Phraeng Phuthon Square

An historic delight

What we say: 4 stars

The Grand Palace and Wat Pho are indeed awe-inspiring, but nearby, a hidden-away little neighbourhood can also captivate imaginations. Located in the heart of the Rattanakosin historic district, Phraeng Phuthon Square embodies the more modest side of old Bangkok.

Secrets are meant to be shared.

Secrets are meant to be shared.

Part of an impressive turn of the 20th century architectural campaign by King Rama V that still makes up the face of old Bangkok, Phraeng Phuthon’s quiet streets are lined with attractive two-storey colonial European-style shophouses. Immediately after they were built, the Crown Property Bureau began cheaply renting them to locals, including a number of ethnic Chinese immigrants.

More than a century later, little has changed. Local businesses run out of open-fronted ground floors have, in some cases, been in operation for four generations. The locals take pride in their neighbourhood, keeping it clean while filling it with potted plants, Thai flags and artistic touches that come together in charming dishevelment.

Before the renovations.

Before the restorations …

In recent times, the authorities made a very wise decision to restore the aging shophouses and officially declare them protected heritage buildings. Unlike many Chinatown residents who rent similar dwellings, the people of Phraeng Phuthon can take comfort in knowing that their homes will not be replaced by a new condo or subway line. The houses were tastefully touched up with cream-coloured paint punctuated by teal and deep blue-green on original wooden shutters.

... And after.

… and after.

Aside from the 100 or so shophouses, two other buildings of note are found in Phraeng Phuthon. Once a 19th century prince’s palace, the first (pictured above right) has served as Sukhuman Health Centre for upwards of a century. The second — on neighbouring Phraeng Nara — is Talaphat Suksa Schoolhouse. This long-abandoned school could probably use some of the restoration love, but its delicate wood carvings, faded olive green paint and classy French veranda make it as photogenic as ever.

It might be better if they left the old schoolhouse as it is.

It might be better if they left the old schoolhouse as it is.

In one corner of Phraeng Phuthon, a local man has run a classic car workshop for decades. The many projects that he leaves sitting on the street — including an early ’60s Peugeot and ’30s gangster-style Ford last we looked — add to the overall ‘back-in-time’ quality of the place.

Okee Moke.

Okee Moke.

Towards the corner of Tanao, Shikanchaa Cafe serves bitter kopi balanced by sweetened condensed milk in a hall decorated with vintage coffee grinders, old teddy bears and a scruffy but live, not stuffed, toy poodle. Across the street, a few women have sat and sold what we’ve found to be Bangkok’s sweetest and most reasonably-priced mangoes in front of a string of temple supply shops for three decades.

Don't miss the mango ladies.

Don’t miss the mango ladies.

Closer to Bamrung Muang, Arun in Bangkok Art Gallery also serves coffee along with thoughtful rotating art exhibitions that often capture the rustic beauty of traditional Thai life. A few doors down, hole-in-the-wall Nuttaporn has conjured Bangkok’s best ice cream from fresh young coconuts for almost as long as ice cream has been known to Thailand.

The secret is in the coconuts.

The secret is in the coconuts.

Street cart highlights include hand-crafted pork balls (look chin muu), homemade khanom beuang (sweets that look like little tacos) and to-die-for egg noodle soup with crab (ba-mii puu), which is only served after dark at the corner of Phraeng Phuthon and Tanao. A few restaurants also serve fantastic central Thai curries or Chinese-style sauteed veggies and roast duck in their tiny four-table dining rooms.

You'll also find these guys (khanom kai hong).

You’ll also find these guys (khanom kai hong).

Phraeng Phuthon is also now a part of Bangkok’s art renaissance thanks to an annual arts and crafts festival. On this colourful mid December night, the neighbourhood is awash with street performers, handmade lanterns, dozens of crafts tables and some very animated puppets. On any night, the long-running secondhand market just across Khlong Lort offers a chance to score one-of-a-kind works of art — or used socks for 1 baht a piece.

They put on a great festival.

They put on a great festival.

While Phraeng Phuthon won’t knock your socks off in the way that, for example, Wat Pho’s giant reclining Buddha will, it’s the sort of place that gradually works its magic. If you take the time to stroll around, take some pictures, sample the food and be seduced by the laidback air, we think you’ll find that it offers the best of everyday Bangkok in one endearing package.

Taxi drivers hardly ever know it by name, but Phraeng Phuthon and neighbouring Phraeng Nara sit in a central old city location. The neighbourhood is flanked by Bamrung Muang, Tanao and Atsadang roads, as well as Khlong Lort canal. Wat Ratchabophit is a short walk south and the Grand Palace is no more than a kilometre to the west. It takes around 15 minutes to walk here from either Khao San Road or Tha Chang express boat pier. If you fancy staying in this area, nearby Feung Nakhon Balcony is an excellent choice.

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Flanked by Bamrung Muang, Tanao and Atsadang Rds, as well as Khlong Lort canal
How to get there: Taxi drivers hardly ever know it by name, but Phraeng Phuthon and neighbouring Phraeng Nara sit in a central old city location. The neighbourhood is flanked by Bamrung Muang, Tanao and Atsadang roads, as well as Khlong Lort canal. Wat Ratchabophit is a short walk south and the Grand Palace is no more than a kilometre to the west. It takes around 15 minutes to walk here from either Khao San Road or Tha Chang express boat pier. If you fancy staying in this area, nearby Feung Nakhon Balcony is an excellent choice.
Last updated: 15th May, 2014

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Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.

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