Grand plans for the River of Kings
Huge attention is focused on restoring the Chao Phraya
Serving as the city’s lifeblood for centuries, the Chao Phraya River is more than just a commuter route. It’s a primary source for life and income for countless and home to historical and cultural sites.
Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, is one of 11 cultural landmarks along the Chao Phraya River eyed as World Heritage sites. (Photo by Krit Promsaka na Sakolnakorn.)
Aware of the importance of the Chao Phraya, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) will soon propose that the stretch of river flowing through the capital become a national heritage site.
“The river touches our lives in so many aspects. It’s a natural treasure and deserves to be preserved,” said Bangkok City Clerk Sanya Chenimit, adding its role in sustaining settled city communities dates back to the 15th century.
To turn the stretch of river into a national heritage site, the Department of City Planning conducted a feasibility study last August that should be completed this month. The study findings will be handed to BMA executives for consideration before they launch a Chao Phraya River rehabilitation programme aimed at safeguarding the river and preserving local historical and cultural landmarks along its banks.
The river banks are key areas of cultural significance, Mr Sanya said, adding the BMA is weighing up the possibility of registering 11 riverside areas of outstanding value as World Heritage sites. Over 200 locations along the river are included, such as old communities, religious sites and public and private properties.
The rehabilitation programme will focus on a stretch of river running through Bangkok, starting from the Memorial Bridge to Tha Wasukri, he said.
If BMA executives give the green light to the project, a proposal will be submitted to the cabinet. A budget would be then allocated for restoration work, said Mr Sanya.
The river restoration plan will be split into four main sections. In the first, both the public and private sectors will help keep waterways connected to the Chao Phraya clean. The second involves the renovation of buildings and structures along the riverbanks. The third will see riverside walkways, barriers and communities developed. Lastly, cultural traditions that set each area apart will be preserved.
According to city planning chief Vanchai Thanomsak, the feasibility study will determine how the landscape on both sides of the river can be improved.
Mr Vanchai is confident the national heritage proposal will not be blocked by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s own ambitious project, “New Landmark of Thailand” — the seven-kilometre riverside promenade stretching on both sides of the river between Rama VII and Pin Klao bridges.
“The riverside promenade will only provide better access to tourists to the historical sites,” he said.
Assoc Prof Pirasri Povatong, an expert in community improvement and historical landscapes, and a project team member, said the proposed face-lift in fact should extend between Krung Thon Bridge and Taksin Maharat Bridge, instead of the Memorial Bridge and Tha Wasukri pier.
The team had found many historical and cultural sites dating from the Rattanakosin Period that are not covered by the project.
According to Prof Pirasri, the studies cover 10 districts: Bang Phlat, Bangkok Noi, Bangkok Yai, Klong San, Thon Buri, Dusit, Phra Nakhon, Pomprap Sattruphai, Samphanthawong and Bang Rak.
A team of experts surveyed the sites, landmarks and communities along the riverbanks and inspected them with the help of locals. Importantly, the team also studied intangible cultural heritage, he said. Seminars involving academics and local residents on ways to restore the Chao Phraya River were also conducted. A public hearing for the project was also held for local residents to voice their concerns.
“We urge involvement by all parties to find the best possible ways to improve the river and the sites,” he said. Data was collected through qualitative and quantitative methods.
According to Prof Pirasri, the team found more than 200 sites to be preserved as national heritage sites — the Chao Phraya River, 12 canals, 108 historical sites registered with the Fine Arts Department (FAD) and 87 sites that are in the process of historical registration.
Meanwhile, 71 local communities and their rites and traditions, as well as cultural influences and occupations, have also been assessed, he said.
The criterion for selecting the sites are based on guidelines for Unesco World Heritage sites, for cultural heritage sites rated by the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning and historic sites rankings rated by the FAD, he explained.
The studies also showed 179 cultural heritage sites are valuable enough to be preserved as local community heritage sites; 98 sites for national cultural heritage and the Chao Phraya River as a World Heritage site, he said.
Thanasornkamol Rotanayothin, an expert in the field of community design and a team member, said many sites were not in good condition, while some were strewn with trash.
The survey also found a number of residences in some areas had encroached upon the Chao Phraya River and canals and that the quality of the water had deteriorated, she added.
She suggested that residents keep the sites clean, neat and tidy and generally presentable enough to encourage visitors.
Landscape improvement programmes for communities also involve adding open green spaces to public areas along the riverbanks and improving the aesthetic appearance, while providing safe and comfortable access to the communities, Ms Thanasornkamol said.
Stricter law enforcement and raising awareness about the value of the river and its landmarks are also part of the plan, she added.
“It’s important to instill a love for cultural and historic value among the locals,” she said.
Father Worawut Kijsakul from Santa Cruz Church in Thon Buri district agreed with the plan, noting cooperation and involvement from local residents in the activities is crucial for making the project happen.
Phra Maha Choochart Jirasuthatho from Wat Hong Rattanaram in Bangkok Yai district also backed the plan, saying restoration would encourage residents to learn about the value of local communities and inspire them to be active in protecting them.
Borworn Yasinthorn from the Human Rights Commission who works in the field of economics, society and culture called on activists to study more about the issue of intangible cultural heritage to ensure better protection of important sites nationwide and to create wider awareness of their significance.
The concept of intangible cultural heritage may be new to many people, but it’s an essential part of cultural diversity so it also deserves to be protected, he said.
“People should be aware of the value,” Mr Borworn said.