As the current chairperson of Chao Phraya Express Boat, Supapan Pichaironarongsongkram leads her family’s long-standing business operation—one of Bangkok’s most traditional forms of public transport. She speaks to us about her family’s history and shares her thoughts on the city’s heritage.
Almost a century ago, the grandmother of Supapan Pichaironarongsongkram started a small rowing boat business on the Chao Phraya river, which turned into the engine boat company Supatra and the Chao Phraya Express Boat service. While carrying on the family business—today the boats operate from 38 piers and carry up to 40,000 passengers each day—this business woman has also expanded the family empire to include retail outlets such as the Tha Maharaj community mall, property developments, and two boutique hotels on the riverside, including Riva Surya and Riva Arun .
Did you grow up in Bangkok?
I was born in Thonburi, which was the capital of Thailand before it became a part of Bangkok.
Your grandmother started the ferry boat service almost 100 years ago. Could you tell us a little bit more about your family history?
She started with row boats in the 1920s, and back then you paid one satang (Thailand’s old currency) to get on a boat. The first piers were Prannok and Wat Mahathat. The business was carried on by my mother who formed the Supatra Co., Ltd. In order to solve traffic jam problems, the Ministry of Transport started a project using river transportion, and requested our company to take over in 1971. We formulated a new company called the Chao Phraya Express Boat. This was 45 years ago, and since then I have been working for Chao Phraya Express Boat—from the very first day up until now.
Do you think there is enough effort made to preserve the city’s heritage?
I think it’s not enough. Our city’s heritage is unheeded, and a lot of people don’t value it, or see it as old-fashioned. If it wasn’t for foreigners interested in our country and culture, Thai people wouldn’t appreciate how beautiful their heritage is. Nowadays, people become unconcerned and often destroy old buildings and nature in order to modernize. They forget that heritage can live in harmony with innovation, something I have noticed in many other countries. I hope that we can do the same in Thailand.
Development projects are changing the Chao Phraya riverfront, but they often displace the established local communities living there. Do you think these communities should be better protected?
Those establishments are owned by private or government organizations, and I believe they should not force whole communities to leave in order to develop their projects. All of the communities who lived there when I was young are still surrounding those buildings. This is also true for the Tha Maharaj community mall, which is owned by my family, and located on the Chao Phraya riverside. The old market selling amulets is still there together with the new establishment.
What is your favourite historic building in Bangkok?
I love the Vimanmek Mansion Museum, especially the Sala pavilion. Its ancient architecture combines European neo-classical style with traditional Thai motifs. The lace wood carving at the eaves is my favourite part, it looks sweet and feminine.
What was the inspiration to open the Riva Surya and Riva Arun hotels, and why did you choose Bangkok’s historic Old Town as the location?
Many people dream about having a house on the riverside, and I just wanted to give them an opportunity to sit there and have that experience. Since my family owns some land there, we can develop and adapt it.
What does ‘Heritage’ mean to you, and how does it influence your family’s businesses?
I want to spread Thai heritage into the world. It is a beautiful thing and no less valuable than that of any other country. We try to preserve Thai culture in each of our businesses. Riva Surya hotel was designed by a Thai architect, and decorated with traditional Thai elements, including a paddle of The Royal Barge Procession. A lot of foreigners travel far to come to Thailand, and I want them to really get to know the country. I am always looking for opportunities to grow in the mass transport and tourism business. Regarding the boat business, there’s still a lot to do. The Chao Phraya Express Boat is used in daily life, and I have to make it more reliable and safer. I ride the boat myself to learn what needs to be rectified. Our plan now is to develop better, higher speed boats.