The wide alluvial plain has been expanding southward toward the Gulf through steady silting and sedimentation by its rivers, since time immemorial. At the convergence of the Chao Phraya, Lop Buri and Pa Sak rivers, the city of Ayutthaya became the centre of the historical Kingdom of Siam and the seat of supremacy over neighbouring territories. The early history of the city of Ayutthaya encapsulates as well the origins of large-scale hydraulic engineering for communication and transportation, for security and safety, using water as a means of fortification and defense, beyond the vital purposes of supply and drainage.
Anchored through backward linkages reaching deep into the interior, secured mainly in its insular location and by a buffer of vast stretches of malaria infested wetlands toward the coast, and acting as the gateway for the outside world, Ayutthaya was capital city for more than four centuries (1350 -1767)1. As a “hydraulic society” adapted to a riparian way of life, Ayutthaya flourished as an entrepot of foreign trade, in certain aspects as a major link between the West and the East, and internally as Siam’s commercial centre par excellence. By royal assent, trading posts, also known as “factories”, were established by the Chinese, Japanese and Persians, followed by Europeans with the Portuguese, first, in 1551, as well as by the Dutch, English, Spaniards and French.
The marshes of the downstream river plains were the site where the earliest example of public infrastructure was put in place. The Chao Phraya River course was corrected such as by digging the canal to create a short-cut, during the reign of King Chai Racha (1534-1547), between the present day mouths of the canals, khlong in Thai, named Bangkok Noi and Bangkok Yai. That short-cut and another one at Pak Kret, dug in the reign of King Thai Sa in 1721 so as to further shorten travelling distance and time, became stretches of the broad main river, as it appears nowadays. More canals were dug mainly in east-west direction to connect rivers and, thus, create a network of watercourses for improved communication and transportation, typically in parallel to the coastline.
During the four centuries shaped by the monarchs who ruled out of Ayutthaya, the downstream plains were settled by both Thai and members of ethnic groups granted refuge such as the Mon and Makassars. The heritage of these settlements has been preserved. There are virtually intact settlements such as Pak Kret in Nonthaburi Province, where many locals still speak the Mon language, and there are the Muslim communities of descendants maintaining traditional community life around mosques in the provinces of Ayutthaya, Pathum Thani and Nonthaburi. Fostering the establishment of such settlements facilitated the recruitment of the labour force required for the construction of such major infrastructureas Khlong Maha Chai, connecting areas to the west, and Khlong Saen Saep, connecting areas to the east, which in their significance for Siam were comparable to China’s Grand Canal.
In recent history, from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, the huge wetlands to the north of the city of Bangkok were transformed into a productive area through large-scale land consolidation. The grid of ditches and canals draining the erstwhile marsh by natural gravity and feeding into the Rangsit Canal function as irrigation canals, by now, supplying most parts of the provinces of Pathum Thani and Nonthaburi.
The wide alluvial plain was created as the silting of sediments carried by the rivers kept pushing the coastline southward. This natural process is still going on. It necessitates the dredging of the main stream, the Chao Phraya River, and of its estuary. It also explains why large ocean vessels had to anchor off-coast, outside the mudflat called “Bar of Siam”, and why there is need for the newly constructed deep-sea port of Laem Chabang at the Eastern Seaboard. Given the vast inland-area well endowed with resources, the river has been its gateway. The littoral marshes and the swamps of the estuary, sparsely populated and infested with malaria, served as a virtual buffer zone offering protection from seaborne attacks and piracy.
Located upstream at safe distance, the city of Ayutthaya, former capital of Siam and the country’s commercial centre, was both Siam’s gateway to the world and the gateway to Siamplied by foreign interlopers from Asia and Europe, for four centuries.
PREHISTORY AND EARLY HISTORY
In prehistoric time, safe grounds for settlements were at somewhat higher elevation, at the eastern and western rims of the central plain, well above the level of its seasonal inundation. This is evident from the earliest settlements thought to be up to 3,000 years old, owing to archaeological excavations at the site named Dong Lakhon in Nakhon Nayok Province.
