Travel/Experiences  •  Soi Stories

In with the old, in with the new

In the first episode of our Soi Stories column, Micaela Marini Higgs explores the revival of Bang Rak's Charoen Krung Road, as new businesses reinvent old structures.

September 15, 2017
Charoen Krung’s recent coolness isn’t exactly an accident. For the past two years TCDC and the Thai Health Promotion Foundation have partnered on Co-Create Charoen Krung, researching and developing ideas for how to encourage the neighborhood’s creative output.

All that deliberation culminated in the May opening of the new TCDC space inside the Grand Postal Building, refitting five floors with exhibition galleries, maker spaces, work areas, and an extensive library. With the exception of a sleek side-entrance, the outside of the building looks just as it always did.

Leaving behind Emporium and the same-sameness of Sukhumvit shopping malls for the much more interesting local flavor of Bang Rak, TCDC is only one of the area’s many newcomers transforming old buildings into new and exciting concepts. Attracted by the neighborhood, not the real estate, businesses are trying to preserve the sense of place that drew them there, making for a refreshing change from Sukhumvit, where landmarks like Hemingway’s century-old teak house in Asok are being bought by developers and replaced with construction sites.
Interior of Warehouse 30

Besides TCDC, no other newcomer has made a splash quite like Warehouse 30, the newest project from Duangrit Bunnag of Jam Factory. Composed of refurbished World War II era warehouses filled with shops, workspaces, and a café, this creative attraction also hosts lectures, yoga classes, and a documentary club. These all fit under one very large, seemingly original roof; though the buildings have received several coats of fresh paint and plenty of modern design touches, their industrial interiors preserve the original spirit of the spaces.

Nearby, in front of the Portuguese Embassy, a Vhils mural of faces and patterns carved out of a concrete wall best encapsulates what seems to be the driving ideology among the area’s newcomers: it’s much more creative, and cooler looking, to work with what you’ve got than to build something from scratch.

While these stylish backdrops have attracted young Thais in droves--visit and you’ll see impromptu photo shoots and plenty of posing--the majority of the neighborhood remains un-staged. As the old European quarter of the city, the buildings blend colonial sensibilities with Thai shop houses. On the main road surrounded by gem shops you can still find buildings from the 1920s bearing the Nana family name, and hidden down alleys there are plenty of weird architectural quirks (such as turrets) and dilapidating warehouses to discover.

Building facade in Charoenkrung
But sandwiched between the traditional shop houses selling bric-a-brac and industrial equipment, and past the old ladies seated outside who watch each pedestrian with an appraising eye, there are newer discoveries to be made. A reward for those who can wrench themselves away from the galleries and nightlife of Sukhumvit, these Bang Rak newcomers are updating old spaces while preserving the laid-back local atmosphere we love so much.
Warehouse 30 Charoen Krung Bangkok Image: Micaela Marini Higgs
Though the area south of the BTS may seem far from the rest of the area’s destinations, make sure to stop by The Bridge, a café and art space that stands in the shadow of one of Charoen Krung’s most famous buildings. As you climb the back stairs that lead to various gallery spaces, peek out one of the windows for a direct view into the Ghost Tower, a failed development project that has become a Bangkok landmark. Hosting multimedia exhibitions and contemporary artists from Thailand and abroad, as well as events like flea markets and performances, The Bridge marks an important stop on any gallery-hop.

Down Soi Charoen Krung 28 you'll find a cluster of activity surrounded by trade workshops and residential homes. Next to a traditional paper lantern maker find Speedy Grandma, one of the first newcomers to carve out a spot here in 2012. A truly experimental art space with often bizarre installations, Speedy Grandma is unlike any of the city’s other galleries. Even if you don’t always understand or totally like what you see here, their unexpected and unique exhibitions mean you keep coming back for more. With the building’s rugged interior stripped bare to create an empty canvas for each show, the entrance’s playful graffiti makes for a welcoming place to grab a few beers during openings as the crowd of art-goers spills into the street.
Little Market
Just around the corner you’ll find Western diner Little Market, the area’s best place to grab breakfast or a burger and milkshake. Updated with bright white paint and retro accents, the underlying structure of a shop house remains, making it fit in but not blend in with its comparatively monochromatic neighbors. With vivid colors, vintage décor, and a wide-open shop front, this tiny restaurant has a big presence. Take advantage of the laid-back atmosphere and enjoy a bite to eat while people watching--besides the soi’s usual activity, there’s usually a steady stream of customers visiting Black Pig Tattoo across the street.

Besides Tropic City, the much-anticipated tropical bar set to open in the area soon, another place we’re excited to try is JUA, a Japanese drinking spot from the team behind Little Market. Just next door, Jua’s soft opening is set for October 5th. Expect to find Japanese tapas-style plates and grilled skewers along with a killer drink menu that promises sake, craft beer, rare small-batch Japanese spirits, and cocktails. Set in what was once an illegal gambling house, JUA’s name comes from a blackjack reference. Though its interior has received a modern and minimalist update, there are still original touches that tip you off to the building’s age.
Tropic City
80/20 goes for a similar homey industrial vibe, with large windows onto the main road and a menu featuring modern dishes using Thai flavors. With contemporary twists on old classics, they fit right at home in this newly energized but still traditional neighborhood. They’ve received wide-spread praise for their playful takes on classic ingredients and fresh interpretations of local produce, and other other chefs around the city have suggested that they deserve a Michelin mention. 
For another great place to grab a drink, head further north along Charoen Krung towards Chinatown and stop at Soul Bar, which has become a Bangkok institution for live soul and funk music. One of the first trendy bars that set up in one of this area’s shop houses, Soul Bar helped prove that people were willing to travel for great drinks and the neighborhood’s uniquely homey atmosphere. Though it can easily get crowded and seems somewhat out of place among the shuttered local shops that close long before bar-goers arrive, Soul Bar’s popularity shows that we aren’t the only ones tired of listening to acoustic live covers of pop radio hits or of streets crowded with bar girls.

Just one block away sits another great drinking spot, the FooJohn Building. Opened earlier this year, the multi-concept bar and restaurant stands out on the quiet street at night, but during the day it blends in with its neighbors. In the evening, the entrance is bathed in neon red light. The first floor of this 1960’s space dedicated to wine and cuts of imported cheese and meat along with crepes. Upstairs you’ll find a cocktail bar and newly opened barbecue joint. Chosen for the architectural value of the building, this space visibly preserves many elements of the original structure while offering stylishly updated twists. With a range of food and drink options, it makes a great hang-out for a group of friends who can never quite agree on what they want.

While many of these businesses, thanks to the talented teams behind them, could survive in other parts of the city, their success, and what sets them apart from their countless competitors, is the unique sense of place they preserve. Drawing from the communities who live there--modern lives surrounded by old architecture and tradition--these places keep the old while innovating with the new. With room for both the locals who have called the neighborhood home for decades and the influx of trend-chasers only just now drawn to the Creative District, Bang Rak’s Charoen Krung road offers a uniquely eclectic and artistic atmosphere that is impossible to emulate.