How Bangkok is blossoming into a magnet for young creatives

With its boho bars, blossoming crop of art and design festivals, and a burgeoning Creative District, the Thai capital is becoming a Southeast Asian hotspot for lovers of art.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

The crowd jump to their feet as local star Chulachak ‘Hugo’ Chakrabongse takes to the stage with a tip of his straw hat. “He was signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation record label and wrote Beyoncé’s song Disappear, which appeared on her I Am... Sasha Fierce album,” explains my friend, foreign correspondent and long-time Bangkok resident Philip Sherwell, as the Thai actor/model/musician works the crowd with his easy bluegrass beats. “Hugo’s also related to the royal family,” adds Philip.  

Unlikely as it seems from this popstar performance, Hugo comes from the royal line of King Rama V, one of the most forward-thinking monarchs in Thailand’s history. It’s an attitude that’s worked its way down the generations, as Hugo’s mother, Narisa Chakrabongse, doesn’t just undertake royal duties, but is also an author, environmentalist, owner of publishing house River Books and organiser of the Bangkok Edge Festival, where I now sit happily tapping my toes. This ‘festival of ideas’ pops up every other February in the grounds of royal enclave Chakrabongse Villas (which is also a boutique hotel) and in the opulent Museum Siam, close to the Chao Phraya River. 

It’s just one of dozens of festivals and creative events that populate Bangkok’s increasingly packed cultural calendar. There’s also Galleries’ Night, when venerable museums and galleries across the city throw open their doors after hours; Bangkok Art Biennale, which takes over the city for four months every other year and forged ahead in 2020 despite Covid-19. 

There’s also Design Week, the International Festival of Dance and Music, and no fewer than five film festivals: Bangkok International Film Festival, World Film Festival of Bangkok, Thai Short Film and Video Festival, Bangkok Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and Bangkok ASEAN Film Festival, all of which will continue in some shape or form during the pandemic. In fact, check local listings and you’ll find plenty more events happening on a weekly basis right across the city, lockdown allowing. 

During a day at Edge, flitting from environmental talks about the Mekong River to creative writing workshops, an arts and crafts market to food trucks selling spiced beef brioche sandwiches and mangoes prepared more ways than I could ever imagine, I catch up with Montonn Jira, a DJ and music producer who founded Thailand’s fabulous Wonderfruit music festival. The annual event, which is held in the countryside about 90 minutes outside Bangkok, is now in its seventh year.

It has pop-up farm shops, stages built from recycled materials, a no-plastic policy and some seriously experimental vibes (last year’s event included an attempt to generate empathy, by measuring people’s body temperature and heart rate). “It’s not our goal to just recreate something like Coachella or Glastonbury,” says Jira. “We want to build a platform for sharing ideas, but in a sustainable way, using Thai materials, art, architects, produce, food and music. Highlighting local talent is what excites us.”

One such local talent is Bangkok photographer and artist Bryce Watanasoponwong. Bryce’s enigmatic works have caught the eye of Saatchi Art, made the finals of the San Francisco Street Photography Contest and have been displayed in galleries from Morocco to London to Sydney, and at festivals such as Edge. His dreamlike, contemporary images of Bangkok’s streets, people and waterways are a long way from the traditional art more usually associated with Thailand, such as the naka serpent statues, temple mosaics and dance rituals. “There’s been a big emergence of local talent over the last five years,” he tells me. “People haven’t always been able to express themselves freely in the past, for a variety of reasons — both political and cultural — and there are still outside pressures, but there are more and more events like Edge that are really helping to encourage young local artists to come out and be themselves.”

At the time of our chat, just before Covid-19 slammed shut most of Asia’s borders, my friend Bryce could never have imagined that just a few months later, young Thais would take to the streets to express themselves in ways never seen before. In their tens of thousands, people flooded Bangkok’s streets demanding the resignation of the military government, and openly criticised the monarchy, their creative flair on full display as they commandeered inflatable rubber ducks to use as shields against tear gas assaults by the police. The imagery was so eye-catching, so surreal, it was a form of protest art that guaranteed coverage for their cause across the globe. 

Design district

Leaving Bryce, I set off to explore the riverside Bang Rak neighbourhood, lately being unofficially hailed as Bangkok’s first Creative District, making inroads along Charoen Krung, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, long known for its jewellery stores and dusty antique shops. 

