Where past and present co-exist

Bang Lamphu has a long and intricate history and anyone who wanders off the beaten track is sure to find vibrant little communities where traditional skills and good neighbourliness are much prized

It is one of the capital's oldest districts, but mention its name to a foreign visitor and the first association will likely be with the bustling backpacker belt centred on Khao San Road. But to native Bangkokians and long-time residents, a reference to Bang Lamphu may summon up the gleaming-white image of Phra Sumen Fort, its crenellated ramparts dominating the Chao Phraya River and the approaches to Thon Buri, or make them long for Phra Arthit Road and its artsy little cafes or nostalgic for the time they first explored these winding streets and alleyways back when they were students at nearby Thammasat and Silpakorn universities.

Phra Sumen Fort is one of 14 guard posts along the stout wall that was erected during the reign of King Rama I (1782-1809) to enclose the city of Bangkok — what is now referred to as Rattanakosin Island — and protect it from invaders. The fort was equipped with cannons, an arsenal for storing ammunition and hand weapons, plus quarters for the soldiers stationed there. By the time of King Rama V (1868-1910), the structure was in a rather dilapidated condition, judging from photos taken during that period. The fort underwent major restoration work in 1981 and in 1999 an 8 rai plot of land around it was cleared and converted into a public park next to the river called Santi Chaiprakan. The city wall and 12 of its 14 forts were demolished over the years. The only other citadel to survive to the present day is Mahakan Fort on Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue (close to Wat Saket and the Golden Mount).

Nowadays, in addition to its worldwide reputation as a tourist hub, Bang Lamphu is known for its textile and garment shops (Sib Sam Hang, Bovornniwet, Sam Sen and Chakrabongse roads) and as an emerging destination for foodies (several good restaurants have opened in beautiful neo-classical buildings along Phra Arthit and Phra Sumen roads). The area has long been cherished as a cradle of learning (nearby Wat Po) and a centre for traditional Thai musicians and dancers (giving birth to famed ensembles like Duriyapranit, Duriyaphan and Khiewvijit).

Its history and architecture also attract the curious: due to its proximity to the Grand Palace, the district is dotted with grand Italianate villas and stately mansions built for royalty and high-ranking government officials.

But why was it called Bang Lamphu? For an explanation of the name's origins, we turned to Rapeepat Ketkosol, an official in the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration who has long been involved in promoting the concept of community tourism.

"Well, bang is a old term for a plot of land that is located next to water. So 'Bang Lamphu' means a village with lots of lamphu [Sonneratia caseolaris] trees; they like to grow in places where there is brackish water."

Several poems, penned by travellers who passed through here centuries ago, mention the existence of a host of lamphu trees. Another confirmation is provided by the fact that Wat Sangwej Witsayaram, a temple in a trok (alley) of the same name off Phra Arthit Road, was once called Wat Bang Lamphu. Unrestricted development over the years resulted in the felling of all the old lamphu trees in the area, but the good news is that a committee of local residents recently launched a replanting programme to restore this tree to its eponymous neighbourhood.

Rapeepat, who works for the BMA's Tourism Division, recently led a leisurely tour on foot through historic parts of the district. The excursion began at Phra Sumen Fort near which is not far from Khlong Bang Lamphu, a canal dug in the 18th century to link the river to Khlong Mahanak and thus create a defensive moat for the old city.

Walking eastwards from the fort and Santi Chaiprakan Park, we came to a large old brick building, painted white, which was once the headquarters of Kurusapha, an organisation under the Education Ministry which was the first publishing house owned and run by Thais to print textbooks for students. Entering the adjacent Trok Wat Sangwej, we crossed Hong U-thit Bridge. This was built by Phraya Anurakratchaniyom (Yi Kor Hong), a Thai-Chinese entrepreneur who was the last person to manage the huay kor khor lottery before its abolition. He also operated ships, sawmills and other businesses, established the Por Tek Tung charitable foundation and supervised the construction of several bridges in Bangkok.

Strolling along the same trok (alley), we came to the home of the Duriyapranits, a famous family of traditional musicians, the most celebrated of whom was the late Sudchit Duriyapranit, who was made a national artist for her contributions to the field of Thai music. Family members still teach youngsters how to play traditional Thai music here and the classes are popular, not least because the tuition fees are very affordable.

Continuing eastwards along Bang Lamphu Canal, we came to another bridge close to the New World department store. Here we paused to inspect a shrine erected to Chao Phor Noo, a Buddha image highly revered by local people. Sittichai Pholhittanont, president of the Bang Lamphu Culture Revival Group, told us a little about the history of the statue.

Farther along the canal, another 50m or so, is the only shrine erected to King Taksin (1767-82), on the Phra Nakhon side of Bangkok. Across a nearby bridge is the site of an old market which was once as famous as the one in Amphawa, Samut Songkhram; it was later abandoned by traders after the creation of paved roads made transport of goods by canal less commercially viable.

Not far away is Chakrabongse Mosque and the community which it serves. According to Parnthip Likachai, co-founder of the Kesorn Lamphu Club, this centuries-old Muslim enclave is still a vital, closely knit community. Opas Mitrmaitri, one of its leaders, told us: ''This is the only mosque in the centre of [old] Bangkok and right behind the Grand Palace. Our ancestors gradually migrated from the South during the reigns of King Rama II and III [1809-51]. They were mostly skilled craftsmen and goldsmiths who worked in the royal court. They were adept at making the decorative objects and other regalia needed for royal ceremonies.''

If you head northwards from here to the nearby Thewet and Bang Khun Phrom areas, you will find several other places of cultural interest including Wat Sam Phraya, Wat Intharawihan, Wat Iamworanuch and Bang Khun Phrom Palace.

