Despite what the science says, time seems to pass at different speeds. In areas like Si Yan, Samsen and Bang Krabue — which are all part of Dusit district in Bangkok — it's as if time hasn't passed into the 20th century.
From Samsen to Si Yan and Bang Krabue, you’ll find decades-old homes from different architectural styles in various neighbourhoods. While most of them are private property, which means you can only appreciate them from outside the fence, some allow you to enter like the Museum of Floral Culture which was converted from a mansion and a few others where you can even stay overnight such as the 24 Samsen Heritage Guest House which was once the residence of a former chief of the Royal Thai Aide-De-Camp Department. Old-school shops selling miscellaneous goods, som tam and ahan-tam-sang shops, bakeries and coffee shops in wooden shophouses and single homes are not difficult to find either. Certain government buildings, such as the Operation Centre for Displaced Persons (formerly known as Ban Phayap) and the old building of Vajira Hospital were originally built for a residential purpose. Presently, both are undergoing restoration and will open again to the public in the near future.
The more you venture off the main roads, the deeper back in the past you'll find yourself, especially in residential areas where people still seem to be living in environments that are not much different from what their parents or grandparents grew up in. This part of Bangkok is also rich with Buddhist temples and other places of worship with many of them dating back to the early Rattanakosin period or even before.
Si Yan, Samsen and Bang Krabue overlap traditional zoning practices as there is no official demarcation. Roaming these areas discreetly and meeting locals promises to be a rewarding and eye-opening experience, however, it can be confusing and even exhausting unless you have a rough idea of these areas first.
In the simplified map provided, you'll see all the areas covered in this article. The boundaries are marked by Klong Prem Prachakorn and Rama V which run side by side to the east, Amnuai Songkhram Road to the north, the Chao Phraya River to the west, and Ratchawithi Road to the south.
Further north and parallel to Ratchawithi Road are Sukhothai Road and Nakhon Chai Si Road — between which is a winding waterway known as Klong Samsen which used to serve as the main transport line in the area before the advent of roads and motorised vehicles. To put it roughly, the area south of Klong Samsen, from the point it meets the Chao Phraya River to Samsen railway station further east — which is beyond this map — is conventionally named after the canal. Not far from the Chao Phraya, Samsen Road runs northward past Ratchawithi Road and Sukhothai Road, across its namesake klong, and crosses paths with Nakhon Chai Si Road in the Si Yan area before continuing past Amnuai Songkhram Road in Bang Krabue.
Hope you now have some idea where Samsen, Si Yan and Bang Krabue are located.
In these neighbourhoods, as well as the area near Krung Thon Bridge, which many still call by its former name Sang Hi, there are several waterside temples both on the banks of the Chao Phraya River and Klong Samsen that were either built or renovated during the early Rattanakosin period. Some of the most prominent, such as Wat Ratchaphatikaram, Wat Bot Samsen, Wat Sawat Wari and Wat Amphawan are featured in this piece.
Communities and buildings, including princely palaces and residences of the elites along the roadways, started popping up during the reign of King Rama V when the modernised city expanded northward to these areas. One of them once served as the home of Silpa Bhirasri, the Kingdom's most respected Western-style sculptor and a founder of Silpakorn University.
In the past, this section of the capital could be conveniently accessed by electric tram. As a matter of fact, Bang Krabue was the terminal of two tram lines, one running eastwards to Bang Sue railway station and the other southwards along Samsen Road to Bang Lamphu and on to Yaowarat, Hua Lamphong and Lumphini Park. However, like water transport in the capital, trams also suffered a decline in popularity with the last line stopping operation in 1968.
Altogether, the areas covered in this map measure around 2km². This may not sound like much but if you plan to visit all the places marked on a single trip, it's going to be a long, long day. And you're likely to sleep like a log when you get home.
