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HometravelThe beating heart of old Bangkok

The beating heart of old Bangkok

Song Wat Road is not as busy in the early morning as when it was a major hub for modern trade following Bangkok's transport transition from water to trains and cars more than a century ago.

Massive vegetable farms were transformed into Song Wat Road during the reign of King Rama V to serve as a new commercial hub.

Located only 130m from Ratchawong Pier, it spans 1.2km and boasts classic shophouses, all of which were constructed in various architectural styles over the times.

In recent years, a group of graffiti artists has turned the walls into a canvas for their paintings, and some old buildings have been renovated into hip cafes to bring this thoroughfare back to life. As a result, it has become a popular destination for history enthusiasts to experience nostalgic vibes on a walking tour.

It’s a short distance from Ratchawong Pier, and visitors can take in the surroundings and imagine when King Rama I constructed the Grand Palace on Rattanakosin Island and Chinese immigrants moved outside the city wall in the late 17th century.

Thanks to its proximity to the river and canals, this area was great for cultivating vegetables and also served as a public latrine, where all excrement and rubbish from the adjacent communities was dumped, with part of it being used to make fertiliser.

It was not until 1906, when a massive fire decimated the crowded Sampheng community, that King Rama V ordered the construction of a new road to broaden the residential and commercial district. He drew a line on the map to show its anticipated trajectory and Song Wat, which translates “drawn by the king”. It was added to the project to connect the network of five main roads — Ratchawong, Yaowarat, Chakkrawat, Anuwong and Burapha.

“During the reign of King Rama V, Song Wat was a Teochew community and a commercial district where a group of Muslim merchants from Melayu gathered. This is the fourth road in the Yaowarat neighbourhood where several well-known companies like the Charoen Pokphand Group and Saha Pathanapibul got their start,” said historian Thanat Bhumarush of the Siam Vision Club.

“Song Wat was situated next to a big trading port where large ships from China and India had to dock when Charoen Krung Road was built and a new toll gate was installed by King Rama IV. Ships were not allowed to enter the inner city. Sao Chingcha was the location of the biggest market of the time and spices became an important import and export product. Song Wat thrived for more than 100 years until the postwar economic downturn.”

At the intersection between Ratchawong and Song Wat Road, Teuk Khaek rises up in a corner, catching pedestrians’ eyes with its distinctive Gothic design. This three-storey building is reminiscent of British influence and blends fine Thai craftsmanship and Western architecture to create an elegant look.

Lao Pun Tao Kong Shrine was erected during the reign of King Rama III.

“Indian trader Abdul Tyeb Maskati opened a textile department store here, which was famous for its imported, block-printed textiles with golden threads that were favoured by those in the royal court. The building was constructed of cement and wood, and decked with a prank Gothic-style door as well as a perforated motif of ginger bread. These architectural elements were popular during the reign of King Rama V,” Thanat explained.

As we walked down the narrow street, we could still see a number of old warehouses, import and export businesses and shops selling tapioca pearls, glass noodles, enamelled kitchenware, dried food and wood buckets on both sides.

Not far, Lao Pun Tao Kong Shrine stands between Soi Thanon San Chao and Trok Rong Kho, where sea merchants in the past came to pray for protection on their trips and success in business. The original structure was erected during the reign of King Rama III and underwent multiple repairs until it burned down in 1906.

Then, Teochew residents contributed 36,000 baht to reconstruct it in 1917 and today, the Teochew Association currently takes care of it. Based on feng shui, the shrine has two ponds behind the entrance and the walls are decorated with colourful tiled stuccos of a white tiger and green dragon to serve as guardians.

The shoulder poles are attractively carved to resemble pairs of auspicious animals and plants such as dragonfish, lobster, bird, crab, deer and lion. A revered carved statue of Pun Tao Kong sits in the middle with his legs are stepping on a turtle and a snake to represent the power he has over both sea and land. Apart from Guan Yin, Mazu has two guardian generals, Qianli Yan and Shunfeng Er, who have “1,000-mile eyes” and the ability to hear any sound in the wind to help them keep a lookout for any coming hazards.

