Great Read: Saving Old Bangkok

I’m floating through liquid air, without a plan, along Samsen Road in Bangkok’s old city, a neighborhood of wooden houses, temples, and royal retreats tucked along the banks of the Chao Phraya River.

It is April, the dog days just before rainy season, when Bangkok’s metropolitan area transforms into a sauna of ten million inhabitants. The heat is seeping up from the pavement, and trickles of sweat creep down the backs of my knees.

Just now I’d kill for a blast of air-conditioning, but the shops here offer no refuge; they’re old-fashioned two- and three-story chophouses cooled, sort of, by whirring metal fans. Desperate for a breeze or at least a reasonable imitation of one, I turn toward the river, down a narrow lane called Samsen Soi 5.

That’s when I spot the house. It has slatted shutters and a small wooden door, and sits about two feet above street level behind a tangle of trees, vines, and planter pots bursting with palms and philodendrons. Is this an artist’s secret Bangkok retreat?

Then I notice the wood plaque next to the front door: Samsen 5 Lodge. My heart leaps—at last, a cool guesthouse in the neighborhood!

Let me explain.

For nearly 14 years I’ve been a repeat visitor to this part of Thailand’s capital city, exploring local life in and around Rattanakosin Island, on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya. This is the original downtown, founded more than 200 years ago; Bangkok’s modern center, with its skyscrapers, vast shopping malls, and congested highways, feels a million miles away.

It was in this walkable riverine area of old neighborhoods tunneled by spreading banyan trees and sporting melodious-sounding names—Banglamphu, Phra Nakhon, Samsen—that I found a multilayered community of tout Bangkok, from Thai royal family members and courtiers to shopkeepers and artisans.

Every traveler has a special place, a home away from home. Old Bangkok is mine. But during all these years, one huge element has been missing for me: a memorable place to stay.

Oh, the area has no shortage of boxy, thin-walled guesthouses; Bangkok’s (in)famous mecca for backpackers, Khao San Road, is a 15-minute walk to the south. For years I stayed in these bare-bones cheapies, consoling myself with the thought that my visits to Bangkok were made all the richer for my not being tempted to linger even one extra second in my room.

Still, I always wondered why no one had recognized that these ramshackle but richly local neighborhoods were ripe for discovery. Now, it looks as if someone has.

I walk over to the house, stand on tiptoes, and, peeping in the open window, shout in two languages: “Hello! Sawasdee ka!”

No one answers. Down the lane, the faint tinkle of bells emanates from a pushcart. I draw closer to the window, peer inside, and see a tantalizing wonderland of Thai thrift market treasures: farm-style wood benches, Chinese chairs, a dusty pair of jade-color lion figurines, a Victorian clock with hand-painted Chinese characters on the face. The door to one room, ajar, reveals an antique wooden bed with four posts.

I resist the urge to break in and start sleeping; in a few hours I will have to catch my flight home. But for months the mysterious guesthouse lingers in my mind, and not just in a good way. I fret: Does a cool new guesthouse mean the demise of “my” old neighborhood?

“You didn’t eat the scrambled eggs yesterday, so I thought you might like a Thai-style breakfast.” Startled, I look up to see Worapan Klampaiboon, Samsen 5 Lodge’s owner and host, setting a wooden box on the dining table. Inside it sits a steaming bowl of pork and rice soup. “I picked it up from the street vendor where I buy my meals.”

Tall and serious, Worapan is so soft-spoken that sometimes I’m unsure whether I’ve actually heard him say something or if he has sent me a telepathic message. He also has an uncanny ability to materialize at my elbow when I think it’s just me and my coffee.

“What’s on your program for today?” he asks.

Worapan, I discovered when I booked my stay, is an award-winning Thai architect and designer; his firm’s office, Super Green Studio, is tucked artfully behind the reception desk. He also is the Johnny Appleseed of the new guesthouse movement in Old Bangkok.

Born and raised in this area, Worapan has made its preservation his mission. Four years ago, he rented this unassuming concrete building across from a Buddhist temple and renovated it into a boutique guesthouse to showcase his ideas about sustainable, locally sourced lodging.

“We’re trying to integrate tourism with the community,” he tells me as I sip my soup. “This is about people and their lives, not just about saving buildings,” he explains, adding that before he started renovating the property, “I went around the street, or soi, to let the people know what I was doing. I spoke with my neighbors, with the monks in the nearby temple. I wanted everyone to be comfortable with my guests, and I wanted my guests to feel comfortable on the soi.”