About 2,500 years ago, the plateau between the Central Plain and the Mae Klong River Basin was the core area of a realm known as Suwanna Phum. According to chronicles of the reign of the Indian Emperor Ashoka [274-232 B.C.], the capital city of Suwanna Phum, Thom Thong, at the site of present-day Nakhon Pathom Town, was the destination of Buddhist monks sent by the Emperor. They arrived in the year 308 B.C. Within one decade, the first temple was built in the year 297 B.C., named Buddha Baromathat.
Later, a stupa was built to house relics of Lord Buddha. This first stupa was constructed in the shapeof a reversed monk’s bowl similar to the Great Stupa at Sanchi in India. Over the millennia, this stupa was built over, likely many times.
Since 1853, when its reconstruction was nearly completed, it has been named Phra Pathom Chedi. “First Borough”, Nagara Pratom, was how the ancient site was renamed. In all likelihood, it was the first destination of travellers from faraway shores to the west, among them Buddhist monks from the island of Sri Lanka. This explains the high esteem in which the town is held by Buddhists throughout Thailand.
MONUMENTS AND ARTEFACTS TRACED TO THE 6TH UNTIL 13TH CENTURIES EXAMPLES OF THE DVARAVATI CULTURE
The ancient site, successively named Thom Thong, Nakhon Chai Si, and Mueang Nakhon Pathom, was the centre of one of the Mon realms in Mainland Southeast Asia. The centuries when their culture and civilization left a lasting imprint on the region are defined as the Dvaravati Period, approximately from the 6th to the 13th centuries. In Nakhon Pathom Town, the world’s tallest pagoda, chedi, the central edifice of the monastery named Wat Phra Pathom Chedi Ratcha Wora Wihan, is testimony to the Dvaravati culture. Upon remnants of older, successive structures, it was first built in the shape of a Sri Lankan stupa by the Mon, the native population of Lower Burma and Western Thailand, in the 10th century.
Situated nearby is Thailand’s probably oldest, preserved Buddhist monument, known as Chedi Phra Pathon, built in the Dvaravati style. Excavations yielded Buddha images, some sculpted from stone, others made from terracotta. An iron garuda figure, holding fast a snake, found at this site, was adopted as royal emblem beginning in the Sixth Reign (1910-1925). Other ruined structures, thought to have been built in the same period as the Phra Pathom Chedi, at which excavations yielded astounding artefacts in the Dvaravati style, are Noen Wat Phra Ngam with its tall chedi and its singularly superb Buddha head made from terracotta, and Wat Phra Men with Buddha images and artefacts.
All these precious objects can be viewed in Bangkok’s National Museum.
Another ancient Dvaravati site is the outpost of historical Nakhon Chai Si at Kamphaeng Saen. Few remnants such as an earthen dyke and moat attest to its role of securing trade routes and access to the erstwhile nearby coast. There, at a site near present-day Khao Yi San Village in Amphawa District of Samut Songkhram Province, big-bellied jars with narrow inlets were excavated that contained earthenware, ceramics, human skeletons, and assorted utensils from the Dvaravati Period.
At the eastern rim of the Central Plain, in Nakhon Nayok Province, lies the ancient town named Dong Lakhon, locally known as Mueang Laplae. Pre-historic finds attest to the earliest habitat of some 3,000 years ago. Visible are the remnants of the town in an oval enclosure with the greatest expanse of 600 metres that was the centre of a Mon realm in the Dvaravati Period during the 6th to 8th centuries. Artefacts found there include fragments of bronze Buddha images, seals and gold ornaments.
Among the objects are some which render evidence of relations with the Isaranupura Kingdom, also known as Chen La, and with Mueang Si Wat Sata Bura, also known as Dong Si Maha Pho.
MONUMENTS AND ARTEFACTS TRACED TO THE 9TH UNTIL 11TH CENTURIES EXAMPLES OF THE KHOM - KHMER CULTURE
In the course of history, the ancient town of Dong Lakhon became the centre of a realm under Khom rule, from the 9th to the 11th centuries. The remains of the palace of a Khom queen and some artefacts in the Khmer style dating from the 11th century constitute an ensemble which was declared a national historical monument in 1935. Farther to the west, the ancient town of Nakhon Pathom was conquered by the Khmer, given its strategic location as an eastern bridgehead of the link with South Asia in the west. In due course of successive restorations of the pre-eminent Buddhist stupa, the Phra Pathom Chedi, Khmer conquerors had it enlarged in the shape of a tower, prang, one of the characteristic architectural features of the Khmer style.
