Pichit Virankabutra likes to stir the pot. “We are trying to disrupt how people learn and do things,” he tells me, grinning mischievously. With impeccably sharp wit and an infectious smile, Pichit speaks in bursts of energy. His conversations are punctuated with ingenious plots and schemes, and an unwavering commitment to try them all out. These qualities serve him well in his role as space development director at the Thailand Creative Design Center (TCDC), a public institution whose mission is to get people’s creative juices flowing. It helps then that TCDC is located on Charoen Krung Road, a major thoroughfare that runs parallel to the Chao Phraya River for at least 8km. It’s now the epicenter of what’s being dubbed Bangkok’s “Creative District”, an up-and-coming area of the city buzzing with new life, thanks to artists, designers, and musicians.
Ensconced in Bangkok’s former Grand Postal Building, TCDC’s stylish digs include a gorgeous library dedicated to art and design books, a hands-on material and design innovation center and unconventional, offbeat exhibitions that conspire to insert a design vocabulary into the city’s cultural dialogue. With the fervor of a mad scientist, Pichit excitedly explains TCDC’s prototype for new neighborhood signage that relies on cartoonish cat and mouse figures painted on the walls and sidewalks. The sketches show cats lazing on tree branches, slinking down an alley and chasing scurrying mice past heritage shophouses. The whimsical cat and mice chase scenes are a ploy to inspire folks to look up from their smartphones and explore the area on foot, Pichit explains.
The signs are clearly random and fun. And they’re working. Pedestrians chase the cats and mice down narrow lanes off Charoen Krung and discover the area’s abundant hidden-in-plain-sight wonders and curiosities. Cartoonish drawings are not really the stuff of highbrow design, and that is precisely why Pichit and his team are drawn to them. He likes to call this approach “design thinking” — a creative strategy that uses good design to tackle social and economic issues. And design thinking — and design doing — is accelerating in the Thai capital.
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Bangkok revels in contrasts. A megacity of nearly 20 million people, parts of the city still feel like a small village. Old-timers and hipsters, wooden shacks and skyscrapers, ultra-luxury air-conditioned malls and steamy open-air markets, noodle shops and Michelin-starred restaurants, rickshaws and BMWs — they all coexist and intermingle in its vast urban sprawl. So, when TCDC and the city’s fresh Creative District began making inroads on Charoen Krung Road, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. This is Bangkok, after all, and it made sense for the city’s unconventional artists to pitch up and cause a stir in Charoen Krung’s quiet riverside setting.
After its construction in the mid-1800s, Charoen Krung, Bangkok’s first major road built using modern construction methods, functioned as the city’s “Main Street”, providing Thai-Chinese merchants access to each other and to the robust commercial traffic on the river. It was home to the city’s first European quarter, and its narrow sois, or side streets, are dotted with churches and stunning examples of colonial architecture. The presence of a century-old mosque, Buddhist temples, and a Chinese shrine are a testament to the area’s rich, multicultural history.
In spite of progress, Charoen Krung remains immersed in nostalgia. Most families here have been around for generations, and there is a palpable sense of intimacy and camaraderie. Talk to any native Bangkokian, and they’ll regale you with stories of making trips to Bangrak to eat jok (rice porridge and pork balls), to shop for gems and accessories or to attend weddings at one of the area’s riverside hotels. Besides these outings, folks rarely traveled to Charoen Krung.
In 2016, the Bukruk Urban Arts Festival, a Bangkok-based arts organization, launched a street art festival in the area and invited international and local graffiti artists to paint murals in and around the Bangrak neighborhood. The colorful contemporary murals, painted on the façades of classic shophouses, provided a visual context and added credibility to the emerging hotbed of artistic expression. It came at a time when a handful of experimental art spaces and music venues were opening up in the area. Lured by affordable rents, walkable streets and access to the river and a slower pace of life, the newcomers re-energized the area with new ideas for living and working, and soon the entire zone became known by its unofficial Creative District moniker. It’s an ad hoc term that comprises little pockets of creative energy — think hip galleries, studios, eateries and bars dotting the historic thoroughfare — and typically includes Bangrak, Talad Noi and Soi Nana (a small street in Chinatown), all on Charoen Krung Road proper, and Khlong San, a riverside community directly across the river.
The addition of TCDC in 2017 amplified the area’s growth, attracting a broader demographic of locals from around the city. In October 2017, Michelin Guide Bangkok acknowledged several traditional food stalls and new eateries in the area, and the Creative District’s foodie appeal skyrocketed. Bangkok’s glitterati and partygoers now flock here to eat and drink at newly opened bars and restaurants. A number of new luxury hotels and condominiums are also in the works and will no doubt continue to draw in locals and tourists. Long-time residents, meanwhile, are entertained by all the fuss and welcome the increased foot traffic and additional sales.
“At this point the Creative District is more about mood and atmosphere,” remarks Thanan Lilaonitkul, a Bangkok-based writer who co-directs the newly formed Creative District Foundation (CDF), a non-profit founded by private citizens — many of whom are local artists, architects and hoteliers — who are trying to formalize the term and bring some clarity to what it means. “The District belongs to no one, and anyone can take part in shaping it,” he continues, adding the importance of bringing a unified voice between Charoen Krung’s long-time residents and businesses and the new arrivals.
