ARTIKEL BANGKOK POST: Metropolitan melting pot

BANG LAMPHU - KHAO SAN - PHRA ATHIT

By: Story and photos CHIRAYU NA RANONG
Published: 18/06/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Horizons

After Rattanakosin Island, site of the Grand Palace, Bang Lamphu, a short stroll to the north, has got to be the most frequented neighbourhood in town - and not just by tourists, either. Its allure is due in large part to a single street: the world-famous Khao San Road. For, love it or hate it, this strip is undeniably one of the liveliest parts of Bangkok with a diverse, constantly rotating cast of characters arriving daily from all corners of the globe.

Long before it was immortalised by Leonardo DiCaprio in the big-screen adaptation of The Beach, it was, along with Goa and Kuta Beach in Bali, a favourite pitstop on backpacker routes across Asia. But the transformation of this cheap-guesthouse central was already well underway when Alex Garland’s novel was published in 1996 and today, with its plethora of salubrious hotels and luxury spas, its fast-food franchises and frappuccinos, little of Khao San’s cheap-and-cheerful charm and raw, outlaw edge remains.

Although still patronised by credit card-toting “backpackers” from foreign parts, Bang Lamphu is now also a popular destination for well-heeled young locals seeking an alternative night out. Weird and wild pleasures - albeit, of the toned-down variety - still to be found here include getting yourself tattooed and pierced all over, crunching on deep-fried insects and purchasing very realistic-looking counterfeit products. One feature of the road that has remained unchanged over the years, however, is the number of scam artists on the make: drop your guard for a moment, swallow that sob story, and you, like generations of naive visitors before you, are practically begging to be ripped off!

It’s only when the sun sets that this place really starts hopping. Khao San is closed to vehicles at dusk and people pack the street, piling into the bars and restaurants and cafe’s. Those in search of a quieter evening can escape the blaring music and glaring neon by venturing down leafy Ram Butri Road, which runs roughly parallel, crossing over Chakrabongse Road to Soi Ram Butri (also pedestrianised after dark) or wandering down Chakrabongse to the much more subdued Phra Athit Road, a popular late-night haunt of artists and trendy college students.

These environs are not all about dreadlocks and hangovers, however. Situated in one of the longest settled quarters of the city, Bang Lamphu boasts many old shophouses and some even more venerable remnants of the past. On Phra Athit Road alone, the centuries-old Phra Sumen Fort stands close to several well-preserved old palaces and mansions where significant historical figures once lived.

Bang Lamphu Market, which sells food, household items and clothes, has been serving the local community for decades. And for further evidence of this neighbourhood’s multi-ethnic identity, you need look no further than the plethora of mosques, Chinese shrines and major Buddhist temples with which it is dotted.

Wat Bowon Niwet Vihara is a first-class
royal temple (there are three categories)
with a rich history that stretches back to
the early 19th century. Prince Mongkut
was its first abbot and lived within its walls
for 14 years before leaving the monkhood
to become King Rama IV. His great-grandson,
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also resided here
after his ordination, as did the present
monarch’s son,HRHCrown Prince Maha
Vajiralongkorn.

When Rama I became king in 1782 this temple
was already in existence. He later donated it to
the kingdom’s ethnic- Mon community in gratitude
for the help Mon people gave in repelling three
separate Burmese invasions between 1785 and
1787. Originally called Wat Klang Na because of
its location in the middle (klang ) of rice fields (na),
it was renamed Wat Chana Songkhram
(meaning ‘‘victory in war’’) by the king and
designated a royal temple. Nowadays, visitors often
park their cars in its compound which also makes a
convenient shortcut (up to 6pm when the gate is locked)
for pedestrians heading from Khao San to Phra Athit.

In a tiny, nonsignposted alley that runs parallel to Tanao Road
(behind Burger King) are the only strictly vegetarian restaurants
in the area. They include the 24-hour Number One and May Kaidee;
in business for over two decades, the latter now offers cookery classes.