CONSOLIDATION OF THAI CULTURE AND POLITY FROM THE 13TH CENTURY ONWARD
Virtually wedged between the two former Khmer strongholds at the eastern and western rims of the Central Plain, the centre of power was shifted to the middle of the plain.At the site of present-day Nakhon Pathom Town, the Thai ruler Thao Sampom founded the city and realm of Thep Nakhon, in 1320. Known also as King Sirichai Chiang Saen, he expanded his territory toward theCentral Plain, where his son U Thong founded the Ayutthaya Kingdom. King U Thong transformed the eastern, ancient site of Dong Lakhon into a fortified town and named it Nakhon Nayok.
On barely elevated ground amidst the floodplain, at just 3.5 metres above sea level, the new stronghold of Ayutthaya was established. This was feasible by applying the knowhow that already was characteristic of the hydraulic culture and riparian socio-economic setting of the Thai. They had built the required capabilities by advancing knowledge and expertise over generations and centuries of settling in valleys wedged between mountains of the upper north, thereupon forming realms in the wider river plains of the lower north, and settling in upstream river basins of the Central Plain, albeit it has been prone to flooding. The site chosen by King U Thong for his new residence is the isle of Nong Sano, with three rivers encompassing it : to the west and south the Chao Phraya River; to the east the Pa Sak River, which empties into the Chao Phraya River in the southeast; and the Lop Buri River in the north, which flows toward the west to empty into the Chao Phraya River, and is connected to the Pa Sak River via a canal. This insular, strategic site was the capital city of Siam for 417 years, from its foundation on 3rd April 1350 until its destruction by invaders in 1767.
Not only were the soils in the area around the new capital city fertile and well supplied with water, which made them eminently suitable for paddy cultivation, they also were of the geophysical property that serves as a resource for the production of construction material. That was plentiful at close distances, to meet the extremely high demand, over the centuries. For example, Bang Ban District of Ayutthaya Province, located in an alluvial basin alongside the Chao Phraya River, to the northwest of the capital city, reputedly has very good clay that is excellent raw material for the production of especially strong bricks of beautiful colour.
Such bricks had already been made and used in the construction of buildings before the founding of Ayutthaya as the capital city. One well-preserved example of the approximately 1,000 Buddhist monasteries in Ayutthaya Province, at present half of them in ruins, is the monastery named Wat Phanan Choeng. Its vihara housing the 19 metre-tall Buddha statue in the posture of subduing Mara, known asPhra Chao Phanan Choeng, was built in the year 1325. Another example farther downstream on the bank of the Chao Phraya River is Wat Phai Lom in present-day Pathum Thani Province.
Eminent edifices of the Ayutthaya period in and around Ayutthaya City, some preserved and most restored, are far too numerous to be listed hereunder. In chronological order of successive reigns, examples give a representative overview. The original structure of the monastery known as Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon was built in 1357 by royal command of King U Thong, also known as King Rama Thibodi I [1350-1369].
Situated outside the city isle, King U Thong had it named Wat Pa Kaeo. In the precinct of the monastery known as Wat Phra Si San Phet three outstanding Sri Lankan-style pagodas were built during the 15th century to enshrine the ashes of three kings. On the order of King Ramesuan [1369-1370 and 1388-1395], in the period between the king’s first and second reigns, the tall pagoda in the compound of Wat Phra Mahathat was built in 1384. To the west of the city wall, the Wang Lang or “Rear Palace” was constructed on the order of King Maha Thammaracha [1569-1590], presumably as residence for his second son, eventually King Ekathosarot [1605-1610]. The Chandrakasem Palace, officially the Wang Na or “Front Palace”, was built by royal command of King Maha Thammaracha as well. It originally served as residence of the then Crown Prince, thereafter King Naresuan [1590-1605], and seven successive kings. In the precinct of the, then, old monastery of Wat Pa Kaeo, a huge pagoda or chedi was built in 1592, on the order of King Naresuan to commemorate his victory over Burmese invaders. In this vein, the monastery was renamed Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon. By royal command of King Prasat Thong [1629-1656], the magnificent monastery named Wat Chai Watthanaram was built on the bank of the Chao Phraya River. Its tall, superb main tower, prang, virtually towering above surrounding towers together form a splendid ensemble in a style reflecting ancient Khmer architecture.
