Aug 30 2012

Bangkok’s Amphawa: What is going on?

Published by at 7:34 am under Sightseeing & activities


On its official website, the monstrous Chuchaiburi Sri Amphawa luxury hotel-in-the-making boasts, “Reflecting the community’s values, our hotel cherishes Amphawa’s cultural heritage and aspires to preserve and pass it on for future generations.” It’s a shamefully off-base claim given how this lavish hotel construction project is levelling homes that are more than a century old in a historic, UNESCO-awarded canal-side community southwest of Bangkok.

In a few days, these old homes will be bulldozed to make way for the hotel project in the background.

In a few days, these historic homes will be bulldozed.

Elderly residents have already been forced from traditional wood homes that have sat reverently over Amphawa canal for generations. Days from now, 12 more houses will be demolished from a neighbourhood that received an honourable mention from UNESCO for its well-preserved Thai architecture in 2008. Before another piece of Amphawa’s heritage is lost forever, a group of activists and artists came together for a melancholy protest and creative celebration of the living history being lost on August 29.

What is happening in Amphawa?
With its colourful floating market, charming Thai style wood buildings and relaxed atmosphere, Amphawa has become a major tourist attraction in recent years. Perhaps more so than any of Thailand’s hotspots, Amphawa lives or dies by its heritage, history and culture, and much of its popularity has come as nearby Damnoen Saduak floating market became a floating Disneyland.

A mid-week scene from Amphawa.

A mid-week scene from Amphawa.

With tourism comes money, and that’s something Chuchaiburi Sri Amphawa Hotel’s sole founder and proprietor — Chuchai Chairitthilerd — has no shortage of. The Bangkok jewellery tycoon envisioned a sprawling four-storey colonial Europea- style hotel on the banks of Amphawa canal near the floating market, apparently oblivious to how it would fit into the local landscape and community almost as well as a Bangkok ladyboy show would fit into a Mongolian yak-herding village.

This…

This...

UNESCO-awarded architecture.

…will soon be replaced by this:

...will soon be replaced by this.

Lots of concrete.

What about the locals?
When Chuchai offered the owners of some 20 traditional canal-side houses hefty payouts, they didn’t hesitate to send their modest long-term tenants packing. As an August 29 demonstration took place, the last remaining residents — sad, discouraged and helpless — packed up their possessions and spoke a few difficult words to reporters and well-wishers. One resident, who had lived beside the canal while running a small restaurant for more than 20 years, explained how a concrete townhouse across town will be her new home.

A woman cleans out the last of her things from her home, which will be entirely gone in a few days.

A woman cleans out the last of her things from her home, which will be gone in a few days.

The stories of uprooted residents are heart-wrenching, but many who own homes and are staying put near the construction site are also up in arms. Piyaklung Chokchai was beside himself as he showed us around his gorgeous, recently restored wood home that he claims has undergone significant damages resulting from the construction project directly next door. He pointed out at least 20 areas throughout the home where stone bases have cracked, wood floors have warped and walls have split apart.

The construction has gone on for over a year and is expected to continue for at least another.

The construction has gone on for over a year and is expected to continue for at least another.

Pointing to what is apparently the first phase of the mega project, which currently consists of gargantuan concrete structures stretching almost out to the canal wall, I asked Piyaklung what occupied the space previously. “Oh, beautiful old houses”, he said. “Friends, neighbours… Everything has changed now…”

His look says it all.

His look says it all.

What is being done about it?
The story has been covered by a handful of Bangkok newspapers, magazines and TV stations, but the project was given the go-ahead by local planning officials and is legal. Despite an increasing level of outrage, Chuchai has remained steadfast in defending his project, and was even quoted in the Bangkok Post as saying, “I just want to give something back to society (by building the hotel)”.

Several different people at the demonstration told us that one of the first to break the story was a Chulalongkorn University student who criticised the project on her blog and was subsequently threatened to either delete the post or face a lawsuit. We’re not able to confirm this claim, but it’s telling that several professors from Chulalongkorn (one of Thailand’s most prestigious universities) including the heads of the journalism and architecture departments, were on hand to publicly protest the project.

A group of activists and residents gather to place roses on the steps of the homes to be demolished.

A group of activists and residents gather to place roses on the steps of a few of the homes to be demolished.

One of the most active voices has been Pattaraporn Apichit (P’Nu for short), who helps to run the Amphawa Thai language magazine Monrak Mae Klong. P’Nu became so choked up during her speech at the demonstration that she handed the microphone off to one of her colleagues before finishing. Several other local media outlets were on hand at the demonstration, including Channel 9 and Thai PBS. A number of Thai and foreign activists also attended, many of them organised by the movers-and-shakers of Bangkok Vanguards.

P'Nu speaks with a heavy heart.

P’Nu speaks with a heavy heart.

