Bangkok rediscovers the magic of its legendary river

In the historic—and once again buzzing—riverside districts of Thailand's capital, one writer traces her family’s past.

Bangkok’s Chao Phraya flows in exaggerated loops through historic neighborhoods, past Buddhist temples, gilded palaces, and humble teak bungalows teetering on the water’s edge.

The river floats by the curled rooflines of Chinese shrines, the spires of Christian churches and mosque minarets, and shophouses that were—and still are—home to immigrant families from China, India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. They settled along its banks as early as the 19th century to trade in teak, cloth, gems, and spices.

For most people, the river’s twists and turns connect the modern Thai capital with its historical contours. For me and my immigrant family, the Chao Phraya is a link to the country I call home. Amid its riverside communities are smaller khaek neighborhoods, immigrant enclaves which get their name from the Thai word for guest or visitor. Khaek also refers to Thai Indians. That’s me. Born in a riverside neighborhood to Sikh Indian parents in 1969, I grew up in Bangkok and now live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, about 450 miles north.

Although my family left its banks in the 1970s, the river keeps luring me back. Each time I’m in Bangkok, I hop a ferry to the old amulet market at Maharaj Pier and slurp lod chong Singapore (bubble noodles in sweet coconut milk) in Ratchawong, where my family lived.

These days the riverside neighborhoods are a little timeworn, but my old stomping grounds are now being rediscovered and revived by artists and entrepreneurs. And, the Chao Phraya, always central to my story, is once again the center of Bangkok.

Immigrant enclaves on the river

Bangkok—a portmanteau of ban or bang (village) and makok (plum), the settlement’s former name—became Siam’s new capital in 1782, when King Rama I laid the foundation for the Grand Palace in a wide westward bend in the river. Modeled loosely on Ayutthaya, the kingdom’s former seat 67 miles upstream, the palace is located on a section of a wide moat that feeds into a network of canals or klongs. This earned Bangkok the nickname, “the Venice of the East.”

At the Museum Siam, near the palace, antique maps and sepia-tinged daguerreotypes show how the new capital’s riverside evolved. In the late 19th century, King Rama V courted international trade and commissioned Neoclassical palaces and residences along the water, including the circa-1888 Old Customs House. The striking Palladian pile, once the first stop for ships entering Bangkok, is being redeveloped into a boutique hotel.

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Charoen Krung Road—the city’s first paved street, running parallel to the river—was added in 1867. French, Portuguese, and Chinese sailors who’d been trading with Siam since the 16th century were joined by British, Indian, and Middle Eastern merchants, who settled in communities south of the Grand Palace between the water and Charoen Krung Road. 

By the time my grandfather, Hakim Singh Sachdev, a Sikh Indian from Punjab, sailed up the Chao Phraya in the 1920s, the river port city was in full swing. Chinese junks, Siamese barges, and European ships ran rice, spices, and teak up and down the river. On its banks, Bohra Muslims trafficked in glass and block-printed textiles and Indians traded cotton fabrics milled in England. Narrow wooden sampans held floating markets that plied the canals.

While most Indian immigrants settled in Phahurat, or “Little India,” my grandfather put down roots in neighboring Ratchawong. There, in a bustling zone of warehouses and tradespeople from around the world, he built a thriving textile business in a shophouse a hundred yards from Ratchawong Pier.

Despite Thailand’s famously warm and welcoming nature, my grandfather and his fellow immigrants were often called khaek or farang (European foreigners), underscoring their outsider status. My grandfather’s generation didn’t seem to notice.

Coming of age in the 1960s, my father shirked his conservative Sikh upbringing and the khaek sobriquet. He embraced the laidback Thai temperament, hobnobbing with local politicos and foreign correspondents at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel’s Bamboo Bar and changing his Punjabi name—Sinderpal Singh Sachdev—to the Thai Surin Sachasinh.

In the 1970s, the end of the war in neighboring Vietnam fueled a building boom away from the Chao Phraya. My family, like many Sikh Indians, moved to polished Sukhumvit, three miles east of the river. Canals were filled up and turned into roads, floating markets were relocated to the outskirts of the city. The Chao Phraya receded into the background.

