17 Jun Experience Thailand from a new perspective by exploring my ancestral roots
The area in focus. Sampeng / Song Wat neighbourhood within Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Exploring Bangkok and surroundings off the beaten path
You can explore Bangkok based on its attractions but if you’re a repeat visitor you can take a different approach and explore areas that are not on the tourist map and yet historically significant and full of hidden gems such as amazing food spots, scenic streets and alleys and places to rewind and enjoy. This blog explores the birthplace of Bangkok’s Chinatown and ancient communities that evolved in the wake of Chinese migration.
What draws me into urban exploration?
“Maybe because when we search the origins of our community, we find a part of ourselves in there. It’s like a treasure hunt.”K. Somchai
Throughout nearly 17 years of exploring the chaotic and intricate sprawl of Bangkok’s neighborhoods, Chinatown has been the most fascinating and authentic part of the city. The labyrinth of alleys and the life that unfolds when you venture off the main roads sparked my interest in urban exploration. It is in Chinatown that I can still discover different layers of Bangkok’s development from an insignificant village to a cosmopolitan city.
More than 2,000 years of migration from China into Southeast Asia and a shared 700 years history between Thailand and China is embedded in the communal shrines of Sampeng and Song Wat.
Exploring Chinatown has inspired bangkokvanguards and has led me to explore my own cultural roots. My European side is German and Polish. My Asian side is Thai-Chinese. My mother was born to a Chinese father and a Thai mother. My great grandfather immigrated from China in the early 20th century and like many of his peers he might have arrived along the Sampeng riverfront in Bangkok which lays at the core of the world’s largest Chinese diaspora.
A city is more than buildings, markets or alleys. It’s the people, their history and stories and their place in society. Over the years I also learnt that much of what I love about Bangkok cannot be taken for granted anymore. Chinatown exemplifies not only the vibrant entrepreneurial energy of Bangkok but also the city’s struggle of the ‘small’ people against the powerful stakeholders that shape our city. My goal is to document the condition of the city through local eyes, trace my family roots, give you advice on where to explore and create innovative ways through which you can experience Thailand. It is also of utmost importance to bring this part of Bangkok’s heritage on the radar before much of what I love is gone.
“Thailand is the only country where a Chinese can become King and is also the only country where he loses his identity.”Sulak Sivaraksa
Gateway of the 1860’s
The scream of the engine was pierced by the sharp whistle blows that stretched the tolerance of my eardrums but were meant for the driver of the River Express boat, signaling him to slow down as we reached the Ratchawong Pier. A journey along the river is one of the highlights in Bangkok. The city’s oldest communities are located along the riverbank as well as along the many canals of Bangkok.
Bangkok’s transition from an amphibian to a land-based city did not reduce the role of the Chao Phraya river as the city’s highway, ‘airport’ and lifeline. Though the role of the Ratchawong Pier has declined from being Thailand’s gateway to the world in the 19th century to a nondescript public pier 160 years later. Only a few rotten stumps remind you of the landings that once served the immense flotilla of Chinese junks, coastal steamers and fresh water crafts.
Bangkok’s Riverine areas before the rise of capitalism. Tributary junk trade as the mainstay of Thailand’s economy. Photo credit: Thaifoodmaster.com (great info there)
The 1850’s saw the introduction of Western capitalism and technological innovations and the tycoons of Sampeng didn’t want to stay behind. They upgraded their fleets from traditional junks to steamships. Thailand opened its first passenger steamship service in 1858 linking Bangkok to Singapore and in 1861 to Hong Kong. Ratchawong Pier was to Bangkok what Suvarnabhumi airport is to Thailand today. The days where the fate of migrants depended on where the monsoon winds would carry their junks came to an end. This was a quantum leap in Thailand’s development and the origins are right under my feet as I get off the boat.
The horse buses, trishaws, rickshaws and trams that once served people disembarking at Ratchawong Pier are gone. Instead you have the option to haggle with Tuk Tuks or motorbike taxis but everything can be reached on foot as the pier sits right at the center of the Sampeng and Song Wat neighborhood. I’ve always been drawn to the old world of Bangkok and wondered where in this complex patchwork of Chinatown neighborhoods was the oldest part? Would you be able to find remnants of an era prior to the construction of streets and brick-and-mortar shops when Bangkok was an amphibian city?
