EXPLORING THAILAND BY TRACING MY ANCESTRAL ROOTS | bangkokvanguards
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The journey of Teochew migrants

EXPLORING THAILAND BY TRACING MY ANCESTRAL ROOTS

Exploring the heritage of the Tha Chin and Maeklong rivers

I have been asked by travel professionals and tourism students how Thailand’s tourism can be improved post Covid-19? There are many ways but in this blog post I want to explore an idea and introduce my project to trace my Chinese ancestry and by extension that of other minority groups in the future.

We like to throw around buzz words such as being inclusiveness or sustainability but to be honest, I don’t follow any sustainability text books when I craft travel experiences. All I care, is my selfish drive to explore new places, create memories, understand reality, explore my Asian heritage and do so with empathy and a focus on the people. After all, it’s people who make places. Whatever is the end-product, it’s others who give it the labels.

Tracing the migrant routes of my Chinese ancestors, a theme to develop new travel experiences?

Lets be clear, I’d pursue this project even if I wasn’t planning to develop a new travel experience. I think it provides me with new exciting areas to explore and stories to share. Hence, regardless whether I will end up with a new travel product, my goal is to connect what I do (exploring) with who I am – a quarter German, Thai, Polish and Chinese. I’m passionate about urban exploration and to understand what Bangkok is. This includes exploring its diverse cultural roots of which my own roots are part of. I wasn’t really aware of my Chinese ancestry at first, as I’m one of millions with some Chinese ancestry. When I began to dig deeper into Bangkok’s Chinatown, the history of the Thai -Chinese became a story about myself and about my family. My Chinese great grandfather eventually settled in Samut Songkhram 70km west of Bangkok, hence my exploration will extend from Chinatown, follow the trails of my great grandfather into the Tha Chin and Maeklong riverbasins. The first step of that journey however was to interview my grandmother.

My grandmother who married a Chinese merchant remembers vividly the old days of Thailand.

After an hour drive I finally arrive at my grandma’s house in Samut Songkhram. It feels like a different universe and it sets you automatically at peace. I sit down with my grandma. She hugs a framed image of my grandfather whom I never had the chance to meet. My grandmother is 94 and I’m always astonished by her vivid memories. She loves to share stories of those old days, even recounting her encounter with Japanese troops, on their supply trips up the Maeklong river to Kanchanburi. What? Japanese troops, a few hundred meters from our house?

I listen to these fascinating accounts of a bygone time. The best history audio book I can envision. Anywhere she traveled, she did so on foot or by boat.

“There were barely any roads and we had no electricity. We did our homework under candle light and as a young woman I had to climb tall coconut trees in the dark. I harvested the sugar sap early in the morning before sunrise. It was a dangerous job. I used an oil lamp in the dark. I would return from my round when people got ready for harvest. They asked me if wasn’t afraid of ghosts?”

My grandma laughs. She wasn’t afraid of ghosts. She was afraid of rain. Being up on a coconut tree, sudden rain was far more dangerous than any ghost.

Samut Songkhram – the world of coconut groves.
thousands of coconut trees
Slowing down in Samut Songkhram’s lush environment.

The main river of Samut Songkhram is the the mighty Maeklong river. The river and Thailand’s most intricate canal system irrigate a vast agricultural area. The province was sparsely populated and thickly grown with endless coconut groves. Growing fruits and especially coconuts has been the traditional way of life of people here for centuries and my family was no different.

Those old days were much slower and more familiar to my grandmother than today’s fast-paced life. Even though work was hard and child mortality high, it certainly wasn’t a time to be romanticised too much. But it was already a period of rapid modernisation, an era that had just passed the peak of Chinese immigration as the onset of World War 2 put a stop to it.

Maeklong the capital of Samut Songkhram, like most of the coastal market centres had a large population of Teochew Chinese. They brought with them new technologies from China and specialised in the fishing industry, salt production and agriculture. The Teochew are the majority among the five Chinese ethnicities in Thailand. The other four are the Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese and Hailam.

