Certain places attract the weary traveller. Like moths to a flame, the source of this pull is typically within proximity to either a notable attraction or to a transportation link, or both. If this place conveys a cheap and cheerful ambience, all the better. If it is also blessed with a view that combines water, a historical landmark or two, along with unmatched people watching, then like the call of the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey, it can prove irresistible — as personified by this rickety 80 year old shack attached to one of Bangkok’s busiest piers.
Located at Tha Tien Pier, the prosaically named Rim Naam (commonly translated as Riverside) is a shack in every sense of the word. Cobbled together over many decades from mismatched planks, bits of ply wood, repurposed cladding and roofing, this patchwork of building materials without any nod towards ‘shabby chic’ has teetered on the river’s edge for longer than most people can remember — serving as a transit watering hole to the sun-dazed thirsty masses that make up the captured audience of tourists who flock to this waterside landing, shuttling between two of Bangkok’s most popular tourist destinations: The Temple of the Reclining Buddha and The Temple of Dawn across the river.
Rim Naam is part of a small cluster of businesses whose stilt-bound existences have always conveyed impermanence, but who have stubbornly defied appearances and clung on, surviving in one form or another since shortly after WWII — forming one piece of the commercial jigsaw puzzle that makes up the Tha Tien community. While almost every other major stop on the Chao Phraya River ferry network has recently been improved for convenience, safety and flow of movement, this pier remains (just barely) a vestige of the hazy days when Bangkok was awash with backpackers, smartphones did not yet exist, and the need for photogenic, tourist friendly arrival points at key attractions somehow didn’t yet matter.
I recently heard that the ramshackle of buildings that constitutes the pier will soon be gone and that the ferries will shortly disembark from a new location nearby further downriver, benefitting from an actual landing plaza and an entirely new construction. Of course all this is well and good and ultimately for the benefit of many people, some of whom feel the upcoming change has been long overdue. But for the dozen or so small operators that have camped out over the decades in this pirate’s den of a setting — including Rim Naam — the change will be life altering. I myself am slightly torn in my emotions on seeing the old pier go, it was the very first stop I got off at on my very first Chao Phraya river ferry ride over 20 years ago.
Those were different days for sure. I was fresh off the boat literally and figuratively. The first thing I noticed about Tha Tien Pier was that even back then, it already looked like it was about to fall apart into the fast moving murky brown waters of the River of Kings. But to my perpetually glass half-full eyes, I thought the splinter inducing jumble of it all was such a pleasantly striking contrast to the gleaming white palace walls and the glittering temple spires just beyond — I liked the juxtaposition. To the right of the pier I could see a precarious looking picket fence forming the balustrade to what I would soon come to know as Rim Naam. Only in this case the picket did not consist of narrow, tidy, white, pointed planks of wood, but rather fat, intermittently spaced, rounded top, red and white pieces of timber that could only best be described as something akin to snowboards.
As I exited the ferry, the crowd sitting amongst the incongruous assortment of tables, chairs and stools that populate Rim Naam caught my eye, and I made a mental note to myself that this would be a good place to stop for a drink after seeing the Temple of the Reclining Buddha — no doubt countless others also thought the same thing. I didn’t have much time to dwell on post-temple plans. For immediately after setting foot off the gangway, I was just as suddenly plunged into dark shade and as my eyes adjusted to the light change, I realised I was walking on a narrow, raised makeshift runway built as a temporary solution to the permanent problem of high tides, and if that wasn’t unexpected enough, the thrust of tourist trap paraphernalia being hawked on either side meant that I had to work my way around the bottleneck of human bodies that stood between me and the gilded 46 meter long reclining Buddha somewhere within the temple compound further on.
After seeing the wonder that is Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimon Mangkhalaram Rajwaramahawihan (the formal name of the Temple of the Reclining Buddha), I did indeed make good on my earlier intention to stop for a drink at the sun dappled locale by the pier. In those days the crowds were bigger and the lines for the ferries were longer so my inclination to find a place to sit and rest for a while was hardly a novel one. Once I managed to grab a seat and have that first sip of cold Thai beer poured over ice into a small glass, I began to notice what a special place Rim Naam was. One that belies the sum of its undeniably shabby parts.
