It is an early morning and Bangkok is just waking up after a night of heavy rain and thunderstorms. I am sitting on the terrace of my favourite café and enjoy a cappuccino right before I head off to meet my friend for a walk. This little café feels like an oasis in the midst of Bangkok’s bustling Sukhumvit area. Their garden is one of the few plots that has not turned into a 40-storey or higher condominium or a construction site for said condos.
My usual spot is under a big tree in the shade – it is the hottest time of the year and already in the early morning it can get really hot. Right next to me is a squirrel running up the jackfruit tree, while two birds fight for the leftovers at the shrine. A stray cat comes by every morning at the same time. (And maybe I have brought some cat food in my bag – but promise to not tell anyone.)
The café and its garden are a popular spot to show that you are part of the local hip, or so-called “Hi-So”-crowd. Needless to say, the aesthetics attract many (wannabe) influencers as well. In Bangkok’s heat, walking is almost impossible if you want to look presentable upon your arrival. The parking lot is as polished as the crowd – spotting a Lamborghini is nothing out of the ordinary in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit area, even though cars which are produced outside of Thailand are very often three or four times the European price due to import taxes.
I prefer the early hours, when the garden is all mine. The squirrel and the birds have finished their breakfast. Also for me it is time to leave. I take a taxi to Rama III Road by the riverside. Longer walks in Bangkok have to be timed carefully. If we start too late, the heat and the sun will be unbearable – or our walk may come to an abrupt end due to another thunderstorm.
My friend and I cross the river via the old bridge parallel to the modern Rama III Bridge and arrive in the Thonburi district. When we walk through the small alleys, it feels like a completely different world. It is hard to imagine that this is the same city where polished luxury cars park outside chic cafés and restaurants. We walk through lanes with the traditional wooden Thai houses. They do not have glass windows – only wooden shutters. An elderly lady is just exchanging the latest gossip with her neighbour when a young guy passes on his way to the kiosk and asks them if they would also like some orange juice. We can hear a rooster nearby. I turn left and suddenly look into a kind of dark cage. At first, we do not know what is inside, but then it moves – it is a giant pig.
While Sukhumvit is home to the most expensive cars and designer fashion, many houses do not have running water or electricity in this area of the city. I walk past a father who bathes his toddler in a bucket. The locals living in the area do not gather in a minimalist and polished restaurant. They do not place their food and bags in “flatlays” for their Instagram feeds. They meet at the street food market across the Khlong, the canal. A meal is a fraction of the cost of those on the other side of the river. The small shops on the side have just opened up and the market square fills up with laughter. Vendors are shouting out their meals of the day.
We see the sign of a café into a path to what seems to be a garden at first sight. When we enter, we realise that we discover a farm. Right behind it, we see the high-rise condominiums near the Wongwian Yay skytrain station. We walk about 300 metres and arrive at Thanon Krung Thonburi – a road with four lanes on each side and the skytrain bridge above. We walk towards the old railway train station near the King Taksin Monument.
The area feels like a timetravel to multiple periods of Thai history. King Taksin liberated Ayutthaya, the former capital, from the Burmese in the 18th century and made Thonburi the capital of the Kingdom of Siam. His monument is in the centre of a roundabout connecting the Western Thonburi district with the Eastern part of Bangkok across the Chao Praya River.
The small railway station is another historical relic. It only has one track, a waiting area and a small booth to buy tickets. It is planned that this station will be connected to the recently opened, ultra-modern Bangsue railway station on the other side of the city.
After about two hours in the sun, I know it is time for me to head back. Despite multiple layers of sunscreen, my skin is starting to turn pink. It is probably not the best idea to keep walking. I cross the road via the footbridge and get a view of an empty building. If you do not know about its history, you would just walk by. Up until the nineties, this was “the” place to shop. This was Bangkok’s most famous department store in the eighties, where the “Hi-So” crowd shopped. After the shopping spree, people went to watch a movie (mostly Chinese productions) in one of the many theaters in the area. Most of them have also closed by now. Gone are the fancy cars and the designer clothes. They have moved to minimalist cafés of the other side of the river.