My great grandfather’s Chinese shrine
Grandma, 94 years old and enjoys talking about the past. I can only recommend for anyone to engage with the elderly in their families before they’re gone.
My grandma’s house. Our holiday resort during my childhood visits to Thailand.

 “Your grandfather was a Teochew. He paddled his boat to the floating market nearly every day. I sold products there and that’s that’s how we met”

When my grandmother speaks of her romantic encounter with grandfather, my mind wanders in romantic imagination of life in Thailand when tourist boats did not outnumber local vendors at floating markets and products weren’t the repetitive mass produced stuff that you’d find all over Thailand these days.

A scenic floating market in Samut Songkhram. Flirting from boat to boat, that’s how grandma met grandpa more than 70 years ago.

When grandma was young. From Samut Songkhram to Bangkok in the 1940’s

“When I was young my uncle transported coconuts with a barge from Damnoen Saduak to Bangkok. We had to travel to Damnoen Saduak (1) first to hire a boat back then. From there we traveled down the Damnoen Saduak Canal to the Tha Chin River and on to Bangkok. I stood atop the barge helping my uncle to navigate the canals. It took two days to get to Bangkok. We sold our coconuts in front of Wat Kalayanimitr at the mouth of the Bangkok Yai canal. If we had enough time we would walk across the Memorial bridge to the other side of the river. There wasn’t much in Bangkok, unlike today”

The more she talks about the past, the more excited and determined I get to follow her trails, to explore her life’s story and that of my great grandfather to see what’s left of their world in present day Thailand.

A journey through the stunning canals of Samut Songkhram. These were the highways to Bangkok, connecting the Maeklong, Tha Chin and and the Chao Phraya River.

Childhood memories at my family’s coconut farm

With my cousin in tow, we walk over to our aunt’s house. Walking our coconut plantation evokes memories of my visits during summer holidays when I was a kid. Even my own childhood memories seem to be from ancient times. The area was so much less developed than it is today. No six-lane highway, no tarmac, not as many concrete buildings. There was no sightseeing on our program, no Grand Palace, no islands, just local life with grandma and that’s how I fell in love with Thailand.

The trees still stand thick around us. I come into view of a small wooden house. I have only faint memories but the canals were much wider, filled with water, deep enough that my relatives bathed in them. Yes, we bathed either by using rain water from huge jars in the outdoor or bathed right in the canal. Walking through plantations to your neighbours meant to cross canals by balancing on a bamboo pole. Now, these are irrigation ditches are silted, a sign that urbanisation is on the advance and agriculture on the retreat.

What do we know about our great grandfather?

Everyone seems surprised about my mission to shed some light on the origins of our family. The humidity is heavy and leafing through old documents becomes a CrossFit exercise. A heated guessing game ensues in an even hotter living room. Did grandfather arrive during the era of King Rama 5 or Rama 6? How did he get here? Whom can we ask? How old is the house? My great grandfather’s Daoist shrine perched on an altar watching over us while we’re taking wild guesses. Fresh offerings are placed in front his black and white image and that of my great grandmother. It turns out that my cousins are at a loss when it comes to the history of our great grandfather.

Thai Chinese ancestry
My great grandfather who migrated from Chao Zhou to Siam probably around the turn of the 20th century.
His old Daoist shrine. Daoism and Buddhism has coexisted for thousands of years.

When I was young I didn’t know that paying respect to our ancestors is a traditional Chinese practice and for the first time I noticed how old this wooden house actually is. It’s the house he built, sitting on stilts. Flood were common, sometimes flooding for months each year. The house is simple and a perfect example of the light wood structures that characterised the amphibious life along the river and canals. It actually belongs to a museum. Most of  the traditional rural dwellings have disappeared along the main roads but they can still be found in the depth of Samut Songkhram’s plantations. Since I’ve started reading about history and heritage preservation, I see these houses through different eyes but I think my relatives might want to send me to see a shrink for being so interested their house.