Bang Lamphu is also well known for its tasty ethnic food _ roti and mataba (Indian breads with sweet or savoury fillings), for example, and a Vietnamese noodle dish called kuay jub yuan _ and for desserts like buay kia which is served on crushed ice. On Sib Sam Hang Road, near Wat Bovornniwet, is a Muslim food stall called Ah-isah which has been doing a thriving business for more than four decades now. The most popular menu items there are chicken biryani (khao mok kai), beef biryani (khao mok nua) and korma curry.

''The key to tasty food is good ingredients and fresh spices,'' its owner, Somjit Salapen, told us, adding that she imports her cooking oil and spices directly from Indonesia.

Earlier on our tour of the district we had been introduced to Thawatchai Woramahakhun, leader of the Pom Mahakan (Mahakan Fort) community. The philosophical bent of the little talk he gave us makes a fitting epilogue.

''Uniqueness is deeply rooted in each of the communities in this area. If you walk into Trok Kai Jae, you will see people making khon [masked dance] costumes and an old woman cooking khao tom nam woon [a Thai dessert].

''If you visit the Chakrabongse Mosque community, you will find delicious food like roti, mataba and chicken curry prepared according to original recipes.

''The Wat Sangwej community is a centre of traditional [instrumental] music called pipat.

''These are the things which define us and these neighbourhoods can remain strong and empowered as long as its people are given the opportunity to shine.''

Surao Wat Tongpu, often called Chakrabongse Mosque because of its location on a street of the same name, is the spiritual and social hub of Muslim life in Bang Lamphu. It was built by war captives brought back to Bangkok from Pattani after the autonomous Muslim sultanate in the south was subjugated by an army commanded by the younger brother of King Rama I, Krom Phra Ratchawang Bovorn Maha Surasinghanart. Rama I allowed the Pattani Muslims to build houses and a mosque within the city walls, granting them land in Ban Tuek Din (along present-day Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue near the Democracy Monument and Satriwitthaya School) and in Bang Lamphu (near Chakrabongse Road). Later, during the reign of King Rama III (1824-51), descendants of some of these people settled down along the banks of Mahanak Canal.

This shrine was erected to house Chao Phor Noo, a much revered Buddha image with a very childlike face (noo is a term Thai children often use to refer to themselves). Although the statue is made of some kind of metal, legend has it that it was found floating on Khlong Bang Lamphu near Nana Market (which no longer exists; it was located close to the site now occupied by the New World department store; the market took its name from the wealthy Thai- Indian Nana family who still own many plots of land in the area). Designed in early Rattanakosin style, the statue portrays the Lord Buddha in the ‘‘subduing Mara’’ posture. There is no record of exactly when it was found, but it must have been prior to 1960 because that was the year the statue was credited with saving the neighbourhood from a potentially devastating fire. Many local residents come here regularly to pray for good fortune and protection from harm. On the second weekend of every November, there is a big parade on Khao San Road along which this statue is carried in procession.

The lively atmosphere of Bang Lamphu.

On Trok Wat Sangwej is Ban Duriyapranit, (aka Ban Bang Lamphu), the original home of master musician Suk Duriyapranit. A native of Nonthaburi, Suk started working as a musician in 1903 for the drama troupe employed by Chao Phraya Dhewesewong Wiwat (MR Lhan Kunjara), head of the Khon Department. Later, during the reign of King Rama VI, the Khon Department was merged with the newly established Department of Entertainment. In 1918, Suk resigned and founded his own traditional musical ensemble, calling it Duriyapranit after the surname chosen for him by King Rama VI. Suk and his wife, Tham, passed on their skills to their children, all of whom became expert musicians. The house was a lively place full of young music students during the lifetime of the late Sudchit Duriyapranit (Anantagul), a daughter of Suk and Tham. She was a fine singer, skilled in the playing of traditional string instruments, and taught music and singing at several educational institutes and government agencies. In 1993, she was named a national artist in performing art (Thai music). She passed away on Nov 24 last year, at the age of 84, after suffering a stroke.

Bang Khun Phrom Palace was once the home of Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand, a son of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) who held important military and ministerial positions in the early 20th century during the last years of the absolute monarchy. It now houses the Bank of Thailand Museum and features exhibitions on the prince’s life, the history of the central bank and display of Thai and foreign currencies. Situated on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River, the palace is significant in terms of its architecture, art and history. Commissioned by King Chulalongkorn and completed in 1906, it comprises two main buildings: Tamnak Yai, Prince Paribatra’s mansion; and Tamnak Somdej, where the prince’s mother, Queen Sukhumala Marasri, once lived. It was designed by Italian architect Mario Tamagno in a mixture of rococo and baroque styles. The highlight is a fresco created by Italian artist Carlo Rigoli whose work can also be seen in the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall.

Phor Kae is the name given to the guardian spirit of traditional Thai music and dance personified in the form of an elderly man. Bang Lamphu was once well known for its handicrafts, particularly earthenware heads of Phor Kae (called sian phor kae), wooden bird cages and a herbal medicine called pimsen nam. In a process that takes almost three weeks, each sian phor kae is fashioned from a type of clay found only on Koh Kret, an island in Nonthaburi famous for its ethnic-Mon pottery. The result is displayed on a special shelf at traditional theatres and performers pay respect to it before each show. The makers sell the clay heads they create to wholesalers based at Wat Ratchanaddaram. Building a traditional wooden bird cage can take anything from two to eight months, depending on its size and intricacy. Only three families in Bang Lamphu still earn a living from this craft.

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