Oct 31 2012
A reaction, perhaps, to Thailand‘s push for modernisation over the past 60 years, many previously neglected historic neighbourhoods across the country have evolved of late into artsy “old towns” that celebrate rather than reject their heritage. The eastern Thai city of Rayong is often written off by foreign travellers as an uninspiring stop on the way to Ko Samet, but this mid-sized provincial capital’s oldest road — Yomchinda — is home to one of the more intriguing of these revitalised old towns.
In the days when virtually all long-distance transport was done by boat, Yomchinda would have been home to a small but bustling village beside the Rayong River, where travellers and traders would have stopped to rest and replenish. When boats were replaced by vehicles in the 20th century, people and freight began to pass through Rayong via Sukhumvit Road (the same one that runs through southwestern Bangkok). The once busy Yomchinda became little more than a line of forgotten old buildings.
New life has since been breathed into the old neighbourhood, and it’s now home to several antique gallery cafes that seem to be in an ongoing competition to see which has the largest collection of vintage artifacts. Tattered dolls and rotary telephones join protective amulets and faded portraits of past Thai kings on the shelves of one shop, while another displays torn World War II-era Thai naval flags and galvanised farm equipment from the 19th century.
One of the neighbourhood’s more unique establishments is an independent theatre that shows vintage films each week. It was closed when we visited, but we found its bright red and yellow exterior and old movie posters to be spectacle enough.
Architecture enthusiasts will be taken with the neighbourhood’s Sino-European-style buildings, most of which hail from the reign of King Rama V in the late 19th century. Some have been gracefully restored while others still crumble, exposed hundred year-old bricks surfacing from gaps in the weathered yellow walls.
Modest lifestyles unfold within Yomchinda’s historic buildings, evidenced by carefully placed red silk lanterns, potted plants and functioning post boxes that look to be as old as the walls they’re attached to.
One area where Thailand has never forgotten its heritage is food, and an array of classic eats are served along Yomchinda. During our visit, one cafe known for its sweet and flaky roti was overflowing with giggly uniformed kids after a day of school, while a noodle soup kitchen seemed a popular haunt among the area’s senior citizens.
Our favourite was a streetside spread of fish and chilli paste, run by a woman who prepares fresh catches from the nearby gulf in the large hooded grill that fronts her open-air shophouse. “There’s only one way to cook fresh fish,” she advised, “and that’s on a grill.” Between bites of grilled veggies dipped in homemade shrimp paste, we weren’t arguing.
Although Rayong’s old town offers visitors the chance to take a step back in time, it isn’t without a touch of modern colour. Several unpretentious art galleries — many of which double as cafes — feature modern works of art that compliment the neighbourhood’s old-school air. Attractive one-of-a-kind pieces by local artists can be purchased here for what an impersonal department store print would cost in the West.
Yomchinda Road is located to the north of Rayong town, just south of Rayong hospital and less than a kilometre from the bus station (see map). While we wouldn’t head all the way here from Bangkok just to visit the old town, it’s well worth losing an hour or two en route to Ko Samet, Chanthaburi, Ko Chang and/or the southern border crossing into Cambodia.
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