The peacock feather symbolises dignity and beauty but also the goddess Guan Yin which is a family guardian.
Tracing our ancestors. There are not many records, such as birth certificates unlike in Europe where the church kept most of the records, not so in a Buddhist country.

Why do I care about the history of my Chinese ancestors?

“Maybe because when we search the origins of our community, we find a part of ourselves in there. It’s like a treasure hunt.” Somchai Kwangtongpanich

The fan rattles as we sit in one of the hidden Chinese communal shrines in Sampeng. Khun Somchai points to the signboard. Why did people come here? Why was this important? He wants to understand why the things are the way they are? Where does it come from? Where did the neighbourhood got its name from? “It’s like a jigsaw, like a detective work.” he says and I feel I have a lot in common with drive to explore and to understand places related to his roots.

Exploring our roots. K. Somchai says that if people knew more about the history and role of their communities it could elevate the status of their community.

The fascination for lost places

First, it was the fascination to explore and find places that made you feel as you were the first to ever visit or discover. That’s where I got the idea for the name ‘Vanguards’, the feeling of probing into unchartered territories and the sense of wonder it creates. As I got more exposed to Bangkok and its urban complexity I wanted to understand not only the what but the why.

If I’m going to explore the regions between Bangkok and Samut Songkhram, the journey of my ancestors and the world they lived in will provide me with context and a better understanding of what I see. But what was their world like? For that I need to go back in time and learn about the history.

I have extensively explored Bangkok’s Chinatown over the past fifteen plus years. While most people see crowds, chaos, markets and street food I have an idea of what the place is about, where it came from and how it evolved. Chinatown, Sampeng, the river, they were the beginning of a new journey for millions of impoverished Chinese like my great grandfather.

Mapping urban communities in Chinatown. From here I will begin my journey to map the river basins west of Bangkok.

Traveling out of Bangkok and into Bangkok back then

Like many of his fellow Teochew migrants, my great grandfather came with a “one-way ticket” from the Guang Dong province some time during the later stage of King Chulalongkorn’s reign (1868 – 1910) or during era of King Rama VI (1910 – 1925).

During his time at the turn of the 20th century and by the time my grandmother first arrived in Bangkok on barge in the 1940’s, the city has been transitioning from a water-based city to a land and road-based city. The reforms of King Rama V (King Chulalongkorn) in light of foreign pressure, the introduction of the market economy and new technologies accelerated this rapid transformation. The new transport network allowed people, especially Chinese to settle far away from the crowded confines of Sampeng. The train connection from Bangkok to Maeklong via Mahachai opened in 1905. Today this route has become a popular way for tourists to take a more off the beaten path option to the Umbrella Market in Maeklong.

Begin of the rail-line from Bangkok’s Wong Wian Yai station to Mahachai. There, you cross the Tha Chin river and take the train from Baan Laem to Maeklong (train market).
Maeklong Talad Lom Hub. The famous train market (also called the umbrella market), a picture I took before it became a hit with tourists.

Another reason for the transformation of Bangkok’s countryside was Thailand’s transformation from self-sufficient, small scale paddy cultivation to become a global player in the rice export and sugar industry. King Chulalongkorn made it a national agenda to recruite indented labor from southeastern China to build the necessary transport infrastructure. I’m not aware whether my great grand father was hired for that purpose but I’m glad he was not among the thousands of Chinese who perished from tropical diseases while clearing the forests, excavating canals and constructing Thailand’s road and railway network.

While my great grandfather may took advantage of the new rail system in his search for opportunities, my grandmother and her relatives still relied on the traditional waterways. Canals remained an essential infrastructure for cross-provincial transport for both goods and people well into the 20th century. Different routes to Samut Songkhram and the western periphery were available. Either directly via Mahachai to Maeklong. The Nakhon Chaisi to Ratchaburi or northwest Nakhon Pathom – Ratchaburi. It will be these routes that I’m going to focus my upcoming surveys and research.