Map provided by Steve Van Beek
The launchpads of Chinatown
I’d get puzzled yet amused looks from locals, spotting me ‘the lost foreigner’ in the back alleys. What was he doing here? What’s here to see? It’s old, it’s ugly they would say. In the Zeitgeist where it seems that people are conditioned to see the grand spectacles of tourism as the epitomes of a civilized city, it’s hard to fathom that someone pays more attention to the living history and beauty of the ordinary.
From what I learnt in my exploration in Bangkok is that some staircases lead to more than empty roofs. The wood creaked under our feet as we ventured up the red staircase to the Pun Thao Kong shrine. Hidden on a third floor of an old building, these communal shrines are the launchpads of Chinatown’s first communities.
Sunny and I exploring the ancient communal shrines such as the Pun Thao Kong Shrine.
The old fan rattles and incense perfumes the air when the occasional visitor arrives to pay homage to Pun Thao. Pun Thao means Basic Leader and he looks after the people in his community. Pun Thao’s protection is an essential part of communal shrines, in particular for the sea-faring people of southern China who have been migrating to distant lands for more than 2,000 years. Back then 200 years ago when these shrines were installed, Pun Thao may have provided refuge, protection and courage in face of conflicts with hostile clans and diseases. Today his protection would have to include addressing urban development laws that respect and protect the cultural identity of old town communities.
For Bangkokians Sampeng means Chinatown and it means shopping but in the early days of Bangkok, during the late 18th century it was nothing more than an elephant trail linking the Royal Palace district with the ancient Sampeng temple (that’s where Sampeng derives its name from). Prisoners bound for execution were transported through Sampeng to the execution grounds near the temple. Nowadays the temple is called Wat Pathum Khongkha and the traces of the method of execution (for nobles and members of the royal family in particular) can still be seen on the temple grounds.
Sampeng – from fort to port and the growth of Chinese diversity
In 1782 the Chinese were relocated from today’s royal palace area deep into the marshes of Sampeng to make way for the construction of the Grand Palace. According to my friend K. Somchai, they constructed a fort to protect themselves. There are no traces left of the fort or the elephant trail and it seems to be disputed which shrine was the first one. The signage of the shrine, some ornaments or statues may reveal the approximate age. Some had been brought over from their dismantled shrines when they relocated, other elements may have arrived on junks from China.
In the first half of the 19th century the community developed into a major port district as new groups of migrants arrived from places like Guang Dong, Kwang Tung and Fujian, first by Chinese junk and later by steamship. As the wave of migrants and available steamship services grew, so did the number of additional ports where immigrants could disembark. Each arriving group belonged to a different dialect group. They set up their communities and shrines in strategic locations. Newly arrived migrants would always seek out and join fellow clansmen who could be Teochew, Hakka, Hailam, Hokkien or Cantonese.
They all had their own traits, specializations and reputations. The Teochew were known as sea-faring renegades, smugglers and adventurers and they constituted the vast majority in Sampeng. My great grandfather was one of them.
An ancient map of Bangkok. The Chinese concept of a balanced city, a specific alignment of canals and alleys that was applied in the early stages of Sampeng according to Somchai Kwangtongpanich was steamrolled by the waves of migrants.
If I had explored Sampeng 140 years ago
My great grandfather migrated approximately toward the end of King Chulalongkorn’s reign. Demand for Chinese migrant labor was still in full swing which led to slum-like conditions in the Sampeng area. Western observers described it as an overcrowded squalor and a hotbed for gambling, prostitution and opium. Secret societies of different dialect groups governed their territories and competed for influence and power. The government would let them have free rein for as long as things remain peaceful and taxes are paid.
Public utilities were rare, fires frequent and the need for lavatories urgent. Only the wealthiest in the community could afford the privacy of using a bucket or chamber pot at home to “do their business”. Ordinary folks used their gardens and orchards but good luck finding a garden in Sampeng! The naked butts of port workers and coolies squatting over the jetties were such a common sight that Sampeng’s waterfront became synonymous with going to the toilet. Even today, some elderly recall people saying going to Kongsi Long (going to the loo).
Chinese migration stopped with the disruption of World War II. Today Thailand has about 1.5 million registered migrant workers with an estimated number of around 3.5 million. 80% of them are from Myanmar.