Forts and fortresses, most of them situated at waterway intersections, enabled the besieged city of Ayutthaya to hold out even when beleaguered by enemies for long spans of time. Examples are the forts (known as pom in Thai) named Maha Chai, Phet, Ho Ratchakhru,
Chit Khop, Champa Phon, and Yai. It was treason that led to the fall of the city in 1767. The monastery called Wat Na Phra Men, on the bank of the Sa Bua Canal, was the only major one to survive the Burmese onslaught.
ASIAN AND EUROPEAN CONCESSIONS ALONG THE GATEWAY TO SIAM
Outside Ayutthaya City, south of the fort called Pom Phet, which is situated at the confluence of the Pa Sak and Chao Phraya rivers, Ayutthaya kings had granted land togroups of foreigners on both banks of the Chao Phraya River where to settle, establish trading posts and build churches.
Merchants from China, Ryu Kyu, Japan and Persia had obtained permission to set up trading posts as early as in the 14th century. The first Europeans to make contact with the Kingdom of Siam were the Portuguese. As early as 1511 they obtained a concession at the coast of Malacca, then under Siamese suzerainty, granted by King Rama Thibodi II [1491-1529], who also concluded the first treaty with the Portuguese in 1518. Upon the arrival in Ayutthaya of Duarte Fernandes in 1551, during the reign of King Maha Chakraphat [1548-1569], the Portuguese were given land to settle, set up their trading post, build houses, form their community, the so-called Portuguese Quarter, known as Mu Ban Portuket in Thai, and build churches as well as a cemetery. Some Portuguese men and many of their descendants from marriages with local women served in Ayutthaya’s military forces.
Japanese Christians, who had fled persecution in their country, were granted refuge and given land to establish their community, known as Mu Ban Yipun. They were instrumental in trading with Japan and the Ryu Kyu Kingdom.
In the reign of King Naresuan [1590-1605], Siam concluded a treaty with the Dutch, based at Batavia on the island of Java, in 1604. The Dutch had, then, been granted land by King Prasat Thong [1629-1656] at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. Thereupon, they were given permission to establish their “factory” in the south of Ayutthaya City, of which a building remains called Tuek Daeng. An English settlement was located across from the Portuguese Quarter, on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. The French Mission to Siam, though mainly accommodated in Lop Buri, the second capital of King Narai [1656-1688], was also granted land outside the city of Ayutthaya.
At the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, on its west bank, the Dutch were granted land by King Ekathosarot [1605-1610] to establish their trading post, which they named New Amsterdam. Tidal erosion and neglect led to its dilapidation. Remnants are still visible, situated in present-day Phra Samut Chedi District of Samut Prakan Province.
SPRAWL OF HUBS AND NODES IN THE DOWNSTREAM RIVER BASINS AND ESTUARIES
To the south of the capital city of Ayutthaya, King Prasat Thong [1629-1656] had a palace built on a riverine isle at Bang Pa-in, along with the monastery named Wat Chumphon Nikayaram. At the mouth of the river named after the port of Tha Chin, known as Suphan Buri River in its upstream and mid-stream sections and as Nakhon Chai Si River in its downstream section above its estuary, Chinese junks called since early in the history of Siam. In 1548, the port was renamed Sakhon Buri. After the Maha Chai Canal linking Bangkok with the Tha Chin River had been dug, in 1704, by royal command of King Suea [1703- 1709], the name of the town was changed to Maha Chai. This harbor town was renamed Samut Sakhon in the Fourth Reign.
Farther to the west, in the estuary of the Mae Klong River, a navy camp was established on the order of King Ekathosarot [1605-1610], known as Khai Bang Kung. It is located in present-day Samut Songkhram Province. In its compound is a chapel with a large stucco Buddha image and mural paintings.