On both sides of the street, there are still old warehouses, import and export businesses, and shops offering tapioca pearls, glass noodles, enamelled kitchenware, spices and dry food.

Worshippers may notice some students playing basketball on the grounds. The Peiing School was built next door during the reign of King Rama VI to offer a Chinese-Thai educational curriculum. The roof of this recognisable yellow structure is decorated with sculptures of a lion and a pitcher, among other Neoclassical architectural features.

Just a short distance from the Chinese shrine, Luang Kocha Itsahak Mosque takes visitors back in time when Luang Kocha Itsahak first arrived in Siam and served as a Malay interpreter in the royal court of King Rama V. He bought the land and built a masjid so that his family and other Muslim worshippers could attend prayers.

“Muslim merchants from Sai Buri and Kelantan travelled to Bangkok to trade imported spices and lumber. In the beginning, Luang Kocha constructed a pavilion out of teak that functioned as a place of prayer and a school for theology. Then, during the reign of King Rama VI, he expanded his property to build a mosque in the Neoclassical style to accommodate more people,” Thanat added.

“This mosque is home to a lamp that was originally used at the royal cremation of King Rama V. This complex also has a Muslim cemetery.”

The neighbourhood has been revitalised by street art, and some historic structures have been converted into stylish cafes.

After winding through a cluster of old shophouses, visitors can reach Wat Samphanthawong, which was constructed during the Ayutthaya period and was formerly encircled by canals. Its massive renovations were done during the reigns of King Rama III and Rama VI before the three-storey modern-style ubosot was added to the monastery compound in 1957. It is now home to a revered Buddha statue from the Ayutthaya era as well as a Buddha statue in a posture of calming the ocean, made during the reign of King Rama III.

Just a short stroll down the meandering Vanich 1 Road will bring you to the first gemstone shop in the Sampheng neighbourhood. Muslim traders from the Middle East and Persia arrived in this area and set up shop to sell European jewels that were in demand with the royal court and the affluent for use in making jewellery items like rings and pendants.

Yaowarat Road is merely a 300m stroll away if you need to take a break during the day. To celebrate the return of the 10-day annual Vegetarian Festival from Saturday to Oct 23, more than 150 food shops on both sides will provide a broad selection of enticing vegetarian street food.

On Sunday, the Grand China Yaowarat Hotel will serve 1,000 dishes of phat mi sip chakkrapat mangkorn (stir-fried noodles) for visitors as a procession of 12 highly revered Chinese deities will march from Wat Lokanukroh to the Royal Jubilee Gate.

After refuelling, travellers can end their sightseeing tour by walking about 500m to Talat Noi, where they can make a wish for wealth, peace and good health at Chow Sue Kong Shrine. On a stage by the river, a troupe of skilful Chinese opera artists will entertain a crowd of worshippers dressed in white. As part of the Vegetarian Festival, local vendors will offer a variety of traditional Chinese dishes and sweets, such as gana chai (Chinese braised vegetable with black olive), mee wan (sweet noodles served in syrup with assorted toppings of fruits and herbs) and tup tap (freshly made peanut crisps).

Luang Kocha Itsahak Mosque with a Muslim cemetery was designed in the Neoclassical style.

Peiing School boasts unique Neoclassical architecture.

The road is lined with classic shophouses, built in different architectural styles.

Vanich 1 Road is home to several gemstone shops.

Wat Samphanthawong houses a revered Buddha statue from the Ayutthaya period and a Buddha statue in a posture of calming the ocean from the reign of King Rama III.

Yaowarat and Talat Noi have become major dining venues for Bangkok’s Vegetarian Festival.

People shop for vegetarian ingredients in Talad Kao (Old Market) in Yaowarat. (Photos: Apichart Jinakul)

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