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Bangkok has a reputation for bright lights, gleaming high-rises and seething nightlife, but on the west side of the Chao Phraya River in Thonburi, the city’s softer, simpler and more creative side hangs loose. Embodying this better than anywhere, the canal-side community of artists at Khlong Bang Luang posseses a homegrown artistic spirit that pervades this eclectic neighbourhood.
The centrepiece of the Khlong Bang Luang community is Baan Sinlapin (Artists House), which occupies a century-old two-storey teak wood house set beside the canal and clustered around a 300-plus-year-old chedi. A relic of the Ayutthaya period that rises from Baan Sinlapan’s open-air belly, locals still place offerings before the chedi each day.
Baan Sinlapin came into existence just three years ago when prominent Bangkok-based artist and conservationist Chumphon Akhpantanond set out to turn the dilapidated but charming old structure into an artist-run cafe and performance space. Everyone from notable professional artists to teenage art students joined the handful of creative types who already lived in the neighbourhood to rally around Chumphon and transform the space into a unique centre for the arts.
Baan Sinlapin’s upstairs section typically houses casual exhibitions (usually paintings) while prints, drawings, photographs, sculpture and everything in between are scattered around the first floor in a colourful melange. Visitors can purchase postcards and T-shirts featuring locally produced works of art, or give donations in exchange for the opportunity to unleash their own creativity by painting their very own masks. Once finished, the masks can be left behind to add to the decor or taken home as a one-of-a-kind souvenir.
Yet Baan Sinlapin’s most popular artists are its resident traditional Thai shadow puppet troupe, Kum Nai Hun Lakon Lek, who act out scenes from the Ramakien every day of the week at 14:00, except on Wednesdays. Dressed in jet black costumes with expressionless masks covering their faces, performers masterfully bring their khon puppets to life in thrilling and humorous shows.
There’s no admission charge to see the puppet show, but if you don’t slip a 20 or 100 baht note in the donation box, you can expect a smack-in-the-face from Hanuman the monkey king. If you’re extra generous, the lovely Sita might blow you a kiss, and if you’re really lucky, you might even be pulled on-stage mid-show to operate Hanuman’s occasionally abandoned right arm.
Before or after the show, snatch one of the cafe’s outstanding coffees or Thai iced teas at one of the art-workshop style tables that shouldn’t fail to inspire even the most left-brain-dominant of visitors to reach for a paint brush.
Baan Sinlapin is the main draw for most visitors, but the artist community wouldn’t be what it is if not for the surrounding neighbourhood. Well preserved stilted homes more than a century old and historic but non-touristy temples join smaller art studios, vintage antique galleries, a few outstanding hole-in-the-wall noodle shops, a tiny guesthouse and several family-run cafes, convenience shops and barbers to create the area’s infectiously laid-back atmosphere.
Dangle your feet off the old wooden docks while feeding the fish, enjoy the homemade coconut ice cream sold by an old man who regularly stops by on his tiny wooden boat, or take a stroll through the narrow, leafy alleyways to the stunning but rather neglected Wat Kamphaeng.
Although Khlong Bang Luang is still a relaxed affair, it is growing in popularity. Many long-time residents have embraced their newfound tourist destination status, and some have called for a full-scale floating market to take place on weekends. Chumphon and others have cautioned residents to carefully consider the potential consequences of a hasty rush for tourism money.
Well respected in Bangkok art circles thanks to his commitment to sustainable tourism and historical preservation, Chumphon has — up until now at least — successfully guided Khlong Bang Luang to be an evolving tourism success story. Let’s hope it stays this way for a long time to come.
How to get there
The village is reachable by a foot/bicycle bridge that extends from the end of Charan Sanitwong Soi 3, about a 60 baht taxi ride from Wongwian Yai BTS (sky train) station. Ask your taxi driver to take you to charan-sanit-wong-soi-sam, and to be let off at the 7-eleven near the end of the soi. After the footbridge, turn immediately left and walk along the canal for a short distance before reaching Baan Sinlapin. Khlong Bang Luang can also be visited as part of a khlong tour.