Lives in Water-based Society - Bangkok and Thonburi
Bangkok has always been a unique city. However, the way people perceive Bangkok has differed significantly from period to period, as the city itself has evolved through many stages over time. Going back to its very beginning, the city’s origins were as a water-based society geared towards agricultural production. At the time, the area was full of canals, both natural and artificial, which served many functions from serving as vital arteries of transportation, sources of food and water, irrigation to being a ceremonial space for religious rituals. This resulted in a unique city layout that made foreign eyes perceive Bangkok as the “Venice of the East”. Unfortunately, after the introduction of modern roads to Siam, the use of the canal system decreased significantly. The vanishing of the canals furthermore had a big impact on the way of life in the city. The image of Bangkok full of floating houses and boats along the Chaophraya River (a major river in Bangkok and Thailand) has faded away.
Of the areas that have resisted modernization to some degree, Thonburi is the most exceptional one for how well it still captures the feeling of old Bangkok. Thanks to its big active network of canals, Thonburi seems to be a part of old Bangkok that is still clinging to life. In big part, this is due to the canal network’s function of connecting many communities together, some of which still sustain their traditions with little impact by the modern world. Over its long history of inhabitation, the area was home to many local communities. Hence, multicultural traditions and the coexistence of multiple ethnicities are one of Thonburi’s outstanding characteristics. To this day, many tangible and intangible art forms and systems of beliefs remain intact among the people of the Thonburi area.
Here are six routes to explore Bangkok, centering on the lives of a water-based society.
- Route 1. Melting Pot of Trading
- Route 2. Lives of Orchard
- Route 3. Reflection of Siamese Art and Culture
- Route 4. Hidden Local Beliefs
- Route 5. Diverse Religious Past
- Route 6. A Walk of Five Generations
The six routes were developed by the Roots Routes in collaboration with ichLinks.
Melting Pot of Trading
One of the most interesting parts of present-day Thonburi on the West side of the Chaophraya river is “Klong San” as it is home to a truly diverse set of traditional heritage. In the past, stretching back to the early times of the Bangkok period, this part of Thonburi was considered important especially for trading. Since the location was ideal for foreign vessels to dock and trade, the cultural diversity of the area might be considered a byproduct of its economic role. Thonburi was not only a place for the transfer of goods, but also developed into a residential area that was home to a variety of people, such as Thai, Laotian, Chinese and Indian. From early on, piers connected this part of Thonburi to the commercial areas of Bangkok on the other side of the river. ... [More]
Wat Pichai Yat
A Thai Buddhist temple that once lay abandoned until Tut Bunnag, one of the regents during the reign of Kings Rama III and IV who decided to renovate the complex in 1829 and devoted it to the King. The renovations drew from both Chinese and Thai influences, since this combination of styles was favored by the King at the time. The temple also contains a great Thai prang (a richly carved tall tower-like spire) located at the central end of the complex. This structure has a unique function that is quite rare in Thai Buddhist temples: enshrined in the prang are four Buddha statues surrounding a mausoleum-like space that houses the remains of the Bunnag family members. ... [More]
A long-standing place of Muslim worship with a mixed interior design that clearly shows the influence of various cultures. The land of the present-day mosque once belonged to Tut Bunnag before he offered it to a group of Indian merchants from Surat, a city in the western Indian state of Gujarat. In part, his motivation for this gift was the merchants’ role in supporting his business as interpreters. One of these Indian merchants, whose family would become very successful and influential in modern Thai business, was Ali Bai Nana. Due to his success, most of the area around the Goowatin mosque would later be owned by the Nana family. Among the many ethnicities present in the area, some of the Thai Muslims here were descendants of people who were citizens of the Pattani Kingdom. Pattani, one of Thailand’s southernmost provinces, was an independent Muslim city-state ruling a large portion of the surrounding region until the 16th century when it became a vassal state of Siam.
