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Bangkok's heritage vanishes as urbanization speeds up

Venerable buildings and communities are being torn down in the name of progress

The popular Khao Gaeng Jek Pui street-food stall on Mangkon Road. The eatery has since moved to a new location as the authorities seek to clean up the city’s sidewalks. (Ben Davies)

BANGKOK -- Boonsong Chatayatorn, 71, peers out of his dilapidated two-story shophouse at Bangkok's unsightly urban sprawl. Except for the venerated Buddhist temple next door, he could be looking at almost any major city in Southeast Asia.

A welder on Charoen Krung Road, in Bangkok's historic Chinatown district, Boonsong recalls the days when rickshaws were the most common form of transport in the neighborhood and trams rumbled along the roads to the Grand Palace.

"I remember when Bangkok was a low-rise city crisscrossed by canals," he says from his 80-year-old shophouse, crammed with antique cylinders and tools that would not look out of place in a museum. "At night, my 11 brothers and sisters and I would fall asleep listening to the sounds of Chinese opera."

Not anymore.

Most of its sleepy khlongs (canals) are long gone. Until a curfew was introduced on April 3 to deal with the spread of the new coronavirus, Boonsong was more likely to be kept awake by the high-pitched screech of motorcycles than by a performance of Chinese opera.

Top: Klong Prawet Burirom, on the eastern fringes of Bangkok. The Thai capital still boasts more than 1,000 canals. However, many waterways have been covered over to make way for roads. Bottom: Street life, Saladaeng Road. At the start of the 20th century, this district was largely made up of paddy fields, sleepy canals and rosewood trees. In a city lurching into the modern world, it provides a rare window on the Bangkok of old. (Ben Davies)

"I am conservative by nature, but I have to say that I like the way the city was before," he says.

For the moment, the outbreak of COVID-19 has slowed or stopped the process of urban change. But the pause in development is unlikely to survive the recovery from the emergency. And Boonsong is far from being the only local resident with a longing for the past.

A short walk up the road, off an alleyway on Soi Nana, is one of the city's fast-disappearing traditional coffee stalls. With tables and stools set around a shelf unit lined with old Nescafe jars and faded portraits, it belongs to Chaiya Songosum, 48, who inherited it from his mother. "I understand that the world is changing," he says. "But I am proud of my family heritage and I want to preserve it for as long as I can."

A coffee stall off Soi Nana. This is one of a vanishing breed of such establishments around the city. "I am proud of my family heritage and I want to preserve it for as long as I can," said vendor Chaiya Songosum. (Ben Davies)

For many people living in Thailand's congested capital, urban development in the form of better infrastructure, improved public transportation and modern amenities like shopping malls, apartment blocks and office towers could hardly come soon enough. Nevertheless, Bangkok ranks 98th out of 140 cities worldwide in the latest Global Liveability Index drawn up by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

In part, that is due to a lack of parks -- Bangkok has just 3.3 square meters of green space per person, compared with 66.2 square meters in Singapore. Bangkok also has a relatively low ratio of roads to total urban space, which helps to explain its notorious traffic jams.

Not everyone opposes development. Last year, an extension to the city's underground railway was welcomed by many residents in densely populated Chinatown, despite fears that it will lead to an influx of property developers who will deprive the neighborhood of its character.

Top: Beyond Rama IX Bridge and the sleek Kasikornbank headquarters, rice barges are towed past old warehouses towards the former capital Ayutthaya, as they have for centuries. Bottom: An abandoned riverside mansion, Somdet Chao Phraya Road. This building is one of the last of its kind along Bangkok’s waterfront. (Ben Davies)

"The underground train makes it easier to move around the city, which is good for my business," says Natapol Hiransaroj, who runs a 100-year-old tea shop on Rama IV Road.

Tall, fit and bespectacled, Natapol roasts tea in the traditional way, using a charcoal oven at the back of his shop. But he admits that his buyers are more international than before, and with deeper pockets. "I don't have a problem with the pace of modernization," he says.

My interest in Bangkok's old way of life and architecture dates back to 2014, when I started work on a photographic book called "Vanishing Bangkok: The Changing Face of the City."

Top: A faded Chinese apartment block on Soi Song Soem recalls an era of the city that is rapidly disappearing. Bottom: Talad Noi is one of the oldest communities in Bangkok. Originally famed for its Hokkien blacksmiths, the locals now deal in secondhand auto parts imported from as far afield as Japan and China. (Ben Davies)

But the Thai capital is changing so fast that almost a quarter of the old buildings and communities I photographed have either been torn down or are virtually unrecognizable. Within 10 years, most will have disappeared.

Of course, the big question is, does this matter? For Yongtanit Pimonsathean, an expert on heritage conservation in Thailand, the answer is yes. "People see new buildings as a sign of prosperity. They don't think about the environment or the loss of history," he says.

That is something that Thailand's authorities would do well to bear in mind. Last year, the city attracted 22.8 million visitors, according to MasterCard, the highest number of any capital city in the world. While tourist arrivals are expected to fall by up to 90% in the first half of 2020 because of the coronavirus outbreak, most visitors want a different experience from what they can find back home.

Top: A worker transports cardboard boxes along Song Wat Road. These exquisite Sino-Portuguese shophouses are famous for their stucco decorations of coconuts, watermelons and other tropical fruits. Bottom: Students pose for photos outside the old Customs House, built in 1888. Now abandoned, there are plans to develop it into a boutique hotel. (Ben Davies)

"I think it is just as important for travelers to see old Bangkok as it is for them to see new Bangkok," says Belinda Shillcock, regional managing director of Abercrombie and Kent, an international luxury travel company.

So why are so many people in Bangkok unconcerned by the pace of change? Part of the blame, says Yongtanit, lies with the Thai education system. "Students in schools are taught that temples, palaces and stately buildings are important historic monuments, but ordinary structures like shophouses, ancient wooden dwellings or street markets are seen to have little cultural value," he says.

To see how fast the gleaming new shopping malls and high-rises are encroaching on traditional neighborhoods, just take a look at the One Bangkok development taking shape opposite Lumphini Park on Rama IV Road. The project will comprise five office towers, five luxury hotels and three exclusive condominiums. By the time it is completed in 2026, the development will have transformed Bangkok's city center.

Top: Overshadowed by luxury apartments, a two-story wooden house looks out over the Chao Phraya River. Eighteen months after this photograph was taken, the house was torn down. Bottom: Glimpsed through twisted cables and power lines, this splendid building on Surawong Road gives a flavor of Bangkok at the start of the 20th century. In 2018, it was razed to make way for a high-rise development. (Ben Davies)

Even along the banks of the Chao Phraya River, where old rice barges still ply the waterway past crumbling warehouses, it is easy to spot the swanky new hotels and luxury apartments that are displacing the riverside communities.

"The Bangkok authorities have a policy to beautify the city, but in whose eyes is it beautiful?" asks Michael Herzfeld, a former Harvard professor who has conducted research in the Thai capital. "Culture is not something to be put in a museum or sold for profit. It is something to be lived."

That is a sentiment that Boonsong, the elderly welder, is only too happy to hear. "I plan to stay here for as long as I can," he says.

Ben Davies is the author of "Vanishing Bangkok: The Changing Face of the City" (River Books, 2020)

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