• This decommissioned passenger jet is getting a new lease on life as a fine-dining restaurant.
  • Somchai Songwatana is storing his taxidermy collection in his office at ChangChui.
  • Somchai is a keen conservationist, and all the buildings were rendered from old wood and corrugated zinc.
  • The Tea House resembles an industrial loft and boasts a temporary art installation by Ruangsak Anuwatwimon.

Now boarding for ChangChui

lifestyle July 16, 2017 01:00

By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
The Sunday Nation

2,091 Viewed

With a jetliner evoking Noah’s Ark, this sprawling new attraction in Thon Buri opens the creativity floodgates



CHANGCHUI, one of the new “creative spaces” popping up all over Bangkok, was a focus of attention even before it opened late last month on the Thon Buri side of the river. 

For starters, there was that name, which literally translates as “so careless” – a rather unusual choice in business, where establishments tend to prefer “auspicious” monikers. 

But the founder is celebrated clothing designer Somchai Songwatana of FlyNow and a dedicated non-conformist. His other odd decision was picking an 11-rai site so far from the heart of Bangkok, in a place no one goes without a compelling reason. 

This decommissioned passenger jet is getting a new lease on life as a fine-dining restaurant.

Somchai and ChangChui have provided that reason. In its first week the place was pulling in 30,000 people per day, causing a traffic debacle. The 500-berth parking lot was wholly inadequate, so nearby roads were in chaos, and Somchai drew heat on the social media.

In his own defence, Somchai says he was only expecting about 3,000 people a day that first week. 

“We now have more parking space at a petrol station, restaurant and the Bang Bamru Railway Station and we’ve worked with the police to keep the traffic flowing,” he says.

ChangChui even posts live, thrice-weekly traffic reports on its Facebook page, using aerial views from a drone. 

“Thep Jai Dee”, a massive sculpture by Chira Chirapravati Na Ayudhya, adds to the compound’s fun vibe.

Visiting ChangChui on a recent weekday posed no traffic hang-ups despite heavy rain. Nor did the rain stop hordes of other people from pouring in to tour the compound of small buildings of rusty corrugated zinc sheets with windows and doors made of old wood. The recycling design reflects Somchai’s “Nothing is useless” philosophy.

Somchai is a keen conservationist, and all the buildings were rendered from old wood and corrugated zinc. 

ChangChui is a jumble of galleries, restaurants, bars and craft stores. It has a theatre, cinema, tea room, barbershop, bookstore, stationery shop, greenhouse, a place for live music and, of course, a clothing store. Food trucks loiter with intent to sell cool grub. 

The sun in this solar system is an actual passenger jet, 55 metres long, which will play out its life as a fine-dining restaurant. 

Yon Yaan is a combination cafe, bookshop and stationery store.

With Somchai in a staff meeting, I waited in his office among antique furniture and stuffed animals (as in taxidermy). He’s got a leopard and several birds. 

Somchai arrived complaining of having forgone sleep during the new endeavour’s first two weeks.

“I got a lot more harsh criticism than I expected,” he said, sputtering with an allergy worsened by lack of rest. “I had no time to pay attention to the social media, but today I had to see what was going on.”

Somchai Songwatana is storing his taxidermy collection in his office at ChangChui.

As to the parking furore, he said he decided to allot a quarter of his 11 rai to the buildings and keep the rest as open area “to give people space to breathe”. A bigger parking lot didn’t fit the calculation.

The site had sat unused for decades. Somchai has retained five of the original big trees and brought in another 200 or so. A thousand more trees of varying sizes are on the way. 

His initial plan was to erect an office for FlyNow, but the multi-purpose creative space that replaced it caters to his artistic friends. Planning took a year, construction another six months. 

The site’s original trees have been carefully maintained and a thousand more are being brought in.

“It’s not an oil well that will make a profit,” Somchai admitted. “It’s more like arid land where you have to dig for water! People tried to persuade me to build a condo that would earn billions, but I turned them down. 

“I’m 58 now and relatively stable financially,” he said. “I wanted to do something good for society before I die, so I put my own cash up to make this project a reality. It would have been a waste of time trying to convince a bank to back such a weird, unprofitable idea. 

“I have no hope of getting my investment back, but if I hadn’t done this, I’d have always feel regret.”

This decommissioned passenger jet is getting a new lease on life as a fine-dining restaurant.

He wouldn’t say exactly how much he’s spent, but that aeroplane alone must have cost a bundle. The decommissioned five-tonne jet used to fly for Thai Sky Airlines. Somchai and his team hauled it in “20 massive pieces” from Don Mueang Airport and painstakingly reassembled it on site, fiddling with “several hundred thousand aircraft rivets”.

“It was a massive pile of junk ready to be shredded for scrap. I wanted to give it a new purpose, so it will become an 80-seat Thai-food restaurant.”

The restaurant, due to open next month, will be named Na-Oh, a pun on Noah of biblical ark fame. Andy Yang, a Thai chef who in 2009 was awarded a Michelin star for his New York eatery Rhong Tiam, will be in charge initially. 

The kitchen at Na-Oh will meet Michelin standards and be adorned with those taxidermist’s pets, who’ve “missed the boat” in one sense but get another chance on this ark – another chance to “FlyNow”.

While Na-Oh remains in dry dock, the food’s great at Somchai’s other restaurant, Insects in the Backyard. Yes, it’s the same name as the long-banned gay-theme Thai film and, yes, it serves dishes made with insects. 

Boyd Kosiyabong has his personal toy collection on display.

The theatre-cinema will host performances by celebrated contemporary dancer Pichet Klunchun and screenings of films selected by the Documentary Club. 

There’s a toy museum for singer-songwriter Boyd Kosiyabong’s private collection, and a photo gallery overseen by talented lensman Nopadon Kaosam-ang.

Yon Yaan is part cafe, part bookshop and part stationers. As well as the venue for live music, there’s a music store run by Nong Taprachan. 

 A music store run by Nong Taprachan

There’s even a shop that sells aerial drones, which might be useful in surveying the food court with its assembly of “10 best street-food shops”. 

Customers’ cameras have a lot to focus on besides the jetliner. Chira Chirapravati Na Ayudhya of Gui & Co has designed a towering, outlandish figure. Art is everywhere, including in the food court, which has eccentric art installations built out of old toys, straw, woven baskets and plastic oil jugs. 

The Daek Din food court is artful too with funky installations fashioned from unconventional materials.

Among the dozens of rented premises open for business, Apichat Harinchai’s restaurant Ajisai Ramen is always packed. You have to be on your toes to get noodles there – they only make 80 bowls a day. 

“I cooked in Japan for three years before opening my first ramen place on Soi Asoke, which is still in business, run by my brother,” Apichat said. “I decided to open the second outlet here because I wanted to try a new environment, and I love being among creative people.”

Ajisai Ramen serves only 80 bowls of noodles each day.

Chaiwat Nithichan was looking around ChangChui, a Lat Phrao resident a long way from home. “I’m not familiar with the area and got lost for a while before I found my way,” he laughed. 

“I can certainly understand the idea behind ChangChui – creative ideas presented in different ways,” he said. “It’s a great spot for taking selfies and sharing them online, but there’s much more to do here than that. You can really set your creativity free.”

WAY-OUT OUT WEST

ChangChui is on Sirindhorn Road near the Bang Bamru Railway Station in Bangkok’s Bang Phlat district. 

It’s open daily except Monday from 4pm to 11pm, though several shops in the Green Zone open at 11am. 

Call (081) 817 2888 or visit www.ChangChuiBangkok.com.