Chao Phraya Rises
New developments along Bangkok's "River of Kings"
A few years back, Bangkok-based architect Duangrit Bunnag was doing well. So well, in fact, that he needed more office space. After months spent looking for affordable options in the city’s central business district, but coming up dry, an
old school chum offered up a parcel of land with ramshackle pre-World War I
warehouses on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River.
Even though the land was on the unfashionable side of the river, Bunnag perked up and set about sprucing up the joint. Instead of tearing down the old buildings, the architect kept the original warehouse’s industrial, gritty veneer and recast its interiors with a clean, minimalist aesthetic.
Within a year, the ice and battery factory on the river’s less-glamorous bank had been transformed into The Jam Factory — a modern complex with office spaces, a bookstore, a café, an art gallery, lifestyle shops and a gorgeous riverside restaurant.
For ages, though home to a handful of luxury hotels, the river’s waterfront mostly consiste of traditional riverside communities, packed warehouses and abandoned buildings. So when
The Jam Factory opened in 2014 as the first multipurpose creative venue of its kind, Bangko developers and residents took note. Bunnag had unwittingly forced Bangkok to reimagine it relationship to its landmark river, and all eyes turned to the River of Kings.
The mechanical crane alights in Bangkok
Bangkok was established in the mid-18th century, when King Rama I positioned his capital city on the eastern shores of the Chao Phraya River. Punctuated by the glittering golden spires of the Grand Palace and Wat Arun, or the “Temple of Dawn,” the Chao Phraya provided a grand and romantic backdrop, charming and alluring locals and visitors alike.
For much of its history, Bangkok functioned like a typical port city, with the river serving as its main thoroughfare. Stockyards sprung up along the western banks while merchants set up shophouses on the river’s eastern shore. Wooden barges and colorful, long tail boats ferried cargo and fishermen up and down its waterways, connecting the kingdom’s far-flung provinces to the capital city and the world beyond.
By the mid-1980s, however, things began to change. Increased maritime trade and growth in Thailand’s manufacturing sector forced the relocation of the country’s main port from Bangkok to Laem Chabang, a southern harbor situated right on the Gulf of Siam.
At the same time, Bangkok began rapid urban
growth and expansion, with most of the development concentrated east of the Chao
Phraya River along the Sukhumvit, Silom and Sathorn corridor — areas that
evolved into modern Bangkok’s central business and residential districts. For
the next 30 years, office buildings, condominiums and hotels sprung up so
quickly in the area that locals joked the mechanical crane was the country’s
official bird. Meanwhile, the riverfront presented a different story.
When James Pitchon, the executive director of CBRE, a U.K.-based real estate consulting firm with offices in Bangkok, first arrived in the city 28 years ago, less than a handful of multistory buildings stood along the Chao Phraya. “Business and residential development along the river was patchy,” he remembers.
In the last three years, however, Pitchon notes that things have changed greatly. “We are seeing a revitalization of the waterfront,” he says. “People are rediscovering the uniqueness of river views, and sales are brisk.”
Indeed, Bangkok’s national bird swooped in once again, this time nesting along the Chao Phraya. On the Thonburi, or western, side of the river, the skyline is dominated by the behemoth IconSiam development. Opened in late 2018, the project includes a 525,000-square-meter mall anchored by Japanese retailer Takashimaya and two condominium complexes: the Magnolia Riverside with 379 units, and the Mandarin Oriental Residences with 146 units.
The development has significantly raised the Chao Phraya’s profile — both physically and in commercial value. Together, the new condo complexes include some of the city’s most expensive units. Selling at US$12,800 per square meter, the Mandarin Oriental Residences is already listed as one of Bangkok’s top-5 priciest condos, even before its opening date, and 70 percent of the units have been sold. Magnolia Riverside is completely sold out. The flashy price tags and the staggering sell-through are remarkable, even to a seasoned professional like Pitchon.
While riverside emporiums like River City Bangkok and Asiatique have popped up and attracted shoppers in recent years, IconSiam’s retail arm will feature global brands and Michelin-caliber restaurants, amping the waterfront’s shopping and dining cache exponentially. On the more bustling side of the river, development is accelerating just as rapidly.
South of Taksin Bridge, about a kilometer from the iconic Mandarin Oriental Hotel, work is underway at Chao Phraya Estate, a multitower development including the Four Seasons Residences and two hotels — Four Seasons Bangkok and the sleek and ultra cool Capella Bangkok. Expected to open later this year, the Four Seasons Residences is already 70 percent sold at roughly $11,500 per square meter, according to Pitchon. Thais account for 90 percent of buyers on average.
“When I first
arrived in Bangkok,” recalls Pitchon, “local families balked at condo living.
No one wanted anyone living on top of them.” (In Thai culture, pointing towards
or touching someone with your feet, especially near the head, is verboten).
But, in early 2000, a shortage of domestic help led many buyers toward the
convenience of condominium living, and development projects too off all over
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Then came Bunnag’s The Jam Factory. “When Duangrit [Bunnag] announced his move to the ‘wrong side’ of the river, people thought he was mad,” says David Robinson, director of Bangkok River Partners, a business consortium that promotes the Chao Phraya waterfront as a world- class business and leisure destination.
