Where the dragons roam

Where the dragons roam

Nakhon Sawan honours its cultural legacy with a festival for Lunar New Year

TRAVEL
Where the dragons roam
Pattarawadee Saengmanee

Two dragon-shaped lighting sculptures around the iconic Dechatiwong Bridge greet visitors to Nakhon Sawan as people return home during the 12-day Pak Nam Pho Chinese New Year Festival, which runs until Feb 14.

When traffic shifted away from the river, this old ferro-concrete bridge was erected in 1942 to link the North and Central Plains. Later, Dechatiwong 2 and Dechatiwong 3 bridges were constructed in parallel to handle more traffic and serve as a gateway to the North.

Just a 500m drive from the bridge to the clock tower, another massive dragon-like lighting sculpture spans 108m along the road holding a bottle gourd to bring prosperity, good fortune and wealth in the Year of the Dragon.

Local folks believe that its presence will result in significant change as a dragon represents bravery, strength and intention. On the other hand, the gourd represents Chinese lucky number eight and can bring unlimited wealth. Additionally, there are two fish, which represent wealth and can strengthen ties within the family.

From here, gazing over the majestic Chao Phraya River, formed by the confluence of the Ping, Wang, Yom and Nan rivers, visitors can visualise the old days when this ancient town was a busy trading hub. Back in the early Rattanakosin period, a number of Hainanese merchants moved to Nakhon Sawan and settled along the river banks in Kao Lieo district before the arrival of the Teochew, Hakka and Cantonese communities, resulting in a large Chinese population.

Located on Nakhon Sawan-Chum Saeng Road, the Shrine of Chao Pho Theparak and Chao Mae Thap Tim is a reminder of long-standing Chinese settlement. It is also where the prestigious Chao Pho-Chao Mae of Pak Nam Pho Procession Festival began to mark the Chinese New Year celebration and maintain Chinese cultural legacy.

With its view of the meeting place of four rivers, this hallowed shrine is said to have been built more than 150 years ago to house a statue of Chao Pho Theparak, who has been revered by local residents and merchants as Pueng Thao Kong. They come here to ask him for protection, wealth, success and good fortune.

Dechatiwong Bridge is adorned with dragon-shaped lighting sculptures.

Its roof sports two gold dragon-like sculptures, while low relief murals of a green dragon and a white tiger adorn the walls of the entryway. The structure is made of wood and cement without the use of nails, while a red ceiling and pillars are decorated in modest Chinese style designs.

Inside, pilgrims can also worship statues of Chao Mae Thap Tim (Goddess of the Sea), Chao Mae Sawan (Goddess of Compassion) and Chao Pho Guan Yu (God of Gratitude and Honesty) as well as spirit tablets of Hua Guan Kong (Three-eye God of Arts), and 108 cousin deities who ensure that sailors have a safe journey.

In accordance with customs, some experienced shrine attendants teach visitors the proper way to worship each deity, and then they perform a rite that involves ringing a bell and beating a drum to ensure the gods are aware of our prayers. On the other side is a typical metal bell created during the reign of King Rama V, and a set of old wooden chairs with nails that were used in various rituals by Chinese spirit mediums.

"This shrine once resembled a city pillar shrine, home to revered statues of Pueng Thao Kong, the city god, and Chao Pho Guan Yu. People come here to offer them oranges, red candles, and lamp oil in order to ask for success in career, protection and good fortune," said shrine attendant Jessada Phusombunphaisarn.

"This shrine first created the Pueng Thao Kong Procession Ceremony before we collaborated with Chao Mae Na Pha Shrine to transform our ritual into the Chao Pho-Chao Mae of Pak Nam Pho Procession Festival. In the past, the procession used to go down the river before moving to a roadway."

This year, the festival began on Jan 12 with some 300 devotees taking highly revered statues of deities to the streets. There were 108 warriors practising martial arts, light and sound shows recounting the story of Guan Yin, and amazing dragon and tiger dances.

Chum Saeng was once one of the busiest commercial centres due to the expansion of the railway network between the Central Plains and the North.

Those who want to continue their pilgrimage can travel about 10 minutes to Chao Mae Na Pha Shrine on Kosi Road, where a soaring cliff formerly rose above the Ping River. According to folklore, two grandparents who resided close to Pho Chui Pho Chu Shrine in 1947 dreamt that Chao Mae Na Pha floated down the river from Ayutthaya to Nakhon Sawan, telling them to pull her out if they wanted to become wealthy.

