Bridging times and cities
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Bridging times and cities

The story of the Thai-Belgian Bridge on its 30th anniversary

Witthayu Intersection before the bridge was assembled. Photo © Bangkok Post Archive
Witthayu Intersection before the bridge was assembled. Photo © Bangkok Post Archive

On a recent visit to Bangkok, Baron Patrick Nothomb recalled the tremors of anxiety when the Thai-Belgian bridge was about to be assembled 30 years ago.

"It was a big challenge. At that time, I only hoped it would be a success," he said. "If it had been a failure it would be a failure of my own career."

Baron Nothomb was the recently arrived Belgian ambassador to Thailand in 1985. Not long after he took the post, his commercial attaché, Cory Croymans, came to him with an idea: Belgium should offer Bangkok a bridge that had been built for the World Expo in Brussels in 1958 and dismantled 25 years later, its parts locked up in a warehouse. Seduced by the prospect, the ambassador got to work, and what followed was a series of diplomatic persuasions and an engineering feat between Belgian and Thai experts to attempt something unprecedented on the already-crowded Bangkok roads: to put up a flyover across Witthayu-Sathon-Rama IV in less than 60 hours.

The result, the Thai-Belgian Bridge, has since become a symbol of relations between the two countries. Opened on April 25, 1988, the bridge celebrates its 30th anniversary this year (the gala event to mark the occasion was held last Friday). To many, this is not "just a bridge": For Bangkok motorists, it became an essential infrastructure on a strategic crossroads and evidence of modern history; for many Belgians, the bridge brings back the memory of old Brussels and tells a story of urban development shared between the two cities.

In 1958, Baron Nothomb says, Belgium was hosting the World Expo, the first since World War II. "Fifty million people would come to Brussels, and we needed to transform the city," said the former ambassador, who's now 82.

Thai Belgian Bridge 30th Anniversary Photos courtesy of Belgian Embassy

A bridge was built on Leopold II Avenue to connect the two sides of the city and to ease the traffic flow. The structure would stand there, a modern viaduct fronting the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in central Brussels, until the early 1980s, when a tunnel was constructed to replace it. The bridge, designed to be assembled quickly in order to meet the deadline for the World Expo, was disassembled and its parts stored away.

Until Bangkok came calling.

"I had to convince my government, but at the end it wasn't as difficult as I thought [it would be]," said Baron Northomb. "In 1987, they decided to give the bridge to Bangkok. The parts were then shipped and stored along Witthayu Road."

The whole load of 2,000 tonnes of steel was transported from Antwerp to the Klong Toey Port in two shipments, according to a report by Koen De Wandeler in the magazine Connect. The first ship brought 40 bridge elements and arrived in Bangkok in February 1988. The second ship docked in March and unloaded the remaining 83 elements, the substructure and other materials.

While the existing parts would form the flyover, what Bangkok needed was the foundation, labour and erection of the pillars. Then entered construction tycoon Chavarat Charnvirakul , president of Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction.

"I was at a reception at the Belgian embassy and I overheard this conversation about the plans for the new bridge," recalls Chavarat, who would later become the ambassador's friend, as well as cabinet minister and acting prime minister of Thailand.

"Someone introduced me and told the ambassador I was the one who could help with the pillars. And I said yes.

"We contributed the men, and our engineers worked on the plan. The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority borrowed heavy lifting equipment for us. The bridge practically cost nothing."

The bridge, lower right, at its original location over Leopold II Avenue in Brussels. It was built in 1958 for the World Expo. Photo courtesy of Belgian-Luxembourg/Thai Chamber of Commerce (BeLuThai)

The Witthayu-Rama IV-Sathon intersection 30 year ago was already a notorious gridlock; those growing up in the 1980s will remember hot afternoons crawling along at the mercy of the traffic stops near a corner of Lumphini Park. The Bangkok governor in 1988 was Maj Gen Chamlong Srimuang, a crewcut ascetic known for his frugal lifestyle, and with Baron Nothomb the decision to put the bridge there was made.