“Instead, by repurposing the old warehouses into The Jam Factory, he single-handedly brought about a sea-change in the way Bangkokians looked at old buildings and the riverfront. Not just the historically important, but also simple shophouses that spoke to a way of life before the city’s boom.”
The Jam Factory’s success triggered a wave of refurbishments in riverside districts like Bangrak, Klong San and Chinatown, and spearheaded the influx of hip restaurants, shops and bars into the area. No doubt, Bunnag’s success was also an impetus in luxury waterfront development.
In addition to its beautiful vista, a Chao Phraya location offers many compelling attributes. With improved mass transit and roads in general, the area boasts good connectivity to the business district and to urban services like hospitals and schools. Even the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, the local governing body, has recently taken note, albeit with some pushback. In 2015, the government announced plans for a $268 million, 14-kilometer-long, 10-meter-wide elevated promenade along the waterfront, asserting the promenade’s bike lane and walkway would serve as public access to local residents and provide Bangkok with a riverside landmark.
While local civic and business groups have largely taken the riverside luxury hotel and condominium projects in stride, BMA’s plans have galvanized considerable dissent among academics and business groups. They contend the promenade will displace local communities as well as obstruct river traffic and river views. “The livelihood of the city’s traditional riverside communities are closely related to and benefit from the river,” explains Yossapon Boonsom, a landscape architect and organizer of Friends of the River, a grassroots organization protesting river development. While the BMA’s promise to create public access is laudable, Boonsom says it will in fact displace a number of local communities who have lived along the river for generations.
“It will disrupt the river’s natural and cultural ecology, not to mention its aesthetic assets,” he adds, noting that to top it all, Bangkok is sinking. A megacity of nearly 16 million, with over 2,200 multistory buildings, over 275 of which are over 150 meters tall, Bangkok is losing ground, up to 3 centimeters per year according to some estimates. Boonsom believes the issue is getting less attention than it deserves.
Navigating inevitable change
With wavy chin-length locks and black-rimmed glasses, 50-year-old Bunnag looks and plays the part of an irreverent hipster, a provocateur who rattles the status quo with his views on everything from Thai politics to chaos theory.
Like Boonsom, Bunnag opposes BMA’s plans by invoking
the Thais’ deep connection to the Chao Phraya’s spirit and vitality and to the
communities it sustains. As for the mega-condos along the riverside, Bunnag muses,
“Change is inevitable. The city is changing, the province is changing, and
Thailand is changing.”
To this end, Bunnag encourages robust conversations about how to best navigate the change. Renovating old buildings and creating spaces that benefit local neighborhoods and newcomers offers one alternative. Toward that end, Bunnag in 2017 opened Warehouse 30, a retail, art, fashion and restaurant complex housed in a series of retrofitted WWI-era industrial buildings near the historic Old Customs House and the Portuguese Embassy, almost directly opposite the river from The Jam Factory. With most of the land in between already developed or not currently available, few options remain for new construction with fabulous views.
In this respect, Bunnag’s model for renovating old landmark buildings presents an interesting opportunity. In February 2018, two local entrepreneurs joined together to launch The Prince Heritage Stay, converting a 100+-year-old former movie theater into upmarket boutique accommodations.
“We don’t define our hotel by the number of stars,” says co-founder Kittisak Pattamsaevi, who also heads the Montara Hospitality Group, “but how creativelywe can connect travelers with in-house and local experiences.” Beyond The Prince’s front doors, fresh markets, food carts, noodle shops, Chinese apothecaries, and fruit and coconut sellers mingle with up-and-coming restaurants and galleries.
A few hundred meters from IconSiam, one of Bangkok’s longstanding and highly successful merchant families, the Wanglees, converted their mid-19th-century riverfront warehouses into a complex of co-working spaces, art galleries, shops, restaurants and conference facilities.
With over 6,800 square meters of building space, the parcel of land could have fetched a fair penny on the market, concedes Rujiraporn Wanglee, who managed the renovations. In fact, the 160-year- old buildings contain auspicious Chinese wall paintings and frescoes, and are one of the few remaining examples of San He Yuan architecture — a Chinese architecture plan where a U-shaped building faces an open, multipurpose courtyard.
And yet the family moved forward, noting that they “wanted to create open public space on the river and give back to the community.” Meanwhile, Bunnag continues to champion the river through the newly-formed Creative District Foundation, which he co-directs with a handful of artists and entrepreneurs. The CDF encourages inclusive dialogue and projects that benefit old and new communities along the Chao Phraya.
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“The riverside is a dynamic neighborhood, and we want to keep it that way. Mixing heritage with the new is important,” says Bangkok River Partners’ Robinson. But conservation and preservation are the exception, not the norm. Thailand’s growth rate remains steady at 3.2 percent per year, with unfaltering demand for real estate across the city. No doubt speculators will continue to scope the Chao Phraya for new building sites. And so Bangkok’s national bird remains in-flight, and the River of Kings casts an irresistible profile.