A CHANGED VEIN

Written by root. Posted in FEATURES

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Published on September 02, 2016 with No Comments

Bangkok’s Chao Phraya is enjoying a renaissance.

Words ANIS RAMLI

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Credit: Bangkok River

 

The Chao Phraya isn’t one of those rivers you can actually call “pretty”. It has muddy brown waters, floating vegetation from upstream, it’s chaotic, it’s complex; and the first time visitor can be easily confused by the melee – with boats, barges and sampans all converging in one space. But a recent revival of the river landscape is slowly converting naysayers to realign their thinking.

Thailand’s River of Kings, the Chao Phraya, has always been the lifeline of Bangkok locals. Like many rivers around the world, whose cities were built at river mouths and fertile valleys, Bangkok the city arose from these waters, from the 18th century Royal district to Chinatown. Along its banks are remnants of 19th century European settlements, dilapidated huts and generations-old houses on stilts, and houses of worship. For the brave of hearts willing to explore the labyrinth of lanes and narrow streets, this is an exciting world waiting to be unraveled.

So perhaps it is not surprising that in recent years, some locals are beginning to rediscover the pulse of the river. Bangkokian Phanwadee Najmah Oraphan says, “Downtown Bangkok is exciting. There is always a new mall to hang out in. But the river is becoming the place to be now. Places like The Jam Factory – it’s a breath of fresh air. You’re in Bangkok, but it’s calmer. Less harried.”

The Jam Factory is a multi-purpose space that is attracting the hipster and boho crowd of Bangkok. Once a warehouse, it now has a gallery, a shop, a bookstore, a restaurant and cafe, all contained within a sleek compound shadowed by a Bodhi tree. Pop-up weekend events keep the weekends interesting.

To get there requires you to get off the skytrain (BTS) at Saphan Taksin station, take an upriver orange-flag ferry, then hop on a cross-river boat to Klong San Market in Thonburi, once a sleepy hollow, now waking up to a throng of urbanites eager to seek the new.

“Yes, you can say Thonburi residents are slowly getting used to the attention now,” laughs Patty Lerdwittayaskul, Director of Public Relations at The Peninsula Bangkok. “When The Peninsula Bangkok first opened nearly 30 years ago in this side of Bangkok, people were surprised, because really, they see all that’s happening is only in downtown Bangkok.” Now, you could say the hotel is having the last laugh. The new IconSiam, a megamall project slated to be ready by 2017, will be right next door to the hotel. It will also be home to Thailand’s first Takashimaya.

“I don’t mean that malls are the only attraction that can bring people to this side of the river,” she continued, “but because there have been more projects coming up on the Thonburi side, it has created interest among locals and tourists to actually check out this area. They are discovering the “real” Bangkok – mom and pops shop, local markets. And the fact that the BTS has extended beyond Saphan Taksin, it makes travelling even easier.”

The Peninsula, positioned right by the river, is also a favourite spot for social gathering. Its Thiptara restaurant transports you to a bygone era – both through its ambience and tantalising traditional dishes. Guests dine amid the outdoors, taking refuge in the ancient teak sala pavilions sourced from Ayutthaya and reassembled on-site. On a cool night, the breeze from the river provides a welcoming reprieve from the heat of the day.

The diverse menu is an ode to Thai cuisines from all regions, while its home-style cooking provides authenticity to every dish. There are deep fried snow fish with spicy sweet and sour sauce, jumbo grilled prawns so fresh it added a further dimension to the clean flavours of the pomelo salad, and a red beef curry from the southern region whose layers of spice and nuance were carefully nurtured making the dish light instead of heavy.

Chef Chamnan Thepcana, who himself is from the south, spoke about how he learnt to make the curry from his grandmother. “Thai cooking is not complex. But, to really get the flavours going, you’ve got to blend the spices carefully – with love. And patience. This is the same principle I bring to the kitchen when I cook.”

Guests at the hotel could never escape the romance of the river. It is no secret that The Peninsula’s uniquely W-shaped building was designed so every room had a vista of the river. In some suites, even the guest toilets open up to the snaking Chao Phraya that bisects the city. Waking up to the sight of the locals’ morning commute, a hypnotic crowd of workers, students and families, allows one a glimpse of how the waterways remain intertwined with their daily lives. “We’re always fully booked during New Year’s, because that’s when a lot of activities and celebrations are done by the river,” Patty continued.

At the hotel’s top most floor, the striking glass-encased Paribatra Aviation Lounge, named after the first aircraft to be built in Thailand, is a popular venue for private soirees and marriage proposals. Connected to the helipad, the area becomes a private viewing platform where guests can admire spectacular fireworks display which the hotel can arrange to accompany their private function. Back on terra firma, a more leisurely way to explore the river can be experienced on the hotel’s beautifully restored traditional rice barge. On this two-hour cruise, guests nibble on canapés and hors d’oeuvres as the barge meanders past historical landmarks and iconic buildings at sunset.

David Robinson, Director of Bangkok River Partners, set up in 2015 to oversee the river revival project, weighs in, “Top of mind for us was how we improve the (river) area without gentrification. There is renewed interest in ‘old town’ Bangkok from developers. In the next couple of years the number of hotel rooms will grow to over 5,000 and luxury apartments to more that 5,700. The IconSiam development will mean that people living west of the river no longer have to travel into Siam. It will of course be wonderful for those living in the area as well as travellers staying at one of the many riverside hotels.

“In our view, it’s about balance. More people living and visiting the area will be good for people who have lived and worked in the area for generations, as long as we can remain community-centric. We hope to influence land and property owners to ensure these people are not squeezed out as new projects locate to the riverside. We want property owners to preserve and repurpose old buildings rather than replace them with new. A good example of this is The Jam Factory. A second development is about to be established in the east bank, behind the Portuguese Embassy.”

Since Bangkok River Partners was established they have launched the www.bangkokriver.com website and social media pages, and hosted a series of events designed to build the area around the river as a major public gathering place for tourists and locals. Reaching out to local residents and businesses, they have also established a “Creative District”, combining the historic riverside districts of Klongsan and Bangrak, which now is a burgeoning arts scene neighbourhood. Galleries such as Speedy Grandma and P.Tendercool attract visitors both for their unique names as well as their thought-provoking pieces, the latter being a bespoke furniture maker like no other.

Robinson mulls over the changes that have come with the project. “This is an ongoing initiative with many challenges and opportunities. We hope to work with the Thai government and foreign embassies to revitalise the riverside communities, improve the environment, protect historic buildings, and attract creative individuals and businesses to the district. Greener streets, better transport and more artisans and craftsmen are all important to ensure the Chao Phraya River is a great place to visit for Bangkokians, leisure and business travellers.”

Royal Brunei Airlines flies Bangkok 8x weekly.

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