A Country Balanced Between Old & New
For the last five years, I have lived abroad as an international school counselor. I spent three years in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and my most recent post the past two years is in Bangkok, Thailand. Look up any guidebook for Thailand and the front cover will likely be a pristine beach on one of its southern islands with no cars, motorbikes, or tuk-tuks in sight.
The beautiful beaches are certainly what helped propel Thailand to become one of the top tourism/expat destinations around the world, but it is not the only reason why I chose to live here. One of the biggest draws for me is Bangkok’s amazing mish mash of old and new. Bangkok is where one can enjoy the conveniences of the ultra-modern malls and as the locals say “hi-so” (high society) cafes or trek out to a neighborhood housing a chedi dating back to the ancient Siamese capital of Ayut
The klong (canal) community sits along an artery of the Chao Phraya River, tucked away from the tourist drag of Wat Po and Wat Arun.
thaya. All without ever having to leave the city limits. For travelers who enjoy cities with such intense contrasts, Bangkok is the perfect destination. When I moved here, it was my goal to get to know the city and its layers. One such place where you can find remnants of Bangkok’s yesteryears is Klong Bang Luang, home of Baan Silapin or the Artists House. I’d heard about it from a good friend of mine, Aloha, who’d lived in Bangkok for several years and is a photographer, teacher, and writer. She told me about this amazing place in the city, but hidden away because it’s not near public transportation or any of the tourist landmarks. Having been there several Hours Baan Silapin is open daily from 9AM- 6PM.
The puppet show is usually daily at 2PM (except Wednesdays), unless they are booked for a performance elsewhere. There is no entrance fee, but are welcome to leave a donation that will go towards the house’s upkeep and community programming. times now myself, her description hits it right on the head. The klong (canal) community sits along an artery of the Chao Phraya River, tucked away from the tourist drag of Wat Po and Wat Arun.
According to Mark Wiens of migrationology.com, Baan Silapin is approximately 200 years old. It was purchased by Khun Chumpol Akkapantanon and renovated into a community art space. The aforementioned Ayutthaya-era chedi is housed in Baan Silapin’s courtyard. My first trek out to Klong Bang Luang was with my friend Lauren who, like me, was an expat curious to see a part of the city hidden away from the highrises. We met at the Siam SkyTrain station and boarded the train on the Silom line, heading in the direction of Bang Wa. I was a little bit anxious because of the language barrier and none of the landmarks noted in the blogs I read prior to going were familiar to me. Following Mark Wiens’ directions from migrationology.com, we got out at Wong Wian Yai BTS and hailed a taxi.
I asked the taxi driver to take us to Charan Sanit Wong Soi 3 and we were on our way. I checked the GPS on my phone and we seemed headed in the right direction. We turned down a narrow alley or soi and the taxi stopped at a dead end. A bit confused, we got out and the locals figured out where we wanted to go. They pointed out the little path to the footbridge and within minutes we were taking off our shoes at Baan Silapin.
Upon crossing the footbridge, it was immediately evident to me why the Klong Bang Luang community is a special place in Bangkok. The wooden structures and houses throughout the klong are roughly 100 – 200 years old like Baan Silapin. The narrow sois leave no room for cars – most people get around on-foot, bikes, or scooters. No skyscrapers or large condo towers in sight. This exudes a laidback intimacy where the rest of the city moves at a frenetic pace. You can visit the different shops and have a look at their handmade goods. Or you can buy some fish food, sit on the bank of the klong, feed fish and watching the klong boats motor past. The food in the klong is very good and cheap. I have tried the fresh brewed iced coffees and iced teas, curries, and boat noodles from various vendors and have never been disappointed. Average price for a plate or bowl of food is 30-70 baht ($1-$2.50 USD). Not many of the locals speak English, but don’t let this be a hindrance. From my experience, they’re all very friendly and helpful regardless of the language barrier.
While I love walking through the sois of the klong, the heart of Klong Bang Luang is definitely Baan Silapin. Here, the community and visitors converge to create a lively, interactive space. Adorning the walls and the upper floor are paintings and sculptures by various local artists. When not in use, the puppets of the Kham Nai traditional puppet troupe are on display so you can get up close and personal, admiring their intricate details. On the ground floor is a little café and gift shop where you can purchase locally made silk screens, postcards, and books written in Thai.
On weekends, the house’s groundfloor hosts a Kham Nai puppet troupe performance. They present a chapter of the Ramakien – Thailand’s take on the Hindi epic Ramayana. It highlights the intersection of Hinduism and Buddhism that makes up Thai culture. You might even catch the dance and puppeteering lessons geared towards the local youth.If you want to flex your painting skills, you can sit down in the café and paint a mask. Lastly, while tour groups do come, Baan Silapin and Klong Bang Luang is still very much a popular stop for locals as well. On the days I’ve gone –only weekends did I see tour groups who were mostly coming to see the Kham Nai show. On the weekdays I’ve gone – most visitors were Thai.
Take the day and soak it all in. It is not uncommon to hear travelers in Thailand say “If you want to see the real Thailand, don’t stay in Bangkok – go to Chiang Mai (the Queen city of the North) or go to Pha Nga province in the South….or…<insert non-Bangkok town here>.” If you ask them to explain their reasoning further, it becomes evident that they have a very idealized picture of Thailand – one that only exists in pictures. What they fail to acknowledge is that Thailand prides itself in offering the old and the new. Bangkok exemplifies this contrast and the Klong Bang Luang community is just one of many examples throughout the capital city where one can experience a distinct shift from modernity amidst the urban jungle. That shift, to me, is “the real Thailand.”
Yvette Santos Cuenco, aka The Roaming Filipina, is an international school counselor originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to moving abroad, Yvette lived and worked in Brooklyn, NY as a licensed social worker for seven years. She can trace her wanderlust to her frst trip abroad, the Philippines, in the 1980s. On her spare time she enjoys dabbling in street photography, cooking, enjoying epic food and DJ-ing.
Follow her adventures at www.yvettecuenco.com.Twitter & Instagram: @vettievette