He roots around his office and returns with a map that he drew for his guests highlighting neighbors on Samsen Soi 5. Marked are the best street-food stalls, an eccentric coffee shop where patrons share seating with piles of teddy bears, an outdoor Muay Thai gym that offers kickboxing instruction, and the Buddhist temple complex across from the lodge, Wat Si Phraya.

“Most of the visitors who come here want to see Bangkok’s big attractions—the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha, Wat Arun. And they should see these things that are so important to Thai history and culture. But we want them to see more than tourism sites; we want them to feel the city’s life, too.”

Soon after Samsen 5 Lodge opened its doors, Worapan began running workshops for young Thai entrepreneurs who wanted to do similar projects.

“Old Bangkok is full of possibilities. There are abandoned schools, warehouses, chophouses, and other public buildings that are in danger of being torn down and could be repurposed into guesthouses and restaurants. We show others how they can renovate,” he explains, “and, more important, how they can fit their business, and their guests, into the neighborhood culture.”

His idea has caught fire: Worapan has led ten workshops, all sellouts. His “graduates,” mainly Bangkokers in their 30s and 40s, now are seeding small guesthouses in the little side streets and lanes of Old Bangkok. A more cosmopolitan younger generation, says Worapan, sees the potential in the beautiful, sturdy bones of Old Bangkok’s buildings.

“The typical people at my conferences are from good Thai families, have traveled abroad, and been exposed to boutique hotels on their trips. They are creative, and their eyes are open to possibilities.”

I’m about to ask him to write down the addresses of guesthouses founded by his workshop students, but he anticipates me: “I’ve called some owners already; they’re waiting to show you their places. I’ve got some errands to run in the same area; why don’t we go together?”

The only clue we’re nearing a place where foreign travelers may be staying is an antiques shop on the corner of Feung Nakorn Road that has a hand-lettered sign in English: COFFEE.

“I think this is the right lane,” Worapan says hesitantly. Though we’re only a 20-minute walk from his place, we’re on the “other” side of Old Bangkok, just south of the busy boulevard called Ratchadamnoen Klang. Bangkok’s lanes are such self-contained worlds that moving from one to another feels almost as if you’ve changed cities.

Worapan pulls out his cellphone to call ahead, and we continue down the dusty, unremarkable lane. Thanyaporn Piamwiriyakun (“call me Benz”), a pretty woman in her early 30s, spots us and gestures us toward the tall gate of the Feung Nakorn Balcony guesthouse.

The gate opens to reveal a lush, hidden park. Vermilion- and white-spotted koi float in a pond surrounded by a teakwood deck and lounge chairs. A four-story building with balconies and catwalks wraps around the garden.

“Can you tell what this building used to be?” Benz asks me. An apartment building, I guess? A motel?

“An elementary school!” she says, laughing.

Worapan the architect chimes in: “Adaptive reuse.”

“My parents own the property, and my father wanted to turn it into a parking lot,” Benz continues. “I begged them to let me try doing a small hotel.” They agreed, but assumed she wanted to construct the kind of revenue-generating box that has been the reliable template for budget Bangkok guesthouses.

Benz, however, a traveler with an eye for design, had taken Worapan’s course and had other ideas.

“My parents are very conservative; they didn’t understand why I was spending money and hiring an interior designer and an architect. I had to fight with them a lot. I also cried a lot.”

Through the tears, Benz started transforming the old school. Classrooms became sweetly appointed guest rooms, each painted in a warm pastel-and-white color scheme and furnished with white wooden beds and chairs, and large windows that look out to the pond or to dark green mango trees in the yard.

A night’s stay in a balcony room here is a bit pricier than at a Khao San Road guesthouse but still well in the budget range. Standing by the koi pond, listening to the birdsong in the trees, I imagine myself in the quieter, gentler Bangkok of the 1950s. As they say, it’s all about location: The sois in Old Bangkok have a natural grace, an effortless atmosphere, that a new luxury hotel struggles to achieve.

“There are 96 wooden houses just like this in the area, but this is the one my family fell in love with.” Nidhi Akkaravivat sweeps his arm toward the two-story 1920s teakwood house—“in the colonial style”—that he has turned into a successful B&B called Baan Dinso. I’ve made my way here on my own; Worapan was busy but kindly drew a back-of-the-envelope map and pointed me in the right direction.

It’s been a wonderful walk. I passed a tiny restaurant that caught me with its aroma of roast duck, and a row of stores selling foodstuffs, teas, and medicines wrapped in yellow cellophane that Thai people give to monks to “make merit.” I browsed stores selling the powdery, jasmine-scented balls that older Thai women use for fragrance. A stroll of about 20 minutes took me 40.