The most inspiring aspect of the demonstration, however, were the diverse range of artists who turned up to protest in a more creative way. Prominent documentary filmmaker and former Miss Thailand Areeya “Pop” Chumsai was joined by several photographers and visual artists, including a handful of local primary school students, who drew and painted their own inspiring depictions of the homes that will no longer exist in a few days time.

A group of kids appreciate their heritage through art.

A group of kids appreciate their heritage through art.

With help from the staff of Monrak Mae Klong and the Chaipattana Foundation, which has played a leading role in preserving the area’s heritage in the past, the artists are planning an exhibition on Saturday, September 15 to be held at Chaipattana headquarters on Pracha Uthit Road near the floating market in Amphawa. P’Nu hopes another future exhibition will be held in Bangkok with the possibility of subsequent showings at other venues around the country.

Only pictures will remain, but the power of art should never be underestimated.

Never underestimate the power of a pen.

What can I do?
Although it seems unlikely that anything will stop the project, writing an email (or better yet, a hand-written letter) to the addresses on the Chuchaiburi Sri Amphawa Hotel’s website is the best way to express your opinion directly to those in charge. Much of the hotel’s target audience will presumably be well-heeled foreigners, so it’s important for people from all over who care about protecting Thai heritage to let their voices be heard.

Spread the word -- homes like these have a value far deeper than can be measured with money.

Spread the word — homes like these have a value far deeper than can be measured in money.

Stopping by the exhibition in September would be an excellent way to support the artists who’ve stood up for their beliefs while also enjoying a day at the floating market. If you can’t make it to Amphawa, simply sharing this article with friends helps to raise awareness about the destruction of this neighbourhood.

Ultimately, being a responsible traveller by selectively spending your money only at businesses committed to preserving the heritage and environments of the places you go is perhaps the most powerful statement you can make.

Update – September 4,2012 – The Bangkok Post is reporting that hotelier Chuchai has bowed to pressure and will re-think his project, apparently shedding tears as he promised not to destroy the homes in question.

 

 

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8 Responses to “Bangkok’s Amphawa: What is going on?” ...

  1. Greg McCannon 30 Aug 2012 at 8:29 am

    It’s “development” schemes such as this that are taking the charm out of the world , creating a “McWorld”, and making traveling less rewarding. This project needs to be stopped.

  2. BusyLizzyon 30 Aug 2012 at 9:51 am

    Oh my god. I am so utterly gutted to read this. It’s absolute heartbreaking. Amphawa was such a special place for me – it was vibrant and exciting on a weekend, and lovely and peaceful during the week. The old teak heritage homes were gorgeous and their destruction will be a huge loss, one that can never be regained. I have great memories of whiling away an afternoon sitting on the edge of the river, book in hand. Chatting to the neighbours as they went about their business. Watching the family across the river enjoying karaoke one night.

    Thaiand loses my respect with this. I am so disappointed now that I didn’t make it back to Amphawa as I had hoped last year; I will probably never bother now. And that’s a real shame.

  3. @bangkokon 30 Aug 2012 at 10:41 am

    That’s a damn shame. Amphawa was a great place. Really saddening to see. More fake “traditional house” theme parks coming soon.

  4. Rayon 31 Aug 2012 at 11:01 am

    Once that place is ready there is only one thing you can do to make sure that they never get any customers…

    Go to Tripadvisor and rate them 1 stars only!! If there guest would know what had to disappear in order for them to stay they will never ever book in!!

  5. Spikeon 31 Aug 2012 at 11:01 am

    Do you know the exact day the demolition will take place? Might be worth going along both before and on the day to photograph the loss. Very sad.

  6. DLuekon 31 Aug 2012 at 1:17 pm

    Spike, no one except the developers knew for sure when the bulldozing would take place, but I was told by a demonstration organizer they had an August 31 deadline. I also heard that someone would be there to photograph and video it no matter what. Will report back here with any updates I receive. And Lizzy, there’s still a sleepy old teak house or two left in Amphawa for you to laze at. ;)

    The concern that Travelfishers have shown in response to this post both here and on Facebook says a lot about what kind of people frequent this site. From admins to contributors to forum members and casual readers, Travelfish cares about SE Asia in a way that goes deep beneath the surface, and you can’t say that about a lot of travel sites. The grassroots aspect of Travelfish will always make it special; many thanks to everyone for really caring about Amphawa and the region in general.

    Peace,

    DL

  7. Deeon 04 Sep 2012 at 6:55 am

    We can all make a change individually by not supporting or visiting these types of developments. If there is no demand then they will not build it. Another case of gentrification…..sad

  8. horston 21 Nov 2013 at 3:43 pm

    its a shame for Thailand these things keep on going in thailand..i loved amphawa like it used to be..why he couldn’t build this damd hotel far from the old houses..its a reason less to visit Amphawa..goodbye to another treasure of Thailand!

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