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Southeast Asia’s ‘coolest neighbourhood’ wins hearts in Bangkok with hipness and old world charm

Pridi Banomyong may not be on the radar of many visitors to Bangkok, but its hipster vibe and quirky businesses saw it being crowned this week as Southeast Asia's coolest neighbourhood.

BANGKOK: To walk along Soi Pridi Banomyong is not to enter some urban utopia. Uneven footpaths and lumbering traffic are part of the scenery here, just like they are throughout much of Bangkok. 

This neighbourhood will not win hearts in an instant. And that might be its greatest attribute. A deep dive beyond its concrete facade is to discover how urban renewal can bring excitement and passion to a community without compromising its identity.

This week, it was selected by global Time Out Magazine as the world's 12th “coolest neighbourhood”, the highest selection in Southeast Asia. The list was compiled using the opinions and guidance of the magazine’s editors, writers and readers and was based on cultural and culinary criteria, the emergence of new venues and exciting events, and a neighbourhood’s affordability to travel to and live in. 

The types of buildings and businesses in the streets of Pridi vary greatly. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

Soi Pridi Banomyong - known colloquially just as Pridi - is actually a major road that connects two of Bangkok’s most important arteries, Sukhumvit Rd and Petchaburi Rd. From the main thoroughfare, tiny streets and cul-de-sacs branch out like tiny veins with their own unique offerings and atmosphere.

Development is sweeping fast from west to east in the Thai capital, bringing with it development of modern housing, trendy eateries, foreign expats and rocketing prices. Pridi is right on the cusp of the gentrification wave that has taken much before it in neighbourhoods closer to downtown Bangkok, like Thonglor and Ekkamai, both walkable distances away.

For now, the area around Phra Khanong, the skytrain station landmark from which Soi Pridi Banomyong begins, is at a happy junction. 

Street food sellers, iconic in Bangkok, brush shoulders with office workers in front of smoky izakayas, craft beer stalls and colourful street murals. Japanese thrift stores stand alongside massage parlours, achingly hip Melbourne-style coffee houses and old-school coin laundries. 

An old feel of Bangkok is truly present still in Pridi. (Photo: Jack Board) ​​​​​​​

It is a place where a vinyl record vendor can be found inside an anonymous apartment complex and where overseas tourists can gawk through open windows at traditional Chinese paper box making operations and pluck cold coconuts from vegetable vendors. It is an infectious mix, where new complements old and has not displaced community or culture.

Entrepreneurs have taken root here in search of cheaper rent and the results are the creative releases of small businesses with fresh ideas and quirky focal points. They are the kind that might easily be too niche to exist in more glamorous or homogenised locales. 

Colourful artwork can be seen through the window of Craftsman Barber Shop. (Photo: Jack Board)

Clouds Across the Moon bar has been open since mid 2018 and is an example of an establishment receiving plaudits for being bold in its peculiarity. It is a fusion of retro and futurism, dripping with 1980s brio with a cocktail menu to match inside a converted shophouse on a small alley.

Barman Surasit BoonLeua said a comparatively low rent price for the building, up to 50 per cent less than alternatives in more central locations, was the draw for the business.

“People who come here really want to come here,” he said. "I’m happy. I want more businesses of this style in Pridi so that people can come to visit, strolling around.”

Track Addict Records is a vinyl specialty store hidden in an unassuming building. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

A few hundred metres away, Craftsman Barber Shop is finding cool in the classics. The once ageing building would not look out of place on trendy streets in London or Copenhagen.

“In the past, this area wasn’t so developed. The owners thought they should do something with the building instead of just letting it grow old,” said barber Thayapol Thiammeuangpan. 

“I don’t think these businesses should be described as hip but more like craft and indie but still maintaining their own character, which is not so common.” 

The main section of Soi Pridi Banomyong is like many parts of Bangkok: busy and chaotic. (Photo: Jack Board)

The majority of the shop’s customers are foreigners, many of them expats drawn to the area for its public transport connections, affordability and vibe. More visitors, like American Nick Reynolds, have been drawn by Pridi’s growing reputation.

“It’s got that rustic, old and not as modern as downtown Bangkok kind of feel to it,” he said. “I’ve heard people speaking English, speaking Thai, speaking other languages that I didn’t recognise. I think you get a good mix of a lot of different cultures and things coming together.”

Change and the inflation it brings seems inevitable for Pridi. But its older custodians like braised pork and noodle seller Meuanthong Thipleutri are enjoying the opportunities that come with new faces in the ‘hood.

Craftsman Barber Shop provides plenty of the "cool" upon which the neighbourhood has been judged. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

“Many foreigners visit this area nowadays, like Koreans and Japanese. Quite a lot of them come here each day, during the day and at night. I’m happy,” she said, adding that her rent has not increased despite the increased attention and investment in the area.

The ability of sellers like her, and the push cart vendors and long-standing specialty stores,  to survive in this neighbourhood is key to its lasting integrity. There is still hardly a chain outlet to be spotted and that is a welcome find in a fast modernising metropolis.

In the age of Google Maps and TripAvisor, walking around here is a testament to the joy that can still be found in exploring. The area has its hotspots, undoubtedly. But finding the hidden, the unspoiled, the enterprising or the eccentric might be the coolest thing that Soi Pridi Banomyong has going for it.

Source: CNA/jb