Sunday, 10 March 2019

The Old Harbour

Maeklong Route Market
Back to Bangkok for my latest walk and this is the second one from Kenneth Barrett's book 22 Walks in Bangkok.  This walk focuses on the riverside area just to the north-east of walk 1 and I once again started from Wong Wian Yai BTS station.  I reprised the route almost as far as the main Wong Wian Yai station on the Maeklong  Line and turned left to walk along the former line as far as Khlong San market.  Although the route of the old railway line can still be visibly traced all the way to Khlong San any trace of the railway cannot be found.  Now instead of the clattering of freight trains bringing wares to the old wharf on the Prao Praya River there is only road traffic.  Ironically this section of line was closed to alleviate traffic congestion but any gains made initially have been more than lost.  It'll be interesting to see if this section is ever reinstated for in theory it could be.

Gold Route
At the end of the road opposite the former station at Khlong San a new railway line is starting to take shape perpendicular from the old route.  This is one of the rapid transit routes that are being built across the city although this one which will eventually become the Gold Line wasn't in the original masterplan.  Instead it has come about because of the building of the massive IconSiam shopping centre, the latest gleaming mall in Bangkok.  The line will eventually link the shopping centre with the Silom BTS Line with a link as far as the old Thonburi Station.  Construction is in early stages and as a result has caused quite a mess along the road and redirected pedestrians across the footbridge just outside the shopping centre.

Khlong San Market
Upon entering Khlong San market the old station buildings can clearly be seen among the market stalls and is now occupied by all manner of food stalls.  I couldn't help wondering whether that would be the case if one of the diesel railcars that serve the next station down the line would bring these folk more business?  The market itself has a very narrow and long footprint courtesy of the fact that it only occupies what was once the station.  This marked the official start of this particular walk and my onward route would run parallel to the river.  I soon came upon the signal flagpole which was the next landmark en route.  It was incredibly tall - probably at least 12 storeys in height.  It was originally used at one of the forts that lined the river to signal which boats were incoming and those that were outgoing.  Long since disused the pole was moved to this location a long time ago as a kind of memorial to the system.  The remnants of one of the forts can be found just behind and has been somewhat restored although it languishes among a housing estate and probably largely forgotten by most people.

Signal Pole
Sadly the path through to the next part of the walk suggested by the book was closed off due to a construction project.  The riverbank is off limits in this part of Bangkok too so I had no choice but to return to the main road and walk northwest for a block and then returning towards the riverbank alongside the hospital that stood in my way.  As I passed the walls of the complex there were all manner of vendors selling food and other stuff that a hospital visitor would need.  Some even had protective stuff over their merchandise to protect it from the heat of the sun.

Laundry Day
My next port of call was an unusual Chinese temple tucked away in the back streets and on the way to it I passed by my first Buddhist Temple of the day at Wat Thong Noppakhun.  I didn't explore too much as there was an event going on but I did have a good look at a rather unusual feature in the yard; a concrete boat surrounding a huge bodhi tree, acting as the mast.  The boat is modelled on an old Chinese style and acts as a Chinese shrine, possibly visited by Chinese visitors to the temple around the corner which is complete with pretty tall pagoda.  Considering how tucked away Chee Chin Khor temple it is amazing how many visitors it does get.  It felt slightly uncomfortable being here as I was watched closely by a security guard but he didn't seem to be too bothered by my presence - maybe he was just surprised to see a Western tourist?  I got the opportunity to look at the Chao Praya River for the first time here and lingered for a while as I watched the long-tailed boats race by and the egrets float on the weed that seems quite happy to live on the surface without being attached underneath.  From a distance it looks like the egrets are walking on water, which always amuses me.  The temple was most interesting as it differed significantly from Thai Buddhist temples - the colours were bolder and the decorative designs very different although perhaps from the same roots?

Chinese Boat at Temple
I had to retrace my steps back to the main road and walk along another couple of blocks to the next road towards the river.  This was significantly further as the main road travelled away from the bend in the river.  Along the way I passed a university building and tuk tuk drivers and vendors were stationed outside waiting for business that may or may not ensue from the students and staff.  I hope it was worth the wait for the tuk tuk drivers in particular as several were asleep rather than trying to win business elsewhere.  This arm of the walk was to find the Wang Lee Mansion and the Mae Tuptim Shrine.  The latter was easily found just shy of yet another landing jetty for the passing ferry service.  It was a modest affair but clearly well loved judging by all the offerings.  I didn't investigate the Mansion though - I wasn't sure that it was for general entry judging by the burly guards outside.  I decided to move on amused by the reaction of the lady buying strawberries from the cart outside.

