbourhood reveals something new. Of key interest include the Baan Kudichin Museum, a house-cum-museum dedicated to sharing the history of Siamese-Portuguese relations and the emergence of the community; Baan Sakunthong, a riverfront restaurant serving relatively unknown and rare Siamese-Portuguese dishes originating from the owner’s Thai-Portuguese great grandmother (reservations required!); and Thanusingh Bakery House, a cafe and bakery offering a Portuguese-influenced Thai duck egg cake known as khanom farang kudi-chin (literally ‘foreign kudee jeen dessert’)

Roselle tea, khanom jeen kai khua (Portuguese-style Thai curry egg noodles), and khanom farang kudi chin (Thai-Portuguese duck egg cake) at Baan Sakunthong.

As you explore the neighbourhood, you will eventually converge on the Santa Cruz Catholic Church which stands serenely in baby pink as it gazes down towards the Chao Phraya River. 

From here, a short walk along the riverside will reveal to you the Chinese Kuan An Keng shrine and the Thai Kanlayanamit Woramahawihan temple; together, they physically epitomise the religious harmony characteristic of Bangkok.

Santa Cruz Catholic Church
Kuan An Keng shrine
Kanlayanamit Woramahawihan temple

This is Old Bangkok, diverse in its cultural offerings, stories, and tastes.