Ancient neighbourhood with an uncertain future

Woeng Nakhon Kasem dates back more than 100 years, but a change of ownership has left residents in the dark about what may become of their community

If you want to learn about a community of the past, it isn’t too difficult to track down information. There may be a book or website that at least touches on the subject, and which offers a description of the community in question, and you should be able to build a fairly clear picture of it.

But no amount of research can match the insights you can gain by visiting an old community that is still in existence. There you can see the original buildings and structures, and the materials they are made of, as well as everyday things such as pavements, electrical poles and signs reflecting the community’s needs and work at different times. You will also be able to experience the way that the people who still reside there live their lives.

Anyone who goes to visit an old community will be enveloped in its atmosphere and special feeling. They will make contact not just with abstract information but also with the sounds, smells and language of the community, and acquire a much truer and deeper picture of it than can be provided by any book or website.

Woeng Nakhon Kasem is an old Bangkok community of this kind that has existed through many eras. It has stories to tell that are unique. But now it does not know what the future holds with a new owner who has communicated no clear plan as to what will be done with it. People who have lived and operated their businesses there for generations have no hope at all where this new owner is concerned. Nor do the people who go there to buy things, wander around to enjoy the atmosphere or eat at the local restaurants. None of them know how much longer they will be able to enjoy this evocative old neighbourhood community that has been a part of their lives for so long.

Woeng Nakhon Kasem covers an area of more than 14 rai, and is bordered by Charoen Krung Road, Chakrawan Road and Boriphat Road. The area originally belonged to King Rama V, who presented it to his son, Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand. The son built a commercial area on the site, the most modern of its period, more than 100 years ago. This took the form of a square or block with walkways running through it. Tram tracks passed in front, and the buildings inside were made of brick and had high folding doors that could be pulled to the sides to open them. The windows were made from big wooden planks.

All of these structures were designed as shophouses, and all kinds of items were for sale there. Some of them were the household necessities of the time, and many could not be found elsewhere. There were also publishers that printed a great variety of books. A cinema was the model of a modern entertainment venue, and of course there was a fresh market. These were the major features of Woeng Nakhon Kasem.

The tram was the most up-to-day form of public transport in its day. The tracks ran from Ta Non Tok, at the far end of Charoen Krung Road, to Tha Tien Pier. There was a tram stop at Woeng Nakhon Kasem, and evidence of it still exists, a small red metal flag with a white star in the middle. At one time this sign was attached to a wooden electricity pole on the pavement, but when the adjacent building put up a concrete overhang to protect against the rain, the pole was removed to make room for it. The metal flag was attached to the new structure, however, and it is still there today, the only one in Thailand.

The buildings in Woeng Nakhon Kasem date from the same period as those at Nang Loeng market and Phrae Sasart, and were considered to be the most modern of their era. Most were heavily altered in later years, leaving only a small number in their original form, including those in Yaowarat near Saphan Lek, and a few on Boraphat Road.

The shophouses in the Woeng Nakhon Kasem shopping area originally sold expensive, high-quality goods of all kinds. On the side facing Charoen Krung Road there were several gold shops different from those found elsewhere in the city. They were small and were furnished with tall wooden cabinets with glass doors. The gold items were hung inside, and the buyer and seller would conduct their business in front of the cabinet, which was fitted with a broad wooden counter.

Shops of this kind were centres for buying and selling antique gold items. People who owned old gold chains, rings or bracelets liked to sell them because they brought a good price. Their buyers appreciated the precise workmanship. There were also collectors who liked to buy antique items. The prices charged were higher than in most gold shops, but customers paid for craftsmanship of a kind that cannot be found any more.

Other shops in Woeng Nakhon Kasem sold enough old items to make it Thailand’s first antiques market, a place where some of the most valuable objects available for sale in Thailand were offered. Most were Buddha images, carvings, ornamental furniture and old tools and utensils. Some antique items were brought from palaces and sold by later generations of the royal family. Others were objects that had been stolen from temples. At that time there were no laws requiring that culturally valuable items be registered and protected. Western visitors of the time were very fond of these antiques, and Woeng Nakhon Kasem became known as the thieves’ market. Vendors who dealt in them later moved to the River City shopping centre.

Several publishers had businesses in Woeng Nakhon Kasem, printing non-fiction books, textbooks, novels, how-to volumes on carpentry and different crafts as well as cookbooks and guidebooks for cultivating orchids. Early works by MR Kukrit Pramoj, Prayun Uluchada, Sombat Plainoi and others were first published there.

The area was also a centre for the sale of Thai musical instruments as well as household tools and utensils such as stone pestle and mortars made at Ang Sila in Chon Buri. The affluent buyers who bought the stone mortars could only find them in this neighbourhood. They had to be transported by boat from Chon Buri and unloaded at Ratchawong Pier near Yaowarat. In those days there was no easy way to get to Chon Buri.

Brassware of all types was also a local speciality. Brass noodle-cooking pots and steamers for dim sum, brass woks and paraffin stoves, brass bells for ice-cream vendors, and even ice-cream freezers from Europe were available in Woeng Nakhon Kasem and nowhere else in Bangkok.

The primary entertainment venue in the area was a cinema on the wooden second floor of a building there. It screened films from the West, preceded by black-and-white newsreels from two sources, French Pathe, with its crowing rooster logo, and the US studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, represented by a roaring lion. This cinema was eventually destroyed by a fire.

No commercial neighbourhood would have been complete without a fresh market. The one in Woeng Nakhon Kasem was called Pee Ra Ka market.

As well as stalls selling fresh and dried foods, there were also many excellent restaurants, including one famous for its delicious beef noodles. It probably served as the model for the first generation of Bangkok beef noodle restaurants. Yue huan, or boiled pork offal with pickled cabbage was available, and — very importantly — the rice soup called khao tom kui, aka khao tom phui. This rice soup restaurant was also a model for what came later, with its tall cabinet containing various side dishes to be eaten with the soup. There was seating in front of the cabinet, as well as tables and chairs inside the restaurant. The beef noodles, pork offal and khao tom were all popular with labourers because of their low price.

All of these things were part of the scene at Woeng Nakhon Kasem as it was in the past, and there was much more. Over its many years there were changes that reflected the times, but much remained as it was. Today, its residents may have differing ideas about some subjects, but all are in agreement about two things: first, a desire to stay where they are because Woeng Nakhon Kasem is central to their lives and, second, a dread of what might be in store for them at the hands of a new owner about whose intentions they know nothing. n

About the author

Writer: Suthon Sukphisit
Position: Writer