Tha Din Dang Market
One of the most famous local markets in Bangkok. Enjoy a great selection of local foods that covers a wide range from fresh fruit to some delicious cooked meals. One of the most recommended restaurants here is Aouky, where they specialize in Chinese pork satay and Chinese Goose stewed noodle.
Wat Thong Tammachat
Wat Thong Thammachat is a traditional Thai Buddhist temple that lets visitors enjoy its calm atmosphere from the moment they enter the temple compound. The temple structure follows the traditional Thai temple architecture that resembles the prominent style of the late Ayutthaya period ... [More]
Early Rattakosin Thai Mural Painting and its Beliefs: Wat Thong Tammanat
The murals in the Ubosot of Wat Thong Thammachat are works of art in the reign of King Rama III of the Chakri Dynasty. The paintings are arranged in a style that was popular in the early Rattanakosin period, which is a picture of the Buddha's life. It is one of the mural wall paintings that are still in very good condition in Bangkok ... [More]
These old structures once served as a steamship terminal known by its official former name as “Huo Chuan Lhong” which translates to steamship terminal. It was built in 1850 following the design of Chinese-style ports that also included shops, offices and a shrine in the complex. Later on, it was converted into rental home offices and was used as a center for the Chinese Merchant Association at the same time. From 1919 the complex was sold to the Wanglee family and has belonged to them ever since ... [More]
Mazuism is a belief system centering on Mazu, the Chinese seafarer’s goddess. Lhong 1919 is home to one of the most important shrines dedicated to this goddess in Bangkok. The shrine offers visitors a chance to pay respect directly to the statues of Mazu. The three Mazu figurines had been brought by overseas Chinese who came to Bangkok about 167 years ago. The goddess used to be a local deity revered by Fujianese, before she became widely known and worshipped by overseas Chinese communities. The overseas Chinese communities with their involvement in maritime trade saw her as a protector of seafarers. Therefore, many Chinese who immigrated to Thailand believe that paying homage to her is crucial for the safety of their journeys and their trade ... [More]
Lives of Orchard
Floating markets and fruit orchards also represent the old ways of life which continue to enrich Bangkok’s heritage. Nowadays, when travelers plan to visit these kinds of places they would likely search for them outside of modern Bangkok. However, there still are fewer known places within the city that are able to give a good impression of those scenes that used to be common in the past. On this route, visitors will be able to use many modes of transportation such as train, local boat and Tuk Tuk, connecting sites that allow developing a deeper understanding of the city’s ways of life back in the time when agriculture was one of Bangkok’s central trades. A secret lychee garden that still has 1oo-year old trees, as well as the area that once was home to one of Bangkok’s earliest official floating markets will take explorers into an environment that is evocative of days when nature and water were at the center of people's livelihoods. The route also allows explorers to discover other hidden gems of Bangkok, such as the prototype of Wat Pho’s reclining Buddha statue that predates its famous successor at Wat Pho.
Wong Wian Yai Train Station
This train line was operated since 1901. It transports commuters and agricultural products from Samut Songkhram province locally known as Mae Klong to Bangkok. The area is well known for its variety of local fruit such as coconut, lychee and pomelo as well as local food to try before the train depart.
