True Grit: Bangkok’s Cultural Renaissance

A new generation of Bangkok creatives are reinventing their city with a nod to its original raw charm.

This article appears in Volume 22: The
Design Issue

The hotel is there…

taxi driver explains as she pulls into a petrol station. I’m
confused. Why are we stopping here? Looking across the road at
where she’s pointing I can’t see any signs of a hotel – there’s no
driveway, doormen or even signage – just a nondescript grey
building hugging the busy road. Before I have time to demand
answers she’s off, skilfully dodging the traffic of Lan Luang Road
while carrying my bulging suitcase. Left with no other choice, I
follow. Tuks-tuks swerve, cars honk, motorbikes whizz by and
absolutely no one slows down.

My hesitation is confusing the chaotic order of the oncoming
traffic in the main road. A man in uniform, sensing that I’m in
trouble, scuttles across to help me. He asks, smiling: “Is this
your first time in Bangkok?” The answer is obvious. It seems
strange that I’ve never been to Bangkok, which is only a
two-and-a-half-hour flight away from where I grew up in Singapore. But through the eyes
of a young “clean and green” Singaporean, Thailand’s hustle and
bustle of pungent street food, teeming markets and jumble of
roadside stalls represented a slice of the “old Asia” –
disorganised, seedy and intimidating.

Stranger still that I never made it here as a backpacker during
my university days in Australia, despite its gap-year staples of
Bintang singlets, cheap beer and “exotic” nightlife. Coupled with
bouts of political unrest during the Nineties and more recent
protests in 2013 and 2014, Bangkok has been overlooked by tourists
who bookmark it as a stopover to one of Thailand’s hundreds of
sun-slicked islands.

However, the city’s reputation is changing. There is a new
energy pulsating through this tropical metropolis, resulting in a
design and culture renaissance that is enticing inventive
restaurateurs, world-class bartenders, cool start-ups and
co-working spaces to its streets. My hotel, Bangkok Publishing Residence, is
a case in point. The property was transformed from a family- owned
printing house (Bangkok Publishing, one of the largest in Thailand)
into a nostalgic eight-bedroom museum-slash- hotel by Panida “Oum”
Tosnaitada, whose grandfather, Vichit Rojamaprapa, founded the
business. “I originally wanted to do a publication museum, because
the print world is dying – we owned nearly 20 magazines at one
point. To make it a sustainable business I added hotel rooms.”

It’s this kind of thinking by a young generation of Bangkokers
that is breathing new life into the capital. Aside from restoring
the building, almost all of the furniture at Bangkok Publishing
Residence (about 80 per cent) comes from the old factory. A
historic wonderland of printings past, vintage magazine covers
adorn the walls, leather-bound editions of Bangkok Weekly line the
bookshelves, and antique printing blocks and kooky keepsakes
sourced from the family archives are scattered throughout.
“Everything you see in this hotel is actually an exhibition,”
Tosnaitada explains. “In the corner is a mock-up of my
grandfather’s old office, with actual artefacts including
everything from his old pens and bottles of liquor to his
typewriter and family photos.” Showcasing a new kind of approach
that goes against the grain – the hotel has no restaurant, pool or
hot celebrity chef – at Bangkok Publishing Residence the focus has
been on design, heritage and creativity.

Another example of this approach is The Jam Factory, a renovated warehouse
concept created by the local “starchitect” Duangrit Bunnag. Having
opened four years ago, the former factory compound is now a
lifestyle space combining two restaurants, a café, a bookshop, a
home décor store and an art gallery dedicated to emerging artists.
“It’s my passion to renovate old buildings,” explains Bunnag. “It
can be fascinating to walk through the old structures that give the
city a different flavour instead of always building new,
ultra-modern high-rises to compete with the western world. We
already have something that is good and local.” At weekends the
green, lofty courtyard buzzes with regular markets and free
concerts, giving city-dwellers a much- needed pocket of green
space. “That is why this project is so different from other
projects. It has been embraced by a lot of communities – people
love it here,” says Bunnag.

