**Thanon Tok, the country’s oldest road, is where a lot of Siamese history was made **
Writer: Pichaya Svasti
Published: 30/08/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Brunch
When it comes to the words “Thanon Tok”, the first thing that flashes in many Bangkokians’ minds might be bus No1 running between Thanon Tok and Sanam Luang.
In fact, Thanon Tok is the nickname of Siam’s first road, Charoen Krung (New Road). This road has a lot to tell about Siamese history by being where various cultures crossed paths with each other.
Luangphor Daeng, Wat Ratchasingkhorn
Why is it called Thanon Tok? The answer is simple. “If we walk on, we will fall [or tok in Thai] into the Chao Phraya River because the road ends at the river. Thanon Tok is its colloquial name while Charoen Krung is its official name,” said Sudara Sujachaya, a writer of historical documentaries, during a recent Siam Vision walking trip on this road.
According to Ms Sudara, many Westerners came to Bangkok during the reigns of King Rama III and King Rama IV in the 19th century. They requested a modern road here due to health concerns.
“Back in their home countries, Europeans enjoyed riding in horse-drawn carriages which were fun and also good for their health. In Bangkok, many of them fell ill because there was no modern road for them to do this,” reads a historical document.
In 1861, King Rama IV therefore ordered the construction of the southern section of a new road from Khlong Khumuang Doem canal to the Sam Yaek area and the Chao Phraya riverbank at Bang Kho Laem district.
In the following year, the inner section of the new road from Wat Pho to Saphan Lek was built. Both parts of the road were called New Road by the people and officially named by the king as Charoen Krung in 1868.
Jiew Eng Biew Shrine
“The construction cost 28,038 baht. It was a soil road, so dusty in the dry season. Also, it was the most crowded area [in Bangkok],” said Chulphassorn Panomvan na Ayudhya of the Siam Vision group.
This new road led to convenient transport and attracted more foreigners to open shops, rice mills, sawmills, shipyards and piers in the southern area of Charoen Krung Road.
This area had been called Ban Thawai and later became Amphoe Thung Thawai and Yannawa. In the past, Ban Thawai was full of farmland and fruit orchards, close to the Chao Phraya River and a satellite canal called Bang Kho Laem. It was famous for some kinds of fruit, especially salak and durian.
Chao Mae Prommes Shrine
At the mouth of Bang Kho Laem canal lay a huge floating market. Not only farm produce from this area but also other products like jars from Pathum Thani and fish from Mahachai were sold here. The market closed in 1942 when a heavy flood hit Bangkok and destroyed all the orchards here," Ms Sudara said.
On the left side of Thanon Tok is Charoen Krung Pracharak Hospital where a large slaughterhouse stood for years. Behind the hospital is a Muslim community, established by former workers of the slaughterhouse.
Not far from the hospital is Wang Chao shipyard. Bang Kho Laem Palace, a summer residence of HRH Prince Lopburi, used to be here. It was a traditional Thai wooden house. This prince loved traditional Thai music and had his own musical ensemble, so the area has been famous for traditional music.
Within walking distance from the shipyard is the Metropolitan Electricity Authority’s Yannawa branch where an old tram is being preserved near the former final stop of tram cars at Thanon Tok.
Ban U Mosque
“I manned the trams that ran between Thanon Tok and Lak Muang for seven years until my retirement. I was trained for three months to drive the trams. The fares were 50 satang for the front compartment and 25 satang for the rear one,” Chob Wadkhian, a former tram driver who is now in his eighties, recalled.
Trams were introduced to Siam by two Danish men in 1887 during the reign of King Rama V - the first in Asia. Under the Tramways Company, each tram was drawn by eight horses along Charoen Krung Road between the Grand Palace and Thanon Tok.
Trams were popular among the Siamese until buses replaced them. From 1963, tram routes closed one after another. This kind of transportation came to a complete end in 1968.
The Protestant Cemetery
Thanon Tok was not only a transportation hub but also a melting pot of various religions and cultures, as proved by the many landmarks along its 8.8km stretch. Just a few bus stops from the end of Thanon Tok is a Protestant cemetery. It was built on a land plot bestowed by King Rama IV to Protestants in Siam on July 28, 1853.
