Far From the COVID Crowds: A Day Uncovering Bangkok’s Hidden Gems
By David Nakayama - Published May 13, 2020
Text and Photos by David Nakayama, DET Corp Comms
Bangkok, Thailand, May 8, 2020- Before COVID-19 shut down our business and vacation travel, Bangkok was the world’s most visited city with visitors packing its iconic temples, glitzy malls and glamorous sky bars.
But while lockdowns might temporarily freeze our trips, we can still find inspiration online to put together a more original experience on our next visit. So if you want some insider tips, you can join us on a “virtual tour” of Bangkok’s lesser-known hidden gems that you can uncover when everything reopens.
Morning: Bike around Talat Noi, the local’s Chinatown
While most tourists queue up for overpriced Michelin-star meals or browse sweaty street markets at Bangkok’s world-famous Yaowarat (even Chinese go there) part of Chinatown, few people know about the small riverside neighborhood of Talat Noi, which means “little market”. This old community is a treasure trove for street photographers or anyone looking to explore local Thai-Chinese life.
Nowadays colorful street art and murals in the style of George Town Malaysia, are livening up the alley walls and adding an urban vibe to the dilapidated shops. You can rent a bike to weave around the maze of alleys in the neighborhood (be careful for the children, old-timers and pets) and find the perfect Instagram shots at Hakka mansions, Taoist shrines or riverside cafes and craft beer bars.
I walked over to Talat Noi after attending a Taiwan National Palace Museum exhibit and browsing some thought-provoking Italian modern art at the River City Bangkok Gallery next to the Si Phraya pier. At the neighborhood, I stopped to watch the barges and ferries drifting lazily down the river from the wall of a quiet Hakka mansion, discovered a perfectly maintained Tiger motorcycle (a now-defunct Thai manufacturer) and bumped into a famous Thai actor on set at a cafe.
Noon: Learn Thailand’s artistic heritage at The National Gallery
Thailand has a unique and renowned artistic heritage. Nowadays Thais win international acclaim for their creative commercials, dramatic movies, tailored silk garments and opulent gilt architecture. Mysteriously, I’ve never seen a crowded art gallery or museum in the Kingdom. So if you want to escape the fierce noontime sun, you can always duck into the National Gallery for some solitary art appreciation.
The ground floor usually has international or modern art exhibits while the upper floor features Thai cultural and historical art that centers on folklore, Buddhism and the monarchy. There are also more updated works by the pioneers of Thai modern art from the country’s premier fine arts institute Silpakorn University.
I popped into the gallery to see an exhibit of old photographs taken around 100 years ago in Thailand. The black and white and sienna colored photos were a fascinating glimpse of Thais in an era of transition into a modern society. The eclectic mix of traditional Siamese arts with international influences is a good reminder of the inclusive nature of Thai culture.
Afternoon: Stroll through the Kudichin Siamese-Portuguese community
Thais are proud their Kingdom is one of the only Asian countries never colonized by Europe, so I was intrigued to discover a Portuguese community exists in the city with roots predating Bangkok. Before Bangkok existed, King Taksin established Thonburi on the Chao Phraya west bank as the new capital after Ayutthaya fell in 1767. The monarch allocated a piece of land called Kudichin to a small Portuguese community for their contributions and loyal services, especially in defense of Siam.
Today this historical enclave offers us a refreshing break from the city noise. You can wander the neighborhood alleys to admire the Portuguese-Asian fusion architecture, religious icons, designs and sample cuisine that reminds you of the back streets of Macao. From the Chao Phraya River, you can get off at Wat Kanlaya pier and walk to Santa Cruz Church which is the perfect gateway to Kudichin.
I parked my car at the nearby Wat Kalayanamitr temple (Thai temples have free or cheap parking) and entered Kudichin from the grand Italian Renaissance-style church. Here I discovered the community’s story at the lovely Baan Kudichin Museum and enjoyed a Sapayak curry bun with iced espresso at the cafe. As in Macao and Japan, the Portuguese brought their famous dessert-making skills to Siam and in the local bakeries, you can see Portuguese-Thai egg cupcakes baking in ovens that look as old as the neighborhood.
Evening: Admire Wat Pho Thailand’s top royal temple in the shadows
One of the most recognizable images of Thailand is the massive reclining Buddha of Wat Pho temple. Wat Pho is one of Bangkok’s oldest first-class royal temples and a Thai massage and medicine learning center. To avoid the tourist crowds packing in during the day, you can visit after the sun sets (before the 10:00 curfew) and watch the light and shadows playing across the glittering stupas and doorways.
While you might not glimpse the golden Buddha or enjoy a massage in the evening, you can explore the shadowy gardens and halls without the obligatory entry fee for foreigners (Thai’s can enter for free). Its convenient location between the Chao Phraya River and the city center makes it a perfect cultural break between drinks at a riverside deck bar and your next round in town.
I visited Wat Pho after a team dinner at the riverside opposite the famed Wat Arun (the temple of light). Inside the courtyard, I asked my Thai colleagues why it was so empty, and they solemnly replied that ghosts wander temples at night. “Ghosts? What type of ghosts?” I was curious to find out which character in the pantheon of Thai ghouls roams Wat Pho, but before they answered we were already on a tuk-tuk speeding down the deserted avenues towards our next adventure.
If content is king, there must be a kingmaker. And the universal theme in my favorite stories is our innate human desire for freedom. I have a master’s degree in Chinese education and experience spanning industries and countries. As the Comms guy at DET, I’m obsessed with the stories behind our products and people. Share your stories with me https://www.linkedin.com/in/yushi-david-nakayama/