Wat Racha Orasaram Ratchaworawihan
This temple complex (formerly known as Wat Chom Thong) with its blend of Thai and Chinese elements has long enchanted visitors with its well-balanced and spacious architectural layout. The original temple was founded before the Bangkok period and the whole complex received its last major reconstruction during the reign of King Rama 3 around 180 years ago ... [More]
Poom Jai Garden/Natura Cafe
Poomjai Garden is one of the old lychee gardens situated in Bang Khun Tian area. This garden had been operated by a local family, who worked as gardeners for many generations. Their knowledge of gardening came from southern China where the family traces their roots and where the first lychee tree was from ... [More]
Traditional Agricultural System
Agriculture is a crucial part of Thai society from the very beginning. Since Thailand possesses well-endowed natural resources, agriculture was a major part of the country's development, offering a variety of job opportunities for the Thai population which contributed to Thailand’s economic growth. Around 52 percent of the country's land is suitable for agriculture. Rice has always played a major role in the country's traditions. It used to be the top producer not only domestically but among other countries in the Asia Pacific region as well. There are also other crops such as rubber, shallots, potatoes and sugarcane which latter got the highest production volume in recent years ... [More]
Talad Phlu is the most famous local market in the area and a community of Thai-Chinese since the Thonburi period. In the past the area was a center for selling phlu (betel), hence it was named Talad Phlu (betel market). Betel comes from the plant known as Areca catechu known in Thai as “Maak”. The traditional ingredients for Maak are betel leaf, betel nut and red limestone. The Thai enjoy Maak by mixing all of the ingredients then pounding them together before eating them. At present, the area is famous for being one of the centers for local street foods, especially Siamese-Chinese cuisine. One of the recommended dishes here is the crispy noodle with their recipe for over 100 years old dated back to King Rama V “Tek Heng”
Reflection of Siamese Art and Culture
Traditional Thai arts are great reflections of both Siamese nature and culture. Traditional art concepts depict stories about local religions, beliefs and aspects of everyday life. Traditional artists are often well trained in the field of their arts and learn to honor their master who passes down the knowledge of art to them. Hence, they have been influenced to create artworks that are detailed, delicate and sacred. Nowadays, it is difficult to find a traditional artist neighborhood. The Artist’s House commonly known in Thai as “Baan Silapin” is one among these rare finds. The location follows the concept of a house of art, where both painters and traditional puppeteers can exhibit and perform their work. Visitors could explore and enjoy the local art neighborhood with an old Bangkok vibe from the local canal around the area.
Klong Bang Luang Historic Community
The name “Klong Bang Luang” is a casual name of the Bangkok Yai canal. As the canal was part of the old Chao Phraya River, it was where locals settled even before the Bangkok period. During the early Bangkok time, the canal used to be a residential area for many noblemen who served the Siamese court. Later on, roads replaced rivers and canals as the main transportation channels of Bangkok. Many dwellers decided to move out of the area and newcomers replaced them. The area then became a habitat for middle-class families instead. Since early Bangkok, most native men who resided in this area were office workers who worked for the government of Siam. There were also many shipyards in the canal area. Majorly organized by Hainan Chinese immigrants. Later on, these boat businesses declined and were eventually closed due to the popularity of roads. There are some local stores selling souvenirs and drinks along the way to the Artist’s House. Bags of fish food are sold too, if you wonder about how many fishes there would be in the canal then it is time to test it out, there is always a swarm of fish waiting for food.