Continuity appears to have been ensured soon upon the fall of Ayutthaya, the former capital city of Siam. Although the oldest settlements that were spared destruction date from the Sukhothai Period, and others trace their origin from the Ayutthaya Period, many were founded early in the Rattanakosin era, while by far most are relatively young.
Historical settlements are clustered along the Chao Phraya River and in its immediate, undulating hinterland. Toward the east, an area four times as large had been a vast marshy land, throughout history. This was the erstwhile situation in present-day Pathum Thani Province. The area at large underwent a metamorphosis that is characteristic for change and development in Thailand. This is best related by referring to the successive reigns, owing to the fact that Thai monarchs had directly intervened and kept the process intensifying. Examples from throughout the central plain with its downstream river basins are called up hereunder.
Monasteries built or restored in the coastal area include Wat Bang Khai Yai with beautiful mural paintings depicting Thai - Burmese wars, and Wat Chulamani, with adjacentresidences of the queens of King Rama I and King Rama II. Both monasteries are located in presentday Samut Songkhram Province. On the banks of a canal dug to link the ends of a bend in the course of the Chao Phraya River shaped like an ox-bow, near present-day Phra Pradaeng in Samut Prakan Province, two monasteries were built facing each other, in 1822. They are Wat Phaichayon Phonasaep, to whose ubosot the image of the “Emerald Buddha” had been transferred from Wat Arun before its onward transfer to Wat Phra Kaeo, and Wat Protket Chettharam, with a picturesque temple set in a Chinese-style garden.
While visiting Mueang Sam Khok on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, already a very old Mon settlement, by then, surrounded by ponds abundant with lotus plants in full bloom, King Rama II bestowed upon that town the new name of Pathum Thani, ‘lotus town’.
NEW HOMELAND FOR ASYLUM SEEKERS, REFUGEES, AND WAR CAPTIVES
The map of the Lower Central Plain is dotted with settlements whose communities are of Mon origin. It has been observed that Mon people prefer to live in groups defined by their ancestry. The oldest settlements date from the Sukhothai Period.
Others trace their origin from the Ayutthaya Period, many were founded early in the Rattanakosin Period, while by far most are relatively young. Throughout history, monarchs of Siam granted refuge to groups of Mon people who had fled from their homeland around their historic capital city of Hongsawadi, or Pegu in present-day Myanmar. This is evident from existing communities and especially their Buddhist monasteries. These are typically located along the major rivers, mainly in the provinces of Pathum Thani, Nonthaburi, Samut Sakhon, Samut Songkhram and Samut Prakan.
The monastery of Wat Bot, located in Mueang District of Pathum Thani Province, was built by Mon refugees from Hongsawadi, capital city of the historical kingdom of Pegu, in 1621. Among the impressive Mon style artefacts of Wat Bot are swan poles and a metal-cast, four-headed elephant. The nearby monastery of Wat Chedi Thong was reconstructed by Mon immigrants at the ancient site, upon the battlement of red sandstone, dating from the Ayutthaya Period. It is well known for its bellshaped, golden stupa with a ninetiered umbrella and its Mon-style Buddha images. Another example is Wat Hong Pathumawat, built in 1764 and situated in Pathum Thani Town, with a chedi and a vihara that are replicas of those in Hongsawadi, the capital city of the Mon homeland.
Further south, on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, in the area of Nonthaburi, Mon refugees as well settled. The monastery named Wat Chomphuwek is famous for Lord Buddha’s Footprint, believed to have either been created by Mon artisans, or to have been taken from their native place in the ancient kingdom of Hongsawad, in the region of Pegu in present-day Myanmar. This Footprint of the Buddha is deemed the oldest known in Thailand. Other treasures include mural paintings dating from the middle of the Ayutthaya Period and especially a painting of Mother Earth that is praised as the most beautiful of its kind in Thailand.
