Rayong’s historical heart
Published/Last edited or updated: 24th April, 2016
A reaction, perhaps, to Thailand’s push for modernisation over the past 60 or so years, a handful of previously neglected Thai neighbourhoods have been reinvented as artsy “old towns” that celebrate rather than reject their heritage. Rayong’s most venerable road, Yomjinda, is the site of one such revitalised old town.
Back in the days when most long-distance travel was done by boat, Yomjinda would have been a bustling community set along the north bank of the Rayong River. It’s easy to see the correlation on a map, as the road follows alongside a bend in the waterway. Traders, fishers and soldiers would have stopped here to rest and replenish after sailing into town from the nearby Gulf of Thailand.
The area’s prominance was evidenced by a visit from the general and later king, Taksin, who is said to have tied his elephant to a tree just east of Yomjinda while journeying to Chanthaburi to regroup after Ayutthaya fell to Burmese forces in 1767. While the elephant that you see today at Wat Lum Mahachai Chumphon is made of concrete, the centuries-old tree still stands wrapped in colourful ribbons. An adjacent shrine dedicated to King Taksin is an ideal place to start a walk through the old town.
As boats were replaced by cars and trucks in the 20th century, people and freight began to pass through town via Sukhumvit Road (the same one that runs through southeast Bangkok) rather than the Rayong River and its tributaries. Though it’s only a five-minute walk south of Sukhumvit, Yomjinda became little more than a line of forgotten old buildings.
New life was breathed into Yomjinda, named after a former Rayong governor, when a group of local artists and entrepreneurs began to recognize its cultural value in the 2000s. Tattered dolls and rotary telephones now join protective amulets on the shelves of one coffee shop, while a neighbouring framing shop displays paintings of Thai kings and famous monks out on the footpath.
A pair of cosy museums set in two of the more attractive old wood houses are worth a stop at the centre of the strip. One shows off antique shadow puppets and old photographs of people and buildings in Rayong. Another displays torn World War II-era Siamese flags and rusty farm equipment from the 19th century.
A number of compact yet compelling art galleries are also found along Yomjinda. Da Vinci Studios has a collection of vintage Thai film posters, magazines and portraits. Adding a more modern splash, GoArt Gallery exhibited a series of abstract paintings when we passed through. Other galleries double as cafes where local artists come to chat and work.
Architecture enthusiasts will appreciate the neighbourhood’s French-Indochinese houses hailing from the reign of King Rama V in the late 19th century. Some have been gracefully restored while others sit crumbling, exposed bricks surfacing from gaps in the faded mortar.
Modest lifestyles unfold within Yomjinda’s historic buildings, evidenced by potted plants and functioning post boxes that look to be as old as the walls they’re attached to. Tracing their roots to Chinese immigrants, many of the residents place red lanterns and protective dragon images on their stoops while supporting a pair of Chinese shrines.
One area where Thailand has never forgotten its heritage is food, and an array of classic eats are served along Yomjinda. Our favourite was a nameless shop run by a woman who prepares some of the fresh fish that puts Rayong on the map. “There’s only one way to cook fish,” she advised, “and that’s on a grill.” Between bites of Thai mackerel and grilled veggies dipped in homemade shrimp-and-chilli paste, we weren’t arguing.
Coming to the west end of the old town, we passed another ancient spirit tree within sight of Wat Khot Thimtharam, an Ayutthaya-era temple housing a revered Buddha image known as Luang Por Khao. Also check out the centuries-old murals in the ordination hall, which the resident monks are happy to unlock for visitors.
If you dig Rayong’s old town you’ll also like the Chanthaboon old town in Chanthaburi, which is only 100 kilometres east of Rayong.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.