A riverside revival

The first signs of a revival along the river bubbled up around 2016. Duangrit Bunnag, a celebrated Thai architect, moved his offices from fashionable Sukhumvit to then-unfashionable Khlong San, a former Muslim and Chinese warehouse district along the river. Bunnag turned a vintage ice factory into his headquarters, adding an art gallery and restaurants, dubbing it all The Jam Factory. Then, just across the river in multi cultural Bang Rak, he transformed a row of 1940s-era warehouses into Warehouse 30, with boutiques, event spaces, and coffee shops.

At the time, locals joked Bunnag might as well have gone to the moon. But his new businesses drew Bangkokians and tourists to the river—many for the first time.

Some locals, of course, never left. Thai and European antique shops and Indian gem traders still operated and residents came to neighborhoods along the Chao Phraya to visit old family shrines, attend festivals, or scatter funeral ashes in the river.

The revived creative district is at the bottom end of the Charoen Krung corridor in the Bangrak and Talad Noi districts. Development is gradually making its way up on both sides of the river, spawning new spots like ATT19, a century-old Chinese schoolhouse-turned-art gallery, which deep dives into issues including identity, religion, and the role of women in Thai society. The Thailand Creative and Design Center, housed in the Brutalist-style Grand Post Office building, hosts street art festivals and the annual Bangkok Design Week.

In Talad Noi, old-timey shophouse kitchens dish up traditional “jok” (congee) and duck noodle soup next to newcomers like Samlor, where chef Napol “Joe” Jantraget gives rural Thai dishes an international spin. Farther up Charoen Krung Road, bounded by spice storehouses in Chinatown’s Soi Nana zone, nightspots including the hip Tep Bar distill liqueur from ya dong (traditional herbs) and host concerts featuring classical Thai instruments.

On the western bank near the Memorial Bridge, visitors are rediscovering Kudi Jeen, a former Portuguese settlement built around the 18th-century Santa Cruz Church and famous for khanom farang kudi jeen cakes fusing Portuguese, Chinese, and Thai flavors. A short river taxi ride down river in Khlong San, Lhong 1919 reveals art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants now occupying a string of rehabbed 19th-century warehouses decked with fanciful murals of Chinese deities.

Returning to my roots

The creative revival hasn’t yet overtaken Ratchawong, my old neighborhood. Our family shophouse is now a bank, but around the corner, time seems frozen on historic Song Wat Road with its Sino-Portuguese shophouses, spice stores, and teak bungalows flaunting Corinthian columns. Worshippers flow in and out of Luang Kocha Itsahak mosque, Chinese joss houses, and Wat Pathum Khongkha, a 16th-century temple where seditious princes were executed. Siri Guru Singh Sabha, the Sikh gurdwara where I spent Sunday mornings, is a five-minute walk.

Beyond Ratchawong Pier, the Chao Phraya serves as the backdrop for new businesses including a Four Seasons; the Capella Bangkok hotel; and the glitzy megamall, Icon Siam. But my grandfather and father would still recognize the colorful longtail boats skimming the river and the rickety tin-roofed houses along its banks.

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On my most recent visit, I rode the ferry from Taksin Bridge to Tha Tien pier, near Wat Pho (aka the Temple of the Reclining Buddha). From there, I ambled through narrow alleyways, pushing through cramped fabric and food markets from Phahurat to Ratchawong and then Chinatown.

Normally, I end my walk at the Bamboo Bar, toasting my late father. But last December, I crossed the river into Khlong San, where I happened on a new café, My Grandparent’s House

Inside the early 20th-century building (a former fish sauce factory and rooming house for Chinese immigrants), I sipped a very 21st-century matcha latte. My father and grandfather might not have recognized my tipple, but they would have been right at home amid the weathered teak walls and river views.

Rachna Sachasinh writes about travel and culture. She is based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Follow her on Instagram.

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