Today, there’s more reason than ever to explore the historic streets that trace the path of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, where crumbling storefronts and run-down warehouses are being given a new lease of life thanks to a new generation of forward-thinking creatives.
If you’ve visited Bangkok in recent years, you may well have stumbled into at least one of the trendy new coffee shops, cocktail bars, and art galleries along the city’s Charoen Krung Road. This more than five-mile-long thoroughfare that runs parallel to Bangkok’s River of Kings, or Chao Phraya River, was built in the 1860s under the reign of King Rama IV, and is known as the first road in Bangkok to be built using modern construction methods. In the late 2010s, this once-somewhat-seedy district—packed with technicolored tuk-tuks, pungent street food, gold merchants, and ever-chaotic traffic—saw an influx of new investment. From 2017 to 2019, the launch of two new MRT subway stations, alongside the opening of the Thailand Creative and Design Center, enticed a string of pioneering Thai entrepreneurs to move into the area.
Hoteliers were quick to get in on the act. At the start of 2020, Charoen Krung was getting ready to add two ultra-luxury hotels to its already impressive credentials, as the Four Seasons Bangkok and Capella Bangkok geared up to open their glitzy doors in this enviable riverfront location.
Then, disaster struck. For Thailand, a country where tourism accounts for around 18% of overall GDP, the pandemic was nothing short of catastrophic. (Even more so because it took until the second half of 2022 for all entry restrictions to be lifted.) As hospitality jobs dwindled, many locals were forced to leave the capital and return to their family homes, while those who remained steered clear of crowded places. In the previously vibrant Song Wat and Vanich 1 roads—streets that run parallel to the riverbank and Charoen Krung Road, forming one of the oldest commercial districts in the Thai capital—owners of the traditional shophouses selling wholesale goods like spices, food, and shoes saw their livelihoods fall off a cliff.
“When we opened Potong in 2021, our friends thought we’d lost our minds,” chuckles Chef Pam (Pichaya Soontornyanakij), one of the brightest shining stars on Bangkok’s fine dining scene. In just over two years, her Potong restaurant, set in a narrow, paved alleyway between Charoen Krung and Song Wat Roads, has been awarded one Michelin star and an impressive 35th place on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking.
“At the time, nobody believed in the area, and everyone seemed to be leaving,” continues Chef Pam, emphasizing that she and her husband Tor Boonpiti never lost faith in Song Wat, the buzzing, mostly Thai-Chinese district that has been home to five generations of her family.
In mid-2022, Pam and Tor joined a group of like-minded local entrepreneurs in launching “Made in Song Wat,” a community dedicated to the revival of the historic neighborhood. Fast-forward to 2024, and the regeneration that began pre-pandemic in Charoen Krung Road is extending to Song Wat. A heady blend of contemporary and traditional, heritage and innovation, these streets are filled with everything from ancient shrines to the city’s best fish ball noodles and some of its coolest art galleries and cocktail bars. But you have to know where to look. Here are the best spots to eat, drink, shop, and play between Bangkok’s hip Charoen Krung and Song Wat Roads.
Where to Eat
“Everyone thinks Charoen Krung Road is the oldest in Bangkok, but, the road where Potong is located, Vanich I Road, was built under King Rama I in the early 1800s,” explains Tor Boonpiti, husband and business partner of Potong’s Chef Pam, the youngest and first-ever female chef to receive Michelin Thailand Opening of the Year Award. (Meanwhile, Potong was named Asia’s Best New Restaurant of 2022.)
Her tasting menus are bursting with Thai-Chinese heritage: dishes like the flavor-packed 14-day, five-spice aged duck and an ingenious twist on pad Thai, all served in a meticulously restored five-story Sino-Portuguese building in which Chef Pam’s family lived and ran their Chinese medicine business for four generations. On the fourth floor, you’ll find the sexy, sultry Opium cocktail bar, also recognized by 50 Best as one of the top drinking spots in Asia.
This Michelin-approved hawker stall in Song Wat Road has achieved legendary status for its “bouncing” fish balls served with homemade egg noodles (guay tiew look chin pla). For more than eight decades, this family-run spot has been serving its well-guarded ancestral recipe, voted the best in Bangkok. Their bouncy balls are made from carefully selected large fish and prepared without starch, lending them their sticky, soft texture.