Looking down from the third floor of the Pun Thao Kong shrine, the traces of hardship, the hostile swamps, the fort, the notorious squalor, opium and gambling dens and brothels, it’s all gone. Let’s go home. The thatched bamboo and timber structures have long been replaced by buildings with a questionable taste but there are still a few traces, you only have to look deep enough. The intricate details of communal shrines, the customs and festivals, food, crafts and small details gracing the front doors of homes are still relics of Chinatown’s past. Also the meandering alleys are the pattern on which Sampeng neighborhood was built and they are my favorite part of Chinatown. Gone is the aroma coming from the drains running on the side of the alleys and gone are the wooden planks helping you to cross a muddy quagmire. It would have added to my appetite for adventure but I’m perfectly content with not knowing what awaits me on the other end of an alley.
My specialty and fascination are Bangkok’s narrow and meandering alleys, tough still adventurous but not as adventurous as they used to be.
SONGWAT – Drawing a line through chaos
I sneak through the alleys toward Song Wat Road, toilet spots and fire exits remain in the subconscious mind. Few people navigate the older alleys across neighborhoods, most stick to the main streets for orientation. I wonder what are the world’s largest urban mazes? Megacities in developing countries that have grown without proper planning boast their own areas of organic urban growth without a clear structure in which you can be easily lost.
But exploring the alleys is what makes it fun. They are legitimate shortcuts even though at times they might feel as if you’d trespass through private space. It seems that micro communities deep inside the alleys had been left forgotten, preserved, yet sometimes in poor condition. Too narrow, too inconvenient, too difficult to park your car let alone move any large construction machinery to a potential project but they are sought after locations for film crews, photographers and urban explorers.
These are the stubborn urban remnants that defy the government’s ambition for a modern urban makeover based on the premises of safe, clean and convenient (and may I add – boring). Of course I agree that ‘safe, clean and convenient’ improves the quality of urban life but instead of a one size fits all, it should be applied based on the attributes, heritage and urban character of Bangkok’s historic districts and on the needs of the people.
The hidden world’s of Song Wat’s alleys.
Wasn’t it for King Chulalongkorn’s (King Rama V) Chinatown would be an even more chaotic place. The slum-like conditions and permanent threats of fires were on a whole different level and his reforms brought the first radical changes to Sampeng. He improved the transport infrastructure and constructed most of Chinatown’s street network to ease the flow of passengers and goods between the river and the inner city. Roads wider than 10 meters served as fire breaks.
I hoped that this sense of order was brought to you by my German ancestors but it derived from a British model of urban development which Thai officials studied in Singapore in the mid 19th century. The Singaporification of Bangkok did not start with the construction of shopping malls but with the construction of streets and the introduction of Sino-Portuguese shophouses lining them.
One of the many colonial style shophouses on Song Wat Road.
Many of Sampeng’s old alleys still remain but most of the stately Chinese mansions of Sampeng’s early tycoons from the late 18th century and early 19th century had largely been destroyed, either to make way for new road construction or were destroyed by the fires.
King Chulalongkorn also drew a line on a map, running parallel to the river which became Song Wat Road (which literally means drawing of the king). Song Wat is the neighborhood where the Chinese made it from ‘one pillow – one mat’ (a term called for immigrants arriving with nothing) to the Fortune 500 list.
It’s also the street that probably has the highest number of stately colonial buildings in Bangkok and it’s close to the river. From the river I will connect the dots further to other communities.
Lost worlds in Sampeng and Song Wat. Deep in the alleys you still find remnants of the ancient Chinese mansions of Sampeng’s magnates.
“It has become quiet, most people either passed away or moved away and much of the solidarity and social cohesion is gone too. In the past everyone in the community treated each other as relatives”K. Wichien
Pee Wichien finishes up, making the last round of Chinese steamed buns for the day. He is among the last ones to make his Teochew style buns from his ancestral home in a 120 + year old steamer.
He loves the freedom of being an entrepreneur. He grew up here, he was born right above the Bao workshop. He tells me about the notorious alleys, bearing names such as the suicide alley or Trok Pee Dip the zombie alley, an allusion to the heroine addiction that haunted the neighborhood back in the days.
Me and the keeper K. Wichien. Heritage goes beyond buildings.