In the reign of King Tak Sin [1768-1782], Mon immigrants led by such notables of their own aristocracy as Phraya Cheng were welcome to settle and build productive communities such as Mueang Sam Khok in 1774, later renamed Pathum Thani. Typically, they were clustered around monasteries such as Wat Ku and Wat Poramai Yikawat, both in Nonthaburi Province. Wat Poramai Yikawat, well-known for its Monstyle, reclining Buddha image sculpted from marble and its mural paintings, is situated on Kret Island, created by digging a canal to connect two bends of an ox-bow of the Chao Phraya River in 1721, on the order of King Thai Sa [1709-1733]. Mon refugees were allowed to settle there. They earned themselves a fine reputation for their distinctive style of pottery.
Another example is the perhaps most prominent Mon community, that of Phra Pradaeng in Samut Prakan Province. It is known as Mon Pak Lat, the group of people who had found refuge, first, in the upstream area of Sam Khok in present-day Pathum Thani Province and were relocated in 1814, on the order of King Rama II, to the fortified town of Nakhon Khuean Khan, renamed Phra Pradaeng in 1915. A canal dug to connect both ends of an oxbow in the course of the Chao Phraya River so as to serve as short-cut for waterborne transportation, called Pak Lat in Thai, explains the designation of this particular group, the Mon Pak Lat people.
Descendants of Makassars, who had been granted land to settle near the capital city of Ayutthaya in the 16th century, form closely-knit Muslim communities in Ayutthaya Province. During the First Reign, that of King Buddha Yod Fah Chulalok (Rama I) [1782-1809], upon the suppression of a rebellion by Muslims in Pattani in the south, Malay captives were resettled in locations of present-day Ayutthaya Province. Following another rebellion in Pattani, more Malays were settled in in the provinces of Ayutthaya and Pathum Thani, during the Third Reign. Dating from that time are their communities such as Ban Din in Ayutthaya Province, where the Muslims strictly follow their religious rules and speak their own patois, a mixture of Malay and Thai vocabularies.
Captives of wars fought with Cambodia and taken from there, who were natives of Annam in present-day central Vietnam, were also settled in the plain that forms part of contemporary Pathum Thani Province. Another ethnic group is that of the Lao Song, also known as Thai Song, in Nakhon Pathom Province. They are descendants of natives of areas east of the Mekong River, in present-day Laos. Some of them were resettled during the First Reign (1782-1809) and others during the Third Reign (1824-1851). Their ethnic identity is preserved through their weaving of cotton fabric featuring customary striped blackand-white patterns.
Descendants of Chinese immigrants cluster in towns and market centres. Their assimilation and acculturation to the host country has resulted in their integration into the mainstream population. Their adhering to and upholding of certain traditions characteristically becomes evident through the celebration of festivities according to the Chinese lunar calendar. The foremost such event is Chinese New Year, when entire communities stage elaborate festivities.
To some extent, the delightful variety of things that are part and parcel of everyday-life reflects the ethnic diversity in the population of the Lower Central Plain. Examples of local communities that have preserved their ethnic identity, to a larger or lesser extent, are many.
Fortunately, the preservation of ethnic diversity is widely appreciated. As stated in a document published by the Office of the National Culture Commission, “all these ethnic groups are fully assimilated and consider themselves Thais.”
EARLY EXAMPLES OF THE RESTORATION OF THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
In the first half of the 18th century, Prince Sena Phithak, also known as Prince Thamma Dhibet, author of literary works and of one of the greatest Thai poems entitled “Boat Saga”, had taken it upon himself to restore buildings in ancient monasteries. Late in the 18th century, the navy camp called Bang Kung, in Samut Songkhram Province, by then almost two hundred years old, was restored.
By royal command of King Tak Sin, Chinese subjects from Rayong, Chon Buri, Ratchaburi and Kanchanaburi had to maintain the camp. Hence, the camp became known asBang Kung Chin. Wat Khema Phirataram in Nonthaburi is an early example of royal concern and initiative to preserve historic monuments. Work to preserve that Ayutthaya-period monastery was started on the order of King Rama II. During the Fourth Reign, that of King Mongkut (Rama IV) [1851-1868], more restoration was done, some in continuation of work commenced earlier, yet most newly launched. The monarch’s great concern was the preservation of the cultural heritage. Like in Sukhothai and in Lop Buri, King Mongkut focused attention on monuments in the fomer capital city of Ayutthaya and on the oldest Buddhist site in his kingdom, in present-day Nakhon Pathom Town.
