Echoes of a Storied Past

It's no longer the bustling thoroughfare it once was, but a stroll down the oldest road in Kanchanaburi reveals a lot about the people and events which shaped this frontier town

Kanchanaburi has long been a popular destination for day-trippers. Legions of tourists, both local and foreign, regularly make the short trip from Bangkok to visit scenic Sai Yok Waterfall and remnants of the infamous Death Railway like Hellfire Pass and the renamed "Bridge On The River Kwai". But astonishingly few visitors venture into the oldest section of this laid-back town which boasts some fine examples of architecture, well-preserved buildings dating from just before World War II right back to the mid-19th century.

Supatra Tantivanich was born in this town and has seen great changes over the years. Her family has been doing business on Pak Phraek Road for more then a century now.

"Pak Phraek was the very first street in Kanchanaburi. It dates back to the reign of King Rama III," said Supatra, who still manages the family store, Chuan Panich, with her younger brother Surapol.

"At its southern end is Wat Chaichumpol Chanasongkhram, which locals simply refer to as Wat Tai. At the northern end is Wat Nua, properly called Wat Thewasangkharam, where the Supreme Patriarch was ordained. Next door to it is Wat Thavornwararam, a Vietnamese temple which was once visited by King Rama V; it was he who gave it its name."

What's most interesting about this 2km-long street are all the things that have happened here and all the people who have passed through, chipped in her brother, Surapol Tantivanich, now well into his 60s.

"A lot of people come to see the old houses and learn about the history of these parts," he said.

Feeling hungry? Fill up on delicacies like the fish dishes for which several local restaurants are famous, or chicken noodles from the noodle shop opposite Siri Osot Pharmacy. For those with a sweet tooth, the khanom khrok (coconut-cream sweetmeats) at the nearby Mon shop are delicious.

According to a document produced for the Pak Phraek Walking Street Project, which was launched back in 2008, the first structures to be erected in what would later become Kanchanaburi town were in a neighbourhood called Lat Ya. Here the kings of Ayutthaya maintained a military outpost whose tiny garrison was tasked with giving advance warning of any hostile forces entering Siamese territory via the nearby Three Pagodas Pass.

Following the destruction of Ayutthaya in 1769 by two Burmese armies, Siam's capital was moved first to Thon Buri and then across the river to Bangkok. To guard against the threat of Burmese ships gaining access to the Chao Phraya (via the Tha Chin and Mae Klong rivers), King Rama I's younger brother, Krom Phra Ratchawang Bovorn Maha Surasinghanart, ordered the Kanchanaburi frontier post to be moved from Lat Ya to Pak Phraek, the name given to land on the left bank of the Mae Klong near the point where this waterway is formed by the joining of the Kwae Yai and Kwae Noi rivers.

The initial structure was a fort with a palisade of stout logs called raniad reinforced by mounds of packed earth.

In 1831 these fortifications were substantially strengthened and work began on building a permanent walled settlement after King Rama III gave local officials greater responsibility for security of the border area where foreigners _ British, Mon and Burmese traders for the most part _ regularly passed through.

It was also during the Third Reign that a group of Vietnamese Buddhists were resettled in Kanchanaburi. They were war captives brought back by a Siamese army which had successfully expelled Vietnamese forces from disputed territory in what is now the Plain of Jars in Laos. (Vietnamese Christians captured during the same military campaign were resettled in the Makkasan area of Bangkok.)

As Kanchanaburi grew and prospered, Pak Phraek became the town's commercial hub, with merchants specialising in timber, mushrooms and other jungle products as well as semi-precious gemstones like black sapphires for which this area is still famous. It was often thronged with labourers who worked in the province's lead and zinc mines and its many rock quarries. Surapol remembers when hordes of villagers from Sai Yok, Thong Pha Phum and Sangkhla Buri would arrive by boat to shop for staple food items and other household necessities.

During World War II this province was used as a base by the Japanese Imperial Army to invade British Burma. Western prisoners of war and hundreds of thousands of labourers from other parts of Southeast Asia were forced to build the infamous Death Railway. Older residents of Pak Phraek have recorded how Japanese soldiers would often march groups of POWs down the street, taking them to bathe in the Kwae Yai. Sympathetic Thais buried fruit and hard-boiled eggs in the sand along the river bank, hoping the food would be found by the starving POWs.

Several buildings still standing along this street were once used by the Japanese administration. One was the local HQ of the Japanese military police, another living quarters for commissioned officers and a third was converted into a military hospital. Several of the shops were reportedly run by Japanese spies. For three-and-a-half years, local businessman Boonpong Sirivejaphan _ whose company, Boonpong & Brothers, had its office on this stretch _ provided aid to some of these Allied serviceman, secretly giving them medicine, food and other necessities like flashlights.

Today, almost all the old houses along Pak Phraek still retain their novel Chinese- or Western-style architectural features. They range in antiquity from 146 years old to a bit over seven decades, and 26 of them have been listed by the local authorities as must-sees.

To best appreciate the atmosphere, Surapol suggests a route starting at the City Gate and heading northwards down the street, passing Siri Osot Pharmacy, the old Boonpong & Brothers office, Taem Thong House (a traditional Chinese dwelling) and Nivas Sansuk House, where Thailand's second prime minister, Phraya Phahon Phonpayuhasena, resided during his honeymoon. Interestingly, the current Supreme Patriarch was born in a house on this street.

Other highlights of a leisurely walking tour of the town include the so-called Pig Gable House, a Sino-Portuguese building named Sitthisang, the Guan Yin Shrine and Sumitrakhan, the first hotel ever built in Kanchanaburi. Within the compound of Wat Tai, about 100m from the City Gate, is the Jeath Museum which covers local history during the 1940s and features exhibits like a life-size reconstruction of the spartan bamboo-and-thatch huts in which the POWs slept during the construction of the Death Railway.