The success of The Jam Factory has caused a ripple through the
city. Across the river in the bubbling up-to-the-minute
neighbourhood of Charoen Krung, Duangrit Bunnag has opened another
warehouse conversion, Warehouse 30, transforming a 4,000-square-metre
block of abandoned Second World War-era warehouses into stores,
restaurants and art spaces. There’s also the newly opened Yelo
House, another formerly derelict warehouse that has been remodelled
into a hub for creatives of all stripes featuring an art gallery, a
restaurant and a café as well as o ces. On the Khlong San side of
the river there’s LHong 1919, a family-owned rice warehouse and
Chinese shrine dating back to the 1800s, which is now a sprawling
6,800sq m riverside complex sporting art and design shops, a couple
of restaurants and an open-plan courtyard.

Giving all the above some sti competition is the newly opened
ChangChui (which means “sloppy artisan”) nightmarket
and bustling lifestyle space in the Thonburi district. Conceived by
Somchai Songwattana, the CEO and art director of the Thai fashion
brand Flynow, the space is a web of 18 buildings, each made from
recyclable materials. A disused aeroplane, now an art installation,
sits incongrously yet impressively in the middle of a complex that
includes a theatre, art spaces, fashion boutiques, co-creative
spaces, restaurants and food trucks as well as a community
vegetable garden.

However, it’s not just been blockbuster openings over the last
few years. Look beyond the headlines and you’ll see a grittier,
more daring scene emerging in the folds of the city. Affordable
rent combined with a reasonable cost of living has contributed to
the burgeoning creative scene in Bangkok. Unlike in, say, Hong Kong, Singapore or Japan, where the cost of living
has priced out the younger generation, in Bangkok it seems that
ramshackle ideas can still be turned into realities.

A rickety wooden house in Samsen Soi 2 is testament to this
notion. Taken over by the food-loving art director Sittisak “Tommy”
Sakornsin, with the simple idea to “bring back the atmosphere of
old Bangkok”, his restaurant Baanual serves his family’s recipes in
an unfussy, speakeasy atmosphere. “When I was looking for a place
for my concept I knew it had to be an old building. But the minute
I saw this place I loved it because it reminded me of my grandma’s
house,” Tommy explains. The restaurant feels like a hybrid of an
old family home and a museum. Freshly cut owers and salvaged
vintage bric-a-brac – including antique kitchen cabinets, birdcages
and clay pots – adorn the space, while Thai folk tunes and
sticky-sweet smells ll the air. Guests are seated on two large
wooden tables in a shared, family-style set-up and the menu, like
the décor, is simple: Thai green curries, tamarind-soaked prawns
and stir-fried pork in a sweet and salty shrimp paste.

Whole new areas of the capital have been rejuvenated thanks to
hole-in-the-wall pop-ups and out-of-the-box thinkers like Tommy.
While once the fashionable crowd migrated towards shiny restaurants
and bars in Thonglor and Sukhumvit, unpretentious, more creative
openings are now the city’s hotspots. On my last night I wander
through the gummy heat down Charoen Krung Road, within the bustle
of old Bangkok, and spot a raw-looking gallery called Speedy Grandma (the name derives from a local urban
legend about a motorbike-riding grandmother). Housed in a converted
shophouse, the space is lled with clued-up 20 to 30-somethings
drinking beer and getting hand-poked tattoos while eyeing the large
blue and pink scribbling animations by the Australian artist Aaron

Next door the sake is owing at a packed izakaya called Jua.
Farther down the road I dine at Eighty Twenty, a restaurant
populated by foodies and a beard-stroking crowd keen to sample a
menu made of 80 per cent locally sourced ingredients from
sustainable suppliers or nearby markets – my fish sauce caramel
dessert is worth the trip alone. A couple of doors down I find
myself at Tropic City, a colourful new tiki-inspired bar, before
hitting my last stop, Teens of Thailand, a serious gin bar that
takes me to the fringes of Chinatown. As I sip my Thai
tea-infused G&T, thinking that I’d seen all there was to see in
this small area, I hear there’s yet another
slicker-than-your-average “just-opened” bar down the road to check
out. I dutifully finish my drink and step back out into the muggy

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City Guide: Bangkok, Thailand