Wat Noi Nopphakhun
Wat Bot Samsen
From left: Wat Amphawan, Wat Sawat Wari
The famous Wat Benchamabophit, which sits in another part of Dusit district, is not the only temple in Bangkok with a marble ubosot. Wat Noi Nopphakhun is another. The shiny prayer hall of the temple, which was built by a consort of King Rama V, is surrounded by an iron fence with a pattern dominated by rose blossoms, the king’s favourite flower. The twin Buddha images in a pavilion in front of the hall are highly respected by people in the area who believe the sacred statues helped protect their neighbourhoods from Allied bombings during World War II. The temple can be accessed from either Rama V Road or Amnuai Songkhram. Not far from Wat Noi Nopphakhun on the north bank of Klong Samsen is Wat Amphawan, which dates back to the times of King Rama III. Up the canal westward, you’ll find Wat Sawat Wari which was also built during the third reign. This temple has an ubosot that sports remarkably colourful gables and a beautiful but decaying wooden building in the monk’s living quarters. Further west, on the south bank of Klong Samsen is Wat Bot Samsen which is named after its beautiful old ubosot from the Ayutthaya period (the temple also has another prayer hall which is much newer). It’s a pity that by the time I arrived at the temple, it was already late so I didn’t get to appreciate the elaborate murals inside. However, the stucco on the exterior walls of the hall was already enough to make my visit worthwhile. On the east side of the ubosot stands a pagoda with a recess on each of its four sides. Each recess houses a Buddha image, except for one which has a sculpture of a squatting man. I still cannot find out who it represents.
Si Yan has long been known as a foodie’s paradise. The area boasts various kind of goodies offered by decades-old restaurants and street vendors. The delicious beef satay at a Muslim food stall on Samsen Road near the point where it intersects with Nakhon Chai Si Road costs only 7 baht per skewer, which is not a normal price in 2020. With so much good and inexpensive food, Si Yan is an ideal place to start your tour of Dusit district. First, you can digest while walking and second, the food tends to be sold out by late afternoon so if you arrive for dinner, there may not be as much choice available.
Before the arrival of roadways, Klong Samsen was full of boats transporting goods and people along the canal which extends eastwards through Phaya Thai and Din Daeng districts, all the way to Huai Khwang. However, these days a boat would be a rare sight.
You might have seen Bangkokians fishing on the banks of the Chao Phraya before, however, you might not have known that some of them are not just doing it as a hobby or to kill time. Among those anglers are full-time fishermen who earn a living from catching and selling fish to vendors. One of their hunting grounds is the Krung Thon Bridge and nearby piers. The catfish shown in the picture weigh about 3kg each. In another container was a larger fish, around 4.5kg. However, there is nothing to measure with and reveal the fish’s true size. The man who caught them told me the largest catfish he had hauled from the river weighed 7.5kg. When asked what dishes these huge fish are used for, he said the buyers normally use the meaty fish for pla duk fu (spicy crispy catfish) and nam ya (the spicy soup eaten with khanom chin rice noodles).
In this nostalgic part of the city, communities are still close-knit. They are friendly and fun to talk to. Shown in these pictures are some of the folks I met during my recent visits. For the chess match, I was told it was 'an international contest'. The player facing away from the camera is a Thai and his opponent is from Myanmar.
Dating back to 1841, the Chao Mae Thapthim Shrine at Sang Hi Bridge is one of the most well known in Bangkok. Despite its relatively hidden location, the shrine rarely lacks worshippers who come to pray for many things from business prosperity and safety when travelling to health and romance.
A short walk from Chao Mae Thapthim Shrine and Wat Ratchaphatikaram is the Army Internal Audit Office. Within the compound are several Western-style buildings, one of which was the residence of the highly respected artist and art teacher Silpa Bhirasri. He was born an Italian and came to Thailand during the reign of King Rama VI. His works include several monuments in Bangkok. He died a Thai in 1962. The house has now been converted into a coffee shop.
Actually, this place is not an attraction but it is worthy of a visit if you’re in the area. Located next to Wat Amphawan, the Korean Veterans Association takes care of Thai soldiers who helped defend South Korea in the Korean War in the early 1950s. The bravery of those veterans earned Thai tourists visa-free entry into South Korea.
Driving in this part of Bangkok may not be a good idea. There are two more convenient ways to get there.
A) Take the MRT to Bang Sue station and hop on any form of taxi from there. From the station to Bang Krabue, it's about five minutes by motorcycle.
B) Take the express boat to Phayap Pier. From there, it's a few minutes walk to Si Yan.