Located on Lak Muang Road near the confluence of the Kwae Yai and Kwae Noi rivers, the City Gate was built in 1831, the same year construction of Kanchanaburi town commenced under the supervision of an official called Phraya Kanchanaburi. The idea of establishing a permanent settlement came about after King Rama I (reigned 1782 to 1809), responding to reports of an imminent Burmese invasion, ordered one of his sons, Prince Jessadabodin, to lead an army there and defend Siam’s western frontier. The prince (who would succeed to the throne in 1824 and is today known as King Rama III) ended up camping in the area for almost a year. The Burmese soldiers never showed up, but it was under orders from Rama III that a fortified town was built here. Within walls constructed with logs and packed earth were government offices, houses for officials and a prison. Outside, ordinary folk erected their own dwellings alongside the Kwae Yai River and this is the site of present-day Pak Phraek Street. A statue of King Rama III has been erected in front of the City Gate.

Located next to Wat Nua and the river, Wat Thavornwararam (popularly known as Wat Yuan) is run by monks of the Annam school of Buddhism. It was built in 1834 by Vietnamese Buddhist war captives who were resettled in Kanchanaburi on the orders of King Rama III. In 1895, King Rama V granted a plot of land to the temple. A year later, he gave the temple its official name (Wat Thavornwararam) and also presented the monks with a photo of himself. The ubosot (ordination hall) was built between 1893 and 1895 by the temple’s second abbot using money donated by ethnic-Vietnamese communities in Kanchanaburi, Bangkok, Ratchaburi and Samut Songkhram. The ubosot is adorned with the statues of figures revered by Vietnamese Buddhists, including a guardian spirit called Chao Phor Sua. The paintings inside the hall depict Phra Malai, a Buddhist monk, telling stories about his visit to hell. Entrance is via beautifully carved, folding wooden doors, now an increasingly rare sight in these parts.

A photo of King Rama V and members of the royal family taken during one of his two visits to Pak Phraek is put on display at Chuan Panich shop.

Located by the Kwae Yai River in tambon Ban Nua, Wat Thewasangkharam (aka Wat Nua) was established in 1805 by a monk named Abbot Siang after his return from Burma where he had been taken as a war captive in 1767 after the fall of Ayutthaya. King Rama V ordered restoration work to be carried out on its old ubosot (ordination hall) whose dilapidated state he made note of while passing by on his way to Sai Yok in 1877 and during a second trip to the same waterfall in 1888. It was upgraded to the status of a royal temple in 1962 and visited by the current monarch a year later for the annual kathin ceremony (the formal presentation of saffron robes to a temple). It was HM the King who chose the name Phra Phutthasutthimongkol for the principal Buddha statue in the ordination hall here. His Majesty also planted a sapling here, an offshoot from the auspicious Phra Sri Mahabodhi tree in India. Visit tevasunkharama.com for more details.

Taem Thong Residence was the first building to be erected in Kanchanaburi using concrete and is the only structure to have survived two large fires that swept through Pak Praek Street. It was built in 1867, a year before the death of King Rama IV, and so is now almost 150 years old. The house was located on the river bank until the Kwae Yai changed its course. Its exterior looks rather like a Chinese shrine and there was in fact a shrine in front of the house at one point in time, but it was later moved to another location nearby. Well protected by its Chinese-style walls, the gable of this halfwooden, half-concrete structure is decorated with floral stuccowork. The house has been lived in by five generations of the Taemthong family. You can still make out the murals painted by the original Chinese craftsmen on the gate and boundary wall.

This two-storey Pig Gable House was built in 1915 and is now owned by Somjit Setabhand. Its most outstanding feature is the elaborate stuccowork on its gable which features the representation of a pig. Located halfway down Pak Phraek Street, opposite the Old City Gate, this half-wooden, half-concrete building stands out because of the fine wood-carving on its double casement windows.

The two-storey Siri Osot Pharmacy was built in 1917 and the adjoining, three-storey office for Boonpong & Brothers went up 18 years later. In the early 1940s, Boonpong Sirivejaphan, a local businessman, won a bid to supply logs to Japanese ‘‘guest troops’’ sent to Kanchanaburi to supervise the construction of a railway to British Burma using forced labourers and POWs. Boonpong secretly passed food, medicine and other necessities to the POWs and on several occasions smuggled messages written in code by Allied servicemen to the outside world. He is credited with supplying information that contributed to the success of an Allied mission to bomb a bridge built by POWs to carry the Death Railway across the Kwae. After the Japanese surrender, Boonpong’s contribution was recognised by the governments of the UK and the Netherlands which both awarded him royal decorations.

Located directly opposite Sumitrakhan Hotel and named after the Sitthisang family, this house was build in a Sino-Portuguese style in 1920 during the reign of King Rama VI. Its most outstanding features are the stuccowork and wood-carvings used to embellish its windows, the arches on the upper floor and its wooden folding doors. Before its restoration in 2009, it was painted with a durable natural covering made from a combination of red clay and sticky-rice water. Still owned by the Sitthisang family, it has now been converted for use as a coffee shop.

The Sumitrakhan Hotel was the first accommodation of its kind in Kanchanaburi. Built in 1915 by a senior government official, it was initially intended as row house to be leased to tenants. Before it finally closed down in 1979, this hotel-cumshophouse was a popular stopover for timber merchants and traders from the forested areas of Thong Pha Phum and Sangkhla Buri districts along the border with Myanmar. During World War II, the nightly room rate was one baht and Japanese soldiers were among the many guests who stayed here or ate in the restaurant that once occupied part of the ground floor. Today, the building is still in its original form: a halfwooden, half-concrete structure whose interior walls are made from panels of woven bamboo strips.

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