Song Wat became much quieter after the port was relocated to Khlong Toey in 1947 but the ancestral shophouses of some of Thailand’s biggest conglomerates are still around. Traders are still operating the beautiful colonial shop-houses, selling seeds, spices, herbs, ropes and barrels, reminiscent of the area’s identity as a port.
And then there are those neighborhood joints, the small social hubs where people from all walks of life mingle and enjoy delicious and affordable food such as Guay Jub – traditional Chinese rolled rice noodles. Pee Lek and her family have been serving Guay Jub for more than 60 years, like Pee Wichien she describes the relationships she has with her customers as being close like family members.
Pun Thao would be proud of Pee Wichien and Pee Lek whom I would call keepers – people who continue the traditional business of their families and do so in the second, third or even fourth generation as Pee Wichien. Who knows how many of Pee Wichien’s steamed buns have been offered to Pun Thao and other shrines during the past hundred plus years?
Chinatown is known for its street food but If you dissected Chinatown along ethnic Chinese culinary lines, Song Wat and Sampeng are the hub for Teochew cuisine and the steamed bun and Guay Jub are two excellent examples of that.
The spirit of the old days is still around, whether in form of the architecture or good, old neighborhood joints but rising land value and an increasingly formalized urban environment puts these places under increasing pressure. Now after more than 60 years, Pee Lek has been given less than four weeks to vacate the space as the landlords are taking back the building.
“Change is inevitable and it’s beyond your control. So what can I do? I can take the pictures to keep. To keep my memory of the old days for future generations to see.”K. Somchai
It’s a mission that has moved K. Somchai for many years. K. Somchai and I discussed over countless bowls of Guay Jub how to raise the status of Chinatown. I guess it begins with passion and empathy.
Khun Somchai owns a rope shop. His curiosity about his own Chinese roots became his passion and initially he was seen by the locals as the crazy person with the camera. He’s been taking pictures of Chinatown and created probably the largest private photo archive of past and present Chinatown. Now, thanks to a resurgence of local self-awareness and people like him, there will be more crazy people with cameras wandering the streets and hopefully they will spend their money not only where it’s most needed but authorities will begin to see the value of Bangkok’s old neighborhoods.
Regardless whether foreigner or local, we all can harbor a deeply ingrained passion and curiosity for our city and I’m proud to have befriended like-minded explorers such as Khun Somchai and Steve van Beek whom I refer to as my Jedis.
What else makes the area so special apart from architecture, art and food? It’s the riverfront. There are some newcomers on Song Wat that provide a great space to wind down after a long day such as Samsara Bar, Woodbrook Cafe and a place hidden on the ground of the “Execution Temple”.
Everyone said: “You can’t do a hotel inside a temple compound!” My family disagrees with me, even today. They say I can’t run a hotel in a neighborhood like that because it’s not beautiful. Who will come? Nobody will support you but I thought “why not?” I didn’t care.K. Saravuth
The river, the place where it all began, the journey of my great grandfather, the secret societies, the magnates, the keepers, the vendors and now the brave new entrepreneurs like Saravuth who has given an old wooden house a magnificent new purpose.
Tracing the Thailand’s evolution along the river and the countless canals branching off from it.
Tracing my roots from Song Wat to the hinterlands via the ancient waterways
I let my thoughts float, staring at the timeless river. For this particular moment it feels as if time has stopped. My great grandfather may have arrived somewhere along the river. Maybe right here at Sampeng. Maybe he saw those guys squatting over the jetties. What I know is, he didn’t settle here as opportunities also emerged elsewhere.
A short walk from Loy La Long is the Tha Sawatdi Pier. I have started and ended countless longtail boat rides here with my guests. Cruising through those canals is one of the favorite experiences for travelers but we actually get to see only a tiny fraction of the water world that permeates the central plains around Bangkok.
19th century highways. Connecting the new frontier regions of cleared forests with the capital.
Until the early 20th century life in Thailand was still predominantly water based. My 93-year old grandmother told me many stories of her when she was a young girl, standing on the barges, helping her uncle to transport coconuts through the canals into Bangkok. They navigated down the Damnoen Saduak Canal and other canals into Bangkok to Wat Kalayanamitr. The Chinese merchant population in Bangkok was pretty much land-based while Thais happily adapted to a life in symbiosis with water.
