Everything old is new again

Discover Bangkok's heritage hidden gems

Bangkok is a city that constantly sees new constructions reaching up to the sky. But if you look close enough, a great number of ancient homes are being brought back to life, reborn with renewed purpose. They demonstrate that embracing historical beauty along with modern innovation produces fascinating and profitable results, with the reassurance that architecturally significant homes are being kept alive. Over the recent years, such places have been popping up more and we hope they continue to. Guru has scoped out some of Bangkok's most admirable, century-old homes to discover the stories behind them.

Baan Dusit

The house, beautifully built in the German Fachwerk style, belongs to Sawat Osathanukroh, who bought it from a Hong Kong businessman during World War II. By that time, the house was already 80 years old. The sprawling 7,200m² land area that it sits in, contains another house, a sizeable garden, a tennis court and a swimming pool. Sculptures depicting characters from famous Thai folk tales, Krai Thong and Chalawan now reside in the middle of the garden, at the spot where an air raid shelter used to stand during World War II. The house is in old industrial design. When it underwent renovations, the original structure was kept the same and now it almost feels like an unfinished design from the past, which is a part of the charm. "We want to keep the house exactly as it was for it to express its own history. What we did was just redecorate the place to also reminisce the old Dusit Thani, as you can see from the old artefacts and framed black & white pictures adorning the place throughout. Those were from the hotel," managing director Jean-Michel Dixte added.

Nestled on Sala Daeng, the 100-year-old Baan Dusit has been given a new lease of life and a place to dine at, by Dusit Thani. The house was restored by architectural firm PIA and is now a functional space that fits three midsize dining venues. Jean-Michel Dixte, managing director, elaborates on the design elements, "We wanted to keep the legacy of the hotel alive, as well as bridge the gap between heritage and the modern world, so that the younger generation can also appreciate the Dusit Thani brand. Most people associate Dusit Thani with being more popular with older guests, so we wanted to create a more dynamic environment here that resonates with younger people too."

It seems like Dixtel's design goals have been achieved, as the space, while maintaining a mature feel, also looks up-to-date. The interior is a blend of classical and industrial elements, with subtle shades of pastel colours. The bubbly staff boast the ability to provide scrupulous service and excellent hospitality because they have all worked at Dusit Thani hotel. "Another thing that is very important to us is keeping all our staff. Most of them have been with us for years, so we want to give them something to do while waiting for the Dusit Thani hotel project to be done," Dixte said.

About the place:
Inside the property, there are three different outlets, each with a unique identity that speaks to different generations.

Come early in the morning to get a spot at Dusit Gourmet, a cozy, little cafe that is nestled inside a small wooden house located at the front of the property. The cafe serves pastries in a setting washed in natural light, along with hearty breakfast plates, sandwiches and salads. Tuck into the comfort of Blueberry waffle with mascarpone cream (B170), or nourish yourself with a healthy Acai bowl served with assorted toppings (B240). When night falls, the cafe turns into a garden bar with craft beers and organic wines on offer, plus small bites.

Sitting right at the heart of the property is Benjarong, the upscale, yet homely fine-dining restaurant, where you can indulge in refined Thai cuisine. The kitchen whips up classic takes on Thai cuisine inside an old residence reinvented with soft colours and a soundtrack of old Thai songs. The Green coconut curry (B590), while sounding basic, is smooth yet complex, with a fancy addition of tender Australian short ribs, sous-vided for 72 hours.

Towards the back of the property is a former warehouse that has been taken over by Thien Duong, an elevated Vietnamese-meets-French restaurant. The space, fitted out to have a more modern look than the other two restaurants, is filled with vibrant artwork and painted with an eclectic mix of colours. If you are stumped on what to order, we recommend the Deep-fried flounder with lemongrass sauce (B390) and Grilled kurobuta pork tenderloin with fresh dill (B310) before ending the meal with a Longan pudding with fresh cream (B120).

116 Sala Daeng Road / Open daily 7am-11pm / Call 02-200-9009.

Kessara Boutique Historic Hotel

To find out who the first owner of the house was, is no easy task. Back in the day when land was more commonly used to make business deals, ownership of such properties often changed hands. According to the land certificate, it was a Lt Gen Luang Burirajbumrung, who owned the house in 1915. After that, the house saw many owners before it became into the possession of Prae's grandfather. Despite being abandoned for almost 70 years and suffering the theft of its windows and wire nets, when Prae first saw the house, it was in decent shape.

"It took me over a year to study the original house plan to be able to move forward with the renovation. I wanted to conserve as many elements as I could and change the place as little as possible. But there were quite a number of damaged structures. So, we had to find a middle ground instead and refurbish using materials from traditional manufacturers," Prae said.

All the furniture was custom-made to blend with the rest of the house. The use of rattan and untreated wood generously gives the place an unpretentious feel. The high-ceilings and surrounding windows also help the hotel to achieve a light and airy look, and the abundance of green plants makes it cozy.

In early 2017, Silom's 104-year-old house unveiled itself after two and a half years of renovation, as an endearing, pocket-sized boutique hotel. With subtle grey shades and intricate architectural elements, the establishment causes visitors to conjure up images of 17th-century Victorian houses. The hotel features seven appointed rooms, all of them reflecting the same Victorian style, with elegant cream and blue furnishings. Puntipha "Prae" Saiyavath, hotel owner, who has an architectural background, has always dreamed of opening her own inn. Shortly after she proceeded to look for an ideal spot, her grandmother stopped her. She introduced a long-forgotten residence to Prae and the rest of the family, that had been left behind by Prae's grandfather.

