The wat is to Thailand what the castle is to the United Kingdom – a staple architecture for tourists to go visit. So it was with some interest I realised there were two forts in Bangkok – only two remain of fourteen – built to protect the Thai capital from invasion by the Burmese. One of them was pretty local – Fort Phra Sumen and its associated Santi Chai Prakan park – just at the end of the road by the Chao Phraya, a little up from the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.
After donning my cycling gear I zipped across Bangkok and chained up outside the toilets at the fort. Just across the road was Ban Phra Athit – the house of Chao Phraya Woraphong Phipat, the secretary of the Ministry of Palaces during the reign of King Rama VII. He built his home on land that his family had owned since the early Rattanakosin period, upgrading it in 1926, residing until 1941. I was unable to go in as it is still a working building, but I could see a square structure with three floors and a pyramid-shaped roof. There were also verandahs, arches, carved wood door frames and ceramic tiles.
Anyway I digress. Having parked up I did a slow circumnavigation of the fort (which you cannot enter). The fort itself was built during the reign of Rama I; constructed from brick, cement coated, it is an octagon facing the Bang Lamphu canal. It has deep foundations (2m), is 45m wide and 10.5m high. The ground floor is divided into two by a wall containing bai sema (battlements/crenellations).
These walls also are sprinkled with cross-shaped portals (perhaps from which to issue small arms fire?) and the larger crenellations hold cannon. I read a notice telling me there were some 38 rooms inside the fort – mainly for ammunition and weapon storage. The roof itself is a lot newer having collapsed during the reign of Rama V (1853-1910), renovated in 1981.
Santi Chai Prakan park (where the fort sits) used to be the site of a sugar factory (in fact, it is just up the road from the docks where fresh fish is sold in a small ta lat (market)) and a godown (a dockside warehouse). The 3.2acre site was renovated as park in 1999. A mansion overlooks the waters: an all wood Thai pavilion with four porches. Interestingly for arborologists, there was a proudly standing 100+yr old Lam Phu tree (oddly, I cannot locate any botanical detail on it via Google – plenty of hotels named after it though!).
I finished my lazy circle and walked the fifteen or so metres to the water front, snapping some photos which are in the slideshow below. Paid 15Baht for a Coke Zero and then meandered along the small khlong with its large lock-style gates. Houses clung to it like limpets and there were two guest houses. I realised I was in a region of Bangkok that caters for the inexpensive back packer. This luminary experience given life by the amount of fresh-faced 20-somethings I saw ambling in the region with rucksacks and maps, coupled with the reminder at every soi you passed the exact direction of Khao San Road. I will pause here and say the the legend of Khao San is far greater than the tawdry reality. It’s just a road with a lot of market vendors, “worldly” bars (i.e. faux Irish), and neon lights at night. The fact a police station is at one end should tell you much. I was privileged to go down it once running ahead of a Canadian Minister. The place was spotless for that episode. But that’s all it is. It’s like being told to go to “Leicester Square” in London. The immediate answer should be “Really? Really? Isn’t there some place more culturally authentic to go see?” Of course, if all you want to do is drink, fall over, drink a bit more and sleep somewhere that seems like a good idea whilst inebriated but not when sober…..then crack on. It’s a place trading on its reputation – one that peaked 15 years ago. Bangkok has moved on massively since then and there is so much more to see and do.
A little further on from him water poured through the lock gates – a small bridge before and after them – and then arrowed away unerringly towards the centre of Bangkok. It was there I spotted two guest houses, the Flapping Duck being the best one. It was a place you wanted to go check out as the proprietor sat outside sunning himself, the artwork splashed on the front of the building curiously enticing.
But….I didn’t. I had some more places to go…Wat Pho being one. A place I had put off going to as it’s probably in the top 3 tourist sites in Bangkok. I won’t be blogging about Wat Pho as there are a hundred thousand pictures and words about it out there. But this was a small side trip before seeing the reclining Buddha and one that piqued my interest enough to mean I will return. Just a bit down from here is the pier opposite Wat Arun – another tourist “must-see”. I took a timeout, sitting drinking my coke, watching the fisherman, wondering why the “Flapping Duck” got its name, comparing it to Heston’s “Fat Duck” and finding the latter sadly lacking. Strange…a park, a fort, a river, a lock, an ancient tree, a man fishing for his lunch, some guest houses….only in Bangkok can you find all that within a 1minute walk….
Is this what diplomacy is all about?