FV, which quite simply stands for fruit and vegetables, is a café specializing in juices and Thai desserts made from local fruit, veg, and weeds (no, not that kind). Set in a beautifully converted shophouse, the décor alone is reason enough to visit—the interior includes a traditional Thai wooden house-within-a-house—and that’s before you’ve even tasted the surprisingly savory and tannic fresh tamarind juice that will have you returning again and again.
Blending artisanal Thai designs with Scandi minimalism, Araksa Tea Room is like an intimate oasis in an alley just off the chaotic Charoen Krung Road. Serving single-origin organic tea from Araksa’s garden in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, the menu also includes a series of delicious, healthy dishes, like khao yum: a fragrant herbal salad of turmeric and butterfly pea flower rice with toasted coconut, ginger, wild ginger flower, cashews, green mango, pomelo, and lemongrass.
Another feline-friendly coffee joint, this one was founded by the mother roaster herself: Pim, a sweet lady in her seventies, who locals refer to as “Pa Pim” or Auntie Pim. At street level, this may appear to be a dingy old automotive parts shop but, climb the rickety staircase, and you’ll find yourself in a hidden coffee shop full of cats and oddly mismatched furniture that may well remind you of your grandma’s living room.
Looking around the new Charoen Krung branch of Ayatana Café, it’s clear that this is a place to see and be seen. Trendy young things sip cold brew as they take advantage of the excellent lighting to fill their feeds with snaps of the cool interior and its artworks. But Ayatana doesn’t just look good, everything tastes delicious too—from the refreshing matcha Khao Lam affogato, to the decadent mango sticky rice tart.
If a crispy pastry filled with steaming, flavor-packed curry sounds like your kind of poison, then look no further than Bangkok’s most famous curry puff house. Khun Pu has been selling these popular savory pastries out of an unassuming turquoise shopfront in Talat Noi off Charoen Krung Road for 17 years. They always sell out so either arrive early or ask your hotel to call ahead and book to avoid disappointment.
What to See
Founded by local artist Kiattiwat Srichanwanpen, one of the brains behind the Made in Song Wat community, PLAY Art House in Song Wat Road is a contemporary art gallery set in a restored century-old building. The gallery unveils a new exhibition every month: from contemporary works by Thai and international artists and photographers to live performances. Admission is free.
This cat-filled café and artisanal workshop where local ceramicist Nguan makes and exhibits his craftsmanship. The word “Aoon” translates as warm, and that is exactly the vibe that both the quiet, airy café and Nguan’s earthy, elegant ceramic designs exude. Visits to the studio are by appointment only, just reach out a day in advance to book a slot.
Set in Bangkok’s burgeoning creative district, minutes away from the Thailand Creative & Design Center and Warehouse 30 shopping and art complex, ATT 19 is a retail, events, and exhibition space and contemporary art gallery. It showcases art, antiques, fashion, and design pieces from across Asia, most of which are also for sale, in a building that has largely been restored using reclaimed, recycled, and repurposed materials.
Where to Stay
Few hotels have caused as much of a stir lately as the new Capella Bangkok—and it’s easy to see why. Opened mid-pandemic, Capella snatched an impressive eleventh spot in the first-ever 50 Best Hotels rankings last year, despite having only been open to international visitors for just over a year. Set between Charoen Krung Road and the Chao Phraya River, the hotel is the ideal choice for guests who don’t want to compromise between a sophisticated retreat and squeezing every drop out of the city.
If you want to fall in love with Bangkok, Capella is the place to do it. A typical day at Capella might start with a serene riverfront breakfast watching the barges and longtail boats chug up the Chao Praya, before grabbing a tuk-tuk and whizzing up the Charoen Krung Road. Back at the hotel, cool down with a rejuvenating treatment at the dreamy Auriga Spa before being transported to the French Riviera for dinner at sublime Côte by three-star Michelin chef Mauro Colagreco.
Service here is so smooth the staff seem to know what you need before you even think of it. From private boat transfers to the complimentary pressing service, or your “Capella Culturalist” who is like a personal concierge with insider access to anything you may wish for, nothing is ever too much trouble.