Chee Chin Khor
I didn't have to retrace my steps this time as I could loop around through the next temple called Wat Thong Thammachat.  This is a more minor temple but like so many others it seems to be in a world of its own with almost an aura of tranquility about it.  Somehow even with the place deserted it still retained this magic, with the only sounds to be heard the birdsong in the trees.  I followed a monk back to the main road - his footsteps were helpful to me for it was a bit of a maze through the streets and I didn't have any guesswork.  Under the trees between the temple and the housing estate seemed to be a gathering point for more food stalls, lunchtime traffic and soi dogs and cats that all enjoyed the shade afforded by the trees.

At the main road I crossed to the other side and followed the  rather unloved looking Khlong San, a canal that runs alongside the busy street.  Bangkok used to have a whole network of these khlongs that connected neighbourhoods in what must have originally been a bit of a swamp alongside the river.  Sadly so many of these canals are unloved now, including this one.  They are filled with filthy water and rubbish, a sad remnant of what they mus have once  been like.  Hopefully one day the city authorities will give them some attention and either restore them or fill the worst ones in.  I guess with the other building programmes going on across the city any such notion will be well down the list of projects to be completed.

Tuk Tuks
At the other end of the road shortly before meeting a junction of Khlong San with another khlong connecting to the Chao Praya River I came upon the grand Wat Pichaya Yatikaram and its neighbour across the road Wat Anongkharam.  These two temples have very different styles each of which are quite impressive in their own way.  It was the gleaming white Wat Pichaya that I spent most time at though.  The gleaming white stupas looked particularly ice-white against the powder blue sky and somehow all of the other colours such as the lilies growing in the small ponds and the decorations of the buildings looked especially radiant too.  It was the main prang in the centre though that caught my attention - one of the biggest I have yet seen and fitting for a second rate temple.  Time was pressing now so I bypassed the temple across the road, principally because of the presence of a school in session and headed into a neighbourhood notable for its royal connections.

The Price of Strawberries
This was the area that the late Princess Srinagarinda (known as the Princess Mother) grew up in and it s fitting that just before the river is a small park dedicated to her memory.  This green oasis is a very serene  place to stop and catch one's breath, which is exactly what I did.  I enjoyed the singing birds and the butterflies and was surprised to learn that the park has only been here since 1993.  Within the park are a couple of interesting friezes depicted in sandstone showing some of the good deeds that the Princess did during her lifetime.  At the entrance to the park is a beautifully presented statue of her enjoying the peaceful surroundings.  She had a long and fulfilling life, starting out as the daughter of a goldsmith and ending up as the Royal mother of Kings Rama VIII and Rama IX.

I Brought You Something
Just around the corner from the park overlooking the river is a rather astonishing Chinese temple, the Gong Wu Shrine.  This very colourful temple begged to be explored further and it is fortunate that you can climb up inside to the second floor and see some wide ranging views across the Chao Praya River.  The temple was all decked out for Chinese New Year but even without the red lanterns this is a colourful (almost garishly colourful) place full of character.  Upon leaving I wandered around to a rather different religious centre, a mosque around the corner.  Sadly though I could not visit this place - its turret was the only proper look I got of the place.

Wat Thong Thammachat
I wandered down through the housing of this particular area and it was a hive of activity with laundry, cooking, fixing machinery, sewing and even growing vegetables all overlooked by the massive prang of Wat Pichaya.  The neighbourhoods in Bangkok are mostly devoid of traffic apart from bicycles and motorbikes that you have to be really wary of.  The reason for this is that most roads that go through housing estates are no through roads and are of no use therefore unless you live there.  This may partially explain the traffic choked main roads - there are virtually no rat runs to escape to.

Wat Anongkharam
I found myself by a very busy highway that crossed over the river.  I had a little look in the park underneath which was dotted with lots of topiary pruned trees and a small group of students that I assumed had escaped school during their lunch hour for a quick game of basketball.  Other than them and a couple of park workers sweeping up the place was deserted and only the roar of the traffic crossing the bridge could be heard.  There were two bridges here; the modern Phra Pokkloa Bridge and the rather more characterful Memorial Bridge.  The latter was built in 1932 and was designed and built by the same company responsible for the creation of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  The former was interesting only in as much as it had a central span that had been built across the river but not connected to anything on either side.

Wat Pichaya Yatikaram
I was headed for another temple now - it is amazing how many there are in this part of Bangkok.  This one seemed like a slightly less impressive facsimile of Wat Pichaya but with a couple of distinctive differences.  The place was gearing up for a festival, perhaps to do with Chinese New Year?  I couldn't be sure because all the signage was in Thai and clearly only aimed at locals and not tourists.  However my attention turned to to a feature that I had seen on the last outing; an artificial 'mountain' on the edge of the site.  Outside was an army of men and women who were clipping the trees outside.  Inside was a 'moat' around the foot of the 'mountain' that I soon realised was absolutely chockful of turtles.  I wondered whether these creatures had been brought here as offerings and left to fend for themselves.  There certainly seemed more of them than would naturally be found in such a place.  When I got to the far side I could see that they were being fed by tourists - no doubt why so many could survive here.