The Artist’s House
The Artist’s House is located at the end of the canal walkway. The house once belonged to “Rak Sam Luard,” a goldsmith family. Before it was transferred to Khun Chumpon Akapantanon, the present local owner who renovated the space for exhibiting any kind of arts as well as offers cultural activities such as Traditional Thai dance class. Then, it is transformed into an open space for artists and art lovers in order to pass on Thai heritage. There is also an art gallery on the second floor of the house with temporary art exhibitions ... [More]
Hoon Lakorn Lek: Thai Traditional Puppetry
Wat Kampeang Bang Jak
The temple is believed to have been built in the Ayutthaya Kingdom and got its major renovation during the early Bangkok period. The temple highlights its good condition, especially the mural painting within the ordination hall that still shows the color and form from either late Ayutthaya or the very early Bangkok period ... [More]
Hidden Local Beliefs
Local Thai cultures and beliefs are majorly influenced by faith in supernatural forces or spiritual beings, which are generally known as “ghosts”. These ghost stories were rooted in Thais’ minds from the very beginning. Although many surviving stories have evolved through time, some have also been adapted to fit into modern media hence, distorting the original belief and changing the view toward ghosts from the sacred side to some of the creepy and spooky images. ... [More]
This is one of the best-known temples of Thailand located in Bangkok Yai district, on the Thonburi side. The original temple was built in the Ayutthaya Kingdom, though its present-day complex was built in the Bangkok period during the reign of King Rama 2 and 3 (1809-1851). This temple was once on the grounds of the royal palace during the Thonburi Kingdom and used to enshrine the most important Buddha figure of Bangkok, the Emerald Buddha, before it got transferred to Wat Phra Kaew in 1785 ... [More]
The concept of prang is a tall tower-like spire that is often well carved and designed to enshrine either Hindu or Buddhist iconic figures. Prang tower usually took the form of a multi-tiered structure with receding size as it ascended, somewhat like the stepped pyramidal tower. Thai prang got its influence directly from Khmer architecture, where prang was first introduced. An earlier form of Khmer prang resembled the shikhara Hindu temple in India that came before them, indicating the artistic transmission from each country and generation ... [More]
Wat Nak Klang/ Thai Local Belief
This is another ancient temple built since the late Ayutthaya period. The interesting point is the mix of the local folk belief and objects which are displayed on the temple ground. There are many objects that display ghost beliefs. One of the most interesting objects is “Thep Than Jai” the counterpart of Burmese half ghost half divinity “Natboboyee” who is believed to grant wishes instantly.
Wat Nak Klang Community
Local Thai communities are normally peaceful and calm. The community dwellers usually know each other quite well, sometimes there are also relatives to each other considering the traditional Thai social structure as an extended family. Wat Nak Klang community could be considered as a good example of the case. As the dwellers here have strong bonds with each other and with their faith toward both Buddhism and folk beliefs ... [More]
Diverse Religious Past
Bangkok is a multicultural city, diverse in both ethnicity and beliefs. In terms of religion, visitors to the city always come across structures that are related to Buddhism since over 95 percent of the population are Buddhist. Nevertheless, communities of other religions and beliefs are also coexisting harmoniously. Finding them though is quite challenging from their small percentage and from the spread of people who moved in and out of Bangkok.
The Immaculate Conception Church community and St. Francis Xavier community are both great examples of Bangkok diversity. As both are communities of Christian believers–the first belong to a group of Portuguese in the past and the latter was of Vietnamese descent. The two communities are located just beside each other and share the same faith in Catholicism yet are separated from their different ethnicity.
Visitors can enjoy the surrounding views of old Bangkok-style houses. The alleys that lead to the main churches of both communities are really interesting to stroll around. Stories of how Christianity made its way to Siam and Bangkok could also be learned. The blended architectural style could be observed from one of the churches.
St. Francis Xavier church was first built in 1834 but the original structures were made out of wood and got destroyed by a storm. The new concrete church was built and completed in 1867 with its design in European style. The church community was home to Vietnamese Catholics who had fled the religious expulsion in Vietnam. Nowadays, the community still maintains its Vietnamese heritage, which has merged to some extent with the Thai way of life over time. A particular highlight is the lively community market that takes place every weekend where you can try the community’s unique local blend of Vietnamese-Thai food ... [More]
The Immaculate Conception Church community
The community got its highlight from its main church, the Immaculate Conception Church locally known as Wat Khamen. The Church was around 345 years old, which makes it the oldest Catholic church in Bangkok. The history of this church began when King Narai of Ayutthaya kingdom had offered his own land to a French Bishop in order for him to build a Christian church that enabled the spread of Catholicism. King Narai also sent two emissaries to the court of Louis XIV from the suggestion of Bishop Laneau, which helped strengthen the relationship between Siam and France at the time. In the Bangkok period during the reign of King Rama I, a group of Portuguese and Cambodians had been brought to the city as prisoners of war. They had been relocated to the settlement at the church area by the order of the king, as both of them share the same faith in Catholicism ... [More]
The original temple was found during the Ayutthaya period. It has been renovated several times throughout the Bangkok period. The most interesting complex was added during the reign of King Rama V (1868-1910), a group of buildings constructed in European design. This is an interesting temple to learn about the mixed cultures that even art in Thai Buddhism can adapt and blend with other styles from the west ... [More]
A Walk of Five Generations
Voyage through the old neighborhood on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river where untold stories are waiting for you to be revealed. This journey will allow you to gain a deeper understanding of Thai culture through the very personal perspective of the story of a Thai aristocratic family who has been living in this neighborhood of Thonburi for five generations. These are the places of memories where nowadays the family’s descendants turned their home into the “Kasayapi Hotel” to tell their story.