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I catch up with Pichit in early February 2018, during TCDC’s inaugural Bangkok Design Week. The event brings together established designers and new talent who use design thinking to create innovative lifestyle products. In front of TCDC, a large installation constructed from recycled plastic showcases examples of sustainable design. Products run the gamut from plastic trash turned into haute couture frocks, to sipping straws crafted into bespoke jewelry. A progressive landscape architect named Yossapon Boonsom turns a sand barge into a floating garden on the Chao Phraya River. Thammasat University students take a stab at coming up with design solutions for refurbishing century-old shophouses. Hundreds of young talents exhibit intriguing takes on clothing, accessories, furniture, lighting, and food.
At dusk, a neon lighting installation illuminates Talad Noi’s ancient alleyways, highlighting the neighborhood’s eclectic blend of old Chinese mansions, greasy motor parts shops and hip spots like Jua, a gallery and izakaya rolled into one; 80/20, an experimental Thai eatery; and Tropic City, a colorful, rum-inspired salon. Street food fairs electrify every section of the Creative District.
The turnout at Bangkok Design Week is phenomenal, and Pichit looks optimistic. Workshops and breakout sessions explaining everything from design concepts to creative marketing strategies fill up quickly with university students and professionals. Other interested patrons queue for hours on waitlists to enjoy the arts and crafts activities, exhibitions, street food and general fanfare.
In spite of the area’s good vibes and creative glow, both Pichit and Thanan suggest the need to tread carefully. For local residents who’ve been here for a lifetime, it’s a chance to revive the area’s economic potential. For the young entrepreneurs, the Creative District presents an opportunity to pursue their own work and to become part of a community.
“Once you place-brand a space, there’s a risk of gentrification and displacement. None of that has happened yet. We want to make sure we move forward collectively to make clear-eyed decisions. We want to advance the community and protect its heritage,” Thanan states. “Every stakeholder is more likely to benefit from the changes in collaboration and common ground.”
“The ‘hipster elite’ has already arrived, now we just need to get everyone else here,” Pichit beams, as we watch crowds mill about the festivities. Although plenty of families with young children and neighborhood residents are also in the mix, he’s right. Pichit wants to see more local participation. To this end, TCDC and CDF have been canvassing the neighborhood, talking to local residents and shopkeepers to see how to move forward collectively. At town hall meetings held by CDF, Charoen Krung’s residents come forward with plenty of ideas, including repurposing heritage buildings, creating more green space, installing better signage and providing more public access to the river. “People want an alternative to being in an air-conditioned mall,” Pichit remarks, adding that the large turnout demonstrates that Bangkokians are poised for a shift in cultural behavior.
Meanwhile, Pichit is exercising, literally, his own shift in behavior. These days, he walks to his office from Saphan Taksin BTS station, the closest public transport hub. “It’s about a 1km walk and only takes me nine minutes. I don’t know why I didn’t start walking earlier. There is so much to see!” So much that, every now and then, nine minutes stretch to half an hour of following cats and mice down pathways of a part of the city that’s at once familiar and new.
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Street smart: Charoen Krung Road
In many ways, Charoen Krung Road is a living record of the city’s evolution, from an intimate and ceremonious royal capital to a high-octane megacity. Bangkok’s first paved road, Charoen Krung was built to connect the Grand Palace to the city’s first port of call, near the iconic Customs House and Oriental Hotel. Charoen Krung Road begins south of Saphan Taksin and heads north towards Rattanakosin, the seat of Thai royalty. Along the way, Charoen Krung marches through Bangrak, Talad Noi and Yaowarat (or Chinatown), all major districts that still retain the spirit of small towns and villages.
Where to eat and drink
80/20. The Michelin Guide singled out this rustic eatery for its ingredient-driven and well-presented menu. fb.com/8020bkk
Jua. This cozy, warmly lit eatery serves creative izakaya-style fare and handcrafted sake. They host gorgeous photography exhibits too. fb.com/juabangkok
FooJohn Building. A classic French bistro, an American-style smokehouse and a cool cocktail lounge fill this three-story food hall. fb.com/foojohnbkk
Maison Chatenet. A chic patisserie and café with mouth-watering éclairs, tarts and savory croissants filled with porchetta. fb.com/maisonchatenet
Where to shop
Warehouse 30. A row of WWII-era warehouses converted into a modern hangout with multi-label shops, cafés and a documentary screening room. fb.com/thewarehouse30
P Tendercool. An ultra-cool furniture gallery with functional and beautiful tables made from reclaimed centuries-old hardwoods. ptendercool.com
What to see
Atta Gallery. A great collection of jewelry designs by local and international artists. attagallery.com
Aoon Pottery. This pottery studio and café is a pleasant nook to learn about Thai pottery and enjoy small, light fare. fb.com/aoonpottery
Serindia Gallery. An ethereal space with well-curated, thoughtful fine art exhibits. serindiagallery.com
Soy Sauce Factory. This long-standing experimental gallery just got a makeover with fresh installations and a new design studio. fb.com/soysaucefactory
Where to stay
The Prince Theatre Heritage Stay. The former movie theater has been spiffed up as a luxury hostel with shared accommodations and private suites. Don’t miss the movie-inspired cocktails! princeheritage.com
Baan 2459. In the heart of bustling Chinatown, this serene, beautifully renovated bungalow features four charming suites, an excellent café, and a rooftop sitting area. baan2459.com
Non Inn. A design-savvy husband-and-wife team transformed a former jewelry studio and barbershop into cool apartments. fb.com/noninnbkk
This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Smile magazine.