Wat Pichaya Yatikaram
My next port of call was a different religious centre - the nearby Santa Cruz church.  This is the site of the first Christian church in Thailand and was a reward to the Portuguese for helping King Thaksin with defeating the Burmese at Ayutthaya.  The current church isn't the original but a later incarnation that was restored still further with an Italianate style in 1916.  Seeing traditional Christian decorations such as crucifixes and Virgin Marys seemed a little out of kilter in this most Buddhist of countries.  Nevertheless it is clearly on the tourist trail as my encounter with a large group of Western cyclists from a tour group testified.

The Princess Mother
The next part of the walk was by far my favourite as I used the walkway leading along the riverbank from Santa Cruz church to Wat Kalayanamit Woramahawihan.  On the way I saw the rather dilapidated Windsor House, a fine old teak place once owned by a British businessman and subject to something of a campaign to have it restored and opened as a museum.  The next place on the way was open though and after a large tour group left as I got there I was pleased to have it all to myself as serenity was restored at the Kuan Yin Shrine.  I could easily see how such places inspired meditation as I was mesmerised by the slow burning of the candles lighting up the place.  I stayed for a few minutes until the next people came along and decided to move so they didn't ruin the moment with chatter.  From here it was only a stone's throw to the temple - another on a massive scale.  This wasn't to be the last of the day but it was the last on this kind of scale and was every bit as impressive as the last two.  I wonder whether they had been built to compete with one another for despite how long it seemed to be to walk between them it wasn't actually that far relatively speaking.

Gong Wu Shrine
I lingered here for a short while before moving on and taking a small alleyway between the temple and the next khlong.  I passed by a rather large pumping station and could see the walls of Wichaprasit Fort, a place that I would see more on the next walk in the book.  This was the last I would see of the river today as I headed down the alley away from it.  I got a few funny looks as I wandered down to the main road at the corner of the temple and had to negotiate my way underneath the overbridge where there was another group of youngsters playing.  I have realised that there is a whole subculture of activity under these bridges - rare open space and perhaps most importantly protection from the burning sun.

Memorial Bridge
On the other side I entered a wholly different world as the alley that I had been following continued south alongside the khlong.  Now though it was a Muslim neighbourhood and the character felt very different.  There were different items on sale and the dress code was much more like the Arab world.  What was common to this area though was the possibility of being run down by a moped at almost any moment along the narrow lane!  I walked down as far as the Kudi Khao Mosque, a most unusual building in that it had a similar style to the Buddhist temples but with a different colour scheme!  Once seen I contemplated trying to navigate to the next place by going through the various alleyways that led through the neighbourhood but the possibility of getting lost was far too great and so I retraced my steps back to the main road and walked that way on to the last point of interest instead.
On the way I was rather intrigued by the tree gangs working on the street trees.  They seemed to be working quite quickly and using some methods that would be very frowned on in the UK.  There was even a guy up in the tree sawing off the branch he was sitting on!  Other folks were using clippers mounted on long bamboo poles and the amount of foliage they were taking off was enormous.  Huge bags were loaded onto trucks minded by a lady with the hugest hat on imaginable.  There was no chance of her seeing any sun with that kind of protective clothing on!

Santa Cruz Church
My last port of call was a part of town where bamboo flutes are still made.  It is a celebrated community apparently but unfortunately by the time I got there I saw only closed shops tucked down the lane where all the activity is supposed to happen.  I'm not sure if this is because I was there on a weekday when no business takes place or whether I was too early/ late in the day.  If you decide to do this walk you might therefore call it a day at the earlier mosque or do some more homework on opening times.  This point is a long way from all the others and it was therefore very disappointing not to see any action since the extra distance doesn't really add to the enjoyment of the day.  Fortunately it did enable me to find a way back to Wong Wian Yai station and therefore complete the loop of the walk.  In all it took significantly longer than the suggested 3 hours and even then I skimped on some of the visits.  To do it justice I reckon you should give it at least 5 hours so that you can properly visit all the points of interest along the way.  I found it slightly less satisfying than the previous walk by the author and this was principally because it was quite hard to follow the directions and the walk didn't flow as well with lots of out and back needed from the riverbank.  Nevertheless it was a part of the city I'm not sure I would have thought about coming to and so for that I am grateful to the author for suggesting it.

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