A modest wooden shrine was later constructed to enshrine Chao Mae Na Pha before a Chinese merchant made a new wooden statue in 1952. Brought from Wat Mangkon Kamalawat in Bangkok, the figure was dressed in a beautiful Chinese costume and carried a cane. The shrine has undergone several refurbishments and visitors are welcome to worship Guan Yu, Chao Mae Sawan and Chai Xing Ai (God of Fortune and Wealth).

Even if the sky grows dark, pilgrims can still go on to Chao Pho Mangkon Thong Shrine, which is located on Sawan Withi Road. It was originally established in 1969 before being moved to its current position. With traditional Teochew-style architectural design, its doors remain open until 9pm so that visitors can pray to Leng Bua Aia (Golden Dragon God) for prosperity in their careers and businesses.

The vibrant murals on the walls portray scenes from Chinese legends, while the ceiling is painted to imitate a clear blue sky. The marble-like floor is designed to resemble a lotus pond, with a swarm of carp swimming to deliver wealth to visitors, making you feel like wandering through a paradise. Inside, there are also revered statues of Guan Yin, Zhou Cang, Guan Yu, Guan Ping Tai Chi and Nezha as well as 12 Heavenly Generals.

The next morning, I visited the remarkable Pasan building to observe where the Chao Phraya River begins at the edge of the Koh Yom community. The project began in 2004 when Nakhon Sawan Municipality Council established the Protecting Chao Phraya Origin Club to enhance the town's landscape.

Chao Pho Chao Mae Chum Saeng Shrine.

To put the town back on the map of destinations, attempts to boost tourism were still ongoing. In 2016, the Department of Tourism invested 117 million baht to build a state-of-the-art structure honouring the point where the Ping, Wang, Yom and Nan rivers meet at Pak Nam Pho, which is considered the cradle of the Chao Phraya.

Both its name and architectural designs translates to "merge" and alludes to the blending of people and cultures from several different regions in one place. It occupies 3.48 rai and is quickly becoming a popular gathering place for people of all ages to spend time there both day and night.

Each corner is designed to be a vantage point from which visitors can take in the breathtaking views of the peaceful waterside communities and commercial districts. The stone sculpture of Guan Yin stands at the entryway, and a shady courtyard serves as a functional space for recreational activities.

Descending to the basement, visitors can explore an interactive exhibition that shows more about the history of Nakhon Sawan, the Chao Phraya and other noteworthy tourist destinations like Bueng Boraphet and Mae Wong National Park.

After that, I went on the 30-minute journey to Chum Saeng Market, which is located on the banks of the Nan River. Since the launch of the Chom Saeng train station in 1908, the expansion of the railway network between the Central Plains and the North turned this neighbourhood into an important centre for the rice trade.

Seeing its potential, Chinese labourers moved here and started their own businesses, making it a thriving commercial hub. It is home to 10 communities and there are still a series of classic shophouses lining both sides of the road where a variety of things are sold, such as silverware, daily clothing, school uniforms, collectables, farming tools, chilli and local cuisine.

The historic market is not far from the Chao Pho Chao Mae Chum Saeng Shrine where visitors can end their excursion. The Chum Saeng villages also host an annual parade in December to show the two statues in the streets with the goal of bringing prosperity to the communities.

Dechatiwong Bridge is adorned with dragon-shaped lighting sculptures.

The highly revered Chao Pho-Chao Mae of Pak Nam Pho Procession Festival originated at the Shrine of Chao Pho Theparak and Chao Mae Thap Tim.

Chao Pho Theparak, locally known as Pueng Thao Kong.

Chao Mae Thap Tim.

The Shrine of Chao Pho Theparak and Chao Mae Thap Tim displays a collection of vintage wood sedan chairs used in the Chao Pho-Chao Mae of Pak Nam Pho Procession Festival.

The Chao Mae Na Pha Shrine stands on the banks of the Ping River.

The original carved wood statues of Chao Mae Na Pha.

Chao Pho Mangkon Thong Shrine.

A statue of Chao Pho Mangkon Thong.

Pasan is a new tourist attraction in Nakhon Sawan.

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