FROM KHLONGS TO THANONS: Socio-spatial transformation in Bangkok

TU Delft Urbanism Graduate.

Bangkok is a city that seems in constant conflict with its own infrastructure. The small roads in the centre, overcrowded with tuk-tuks, streetpeddlers and disorientated tourists. A new metrosystem that seems to fight its way through the urban fabric displacing people as it grows. The few open spaces of the city around the beautiful wats do not seem to compensate the everlasting encroachment of time and space in Bangkok. That is, until one arrives at the tourist laden shores of the Chao Phraya river and sees the boats bringing tourist from and to the floating market of Bangkok and one starts to wonder if Bangkok has always been like this?

The most tranquil place in Bangkok is probably the Jim Thomson house. Situated in the dense shopping area of Bangkok, this extraordinarily beautiful house is actually a combination of multiple traditional Thai houses. It is one of the few places in the centre of Bangkok that has not been changed much over the last 50 years. At the far back of the compound, the house reveals  the essence of its history. Jim Thomson made his fortune by trading with silk and needed therefor a convenient transport system. The canals of Bangkok were the early 20th century equivalent of the 21th century highways. Looking out over the channel, one can see the remnant of its function as a highway as public transport speedboats skip across the water. This public transport boat service is the last of its kind, as most of the khlongs (canals) in Bangkok seized to be used for transport and are merely used for the management of waterlevels (, 2013). But as roads did not exist in the old capital, were the khlongs just used for transport or did water have another significance?

Houses under highway in Khlong Toey Slum © Matthijs van Oostrum

Houses under highway in Khlong Toey Slum © Matthijs van Oostrum

Khlong life

To find an answer to that question one must travel from the city centre to the periphery of Bangkok. Turned away from the urbanized city around them, some khlong-edge communities survive in the modern day city. Here it is possible to get an idea of the social and cultural life that once existed in all of Bangkok. People use the khlong for transport, but the water is also used for markets, social events and fishing. The houses along the khlong are well adapted. The main living space of the house is directly connected to the water edged veranda. The whole structure is built on stills to prevent the house from being flooded in the rainy season. In addition, the natural flow of wind underneath the house helped to keep the house cool. Thai people are highly superstitious, so the houses are not just a place to live, but are also a place of worship. In the Thai believe system every house has two shrines: one for the ancestors and one for the spirit of the house. The significance of water in Thai daily life is even reflected in royal customs, as Thailand is one of very few countries with a collection of royal barges.

Map of Bangkok. Thanons radiating from the old city in black, Khlongs organized around the river in blue. © Matthijs van Oostrum

Map of Bangkok. Thanons radiating from the old city in black, Khlongs organized around the river in blue. © Matthijs van Oostrum

First thanons

Life around the khlongs remained unchanged for much of Thai history until the first Thanon Charoen Krung was constructed in 1862 on order by king Mongkut (King, 2011). The road was built by a request from westerners in the colonial settlement alongside the Chao Pray River. They demanded a space to connect their numerous institutions like hotels, embassy’s, warehouses and banks, to each other and the old city where they had to go for business. The idea of the Thanon (the road) was from the beginning directly connected to the idea of becoming western and civilized. From the mid-1800’s until the mid-1900’s the khlongs were slowly being replaced as the prime public space of the city. The new structure of roads also demanded a new building typology. The Chinese had an interesting role in this transition. Being the largest minority in most South-East Asian cities, they took the shophouse typology from cities like Malacca and Singapore and aligned the roads in Bangkok with hundreds of them. Sometimes the thanons would be built on top of the khlongs, but often also alongside the khlongs, thereby literally providing the building with two parallel worlds. A typical example of these parallel worlds can be seen in the oldest hotel of Bangkok from 1879, the Mandarin Oriental hotel (Augustin, 2000). One side faces the water, by which people entered from the river and one side faced the road by which people reached the rest of the city.

Khlong Toey slum

These parallel worlds are most clear today in the klong Toey slum (literally the slum around the Toey canal). The slum is a direct consequence of the employment created by the nearby port of Bangkok. THeconstruction of the port started before the war, but it was only after the war that the port, and with it the slum, enormously grew. The slum houses approximately 140.000 inhabitants, making itthe biggest in Bangkok. The area has many different faces; some parts of the slum are inhabited by lower middle class who live in well-constructed houses, while other more marginalized areas are tugged away in niches along the canal and highway arteries. Although a lot can be said about this area, in the context of this article I would like to focus on the apparent absence of the thanon system. The people in the khlong Toey area are mostly first or second generation migrants from rural Thailand. They left their rural culture, but once they have settled in the city there seems to be no urban culture that is willing to accept them. Their informal architecture neither relates to the traditional water structure nor to the modern road, but to the in-between pathway. The absence of shrines in this neighborhood, which implies the absence of a relationship to their ancestors and the land, is an indicator for a people in transition, trapped between rural and urban life.  Nothing symbolized this idea better than the odd giant lizard, sulking in the khlong underneath the highway, trapped between urban and rural life.

It is clear –to answer my introductory question – that Bangkok has gone through a massive transformation, not only of its hard infrastructure, but especially of its soft infrastructure. To conclude this article I would like to go back to the city centre, not far from the Thomson house, to the Central-World shopping mall. Where the transformation from vernacular Thai culture to global western culture is most evident. It was here that the red-shirts protest group violently clashed with the police in 2006. Many of the people supporting the red-shirts come from the Khlong Toey slum, which gives reason to read this recent clash in Bangkok as a struggle between the urban population –represented by the police–, who profited from the transformation and the rural population –represented by the Khlong Toey people–, who have been underrepresented in this transformation of infrastructure. Kob kun krab.


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