A newspaper, Vajirayarnwiset, from that time tells of its history: "In the past, there were great difficulties when Western Protestants died because there was no cemetery for them, unlike the Catholics. Their bodies would be buried in Chinese graveyards if their relatives had connections. This was pitiful. Later, Butterworth, governor of Singapore and Penang, who knew King Rama IV, petitioned the king for a cemetery.
Finally, the king agreed to help by buying a land plot for up to 10 chang [1 chang is equal to 80 baht]. All the Protestants were very grateful to him."
Bus No 1 is a symbol of Thanon Tok
Buried here were the bodies of several Westerners who contributed a great deal to Siam: Dr Dan Beach Bradley, a US missionary who published the first newspaper, Siam Recorder, in 1844 and introduced surgery and smallpox vaccinations to Siam; Henry Alabaster, a Briton who was an adviser to King Rama VI and supervised the construction of Charoen Krung and several other roads in Siam; and Dr Smith, an English publisher who founded two English-language newspapers in Siam and published Siamese literature such as Phra Aphaimanee and Khunchang Khunphaen, to name but a few.
Near this cemetery is Wat Ratchasingkhorn, a Buddhist temple dating to the reign of Ayutthaya’s King Borommakot (1733 to 1758), which was restored in a modest style during the reign of King Rama III (1824 to 1851). The presiding Buddha image is Luangphor Daeng.
“Luangphor Daeng was one of more than 1,600 Buddha statues brought to Bangkok from the provinces on the order of King Rama I’s son, Krom Phra Ratchawangbovorn Maha Sakdipollasep. However, a raft capsized (in front of the temple) and Luangphor Daeng fell into the water and was not retrieved until the Third Reign. So, his gold colour turned rusty red,” Mr Chulphassorn said.
Another important Buddhist temple in the area is Wat Yannawa, dating to the Ayutthaya Period. Its former name was Wat Khok Krabue.
King Rama I upgraded it to a royal temple and built a new ubosot here.
Later, King Rama III restored the temple and built a chedi in the shape of a sailing junk with the aim to remind people of old-style sailing junks and symbolise the good deeds of Phra Vessandorn, the Lord Buddha’s previous life.
Next to Wat Yannawa was the Wanglee community, which holds great significance in the Chinese history in Siam. In the past, the area was full of piers, ports, rice mills and shops. Three large rice mills owned by the Bisalputra family were located here in the Fourth Reign (1851 to 1868).
The sailing junk-shaped chedi at Wat Yannawa
They were later taken over by the Wanglee family. Thereafter, the area became a pier and then Siam’s leading port, called tharua mail jeen, in the late Fifth Reign (1868 to 1910). The area was full of shops, restaurants, bars and dance floors.
However, this port experienced a downturn and was finally closed after Klong Toey port opened in 1951.
A few steps from the former Wanglee community is the Chao Mae Prommes Shrine.
This Taechew shrine is home to the goddess Tubtim, known as the protector of ship crews and travellers.
In nearby Charoen Krung Soi 46 is Ban U Mosque. According to oral history, the Ban U community was established after many Muslims were moved from Pattani to Bangkok and nearby provinces in the Fifth Reign.
In 1912, King Rama VI granted a plot of land to build the mosque and the cemetery. Later, the area became a major business district and most of the land, except for the mosque, its graveyard and land, changed hands to Chinese merchants. Now, the mosque serves Indian and Afghan traders and Thai Muslims working in the area.
Near the mosque is the Jiew Eng Biew Shrine, a Hainanese shrine built in memory of 108 Hainanese monks who were killed in Vietnam on their way to Siam by sea. The ceiling and walls of the shrine are filled with wooden plates inscribed with Chinese proverbs.
“This area [along Thanon Tok] is full of the history of trade, trading communities, the Chinese in Thailand and more. All stories can be woven into one. This can’t be found elsewhere,” Mr Chulphassorn said.
Chob Wadkhian, a former tram driver, recounting his days on an old tram preserved at the end of Thanon Tok.
Bron: Bangkok Post / www.bangkokpost.com