"It wasn't that hard to decide. That intersection was one of the worst in Bangkok," says the former ambassador with a laugh.

The foundation work began in February, with Thai and Belgian engineers working on the plan. But the crucial moment came with the erection of the bridge and putting the parts together. The 60-hour deadline was announced, and Bangkok, accustomed to lengthy construction work that dotted the road, wondered if it would be possible.

The road around the intersection would be closed at 6pm on Friday, April 22, 1988, and then reopen for traffic, the bridge completed, at 6am on Monday.

HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn was scheduled to open the bridge at 3pm on Monday. It was a pre-arranged royal appointment, meaning the completion of the bridge could not be delayed.

"On Thursday before the work began, a TV journalist asked to interview me," said Baron Nothomb. "I said, 'OK, let's do the interview on Monday after the bridge is completed'. They said, 'No, we would like to interview you on Friday morning' [though the interview would air on Monday]. I arrived very nervous at the TV station, but I had to have a big smile and said the operation was a success.

"The next morning at 8am I was at the site and work was in progress. From that moment on, I was almost convinced that everything would be OK. On Saturday afternoon, I had no fear anymore."

Baron Patrick Nothomb. Photos: Somchai Poomlard

During that week, the photo of the work-in-progress bridge appeared on the front page of the Bangkok Post almost every day. On Apr 21, a headline read "Police expect chaos around closed roads". The report cited statistics that over 15,000 cars pass the intersection every hour. On Apr 22, a headline read "Work begins on flyover", with an image of a truck working at night near a half-finished structure. Then, on Sunday, Apr 24, a headline thundered, "Bridge assembled in one day"; the report went on to explain that the assembling process took just 24 hours and the final stretch on Sunday would be for "finishing touches".

The report went on: "If the bridge is effective, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration will consider installing more … on Rama IV."

It was effective -- actually, it became a precedent -- and in 1989 the Thai-Japan flyover was erected, more or less in a similar arrangement. In the early 1990s, nearly 10 more flyovers were built around the city. The Thai-Belgian was not the first traffic flyover to ever be built in Bangkok (that was the Ratchatewi flyover) but it was the first whose positive impact on traffic conditions was so convincing that it won people over. On Apr 26, a headline on the front page of the Bangkok Post read simply "Belgian Bridge eases traffic".

The 290m flyover became so indispensable to traffic in central Bangkok that when there was a fire underneath the structure last year and the bridge needed to close for repair for nearly two months, frustration was swift and palpable, and headlines containing the word "paralyse" were common.

Major maintenance took place in 2010, extending the durability of a structure that dated back to its first life in Brussels in 1958. For its 30th anniversary in Thailand, the Belgian embassy, the Chao Phya Abhai Raja Foundation and BeLu Thai approached the BMA for permission to decorate the flyover with Thai and Belgian flags on its 17 lampposts.

"Governor Assawin Kwanmueng said yes even before we gave him our presentation," said Philip Coates of the Belgian-Luxembourg/Thai Chamber of Commerce (BeLu Thai). "We had to close the bridge from midnight to 6am just to put up the decoration. Six hours just to put up some flags, so imagine that they constructed the entire bridge in 60 hours." Like many Belgians, Coates remembers driving across the original bridge in Brussels when he was a child, on the way to the seaside with his parents. "Everyone in Brussels remembers it. And to cross to the other side of town, we all had to use it."

Baron Nothomb left his post in Bangkok in 1988 and went on to serve in Japan until 1997. On his first visit to Bangkok after a long absence, he knew where he would go first.

"I have to thank Ms Croymans again for bringing up the idea," he says. "During my three-and-a-half years in Bangkok, the bridge was my main preoccupation. It's like my baby. When I came to Bangkok this time, I knew where we'd go first. I went to look at my baby."

The Thai Belgian Bridge this month, with decorations celebrating the bridge's 30th anniversary and 150 years of friendship and trade between Thailand and Belgium. Belgian Embassy

Chavarat Charnvirakul. Photo: Somchai Poomlard

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