What is going on in Amphawa?

Some unwelcome changes

What we say: 4.5 stars

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.

Last updated: 16th April, 2015

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
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