By The Nation
Traditionally the origin of Bangkok’s betel supply, this historic district teems with charm
WITH A MIXTURE of historic Buddhist monasteries, sacred Chinese shrines and colourful culinary delights, the old Bangkok residential neighbourhood of Talat Phlu has long been popular for day trips.
Just a 10-minute walk from its namesake BTS station, the area is convenient enough to leave the car at home and roam around on foot.
Visitors can play amateur archaeologist, exploring the beautiful heritage culture, and gourmets can sample diverse, pocket-friendly street food and rarely seen Thai sweets.
Perched on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River, Talat Phlu was the site of the first Chinese settlement in the Thon Buri Period, before Bangkok became the capital.
When some of the Chinese immigrants established a new trading hub at Sampeng, a Muslim community took over the site and began growing phlu (betel). It wasn’t long before a market appeared specialising in betel nuts, resulting in the name Talat Phlu.
The neighbourhood runs along Thoet Thai Road. There’s an old railway station and a fresh market surrounded with shophouses and food stalls offering great dishes all day long.
A stone’s throw from the train station is the restaurant Sunee, an establishment that’s been around for more than five decades and does a wonderful khao moo daeng and moo grob.
Starting at just Bt30, the first dish has steamed rice layered with tender barbecued pork or crispy roast-pork belly in sweet red sauce and roasted peanuts. The presentation is quite simple, the flavour excellent.
Beef lovers head to Gao Lao Nue Puey Talat Phlu, a 60-year-old store known for its mellow soup of braised beef. A bowl of rice noodles (Bt50) arrives with tender beef chunks and offal, and diners can boost the heat as they wish with nam prik phao (spicy chilli paste).
Also on offer are khao kraphao nue puey (rice with stir-fried beef and basil), khao pad goong (fried rice with prawns) and guay tieo khua gai (stir-fried noodles with chicken).
Next door is another long-standing eatery, the patisserie Khanom Mae Cheng, currently run by Suchada Khongkraphan from her family’s third generation. She’s adapted some recipes with palm sugar, which is better for the health.
Every day Suchada serves more than 20 kinds of Thai desserts. They include khanom babin (coconut cake of glutinous rice flour), woon haew (water-chestnut jelly), khanom fak thong (yellow pumpkin pudding), khanom chan (layered steamed pandan cake) and khanom mor gaeng (mung bean custard).
Another favourite for sweet lovers is the 40-year-old Gim Aeng Guay Chieum (the name means “sweetened banana”) at the mouth of Thoet Thai Soi 20.
Auntie Gim Aeng uses only the best bananas – from Tha Yang district in Phetchaburi – simmers them in syrup until golden, and serves them with fresh coconut milk. She also has sweetened potatoes, taro and pumpkin, the prices ranging from Bt30 to Bt100.
There’s an interesting shortcut to Talat Wat Klang on Thoet Thai Soi 10 that takes you to the Suriya Caffee shop, a terrific spot for Thai-style coffee. And a short walk from there is a stall called Tee Dam Khanom Khai serving soft ovals of homemade dough for Bt12 that pair perfectly with your coffee.
Based on a 100-year-old recipe, the dough is made with wheat flour and baked in a custom stove over mangrove charcoal, which tends to get hotter than other woods.
If your tummy still has room, hit the stall selling beef noodles at the end of the market. A large helping costs Bt60. The cook adds Chinese herbs, lemon juice, chillies and lettuce to the soup, which has a smooth flavour and tempting aroma.
Now you really should be full, so commence the promenade at Wat Ratchakrueh, which the Burmese army built in the Late Ayutthaya Period.
King Taksin restored the temple and erected a chedi to enshrine relics of the Lord Buddha. There’s a man-made mountain of stones and a pavilion with a Buddha statue in an unusual reclining posture – lying on his back ready for cremation.
Taksin the Great also renovated Wat Intharam and his relics are believed installed there. The temple underwent another major uplift during the reign of King Rama III, when a bigger, boat-like ordination hall was erected that houses a beautiful Buddha statue called Phra Phutthachinnavorn.
Inside two pavilions added at the same time is a Buddha footprint and another Buddha reclining for cremation, the feet stretched outside a coffin. Two more buildings have a pair of rare Buddha images – one lying on the right side and other on the left.
Next, head to Ah Nieh Geng, a Tae Chiew shrine on Thoet Thai Soi 21. It has a 200-year-old handcrafted wooden sculpture of the goddess Guanyin imported from China, appeals to whom bring prosperity in business.
Founded in 1975, the shrine of the Fire Goddess was the home of Talat Phlu’s first lion-dance team. In 1991, the team moved to bigger quarters on Soi Thoet Thai 16, where they perform on special occasions.
On Soi Thoet Thai 22 is the hallowed Tae Chiew Guan Wu Shrine built in the Early Rattanakosin Period, right on a bank of the Bangkok Yai Canal.
Inside is a venerable sculpture of Guan Wu and beautiful hand-painted murals depicting a pilgrimage of the Monkey King. Giant red pillars are adorned with auspicious icons, such as a flying dragons and pumpkins.