Phra Sumen Fort, located on the corner of Phra Sumen and Phra
Athit roads, is one of only two forts that remain standing from the
original 14 which King Rama I had built to protect the perimeter
of his newly founded capital from the marauding Burmese. Phra
Sumen Fort was renovated by the Bangkok Metropolitan
Administration and turned into a tourist attraction to mark the
city’s bicentennial in 1982.

If not the oldest commercial premises on Phra
Athit Road, Roti-Mataba is definitely the busiest
these days. This tiny, decades-old food shop
opposite Phra Sumen Fort serves up dishes like
massaman curry, samosas and fish cakes, but
the two best-selling items on its menu are what
give the place its name. Whether it’s something
sweet or a savoury snack you’re after, you’ll
certainly find a variant of the fried Indian flatbread
here to tickle your fancy. You’ll probably have to
queue for ages, but once you bite into one of
these crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside
concoctions, you’ll realise that it was well worth the
long wait.

In a tiny, nonsignposted alley that runs parallel
to Tanao Road (behind Burger King) are the only
strictly vegetarian restaurants in the area. They
include the 24-hour Number One and May Kaidee;
in business for over two decades, the latter now
offers cookery classes.

Bang Lamphu Market, which takes up most of the footpath
space along Krai Si and Tani roads, has stall after stall of
cheap garments and food. Sandwiched between these two
streets is Banglamphu Department Store, which is itself home
to dozens of reasonably priced clothing stores, a large
number of which do a roaring trade in uniforms for university
students.

Since it regularly hosts citizens from practically every
nation in the world, Khao San Road and its environs
offers a diverse range of cuisines, everything from
Indian curries, Japanese sushi and Italian pizza to
British fish ’n’ chips, Turkish kebabs, felafals and other
Middle Eastern treats. Oddly, one of the most popular
quick snacks on the strip isphad thai . But Khao San
Road vendors now charge 40 baht for a pale imitation
of this quasi-national fried-noodle dish—a bland,
greasy concoction which is about as authentic in flavour
and ingredients as the bootleg CDs sold from nearby
carts. For that price you’d get a properphad thai in a
decent restaurant.

Like many cities, Bangkok was built on the banks
of a major river. Unlike many other metropolitan
centres, however, most of the prime riverfront real
estate in our capital has been hijacked by fivestar
hotels, temples and restaurants. This short waterfront
path between Phra Pinklao Bridge and Santichai
Prakan Park is one of the few spots in the city centre
where one doesn’t have to fork out for a meal or a
room in order to get close enough to the river to
enjoy the cool breezes that waft from its surface.

With firms like Starbucks, Scoozi and iStudio
doing business on the street and well-to-do locals
making up a large chunk of the crowd these days,
Khao San is not the down-at-the-heel place it used
to be. But certain iconic features and types have
survived. There are still dingy guesthouses screening
loud movies and neon-lit beer bars galore. The
hair-braiders and tattoo artists are still around as
are the dodgy travel agents, bootleg-CD vendors
and purveyors of fake IDs and diplomas.

Right next to Phra Sumen Fort is Santichai Prakan Park, a small patch
of open space that stretches right down to the riverfront. A green oasis
in a very built-up area of the city, it has become popular with young and
old alike and, probably because of the great views it affords of the
mighty Chao Phraya and Rama VIII Bridge, practically every second
visitor seems to come armed with a camera. TheBMAuses it as a venue
for festivals and other public events and it also attracts budding
musicians plus a contingent of teenage breakdancers eager to show off
their skills.

Phra Athit Road, named after a now-demolished fort on the old city
wall, boasts lovely old shophouses plus graceful, colonial-style
mansions like Ban Phra Athit, Ban Tha Chang and a building now
used as offices by Unicef. It is also home to a host of little artsy
cafe´s, bars and restaurants which are usually thronged after dark
by university students and other young trendsetters.

Bron: Bangkok Post / www.bangkokpost.com