Thailand’s always been a magnet for traders and travellers seeking out the Oriental flavour, and for centuries they used the mighty Chao Phraya River as their gateway into the heart of Siam. This bustling waterway, with its ever-changing sights, scents and mystery evokes all that is exotic about the East – embassies, intrigue and adventure have always thrived along the river’s banks.
But as the Chao Phraya’s piers were made redundant by airports, and Bangkok’s attractions spread beyond the winding river to the concrete canyons of Sukhumvit and Silom, traders and travellers only saw the River of Kings when on sightseeing and temple tours. But the river is the essence of old Bangkok, certainly more so than modern malls and interminable traffic. So people are increasingly drawn back here.
And this explains the rise of Asiatique-The Riverfront, a new shopping and entertainment venue on the Chao Phraya River.
Now I am not a shopper. I do visit Bangkok’s famous malls but only for clothes or a dose of air-conditioning. After all, shopping isn’t everyone’s hobby. But as someone interested in Asia’s past, and Bangkok’s history, Asiatique intrigued me. It’s built around an old trading pier where Europeans once came to buy and sell goods, unlike modern tourists who seek out beaches and sightseeing. And I was told Asiatique boasted a touch of the theatrical, so I went to take a look.
Asiatique’s 1,500 shops, boutiques and restaurants occupy the old warehouses and waterfront properties that were home to the East Asiatic Company in the early 1900s. This trading business was established by Danish national Hans Nille Anderson, who specialised in the export of timber from the region’s lush forests.
Now the area bustles with shoppers rather than teak traders, but the coolies and colonial types are still here, albeit in the form of handsome bronze statues. Company directors welcome visitors at the pier, but there are also labourers bent double under sacks and even a Chinese rickshaw man, waiting patiently for customers – informative plaques reveal their history.
A more genuine historic relic is the bunker that survived from the Second World War. The only other I’ve seen in Thailand is found, somewhat incongruously in Dusit Zoo – also in Bangkok.
Not everything is old. New additions to the site include a traditional-style tram that takes weary shoppers on fun,short trips to the riverfront. But the stand-out new feature is the massive Ferris Wheel, Thailand’s largest and named after the mighty Mekong River. There’s a grand view from the top, but if you prefer your head to spin at ground level, a funky bar at the base serves a range of cocktails.
In fact, drinkers and diners are well catered for all over Asiatique. Food is international, as you’d expect in a “trading hub” so you can enjoy anything from kebabs to kimchi or burgers to bolognaise. The plusher eateries are by the waterfront, but there are stalls and casual restaurants aimed at a range of budgets.
Of course, trade is the theme, so the heart of Asiatique is its market, which has stalls selling everything from bottle openers to beautiful paintings. There’s not much you won’t find elsewhere but the area evokes the much-missed Suan Lum Night Bazaar only with the welcome addition of jet coolers at intersections that blow down the aisles and cool off frantic shoppers.
Asiatique isn’t merely aimed at souvenir seekers though. You can miss the markets entirely and enjoy the street performers or even a meal and a show. The renowned Calypso Cabaret has made its home here. Twice nightly, they stage a glittering extravaganza featuring Thailand’s tall and talented transgender performers, singing out their hearts in fancy frocks.
Also packing a punch is “Muay Thai Live – The legend Lives”, which theatrically and energetically tells the long story of Thailand’s famous fighting art in about one hour and 15 minutes. But if you’re short on time and money, a “4D Y-Max” cinema offers five-minute film-shows on moving seats that shake and shudder along with the on-screen action.
The edu-tainment and trading theme gives Asiatique a different feel to Bangkok’s downtown malls and arriving by boat adds to the charm. Seeing the Ferris Wheel loom over you brings to mind Brooklyn’s Coney Island or Sydney’s famous Luna Park.
But Asiatique’s edge, for me, comes from the fact that it puts the focus back on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River. Once again, visitors get a taste of all that is exotic about the East. Siamese flavour, it seems, is back in favour.
Asiatique – The Riverfront is open daily from 7:00p.m. to midnight. A free boat leaves Taksin Pier every 20 minutes. Taksin Pier is linked with downtown Bangkok via the BTS Skytrain system.