It did not matter to me that the place looked then — as it still does now — like an afterthought of the most after of thoughts. Piles of drinking water bottles still wrapped in their stacks along with styrofoam coolers filled with soft drinks nearly blocking the entrance. Years of grime and dust mixed with humidity clinging to almost every surface. Aging calendars and signs and photos from countless years gone by — a hoarder’s paradise of random restaurant and household goods and appliances long since out of use. Crooked stairs leading up to what could only be assumed to be living quarters, draped with odd bits of washing and sundry items. A closet-sized kitchen with someone standing over a fiery stove shouting orders from behind partially closed doors little a little Siamese version of the Wizard of Oz. Basically an OCD/HACCP nightmare. My attention however, quickly drifted towards the vinyl covered tables — the layout of this tiny establishment being the way it is — with nearly every one of them situated waterside. Any thought I might have had as to how downtrodden the place was, quickly vanished with each glimmering flicker of sunlight bouncing off the water, reflecting on every surface, functioning as a very dazzling lure to beguile and convince any doubtful passerby — myself included — to stay a while. Water, plus temple, plus pending sunset: a formula for pause since time immemorial.
From sunburnt to sun-kissed, tourists of every make and model sat and chatted away about all manner of things: things they had just seen, things they still wanted to see, things they couldn’t remember from the night before, things they hoped they’d always remember, things they were ticking off from their bucket lists. A cross pollination of travel tips and insights, the occasional couples’ spat or the silence between two people who suddenly realised they do not travel well together. The close proximity of the tables, combined with the cacophony of riverside sounds meant everyone spoke loudly even if they didn’t want to — It was all on show, to be heard and seen. The combination of the heat, the humidity, the breeze, the beer, the cheap but delicious Thai food, the exhaustion and the exhilaration of being in the city of angels made me think that Rim Naam constituted just as much of a scene as any of the grand cafes in Europe, without the chic factor, or the service charge, or the attitude. All I had to do was look and listen.
Aside from the cast of characters who sat at Rim Naam, there were also the never-ending parade of nations that walked on and off the ferry gangway with every sputtering, diesel smoke-cloud, signalling the arrival and departure of each vessel. Over the years I have seen just about every kind of person from every walk of life, from monks to moguls, attempting to steady themselves as they made their way in either direction on the wobbly floating platform, with the occasional look of shock as the whole structure jolts from the weight of the ferries jostling again the currents. It was even more amusing to play fashion police and observe what everyone wore, from the most chic of stylish linen ensembles to comfort wear in garish neons. From the perfectly coiffed to the decidedly unwashed, people with broomsticks sticking out from rucksacks, instruments of all makes hoisted over their shoulders, hats representing every Southeast Asian culture. Other things to observe were unfortunate tan lines, even less fortunate heat rashes, mosquito bites, ankle burns from motorcycle exhausts, bruises from brawls or mishaps the night before. Recently fresh tattoos, to semi-erased tattoos. People newly in-love, to those long out of love. Flashy Leicas to plasticky Polaroids. From hand rolled cigarettes, to e-cigarettes. From designer bags to hill tribe holdalls. Over the years, I have born witness to all these things and more while sitting at this waterside shanty.
Thinking back on Rim Naam now, I know that the state of the place never really bothered me, or much anyone else who sat there either. What I do remember were the many days I have spent there, the things I have seen, the people I have been with. I remember seeing the vibrant river life, the Temple of Dawn in the distance, the cold cheap beers and the perfect confluence of factors that made me originally decide to sit at a place I might normally not have in any other situation. Soon though, this place and the shamble of livelihoods around it will soon be gone. Indeed a shiny new pier with expectedly fancier establishments will soon be in operation nearby. But a little part of me will miss Rim Naam. I don’t think any amount of design or gentrification will ever be able to replicate the inexplicable charm and coincidence of a place like this. A place on the water’s edge that shouldn’t have lasted this long, but did.
Rim Naam (Riverside)
238 Thai Wang Alley, Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok 10200
Immediate adjacent (for now) to Tha Tien Pier on the Chao Praya Rover Ferry network. Across the street from the Temple of the Reclining Buddha and across the River from the Temple of Dawn.
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