Until recently it wasn’t somewhere that anyone other than money-to-burn baby boomers might want to hang around but lately, contemporary galleries, hip restaurants, late-night bars and boutique hotels have been shooting up like bamboo. Places such as 100 Mahesh, which gives nose-to-tail dining a northern Thai spin in a woody, welcoming setting; ‘quiet bar’ Shuu Shuu, where the only drink served is Japanese plum wine and voices must be kept low; and the Prince Theatre Heritage Stay, which has fluffed an old dirty movie theatre from the 1970s into a stylish collection of dorms, suites and screening rooms. What they all have in common (besides their Instagram cred) is that they’re all independently funded, growing from the ground up, and setting trends across the city.  

Branching off from Charoen Krung Road, there’s a mosaic of different cultures, with Thai-Chinese, Thai-Muslim and northern Thai neighbourhoods brushing up against each other in a network of ramshackle sois (alleys), where the tentacles of gentrification are beginning to reach. I turn left down Soi 36 towards the beautifully decaying ruins of the Old Customs House, which overlooks the Chao Phraya River. Built in the neo-palladian style in the late 19th century, its romantic facade and watery backdrop have been the muse for many magazine and movie shoots, most notably making an appearance in the Wong Kar-wai classic In the Mood for Love.

Over the years there’s been chatter about it being converted into a boutique hotel (a plan which may finally be coming to fruition in 2025, with Thai developer U City), but today it’s open to the public for the first time in decades as one of the locations for the 2020 edition of Bangkok Design Week. The landscape photography exhibition is great, but it’s the building itself that makes the strongest impression, all age-bevelled floors, gap-toothed shutters and graceful wooden staircases, light filtering magically through the arched serliana [Venetian] windows. Outside in the bright sunlight, more colourful flags advertising Design Week flutter from fence posts. I follow them, doubling back out along Soi 36 and left into the Haroon Mosque community.

A tiny pocket of Muslim life in a city where 95% of the population is Buddhist, its tangle of streets is lined with little teak houses with food stalls propped up against the back walls. Stalls, manned by women in colourful hijabs, sell some of the tastiest snacks in the Bangkok — roti with cheese and eggs, chicken mataba (flaky pastry pies) and sweet bread with strawberry jam all for £1 or less. A smattering of hip indie coffeeshops has popped up since my last visit, but I’ve always found these little roti stalls reason alone to linger — it’s impossible to pass by without wolfing at least one glistening disc of bread. 

Dodging sunbathing cats and fluttering laundry, I emerge at the other side of the neighbourhood on Soi 34 with the vast utilitarian Bangkok General Post Office ahead. The red-brick behemoth, with grand garuda statues taking flight from each corner, was transformed into the Thailand Creative and Design Centre in 2017. My last visit here saw a giant marquee pitched outside, site of a nine-night exhibition that looked at ways of making environmentally vulnerable cities such as Bangkok more resilient and sustainable. 

But, for the rest of the year, TCDC, as it’s better known, is a hipster haven, a place where Bangkok’s creative community can connect in co-working spaces, stock concept stores with their own designs and collaborate in sound studios. 

My last stop, on nearby Charoen Krung Soi 30, is at Warehouse 30, a row of Second World War-era depots that have been repurposed into funky florists, vinyl music stores, book shops, juice bars, cocktail venues, bakeries and independent fashion outlets. Sitting on a bench outside, watching young urbanites following street graffiti QR codes to Design Week hideaways, as long-tail boats, tugs and rice barges crisscrossed the river, it’s hard to fathom why this alluring part of the city has lain neglected for so long. But it’s exciting to think of what might still be to come.

Essentials

Getting there & around
British Airways and Thai Airways operate non-stop flights between Heathrow and Bangkok. BTS Skytrain, MRT Subway and buses span the city, while tuk-tuks, songthaews and khlong boats abound. The most efficient transport, outside rush hour, is cab. Uber and Grab are cheaper than metered cabs.

When to go
Late November to February when there’s little rain, lower humidity and temperatures in the 20Cs.

Where to stay
Mandarin Oriental has doubles from £384 per night.
Hotel Once has doubles from £75 per night.

How to do it
Selective Asia has an 11-night Simply Thailand tour, including three nights in Bangkok from £2,399, B&B, including international and local flights, transfers and some tours.

For more information go to thailandtourism.org

Published in the March 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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