By royal command, Chandra Kasem Palace in Ayutthaya Town, originally built for King Naresuan when still Crown Prince, was restored. Among the reconstructed buildings are the integrated section of the old city wall and a pavilion with a four-gabled roof, once used to view royal barge processions. All these and a four-storey observatory, added on the king’s order, were completed in 1863. At the same time, the restoration was started of the palace built by King Prasart Thong, in 1629, on an isle at Bang Pa-in.
At the ancient site of a centre of Dvaravati civilization, abandoned after the defeat of Khmer occupants in the 12th century, the oldest Buddhist site in Siam, now Thailand, was restored by royal command. In due course of the reconstruction of the pagoda, hence named Phra Pathom Chedi, a new settlement emerged, the present-day town of Nakhon Pathom. King Mongkut had this new pagoda built, superimposing the original stupa, beginning in 1853, and named it Phra Pathom Chedi. It is the highest stupa in the world, with a height measuring 120.45 metres and a circumference at the base of 234.75 metres.
Renovation of Wat Khema Phirataram, in present-day Nonthaburi Province, was carried on, by royal command, and completed. The fort named Phra Chedi Klang Nam, situated on an island in the Chao Phraya River, by then, and nowadays in Samut Prakan Province, was repaired and enlarged, in 1860. During the Fifth Reign, that of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) [1868-1910], restoration and conservation of the cultural heritage were continued. Among the many such ventures are the completion of the restoration of the Bang Pa-in Palace and of the monastery named Wat Chumphon Nikayaram, to which edifices in the European style were added, on the king’s order and advice. This resulted in creating a much-admired landmark in Ayutthaya Province, to this day. The only fort (called pom in Thai) left of originally five, built early in the 19th century at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, named Phlaeng Fai Fa, was restored, on the King’s order of King Rama V.
In Nonthaburi Province, Wat Khema Phirataram, built in the Ayutthaya period and renovated during the Second through the Fourth Reigns was listed as a historical monument in the year 1895. This is, hence, one of the earliest, if not the very earliest example of registering a historical monument as a national heritage site.
During the Sixth Reign, that of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) [1910-1925], the successive reconstruction and simultaneous restoration resulted in the creation of today’s magnificent edifice named Phra Pathom Chedi in the centre of the monastery known as Wat Phra Pathom Chedi Racha Wora Vihan, in Nakhon Pathom Town. Its spacious site houses precious Buddha statues, including the venerated Phra Ruang Rochanarit statue and an ancient, solemn Buddha image in the Dvaravati style sculpted from a single block of white quartzite. The premises have four vihara, a convocation hall, monk quarters, sacrosanct trees, stupa replicas, two museums and a ceremonial image hall. The ashes of the remains of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), who had ordered the renovation to be completed, are enshrined there.
The conservation of ancient buildings, initiated in the early 18th century, was stepped up to cover entire ensembles of monuments, structures, buildings, and quarters of towns. Examples from the first half of the 20th century are the ancient site of Dong Lakhon, in Nakhon Nayok Province, and the monastery of Wat Yai Chom Prasat, in Samut Sakhon Province, both registered as national historical monuments in 1935 and 1936, respectively.
During the present reign, in the year 1956, excavations at themonastery of Wat Phra Mahathat in Ayutthaya Province led to the discovery of most precious items including a relic of Lord Buddha, several golden Buddha images, and objects made from gold and studded with rubies, concealed in a tall pagoda built in 1384, by command of King Ramesuan [1369-70 and 1388-95]. In 1980, the Phlaeng Fai Fa Fort in Samut Prakan Province was registered as a historical monument. The historical capital city isle of Ayutthaya, where 33 kings of successive dynasties had resided and ruled for 417 years, was registered by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, on 13 December 1991. Somewhat earlier, the Portuguese Village, known in Thai as Mu Ban Portuket, established to the south of the capital city, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River in 1551, was preserved as a historical site complete with a museum, in 1984.
