With all the capital's downtown hustle and jams, it's easy to forget that Bangkok is almost coastal. Heading anywhere south of Sathorn along the Chao Phraya, where the riverside hotels cede the valuable real estate to more industrial enterprises, you are reminded that Bangkok is indeed an active port, a tradition that began over 100 years ago with the opening of the East Asiatic Company's Siam pier. Hans Niels Andersen founded the company to create passenger and freight links by sea between Denmark and the Far East. He organized the construction of the pier and warehouses, the oldest of which date back to 1907, and would hopefully be impressed by a tasteful renovation of the area which is now Asiatique The Riverfront.
!In a city of multiple identikit malls Asiatique has worked hard to create a more interesting and diverting destination. This development positions itself as a festival market and living museum and, rather than bulldozing the area and throwing up a shiny air-con mall, they've put some thought and effort into preserving at least some of Bangkok's important maritime and trading history.
Asiatique is located on a broad stretch of riverfront downstream from Saphan Taksin and you could brave the traffic along Charoenkrung Road to get there, but much better is to arrive as the traders did a hundred years ago, by boat.
A sunset cruise along the River of Kings is always a pleasant and photogenic experience, especially with December's cool breezes, and the 10-minute trip to Asiatique gives plenty of snapshot opportunities. Their free shuttle boat departs from under the Saphan Taksin bridge by the BTS station and runs all evening until the last skytrain.
Pulling up to the Asiatique pier gives you your first sight of the impressive waterfront area, with its scalloped row of stylishly restored warehouses now storing upscale diners rather than the goods of the past. The 300-metre boardwalk packs the biggest photo-op punch, especially with its current giant Christmas tree placed right by the pier, and post-photography refuelling takes in Thai, French, Italian and seafood options, all with the choice of indoor or deck dining. This area - the waterfront district - includes Thai premium restaurant Baan Khantitha housed in a colonial-style building and the fine French cuisine of Brasserie 9. Thirsty visitors can get beers or wines and relax in one of the bars as they watch the boats go by.
The second, Factory district, is another group of restored repositories housing not only more restaurant choices - Thai, some Japanese and even an Irish pub - but a plethora of interesting shops stocking everything from touristy nicknacks to hip clothes and accessories. As a lifestyle complex there is a suitable range of products on offer, from home decor to fashion to furniture to fixies: yes, you can even pick up a trendy fixed-gear bicycle and be the envy of your dek naew friends.
Post-prandial wandering along the old tram track leads you to the Town Square district. Here Asian and Western influences mix to create an outdoor space where the imaginary workers of yore could grab a beer after work and listen to a band in the beer garden. The historical highlight of this area is the Old Sawmill, which now houses more fashionable boutiques and crafts stores, with some of the artisans beavering away on their goods throughout the evening.
Yet more shops (there are more than 1000 in total) can be found in the Charoenkrung district, named after the road they sit beside. These buildings are in traditional colonial style, but it's not all historical: they include the much more modern ladyboy dance extravaganza that is the Calypso cabaret show.
A nice touch to give context to your wanderings is to pick up the Asiatique passport: a map with a difference. It guides you around the seven historical highlights of the area, from the old warehouses to salvaged machinery and even a World War II bunker. Each spot has plaques dotted around explaining some of the history of the area and an old metal hand press stamp which embosses your passport with a 'visa', leaving you with a little souvenir of your trip.
Open daily from 5pm to midnight, Asiatique has plenty to entertain locals, expats and tourists alike and all groups are represented, especially on the busier weekend nights. However, Asiatique also plans some large festive events in December to make the trip more worthwhile. Each district has its own events, and the centrepiece is the riverfront Asiatique Park.
It's here where Thailand will finally get its own London Eye: the very first giant Ferris wheel in Thailand - named Asiatique Sky - which will transport guests high over the area, so expect your Facebook news feed to start filling up with aerial photos of the complex. Concerts throughout the month of December lead up to the big Countdown 2013 party with plenty of live music and fireworks to help you ring in the new. Town Square also features the International Beer and Wine Fest where you can pair the season's cooler temperatures with a cool glass of something international while watching live Thai rock and pop bands.
With its wide range of shopping and dining options and a historic twist, this is one of the capital's more interesting December destinations. Forget the indoor megamalls this festive season and head back in time to Asiatique The Riverfront.
About the author
- Writer: Gary Boyle