Ironically, controversial riverside redevelopment projects make the public that much more aware of losing the Chao Phraya’s living heritage
The Thai government’s project to develop a ‘Riverwalk’ along the Chao Phraya River, with a design similar to a highway, has had at least one positive effect: it woke local communities up and reinforced the idea that there’s a need to preserve their environment—and make the larger public aware of the river’s living heritage.
This past August a gathering was held, which had the feeling of a typical Thai fair with its little stalls selling food, T-shirts, souvenirs, and pins, while children were painting large frescoes and a band played traditional Thai melodies. The party had, however, a much more serious agenda; namely the protection of communities along the Chao Phraya, who feel now their existence and traditions threatened by the future Riverwalk Promenade—a 14 km pedestrian friendly path along both sides of the river, linking the Rama VII and Pin-Klao bridges. It’s the first phase of a greater riverside redevelopment planned along 57 km of the iconic waterway, stretching from the Rama VII Bridge down to Samut Prakan.
“I think that authorities should first think about the well-being of local communities, and consult them before embarking into this huge project,” explained Marisa Sukosol, one of the owners of both The Sukosol and The Siam hotel, and a strong supporter of the river’s preservation. “The Chao Phraya is the heart of Bangkok’s cultural and historical life, with communities being part of it for 200 years and more. The river belongs to all of us—inhabitants of Bangkok as well as visitors. A priority should be improving the life of the communities by implementing landscaping, restoring the environment, improving the overall cleanliness, and instigating accompany cultural projects rather than launching new large infrastructure.”
The gathering that August day became also an opportunity to learn about the lesser known treasures along the river. Most long term residents and visitors to Bangkok know already about the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and even Asiatique—all true icons along the riverside—but what about the multitude of small sites which have shaped, up to this day, the banks of the aptly named ‘River of the Kings’?
One fascinating aspect of this waterway comes from the mixture of Thai and foreign communities living side by side, blending their traditions and religions—such as in temples that are some of the city’s true “hidden gems”. For example, Wat Kalayanamit (Arun Amarin Rd, Soi 6) on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya, built during the reign of Rama III, contains the largest Buddha image sculpted during the reign of the king. And it is surrounded by exquisite preserved monasteries. Next to it is the small but charming Kuan An Keng Shrine, a demure Chinese temple with superb wood carvings.
Another magnificent landmark, distinguished with a UNESCO heritage award, is Wat Prayoon (Arun Amarin Rd, Soi 4), also located in Thonburi. Its most striking feature is a 60.5 metre high chedi covered in shiny white, and surrounded by 54 arches designed in European classical style.
On the Bangkok side, the Samsen district has been home to a Vietnamese community for over 100 years. When they arrived they brought with them their adopted Catholic heritage, as testified by two lovely churches: Saint Francis Xavier Church, built in classical style in 1867; and the Immaculate Conception Church (both located at Samsen, Soi 11). The latter is, in fact, Bangkok’s oldest church, as it was founded by a Portuguese mission in 1674. Its current shape, in Neo-Renaissance style, dates from Rama V’s reign.
Nearby is the curious Wat Rachathiwat (3 Samsen Rd, Soi 9). The main ubosot (hall) is a blend of Khmer-inspired and Western-style features. The shape of the gables, the windows, and doors are a reinterpretation of Khmer architecture, while the roof is inspired by Hausmann-style buildings in Paris! The structure’s architect was Prince Naris, while artist Carlo Rigoli painted—in Italian style—scenes depicting the life of The Buddha within.
The Banglamphu community could be considered today as the historical lively heart of the Chao Phraya River on the Bangkok city side. It is the community living along Khao San and Phra Arthit roads, and this was where the aforementioned River Fair was organized. This area is also notable in that it is still home to the old fortifications of Bangkok. In Phra Sumen Road, facing the delicately ornate Italian-style temple Wat Bowonniwet, stands a large piece of the old city wall with its arched gateway.
Here also stand the two last historic military forts in Bangkok. Phra Sumen Fort, built at the end of the 18th century in an octagonal shape, stands today in the middle of a park on Phra Arthit Road. The other is Mahakan Fort which remains, along with a piece of the old city wall, along Maha Chai Road. This latter landmark is now undergoing extensive renovation but has also been embroiled in a civic controversy. The city hall decided to evict the communities living inside the fort, despite having resided there for a century or more. Their community will, in turn, be replaced by a public park, which is yet another story altogether.
Words and photos by Luc Citrinot