Photos by Apichart Jinakul

About the place:
All seven rooms are named after hard-to-find flowers used in royal ceremonies in the old days. The gimmick is in the location of each room: through the windows of the rooms, guests will have an impressive view of the garden, which contains the flowers that the rooms are named after. However, with the flowers being so rare, the hotel was only able to find three of the plants needed, namely kaew jaojom, chalong kwan and dara punnarai. If you are one who enjoys botany, be sure to book one of these. Rate starts from B3,500-B9,000 a night.

"We are a small hotel and are surrounded by big chain hotels that we cannot compete with in terms of size and in-house venues. However, what we do not have, we make up for with service. Here, we treat guests as though they are our cousins. We take note of what each guest likes to have in the room. We even remember what type of snacks they fancy and their names, of course. That shows in the feedback we have been receiving from guests staying here -- their appreciation towards our warm hospitality and attention to detail. With these, we are able to stay strong in the business," adds Prae.

38 Silom 3 (Pipat) / Call 02-091-0659.

Gingerbread House Cafe

Built in 1913, the two-story residence, which had earned the name Gingerbread House for its resemblance to Victorian-era buildings, belonged to Prasert Tabien, an aristocrat in the reign of King Rama VI and the great grandfather of Wirat Cunaratana-Angkul. Upon entering the 140m² house, you are swiftly captivated by the intricate, hand-carved wooden latticework, exquisite overhanging eaves and braced arches. With Wirat's intention to conserve the history of the house, every ornamental element is kept unchanged, with not even polishing touches applied. Look around and you will notice the scratched and faded wooden tiles that Wirat refuses to do anything about, for he wants to preserve the marks of old. The only thing they did to the house, was to lift it up 30cm in 1990.

Perhaps an unlikely setting for a dessert-focused cafe, the 106-year-old house doles out innovative takes on Thai classic desserts, that taste as spellbinding as they look. The house is looked after by the family's fourth-generation owner, Wirat, who wants to preserve the old complex by way of turning it into a cafe that doubles as a museum.

About the place:
Despite its rustic appearance, the cafe dishes out picturesque sweet treats that come in a variety of colours. Classics like bua loy (dumplings in coconut milk, B120) and lod chong noodles are served with sweet, golden yolk threads and a scoop of ice-cream (B120), taking cues from Western culture, while maintaining strong Thai elements. There are several flavours of dessert that you can pick from, like pandan, if you prefer to play it safe, but the more adventurous choice would be durian. The cafe blends fresh durian until smooth and folds it in with cream to make a concoction. Pro tip: Do not leave without tasting the rare Thai desserts set (B199), served in an elegant gold tray with eight small bites.

Photos by Apichart Jinakul

47 Dinsor Road / Open Tue-Sun 9am-8 pm / Call 097-229-7021.

Na Cafe at Bangkok 1899

Built in 1899, the complex was the former residence of Chaophraya Thammasakmontri, known among Thais as "The Father of Modern Education". The original structure of the house was designed by Italian architect Mario Tamagno, whose works can be seen at Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall and the Neilson Hays Library.

The influences of Italian architecture can be seen throughout, whether in the detailed stucco work, patterned arches or the heavy use of soft cream and dark green tones. After being left unoccupied for about 13 years, the historical home has given up its space for a non-commercial use and now functions as a cultural-civic hub and a residency for artists. The project is run by the Creative Migration with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Motor Company Fund and the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). The house is open to the public for events and art exhibitions.

Nestled inside the 120-year-old house, Na Cafe runs under the concept of being a "creative social impact cafe". Owners Diloklarp "Him" Janthachotbutr and Sakson "Saks" Rouypirom (behind Broccoli Revolution and Sati, a non-profit organisation), want to create an open space that brings people together to take part in creative activities that impact society positively, using food as a medium. The cafe also hosts professional training for youth groups and various workshops in collaboration with urban refugees; while incorporating a zero-waste practice in everything that they do.

Photos by Apichart Jinakul

About the place:
With the goal of supporting local farmers and businesses, most of the ingredients are sourced locally or plucked fresh from the backyard, which houses herbs and vegetable garden. To keep things exciting, the menu changes every month depending on where the resident chef is from. This month, the menu is dedicated to Peruvian delicacies by chef Santiago Fernández from Lima, Peru, who takes over the kitchen. House coffee is sourced directly from School Coffee with beans grown and harvested by Thai farmers. Prices for a cup of coffee starts at B50. "It's not just about having a good cup of coffee. Here, we're helping to improve the life quality of farmers," Him said.

Regarding their focus on producing minimal waste, Him says, "It's not easy to be completely 'waste-free', but we're looking to cut out as much as we can. Leftover produce from the kitchen is used to make fertiliser that is, of course, used in our own garden. Scrapes and skins of fresh fruits are fermented to make healthy gut drinks, like kombucha and tepache." Almost every month, the cafe runs a creative cooking event, Na's Test Kitchen, inviting anyone who loves to cook (regardless of their nationality and profession), to whip up their own national dish under one condition: only organic ingredients from Thailand are to be used. If you are interested in joining, visit their Facebook page to see when the next event takes place.

134 Nakhon Sawan Road / Open Tue-Sun 11am-9pm / 089-164-4454.

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