Discover the secret stories and places from the unseen temples of those historic communities with different beliefs and ethnicity which are hidden in the area as well as local food and cuisine with a long history that should not be missed. These are the stories of local heritage in the Thai way of life and illustrate the melting pot society from the perspective of commoners and in contrast with the grand royal monuments of the city. The Bangkok which this route introduces you to cannot be found anywhere in the world of the internet but only in the memories of the locals and in their bright eyes when they talk about the good old days.
Not many people know that this quiet little temple built sometime in Ayutthaya, was renovated by King Rama I of Ratanakosin Era over 200 years ago (Bangkok) to accommodate his well-respected Vipasana Teaching monk, who later became the fourth supreme patriarch of the Buddhist priests (Suk). He was so well respected for Vipasana teaching that King Rama I sent his sons who later became King Rama II, III, and IV and nephews to study with him at this very temple. In the temple, among the monk’s dwelling area, is the museum of His Holiness the Patriarch (Suk), a small old half wooden half concrete building where vipassana teaching classes are held these days.
With a mixture of adapted Gothic style and fine wood carvings, Charodenpas Mosque is one of the four places of worship for Thai-Muslims of Persian descent called “Khaek Chao Sen” “แขกเจ้าเซ็น”. Once a year around October (in the Muharram month) they perform rituals in memory of Imam Hussein who was killed in the 61st Islamic year in his efforts to conserve religious truths. There are many spectacular and rarely seen activities such as fire walking and self-flagellation.
Wat Hong Ratanaram
Wat Hong Rattanaram or Wat Hong as the locals refer to it is another remarkable temple. Before the invention of cars, the people of Siam traveled by boats through canals and rivers throughout the country. In long-distance traveling, the Siamese even had a culture of singing songs or “Pleang Ruea” composing only the lyrics fresh out of the head to go with the standard rhythm by men and women to pass the time with fun. At that time houses, temples and markets were designed with their fronts facing the river or canal side, until there were cars and roads. So in many old places, you can still see the front of the temples at the canal or riverside as opposed to the car entrance on the roadside ... [More]
Kampong Glam is a place where the history of the city comes alive. Allocated to the Malay, Bugis, and Arab communities in early Singapore urban planning, Kampong Glam is filled with the life of various communities that shape its history and culture. The Sultan Mosque of the beautiful golden dome is a landmark of Kampong Glam. The Malay Heritage Center, directly opposite the mosque, is a museum converted from the royal palace where the first Sultan of Singapore lived. It is worth visiting the museum to learn more about the history and culture of the Malay community in Singapore.
Kudi Jeen community
Back in 1767, after the destruction of Ayuthaya, King Taksin the great allocated pieces of land to different communities including one called Kudejeen to a small Portuguese community. Santa Cruz Church, located in the heart of the Kudi Jeen community, is a Catholic church first erected more than 250 years ago. The community surrounding the church is that of Portuguese descendants. Walking through the small alleys, the dwellers still produce Kanom Farung or Kudi jeen Portuguese cake. The recipes have been passed on from generation to generation and some restaurants offer both Thai and Portuguese foods where it is rare to find elsewhere in Thailand.