Thinking of it, I’d advise the government to survey those routes for tourism development. Would it be possible today to travel into the provinces purely via canals and rivers? It would certainly offer a great opportunity for the development of local tourism in the outer regions of Bangkok.

The ancient highways connecting the agricultural regions with the global market centres in Bangkok.

Where did the Teochew migrants settle and what is left of their heritage?

Historically the Teochew Chinese had a reputation of being seafaring renegades and smugglers. Their expertise in sailing and sea transport made them the dominant group in the coastal market towns near Bangkok. But they also controlled over 90% of the rice mills, pawnshops and pharmacies, and engaged in the fishing industry, salt and sugar production. Other ethnic groups such as the Hailam dominated the timber trade and sawmills, machinery was in Cantonese hands, nine out of ten tailors and the whole leather industry was owned by Hakka and rubber export was the domain of the Hokkien. The Teochew were also agriculturists and so was my great grandfather who eventually began his life as coconut sugar producer in Samut Songkhram.

Map of the three river basins and travel routes of my grandmother and Teochew migrants.  My focal area post Covid pandemic. 

He was among the growing number of traders and merchants, craftsmen, tailors, pharmacists, chefs, performers and farmers who not only made up Bangkok’s dynamic urban society but also settled in the coastal towns, the new market places and frontier regions of the river basins around Bangkok. As my family is from Samut Songkhram my focus will be on the western regions along the Tha Chin and Maeklong rivers for the foreseeable future.

The Maeklong and Tha Chin river basins were characterised through Chinese mercantilism and agricultural production. A slow-paced world of canals, plantations, a water-based lifestyle, floating markets and rural communities. In light of Bangkok’s rapid industrialisation, my goal is to find out how much of that world is left so that we can embark on a slow-life journey that lets us forget that we’re living in the 21. century?

One of the old and scenic villages along Damnoen Saduak Canal. 
Evening mood by the canal. Many market communities emerged along the waterways.

Take your time, experience the living heritage.

These days, the highway is a fastest way to get into the provinces. Most tourists bomb down the Rama 2 highway in taxis and tour buses to the Maeklong train market, Amphawa or the Damnoen Saduak Floating market. It’s not just the places we bypass but also the fast-food experience of being crammed with thousands of others in a clockwork that processes us from attraction to tacky souvenir shops without really getting a grasp of the place. Most of the time is spend in an air-condition vehicle without having seen anything remotely close what the region has to offer.

Any trip out to Samut Songkhram on weekends, I’d recommend with an overnight stay. Samut Songkhram is the green zone, a power bank and recharging station for stressed out people from nearby Bangkok. Once you decelerate and drift along the timeless vibes of the Maeklong river, you don’t want to go back to Bangkok.

Drift along Samut Songkhram’s timeless river and canals.

While we often focus on the destination, I’d recommend to shift one’s focus on the journey to the destination instead of the destination itself. My ancestors had the options of boat and train. There was no fast way. Are these options of former times still available to us? Or a combination of it, with overland routes by mountain bike or eScooter? And if yes, what’s the left of the heritage of the old world of my grandmother and my great grandfather? How do people relate and connect to the places they inhabit today? What are the conditions, challenges and aspirations of local communities? What wisdom, amenities, natural wonders, stories and delicious recipes can they offer to our desire to explore, connect and understand the beauty of this planet? And what can we offer in return to meet their needs?

In search for the elixirs of life, Daoist alchemists accidentally invented gun powder but instead of conquering the world they exported fire crackers.
Shops in those old communities, still have western imports from the old days.

Instead of seeking for attractions, we should find the people who want to share their stories and their heritage with the world. I want to share my heritage with you on this journey and hopefully provide value to your perspective and connection to Thailand. This is just the beginning and as I explore those routes of my family, I will share the stories and gauge the opportunities for the people to not be bypassed.

People committed to keep the memory and heritage of their communities alive.
Slow adventures in the Maeklong region.

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