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Concerns voiced about Bangkok's 'River of Kings'

World Monuments Fund lists Chao Phraya amid opposition to development plans

ICON Siam, a $1.6 billion mixed-use development project on Bangkok's Chao Phraya river, represents the largest private investment in Thai history. (Photo by Ron Gluckman)

BANGKOK -- For a broad spectrum of residents, planners and friends of Bangkok's Chao Phraya river, there has been a tidal wave of relief in the battle to protect the famed "River of Kings." On Oct. 16, the World Monuments Fund added the waterway to its watchlist of two dozen of the world's most threatened places.

The listing is mainly of strategic value, as the New York-based nonprofit organization has no authority over the river or its development. But the group's warning focuses global attention on the Thai government's contentious plans to build massive concrete walkways along the river. Critics say the development would destroy local communities along the river and alter the scenic attractions of riverside hotels, ancient temples and other top Thailand tourist attractions.

"This puts the issue on the global stage," said WMF President and Chief Executive Joshua David, who hopes the listing sparks a reappraisal of the controversial redevelopment scheme. "It provides a fresh push from the international community," said Yossapon Boonsom, head of Friends of the River, a local opposition group that has threatened legal action to try to halt what it has termed the "Highway in the Water."

Joshua David, president and CEO of the World Monuments Fund, on a visit to Bangkok, being briefed on development plans for the Chao Phraya river (Courtesy of Bangkok River Partners)

Duangrit Bunnag, a prominent Thai architect behind several popular projects on both sides of the river, said the listing should spur more inclusive planning, perhaps in partnership with the WMF. Since launching in 1996, the fund has listed over 800 sites worldwide. Many received stewardship in projects mounted by WMF, in cooperation with various funding agencies. "This may be more than just hope," said Duangrit, "but help too."

The Thai government's proposal to construct an elevated waterway on both sides of the river, stretching as long as 57km, would add piers, museums and other attractions. Exact plans have not been revealed, but the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and other officials have described a 10 to 20-meter wide walkway on pilings, narrowing the already congested river. The first phase targets a 14km stretch along the most visited part of the river; construction started in July with demolition of several local homes.

Government officials were not available for comment, as a year-long period of mourning for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej drew to a close. However, a senior official countered criticism of the river project in a public statement.

Duangrit Bunnag, far right, at his new Warehouse 30 project along the Chao Phraya river, with David Robinson, far left, director of Bangkok River Partners. (Photo by Ron Gluckman)

Nutt Sri Sukontanan, director of public works in Bangkok, defended the plan to build walkways in the water, as much of the riverside land is privately owned. He conceded that this may take up 10% of the existing waterway, but said traffic flows were likely to improve with the removal of numerous illegal dams and encroachments. He added that studies were ongoing and potential impacts would be addressed.

Given the crucial role of tourism in Thailand's economy, many feel the listing will push the government to reconsider a project that critics say has been pushed through with little local consultation or transparency. Even with the opaque nature of political decision-making in Thailand -- still ruled by a military junta that seized power in a 2014 coup -- the 14 billion baht ($421 million) project stands out for its vast scope and lack of accountability.

Riverside renaissance

Over the centuries, Bangkok was intrinsically tied to the landmark qualities of a river rivaling the Nile. After the 18th century sacking of Ayutthaya in the Burmese-Siamese war, the capital was relocated to a safer stretch of the 372km-long Chao Phraya river -- initially in Thonburi, to the west, then across to the eastern bank in what became Bangkok. Early European maps referred to it as Me Nam, meaning Mother of Water.

Thailand's economy has been sluggish in recent years, following a series of blows that included severe nationwide floods in 2011 and ongoing political turmoil. Yet real estate and tourism remain buoyant, and the Chao Phraya river has experienced a recent renaissance after decades of development in the Silom and Sukhumvit districts.

Several flashy projects have sprouted along the river in recent years, including Duangrit's popular Jam Factory -- a group of revamped warehouses hosting restaurants and events -- and the huge ICON Siam shopping complex. November brings the opening of Lhong 1919, an events space with several restaurants in old warehouses around a temple where some of the earliest Chinese immigrants landed in Thailand.

Meanwhile, old shophouses on the Bangkok side have been reborn as a hip district of boutique hotels, pubs, clubs and fine-dining restaurants. Some of Thailand's most famous hotels, like the historic Mandarin Oriental, are along the river, and Thai developer Country Group Development is adding Four Seasons and Capella hotels alongside high-end apartment blocks. The Country Group and Siam projects each involve over $1 billion in investment, and bank heavily on maintaining the traditional qualities of the river.

Country Group's $1.3 billion Chao Phraya Estates project will feature Four Seasons Hotel, Capella Hotel, plus a 73-story tower of high-end residences, right along the river. (Photo by Ron Gluckman)

Heavy development prompted calls for better planning for the Chao Phraya, with community groups backing the kind of riverside promenade marking most waterways in global capitals. That was the goal of Bangkok River Partners, a group that in recent years has brought together the support of hotels, art galleries and environmental groups to form a community plan for the river.

Outside help

During a series of consultations and planning sessions, Bangkok River Partners sought the support of Friends of the High Line, a community group responsible for maintaining Manhattan's famed elevated greenway. The former railroad site has been hailed as a model of community planning in an ecological urban setting.

Joshua David, formerly head of High Line, came to speak at the first Bangkok River Exchange conference in 2015. The visit alerted him to the threat facing the river. For the fund's 2018 list of threatened places, more than 170 nominations were received from conservation and heritage groups, governments, and other concerned parties. These were reviewed by both WMF and outside experts who voted in favor of listing the Chao Phraya, he noted.

"This is a site that the whole world is interested in," David explained. "Our role is to work with local groups and stakeholders. We want to help them, empower them, provide guidance and support in achieving their goals."

Already, new hope is flowing among the river's supporters. "I see the way forward as mainly two possibilities," said Duangrit. "Either this will halt the development of this bad plan," or else, he added, a river promenade could be planned and built in partnership with the WMF, to ensure that the treasured River of Kings could be protected for the benefit of all.

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