My family’s Teochew roots.
When Thailand’s economy opened to the free market economy in 1855 it set forth the rapid transformation of a once isolated kingdom. King Chulalongkorn did not only transform Sampeng and Song Wat into Bangkok’s first international business hub but accelerated Thailand’s transformation from self-sufficient, small scale paddy cultivation to a major supplier of rice and sugar for the world market.
To accelerate this process King Chulalongkorn ordered the construction of new major canals linking Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River with the Tha Chin River and the Maeklong River. The Damnoen Saduak canal (home to Thailand’s famous Damnoen Saduak Floating Market) was constructed in the 1860’s and with it hundreds of additional canals for transport and irrigation.
Tracing my family back to a time of great transformation.
The Chinese were among the Vanguard that settled in these new frontier regions that had been cleared of their forest cover and were now linked to the capital. New trading outposts, market towns, waterfront communities and floating markets grew along those routes. Additionally, a train line opened in 1904 and 1905 connecting Bangkok and Samut Songkram. Today travelers can take a train ride from Bangkok’s Wong Wian Yai station to Mahachai, cross the Tha Chin river by ferry and continue from Baan Laem to Maeklong. Many tourists have discovered this route as an excellent way to visit Maeklong’s famous train market (Talad Lom Hub).
Like other fellow Teochew migrants my great grandfather came with a “one-way ticket” and settled in Maeklong, Samut Songkhram. Many of the migrants were engaged in infrastructure development, commerce and agriculture and the need for labor in the early decades of the 20th century had the percentage of migrants in Bangkok reach 75% of Bangkok’s population. Half of them were migrants from China. Today Thailand has the largest Chinese diaspora in the world, nearly 9 million people or 13% of its population. The astonishing part is how the assimilation went without any greater conflict between indigenous people and the Chinese. The Chinese took on Thai surnames, engaged and intermingled with other communities and nationalities, served at the royal court throughout Thailand’s entire history and also married local Thai women.
Children born to a Chinese and a Thai parent are called Luk Jeen, (Luk=child, Jeen=Chinese). Their number is estimated to be around 40% of Thailand’s population. I’m probably too diluted to be Luk Jeen, I’m more like a Luk Jeen + Luk German + Luk Polish.
Overview of the canals leading out of Bangkok. My family traded along these canals and my goal is to explore these old frontier communities and market centers (red dots), document their stories and organize trips there. Credit: The Chao Phyra, River in Transition by Steve Van Beek (Oxford).
In the 80’s and 90’s, while on summer vacation in Thailand, I spent most of the time on the coconut farm of my now 93-year old grandmother. I never saw the Grand Palace, never been to the islands of the south or the mountains in the north but instead I experienced the life of coconut farmers. Since then, I’ve always had a fascination for the endless coconut groves and canals of Samut Songkhram and the deep alleys of Sampeng and although I wasn’t born here or grew up here I’ve always felt a deep sense of connection and ownership of these places.
“If people knew more about the history and role of their communities it could elevate the status of their neighborhood.”Khun Somchai
Maybe it’s because I love to feel the history and meaning of a place instead of pushing myself through a crowd to snap a picture. Thailand’s historic communities and landscapes allow me to wind down and connect to the beauty of this country. Fortunately there are people who want to preserve the character and identity of their communities and there are people who love to explore these places, travelers and locals, keepers and newcomers alike and tourism in the post Covid-19 era needs to empower them.
The strength of Thailand lays in the diversity of its ethnic minorities, cultures, landscapes and food. My goal is to trace the journey of my ancestors from Bangkok to the 19th century frontier areas and explore and see the condition of those old villages. I want to explore my own roots and show you the amazing yet overlooked facets of Thailand and hopefully find ways to revive them.
Exploring the old trade routes along Khlong Mahasawat into Nakhon Pathom.
Three Explorers with a love for Thailand’s communities. My two Jedis: American author Steve van Beek and Chinatown Expert Somchai Kwangtongpanich and my lucky self.
Bangkok-based experience designer, blogger, tour guide and hobby anthropologist. Founder of bangkokvanguards and Hyperlocal.
I’m exploring and bridging my Asian and Western roots by exploring and introducing you the places, people and ideas that matter and connecting them to experiences and projects around culture and sustainable development.