Off the Beaten Path - Bangkok's Hidden Gems
There's so much more to Bangkok than the infamous Khao San Road or the many well-known temples. Below, we share some of our more unique experiences across this beautiful mess of a city.
Get a Glimpse of Portuguese Bangkok in Thonburi
Wandering around Silom, Siam, and Sukhumvit, you’d be hard pressed to see much of old Bangkok these days, with just about every corner of space taken up by a new condominium or mall development. However, if you want to take an interesting historical and architectural stroll into the former “Venice of the East,” a quick ferry ride will bring you to Thonburi, across the river, where you can explore Bangkok’s Portuguese legacy.
Thonburi is a well-recommended, easy escape from the bustling and touristy side of Bangkok.
Kudi Jin, Bangkok's Oldest Church
During the 1500s, the first foreigners set foot in Thailand, known as Siam at the time. These were Portuguese traders, who originally settled in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, trading arms for textiles. When Ayutthaya was sacked by the Burmese, the Portuguese moved to Bangkok and were granted a plot of land along the Chao Phraya to start a new community. They built the Santa Cruz Church here in 1769 with the assistance of the local Chinese community. As a result, the church is also known today as Kudi Jin, which means "Chinese church" in Thai.
The church still stands today, both as an architectural gem and a centerpoint for the Thai-Catholic community, with a multi-cultural school and community center set around the Italian piazza-like church square. Wandering through the narrow alleyways, you'll find old wooden teak homes with Jesus portraits, Mary door knockers and art murals.
Thanusingha, the First Bakery in Thailand
For all you foodies out there, be sure to stop by Thanusingha, a longstanding Portuguese bakery where the same family has been making traditional Portuguese yeastless cakes for five generations.
Thanusingha Bakery House - Bangkok, Thailand
Hours: Daily, 9am-5pm
Take the BTS to Saphan Taksin and get a Chao Phraya River ferry to the Yodpiman River Walk Pier, where you can catch a cross river ferry to the Kalayanamitr Pier across the way. Santa Cruz Church is visible from the river, here, so you will have no trouble finding it.
Fortune-telling - There’s More to it than Soothsaying and Crystal Balls
Throughout Bangkok, you will come across tables or cloths on the ground with a set of Tarot cards, astrological charts and other paraphernalia surrounding a fortune teller. While most visitors might write off these superstitions as hocus pocus, most people in Southeast Asia take their prophecies as truth. In Thai, fortune teller translates to mor doo, which means “doctors who see”. They are frequented by everyone from common citizens to government officials and royalty to consult matters of the heart, business endeavors, travel plans, and a host of other important life decisions.
While some of the fortune tellers might look like used car salesmen, most are members of Thailand's International Astrological Association, which trains and proffers proficiency upon budding fortune tellers. The three-month course costs around 10,000 baht - a small fortune for most locals - and prepares the seers for a trade in star charts, palm readings, and tarot cards.
Many locals rely on the cheapest 100 baht card reading to predict good or back luck, but the fortune tellers only offer a five percent certainty rating for this service. 100 percent accuracy is promised for the flashier and more expensive 300 baht astrological reading. For more than double the price, these readings will focus on people’s lifelines and psychological makeups, although the most common line of questioning by most patrons is if their partner is cheating on them or if they will win the lottery...
Fortune telling is a pretty vintage Southeast Asian experience. If you want to try it, International Astrological Foundation fortune tellers are found across the street from the The Mall Bangkapi, as well as at the southern end of the Sanam Luang Royal Field near the Grand Palace.
Chinese Opera - An Age-old Tradition
The Teochew Chinese came to Thailand in the 19th Century and today their descendants make up about 15% of Thailand’s population. One of the traditions they brought with them was the Chinese opera, known in Thai as ngiew. One of the oldest performing arts in the world, it was a major source of communal entertainment in Bangkok’s Chinatown, with huge crowds coming out to enjoy shows after eating. Unfortunately, the arrival of video, DVDs, the internet, plus a younger generation which doesn’t understand Chinese, has relegated the opera to that of a sideshow, with old theaters left to ruin and dwindling audiences comprised mostly of the elderly.
The Modern Revival of Thai-Chinese Opera
All is not lost, as recent efforts by Thai artists to get Thai language infused into the performances, and efforts to use social media to market the colorful spectacles has helped to preserve the operas. If you're in Bangkok during any Chinese festival periods (such as Chinese New Year or the Vegetarian Festival), you’d be well advised to make your way over to Chinatown, where small stages get set up behind Wat Mangkon Kamalawat or the tiny Chao Zhou Shi Kong temple on the Chao Phraya River accessible from Charoen Krung Soi 20. Not many tourists know about, let alone attend, these performances. If you are a photographer, you’ll love the fact that you are allowed to go backstage at will and photo the performers as they go through the elaborate rituals of putting on their makeup.
It really is a memorable spectacle, as the operas are extremely visual affairs, with an astounding attention to detail being a vital part of the shows. The performers use masks and highly exaggerated facial painting to illustrate their roles and show off character, and different colors are used to represent different emotions or traits. Red stands for bravery and loyalty, while green shows impulsiveness or lack of control, and black faces show fierceness, with white showing evil, worn by the main villain in each performance.
Take the MRT to Hua Lamphong. From there, Yaowarat Road, the center of Chinatown, is a 10 minute walk. Alternatively, take the Chao Phraya River ferry to the Marine Harbour Department pier. Turn left after exiting and follow the narrow road (Soi Wanit 2) which leads to the Chao Zhou Shi Kong temple.