06 Nov Charoen Krung, a River of Creation
Charoen Krung, a River of Creation
Catherine Vanesse & Christophe Chommeloux
6 November 2018
The Bangkok Art Biennale will invite itself in several locations along the Chao Phraya, historic and religious monuments associated with the birth of the capital city. Far from a static area, historic neighborhood is now one of the city’s trendiest and most creative ones.
Strolling down Charoen Krung is like taking a trip through time: in a cheerful jumble of shophouses, ruined buildings, and luxury hotels, between temples, churches and mosques, visitors are invited to try Chinese, Indian, and Thai Street food or have a drink at sunset overlooking the majestic Chao Phraya.
Parallel to the river, the street stretches nearly 9 km, from the historic Rattanakosin neighborhood, where you can find the Great Palace and Wat Pho, until it crosses Rama III Road at Bang Kho Laem, passing through Little India, Chinatown, the European residences of Silom, and the Sathorn business district.
A Neighborhood with many Influences
With the fall of Ayutthaya, the court retreated to Thonburi and founded the new capital of the kingdom in 1768, before moving to the other side of the river in 1782, the official date of the founding of Bangkok by Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty.
At the time, the Chinese community had already long settled in, helping to build the capital at Thonburi, then moving to the current location of Chinatown. Commercial trade had prospered here since the 15th century and was facilitated even more after the signing of the Treaty of Bowring in 1855. More and more Westerners came to settle near the diplomatic missions and embassies of Portugal and France, which are still present today. Growing weary of not being able to get around on horseback, they asked King Mongkut (Rama IV) to build a true road, since until then, paved roads could only be found in the Palace. Construction of the future Charoen Krung road began in 1862 and ended in 1864.
The street, which can be translated to “Street of the Prosperous City,” thus became the first modern road in the capital. It would also be the site of the first tram line in 1888. Initially drawn by horses, it would become electric in 1894, before finally being removed in 1963. While the capital continued to sprawl, thereby displacing its center of business, Charoen Krung Street has somewhat fallen into decline. Building the Skytrain network with a stop at Saphan Taksin in the 1990s encouraged investors to start building once again, but the economic crisis of 1997 postponed the opening of the BTS to 1999.
As testimony to the optimism of the time being struck down in mid-flight, the Sathorn Unique Tower, or “Ghost Tower,” was left abandoned for 15 years. It is too fragile to restore and too expensive to demolish, so it still towers above Taksin Bridge. A bit farther down, on the corner of Silom, the State Tower opened in 2001, with similar architecture symbolizing luxury and the city’s expansion upward with its 263 meters, offering a striking contrast to the ruins of the Ghost Tower.
Hip & Cool
Nowadays, the district is considered to be one of the city’s artistic and creative centers and is now a top spot for cultural tourism.
“Look how well cultural tourism works in Europe! If you look at Paris, contemporary art has just as an important place there as its historic monuments. If you come here, to the banks of the river, you’ll discover all these communities: the old Chinatown, Noi market, Kudee Jin, with art at every street corner, in public space, with what the Bukruk Festival has done, for example, as well as countless galleries,” says David Robinson from Bangkok River, an organization that greatly participated in organizing Bukruk and gathers initiatives around the Creative District.
Another proof of this was the installation in May 2017 of the TCDC (Thailand Creative and Design Center) in the imposing former Grand Postal Building, a historic monument that has long been very popular with visitors.
Built in 1940 by architects Miw Jitrasen Aphaiwong and Phrasarot Ratnanimman using perfect proportions, it blends Art Deco and Italian-German, almost Soviet-style architecture. Now as the largest resource center for art and design with more than 7,000 books, it regularly puts on exhibitions, conferences, and events. The terrace on the fifth floor also offers a gorgeous view over the city.
Moving northward from the TCDC, between Charoen Krung soi 32 and 30, the architect, entrepreneur, urban activist and founder of The Jam Factory, Duangrit Bunnag has transformed an abandoned ammunition storehouse from the Second World War into a new creative complex: Warehouse 30, which brings together a restaurant, café, vintage shop, exhibition space, documentary projections, and the first workshop of Duangrit Bunnag’s very own fashion brand Lonely Two-Legged Creatures.
