As I disembark from a bobbing river taxi onto a pier hovering over the banks of the busy Chao Phraya, a massive monitor lizard slithers out of the dark green water, rests on a clump of fallen concrete, and flicks out its long pink tongue.
I'm in the heart of Bangkok, Thailand, exploring The Creative District, the capital's most talked about neighborhood resting on the shores of the legendary river. It is one of the oldest and most culturally significant regions of the city of eight million, known to some locals as "the real Bangkok."
Here, historic Buddhist and Hindu temples with stacked, colorful tiled roofs ornamented with pointy chofas converge with abandoned 19th-century Palladian architecture and stately European churches. Banyan trees break and buckle the area's pavement and hang over the converted shop-houses and factories hugging the jumble of architecture into an exciting maze of tight corners and hidden alleyways.
Around every bend is something unexpected. For instance, the modern art gallery Serindia (SerindiaGallery.com), which has showcased many diverse exhibits including expat artist Dani Monfort Gil who depicted the colorful, sexy, and queer streets of Bangkok in 2017's "Our World" exhibit (pictured above); and 2018's "LGBTQ: Love Gets Better in Time" exhibition by Thai artist Sudraporn Teja who experimented with estrogen hormone gel on abstract paintings.
Above: More art by Dani Monfort Gil at the Serendia gallery.
During my time in the city, I notice that due to its heat and humidity and many forms of quick transportation from tuk-tuk to motorcycle taxi, Bangkok isn't much of a walking city. But the Creative District is changing that.
My guide, David Robinson, cofounder of The Creative District Foundation (CreativeDistrictBangkok.com) tells me that the transition happened during the 2016 BUKRUK Urban Art Festival (Bukruk.com), where 13 international artists were commissioned to paint street art in the district alongside many Thai street artists who painted their murals on the exterior wall of the Portuguese Ambassador's Residence.
"The festival did exactly what we thought it would," Robinson says. It brought "cycling and walking groups, tourists, young Thai, and expat couples... all walking the streets snapping and tagging street art. The happiest of them all were the street vendors who saw their sales of food and drink shoot up!"
Decorating many of the walls of the neighborhood are brightly colored and highly Instagramable works of street art that tourists jostle each other to pose in front of.
We drift by a mural of a child spray painted on one wall in a bunny costume carrying two baskets with strange little friends inside, and a savage bear leaping frighteningly from nowhere. I am most impressed with the mural etched in layers into Charoen Krung Road wall by the renowned Portuguese artist Vhils, which subtly commemorates the 500-year relationship between Thailand and Portugal.
Above: One of many murals to be found in this Thai city.
When we round the bend, we come across the massive Grand Post Office, a 1940s brutalist building that is now home to the Thailand Creative Design Center (TCDC.or.th). Inside lies a trendy gift shop, studio space, and an exhibit hall. During our visit, everyday items are repurposed into whimsical, decorative, and chic furniture (plastic suitcases transformed into handsome, cozy L-couches) in an exhibition by a collection of visionary artists.
The creativity of the district extends beyond arts and design -- we soon wind through a corridor of shop-houses before arriving in Charoenkrung 28 (CK28) a triangular block on the northern end of the district and slip into Jua (Juabkk.com) for happy hour. The beautiful minimalist sake bar hides behind a collection of potted palms and ferns; the smell of tiger prawn and corn butter bacon breeze through their leaves.
Slip into Jua (above) for happy hour. Photo courtesy Jur.
While we enjoy the small plates and tasty sake, we learn about this corner of the district where one of the sparks of creativity was first lit in 2012, the nearby gallery, Speedy Grandma, which advocates for making art inclusive to all by weaving and embedding it deeply into society.
Later we saunter to TEP BAR in Soi Nana in Chinatown for a new Thai take on the classic cocktail. As I sip the #9 (local rum, tamarind, chili, lychee, and kaffir lime leaf) three musicians take the stage to play traditional Isaan music (a style from North East Thailand). One musician holds a saw duang, a string instrument played with a bow that sings sweetly in your ear.
I hum the upbeat tune as we leave for dinner, hopping back across the Chao Phraya by river taxi to my favorite meal of the trip at The Never Ending Summer -- a Thai restaurant housed in an old ice factory where the ambiance and trendy loft-style interior are just as spectacular as the glass noodle salads, omelets, and curries.
In the converted building, over our nourishing conversations and a new twist on old classics, my group realizes the underlying thrust of the Creative District -- it is a commemoration for the past of Thailand, that proudly wears a thinking cap so that the land of smiles never loses its grin, not only in Bangkok but across the nation.
As Robinson tells me, "Having the District on the river with the new creative, artisanal, and digital businesses located in buildings, shop-houses, and warehouses of the past, it feels like we have come full circle."