I remove my shoes, Thai style, and stroll across the cool, polished wooden floor of Baan Dinso’s foyer as Nidhi signals for a staff person to bring me some water.

“The house was in a sad condition,” he says. “The owners decided to move to the suburbs because they couldn’t fit their car down this narrow lane. At first we were obsessed by the beauty of it. We thought we would purchase the place for my parents to retire in.”

Then an even better idea came to Nidhi, who had noticed boutique guesthouses popping up in the area. Why not have the house pay for itself by starting a small business in it?

Baan Dinso echoes the small hotels and pensions in Europe; wood platform beds, white linens, bathrooms down the hall. The hotel, which opened in 2006, has won awards from the Association of Siamese Architects for its restoration and become a hit with European visitors—so popular that in 2013, Nidhi opened a second Baan Dinso a few blocks away.

“We are small, only nine rooms, so we can get to know our guests and help them plan their activities,” he tells me. “Many guests are surprised to find they don’t need a plan because so many interesting places to eat and explore are here. We had a Swiss guest, a lady. She spent three or four days with us, just wandering the neighborhood and getting lost. She never made it to the Grand Palace.”

“Would you mind eating breakfast twice?” Worapan, again, catches me unawares as I’m slurping down the bowl of congee he left for me. “I’m going up to the Sri Yan area. We can have something to eat, then look at a guesthouse project under construction that my group helped design.”

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I put down my spoon, grab my sunglasses, and we head out to catch a bus. I thought I knew Samsen Road, but this morning I see it through Worapan’s eyes, the eyes of an architect and  native son. He points out one building after another, shaking his head with dismay.

“That row of chophouses will be gone soon. A developer with several big hotels on Khao San Road is going to put up a big box, probably 80 rooms. And that 1960s building with the detail that looks like a concrete grille? It also is slated for demolition.”

In other words, development is slowly creeping out of the Khao San Road area and insinuating its way into Old Bangkok. The bus whisks us 15 blocks north, to the part of Samsen where English signs disappear and no foreigners wander the streets.

“I grew up right around here,” Worapan says, smiling now. He points out some area landmarks, such as his high school, St. Gabriel’s College, and the sleek modernist building that houses the state-run Bank of Thailand—a formidable walled and gated fortress manned by a guard. “It’s on the grounds of  one of the royal palaces,” Worapan adds.

Ten minutes later, we are lost in the sois of Sri Yan, where Worapan still lives on a Thai-style compound with his mother and brother.

“Sri Yan is famous around Bangkok for its market and street food,” he says, and makes a beeline to his childhood favorite. “This is Look Chin Sri Yan. I have been coming here with my family more than 30 years. When my father was alive, the owner wouldn’t ever let us pay.”

As we delve into sen mee—needle-slender noodles made of rice—and peppery meatballs, he explains why: His father was an official of Thailand’s Crown Property Bureau, the agency charged with managing and collecting rents on all of the royal family’s property. In Bangkok, their holdings amount to a majority of the land.

“My father made sure the owner of the beef-ball shop didn’t lose his lease, or have his rent rise too much, so he could remain in business a long time.”

I suddenly understand why so many of these riverside Bangkok neighborhoods feel frozen in time, filled with traditional mom-and-pop shops. The slow, conservative hand of royal patronage has controlled the levers of Bangkok’s development, rather than the go-go pace of Asian property moguls.

A 15-minute walk, a turn down another soi, and a small gate opens. We’re at Worapan’s consulting project, a rambling old two-story house with shutters, upstairs balconies, and a pocket-size garden. I hear a rat-a-tat of hammers.

“They’re taking out walls so they can put in nine rooms and more bathrooms,” says Worapan. Tucked neatly into its lane, this future home base for travelers from England and Japan, the United States and Sweden, folds completely into the life of its soi.

So, Worapan hopes, will its guests. I imagine them venturing out from the guesthouse to discover their own favorite vendors, beef-ball noodles, and Thai treasures. And perhaps eventually, like me, they will find a home on their own Bangkok soi that calls them back again and again.

This feature was penned by National Geographic Traveler Editor at Large Daisann McLane, who divides her time between New York and Hong Kong, where she runs the tour company Little Adventures in Hong Kong. It originally appeared in the August/September issue of Traveler magazine.

Also on assignment for this story was Traveler Contributing Photographer Susan Seubert, who alleviated Bangkok’s humid heat with a local favorite: freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.

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