Just opposite is the P. Tendercool Gallery with artisans known for their exquisite wooden tables and furniture. Belgian couple Peter Compernol and Stephanie Grusenmeyer were the first ones to open a gallery in the Creative District. “We opened the first gallery in 2006, at the current location of Speedy Grandma. At the time, they were just three abandoned shophouses, which we converted before moving in in 2011, at soi 30,” explains Stephanie.
Bangkok’s old-timers say that the district really started booming in 2012 with the creation of Speedy Grandma, then of the Soul Bar and Teens of Thailand (soi Nana). But the first gallery opened in 2006, followed in 2009 and 2010 by Serindia Gallery and ATTA Gallery, which are across from each other now in OP Garden (soi 36).
Across the street at soi 45, two new galleries sprang up last year, both focusing on contemporary art. Although they are neighbors, they form a harmonious contrast, with, on the one hand, the new incarnation of the Paris-born Galerie Adler run by Sandrine Remy, and on the other, Maison Close, a unique hybrid location with a tattoo parlor, a collection of Thai pornographic magazines from the ’60s and ’70s, film projections, photo exhibitions, and bondage performances. Former member of hardcore band Kickback, the owner Stephen Bessac doesn’t stop at just promoting erotic art, but tries to offer a space where every form of art can be expressed. Without a doubt, this is the most underground gallery in Charoen Krung.
In 2016, the Bukruk urban arts festival brought to the district a set of painted wall murals, which together form a path themselves. These include the monumental work by Dutch artist Daan Botlek at the foot of Saphan Taksin BTS station with murals by Thai graffiti artists Alex Face, Lolay, BonusTMC, and French artist Thibaud Tchertchian at soi 32, from the monochromatic art by Italian duo Sten & Lex at soi 30 to Charoen Krung soi 28, where the walls have been completely covered by Thai artist MueBon, Romanian artist Saddo, and Korean artist Daehyun Kim. Between these two sites, Portuguese artist Vhils has also created a mural carved out in 2017 on the wall of the Embassy of Portugal.
A short walk farther on, with its very modern style, River City has since 1985 been one of the largest centers where you can find antiques from Southeast Asia. The current renovations underway on the second floor have started to create a space completely dedicated to contemporary art and photography, with exhibitions including works by Sanitas Pradittasnee, the artist and landscape architect in charge of an installation at Wat Arun for the Bangkok Art Biennale.
Crossing over Phradung Kasem canal, Talad Noi invites visitors to discover a true open-air museum, where rusty mechanic parts are piled in front of old wooden houses, where hulls of cars have waited since time immemorial to disintegrate alongside traditional Hokkien houses. To access this little historic space and before you get lost in the numerous alleyways, take Wanit 2 and San Chao Rong Kueak to discover Talad Noi Wall Art.
Actually, just about anywhere here in what could be considered as the non-touristy side of Chinatown, far from the hustle and bustle of Yaowarat, several murals have been painted on the walls, some of which are childish, and others show the neighborhood’s Chinese heritage and even scenes from daily life. To visit a traditional Hokkien house, go and enjoy an iced coffee at So Heng Tai. At over 200 years old, the building is one of the last ones of this style left in Bangkok. Built out of teak wood, it is comprised of four buildings surrounding a courtyard, where you can find a pool and take diving courses!
Leaving Chinatown, take Song Wat Street. Unlike the smaller works at Soi Wanit, two of the largest works of street art done for the Bukruk Festival overlook the river: the bicycles by Spanish artist Aryz, and the elephants by Belgian artist Roa.
To finish up, you really need to pass through Soi Nana. For several years, this street has become one of the top meeting spots for Bangkok’s young hipster crowd, with the trendy bars Teens Of Thailand and Tep Bar, as well as the galleries Cho Why, Banana Press, and Pattani Studio. Don’t miss out on getting lost in the narrow alleyways, and even though they may seem a bit dodgy at night, go ahead and sit and have a coffee during the daytime to appreciate the deliciously old-fashioned charm here that gives the district its characteristic appeal.