Bangkok Riverside Renaissance – From the Village of Wild Plums to Venice of the East
A Bangkok riverside renaissance in the last six years has seen an abundance of new boutique hotels, restaurants, cafés, and bars sprouting along the banks of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, luring locals and expats as much as tourists to Thailand’s ‘River of Kings’.
A Bangkok riverside renaissance has been enticing locals and expats back to the charming neighbourhoods that skirt the Chao Phraya River, a destination that had previously been of more interest to tourists rather than Thais and expats – except those who already lived on the banks of Thailand‘s River of Kings, of course. And it’s still underway…
I first wrote about the Bangkok riverside renaissance back in 2012 after the luxury hotel The Siam opened on a quiet stretch of the Chao Phraya River to which travellers rarely ventured. How things have changed in the six years since the hotel’s launch. Now visitors are exploring well beyond the property’s reaches, as far as Koh Kret island, and the riverscape itself has been radically altered.
New and renewed waterfront hotels, restaurants, cafés, bars, and shopping centres – along with activities on the water, like the must-do Supanniga Cruise, above – now provide plenty of reasons for you to leave the bright lights of Sukhumvit and Silom and settle in for a while to explore the shores of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River.
But before we share our recommendations for best Bangkok riverside hotels, things to see and do and places to sip and eat on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, I want to share a little of the fascinating history of the River of Kings, and how and why Bangkok became known as the ‘Venice of the East’, as this condensed history also explains the Bangkok riverside renaissance currently underway.
Bangkok Riverside Renaissance – From Village of Wild Plums to Venice of the East
The breakneck speed of Bangkok’s development is mind-blowing. It’s hard to comprehend that the soaring, sprawling metropolis we know and love today is actually a young city in a region of ancient capitals.
That is, until you read Chris Burslem’s Tales of Old Bangkok, a compelling compilation of newspaper clippings and travel journal snippets, and learn that German naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer wrote how he amused himself during his 1690 Bangkok sojourn by shooting monkeys from trees, admiring the beauty of the forests, and fearing “tygers and other voracious beasts”.
Little had changed almost a century later. In Alec Waugh’s Bangkok, the Story of a City, the author writes that in 1767, “the city was a collection of huts forty miles along the river to the south of its present site. On the west bank of the river was a fort… On the east bank of the river was a colony of Chinese traders; they called it Bangkok – the village of the wild plum…” Of course, there are other theories as to the origin and meaning of the name Bangkok.
In 1782 that riverside village became the centre of the new Rattanakosin Kingdom after General Chao Phraya Chakri, of Mon heritage and sharing lineage with Cambodia’s Royal House of Sisowath (his father was in the Ayutthaya kingdom’s royal court), was crowned King Rama I, first monarch of the Chakri dynasty of Siam.
It was Rama I who renamed his new capital Krung Thep, ‘City of Angels’ although Rama IV, King Mongkut, later gave it the ceremonial name, ‘Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit’, which in Pali and Sanskrit translates to ‘City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the Navaratna, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Vishvakarman at Indra’s behest’. At 168 letters, it would get listed by Guinness World Records as the world’s longest place name.
These days the official name is (understandably) Krung Thep Maha Nakhon for Thais, but for the rest of us the Chinese name Bangkok unsurprisingly has stuck.
Still, Krung Thep hadn’t changed a great deal a hundred years later, when in 1871 American writer Frank Vincent wrote: “The general appearance of Bangkok is that of a large, primitive village, situated in and mostly concealed by a virgin forest of almost impenetrable density. On one side, beyond the city limits were paddy fields, and on the other to the very horizon stretched the exuberant jungle”.
Because everyday life in Bangkok was played out on the water, on the Chao Phraya River, which George Windsor Earl In The Eastern Seas in 1837 wrote of how “we now threaded our way among junks, boats, and floating houses, jumbled together in glorious confusion, and totally concealing the banks from our view. Hundreds of small canoes, some not larger than clothes-baskets, were passing to and fro.”
Earl revealed: “when the river becomes swelled by the rains, whole streets of floating houses, together with their inhabitants, sometimes break adrift from their moorings, and are carried down the river, to the utter confusion of the shipping. These floating streets, nevertheless, possess their advantages. A troublesome neighbour may be ejected, house, family, pots and pans, and all, and sent floating away to find another site for his habitation.”
Ludovic Marquis de Beauvoir was also impressed by what he saw, writing somewhat gushingly in A Week in Siam in 1867 that: “Behind a bend of the Maenam (Chao Phraya River), the entire town of Bangkok appeared in sight. I do not believe that there is a sight in the world more magnificent or more striking. This Asiatic Venice displays all her wonders over an extent of eight miles. The river is broad and grand; in it more than sixty vessels lie at anchor.”
By 1898, Bangkok had transformed from sleepy village surrounded by forest to a bustling little river city on water, although it wasn’t what H. Warington Smyth expected to find when he arrived, as he describes in Five Years in Siam.
“But where was the Bangkok I had read of – that Venice of the East – with its gilded palaces and gorgeous temples?” Smyth wrote. “Before us lay but an eastern Rotterdam; mud banks, wharfs, jetties, unlovely rice mills belching smoke, houses gaunt on crooked wooden piles, dykes and ditches on either hand, steam launches by the dozen, crowded rows of native rice boats, lines of tall-masted junk-rigged lighters, and last, most imposing… British steamers, and Norwegian and Swedish barques and ships…”
Bangkok’s transformation from a bustling river and canal city to the metropolis on land that we know now with its tangle of heaving overpasses, roads and motorways was rapid. According to Burslem, as Bangkok evolved it left its water-based origins behind: the last major khlong (canal) was dug in 1895 and the canal-building era was over by 1915: “In the drive for modernity most of the canals were paved over to form roads while others, except those gracing the royal quarter, became filthy through lack of use.”
Bangkok’s early expats were partly responsible for the city’s shift from water to land. Burslem reveals how in 1861 the city’s European diplomats and foreign residents petitioned King Rama IV to build a road to enable them to go horseback riding and get some exercise and pleasure.
The government built Charoen Krung Road or ‘new road’, which ran parallel to the ‘old road’, the Chao Phraya River. Interestingly, one of the city’s oldest streets, Charoen Krung Road is currently experiencing as much of a revival as its neighbouring watery artery.
While Bangkok’s locals – Thais and expats alike – complain about today’s excruciating traffic and talk about it as if it’s a contemporary problem, it was less than a century after the construction of streets and roads that they became congested.
Jack Reynolds wrote in 1956 in A Woman of Bangkok that: “The street was choked with the usual traffic; overloaded, lop-sided buses with battered tinwork and radiators pouring steam and water; wooden-wheeled rickshaws tugged by Chinese men in wheel-like hats, their black shirts plastered to their sweating shoulders and their black pants rolled up on their knotted thighs; sleek luxurious private cars transporting the rich from their homes that lacked nothing the heart could desire to resorts where they could throw away their inexhaustible wealth; samlors with strident bells, bicycles, trams, motor-scooters, everything except bullock carts, it seemed.”
The rickshaws and trams aside, Reynolds’ Bangkok doesn’t sound all that different from today’s Bangkok. Respite from the chaotic city partly explains the Bangkok riverside renaissance that has been underway – and why residents have been returning to the laidback waterfront neighbourhoods and the Chao Phraya River is pulsating with life once again.
In our next posts we’ll provide tips on how to experience the Bangkok riverside renaissance – where to stay on the riverside, what to see and do, and where to eat, shop and sip on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River.