Thailand's oldest road
Published/Last edited or updated: 7th September, 2017
From the Grand Palace to Little India and Chinatown, through the old European quarter and on to the beginnings of Bangkok’s modern business district, a stroll down Charoen Krung Road touches nearly all of the historical-cultural threads that weave this fascinating city together. It’s also a feast for the senses.
Granting the wishes of Europeans who longed for a place to ride their horses, the road was built by order of King Rama IV in 1861 and roughly follows the path of the Chao Phraya River. It was the first proper road to appear back when canals and muddy paths tied the city together. Initially (and occasionally still) called New Road, the 8.5-kilometre-long avenue became Thanon Charoen Krung, or Road of the Prosperous City.
Beginning where Charoen Krung emerges from the back side of Wat Pho, we’re first captured by the tranquility of Saranrom Park, where Thai kings greeted foreign dignitaries in the 19th century. Continuing east, we pass dozens of men repairing old TVs and stereos in Baan Mor, a village within a city that specialised in machine parts before switching to electronics.
Next comes Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre at the corner of Tri Phet Road. Commissioned by King Rama VII in the 1930s as one of the city’s first cinemas, it was a modern marvel of the era. Today a khon dance troupe draws crowds seeking a glimpse of what entertainment in Thailand was like before Hollywood had its way.
A 100-metre side track to the southwest brings us to Pahurat Road, the backbone of Bangkok’s Little India. While the local Sikh community has never been as large as its Chinese counterpart down the road, immigrants from the subcontinent have long played a role in shaping the city. This legacy can be experienced today by wandering through the bright Indian textile shops and perhaps grabbing a streetside Indian meal.
Back on Charoen Krung, we cross the Ong Ang Canal and have little choice but to join a stream of people funnelling into Khlong Thom electronics market. After finding our way through the blinking, ticking and flashing maze, we cross over to Thieves Market on Soi 10, where robbers once sold their bounties. Today it’s the place to browse musical instruments from East and West.
Now in Chinatown proper, we duck past the four heavenly kings that guard the entrance to Wat Leng Noei Yi, the most prominent Chinese temple in Bangkok. From here we continue east to check out the paper offerings used for traditional Chinese funerals, crafted in the century-old shophouses of Charoen Chai down Soi 23.
Crossing to the south side of Charoen Krung, we manoeuvre around bushels of tea and hanging fish heads in Talad Mai, which unexpectedly leads to Leng Buai Ia, said to be the oldest Chinese shrine in Thailand. When the cramped quarters start to overwhelm, we spot a single unoccupied table in a hole-in-the-wall shop, and in a flash, stacks of dim sum and steamed buns are at our fingertips.
Squeezing our way back to Charoen Krung, we soak in the scents wafting from traditional Chinese bakeries, medicine shops and rice noodles frying in woks with a clap of flames. We follow a queue of grannies to a stall dishing out lod chong (grass jelly) mixed with icy coconut milk, an antidote for the heat. Chinese calendars, statuary, amulets and weaponry lure us into antique shops as incense smoke coils from shrines along the footpath.
Chinese immigrants built most of Charoen Krung’s rundown but still functioning shophouses more than a century ago to serve as homes and headquarters for family businesses. Keeping legacies in tact, third- or fourth-generation descendants of the founders continue to sell Chinese coffins, herbs, textiles, hardware, tea, incense and an enormous variety of food. Sadly displacing whole communities, dozens of heritage houses were destroyed in 2012 to make way for a subway line that will eventually run beneath part of Charoen Krung.
A stone’s throw further south we find two important religious images. First comes the five-and-a-half-ton solid gold Buddha of Wat Traimit, discovered after a coating of plaster was mistakenly cracked open in 1955. The second is Chao Mae Kuan Im, an elegant 12th-century depiction of the goddess of compassion that was smuggled to Thailand during China’s Cultural Revolution.
The chaos of Chinatown fades as we wade into Talad Noi, where rusty used car parts and shipping chains pile up in front of charming wooden shophouses. In recent years, small art galleries like Speedy Grandma and Soy Sauce Factory, and hostels such as Oldtown, have revitalised this historic neighbourhood. Socially sustainable businesses like these help to honour, rather than overpower, their community.
Crossing the Phadung Kasem Canal into Bang Rak (“Village of Love”). A wander towards the river on Soi 32 takes us to a string of warehouses built by Japanese military to store munitions during World War II. Here we find Fifty Years Gallery , one of the best of the many antique art galleries found in the area.
Back on Charoen Krung proper, we stand staring at the brutalist architectural style of the immense Grand Postal Building, commissioned by Thailand's first military dictator in the mid 20th century. While it still contains a small post office, much of the giant rectangle now hosts a cool hub for designers: TCDC. A quick jump across the road followed by a stroll down Soi 43 takes us to the Bangkokian Museum, where the quaint feel of early 20th century Bangkok has been preserved in a pair of heritage houses.
Now firmly in the old European quarter, we picture the well-heeled Westerners who once galloped their horses along the New Road. Charoen Krung takes on a more upmarket feel thanks to five-star hotels like the Mandarin Oriental, where Graham Greene and Noel Coward once mused to the Chao Phraya view. You can follow in their footsteps with afternoon tea at the Authors Lounge.
Down nearby Soi 40, we take a seat in the Romanesque Assumption Cathedral, the heart of Thailand’s Catholic community. Other architectural relics include the original French and Portuguese embassies and the East Asiatic Building that once served as headquarters for this powerful Danish freight company.
In our opinion, no structure is more captivating on this walk than the old Customs House at the end of Soi 36. With faded mortar walls, woodcarvings clinging to broken windows and a venerable clock that no longer ticks, the building sits by the river like an untouched tribute to a bygone era — or the ideal setting for a horror movie.
This same area has also hosted a Muslim community for centuries, evidenced most visibly by Haroon Mosque and the nearby Home Cuisine, among other Muslim-Thai eateries. The eclectic slice of Charoen Krung also includes an unusual white-and-blue Buddhist ordination hall at Wat Suan Phlu along with several churches, Chinese shrines and the city’s best-known Hindu temple on nearby Silom Road.
Continuing south into one of Charoen Krung’s busiest stretches, we find more old shophouses dwarfed by Lebua Tower and other colossal buildings of the Sathorn business district. Even with loads of upscale restaurants and chain cafes found nearby, the area bursts with street food.
With a skytrain station and riverboat pier to our right and upcale Sathorn Road shooting off to the left, we find ourselves beneath Saphan Taksin Bridge. At nearby Wat Yannawa, we climb on a quirky 19th-century building that resembles a Chinese trading junk. Across the street looms the Sathorn Unique, a high-rise luxury apartment building that became a ghost tower after the Thai baht crashed during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
South of here, Charoen Krung mellows out once more and remains quiet—at least by Bangkok standards—over its last few kilometres. Plenty more old shophouses line the road, including some that crumble as the roots of banyan trees snake inside. Before heading back to the skytrain, we take a sobering stroll through the old Protestant Cemetery and watch the sun sink below the river from Bangkok’s longest boardwalk, at the Asiatique night bazaar near Soi 74.
Cruising back towards the sleek malls and hotels of central Bangkok, we reflect on how a long-since defunct street car line that began running on Charoen Krung back in 1894 must have been met with the same sort of excitement that surrounded the opening of the skytrain just over a century later. A lot has changed in 150 years, but the same momentum that brought Charoen Krung into existence keeps right on driving the Thai capital towards a familiar idea: prosperity.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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