One of the finest examples, world-wide, of an open-air museum is the Ancient City, known in Thai as Mueang Boran, situated on Sukhumwit Road in Samut Prakan Province. Laid out in an area of 128 hectares, construction of this historical park was started in 1963. Upon Their Majesties’ gracious invitation, the park was inaugurated by H. M. Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, while on a state visit to Thailand, in 1972. Its superb landscaping envelops replicas of existing monuments throughout Thailand, built at reduced scale. It has notably wooden structures moved into the park for restoration and preservation, including buildings of dilapidated monasteries, a palatial residence, market buildings, and farmsteads.
Moreover, long-lost buildings were recreated, based on historical accounts and drawings or paintings. Perhaps the most splendid example is the replica of the San Phet Prasat Throne Hall, whose original was destroyed upon the fall of Ayutthaya, in 1767. The marvellous ensemble of structures representing all regions of the Kingdom and comprising examples representing its social classes, faiths, major ethnic groups, and occupations has served to uphold traditional crafts and know-how, owing to the continual demand for skilled artisans. The foundation-incharge sponsors research and publishes a learned journal as well as scholarly books.
Throughout the Lower Central Plain, tradition is kept alive, indeed, at such locations as the Don Wai Market, a fascinating, old riverside community in Nakhon Pathom Province. Its residents maintain many facets of the old ways of Thailand’s countryside. Equally impressive are the floating markets. Examples are the one in the vicinity of the monastery named Wat Lamphaya, Nakhon Pathom Province; the one known as Tha Kha in Samut Songkhram Province, which is beyond the beaten track and, hence, reflects the traditional way of life, in beautiful natural surroundings, unobtrused by tourism, with its market schedule governed by the lunar calendar, to this day; and, best known of all, the officially promoted tourism attraction, since 1967, of nearby Damnoen Saduak in Ratchaburi Province.
BULWARKS AGAINST SEABORNE ATTACKS AND COLONIAL INTERVENTION
Initiatives by the monarchs of the Royal House of Chakri have had strong impacts on the course of development. Securing the mouth of the Chao Phraya River was recognized as a necessity, with the new capital city of Bangkok so much closer to the sea than Ayutthaya, the former capital city. Construction of a fortified town was started at the site of the present-day town of Phra Pradaeng in Samut Prakan Province.
During the Second Reign, King Buddha Loet La Nabhalai (Rama II) [1809-1824] gave high priority to securing the coast against any invasion from the sea. By 1814, construction of the first fortress was underway, after work on establishing a fortified town had been resumed. Called Pu Chao Saming Phrai, it was located in the perimeter of the town named Nakhon Khuean Khan, the present-day Phra Pradaeng Town. By royal command, 300 Mon men were moved from upstream settlements in present-day Pathum Thani Province to settle down with their families. Soon after, the fortress named Phlaeng Fai Fa was built. Order for the construction of yet another fort on a river island was given in 1824. Between fortresses on the east and west banks of the Chao Phraya River, a chain was running, put up to prevent ships from proceeding upstream.
During the Third Reign, that of King Nang Klao Chao Yuhua (Rama III) [1824-1851], fortification works at two river mouths were carried on. By the year 1828, construction of an island fort as part of the Phi Suea Samut Fortress was completed. That island fort became known as Phra Chedi Klang Nam, nowadays situated on the western river bank, in Samut Prakan Province. Another fort was built at the mouth of the Tha Chin River, known variably as Suphan Buri River or Nakhon Chai Si River as well, at a location in present-day Samut Sakon Province. Named Vichian Chodok, it lies in ruins, as of now.
In the process of reconstruction, historic sites laid to ruin by enemies were used as sources of building material. An early and eminent example is the construction, by royal command, of the monastery named Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat. It was built using bricks from a demolished fortress at the mouth of Khlong Om, a branch of the Chao Phraya River, on the latter’s west bank in presentday Nonthaburi Province, in 1847. Its exceptionally beautiful chapel has mural paintings, and splendid sculptures on pediments as well as door and window frames. Attractive are the decorations made from colourful Chinese ceramics.
At close distance, nowadays in neighbouring Nakhon Pathom Province, on the bank of the downstream section of the Nakhon Chai Si River, the monastery named Wat Rai Khing was built by royalcommand, in 1851. It is famous for its Buddha statue known as Luang Pho Wat Rai Khing, whose torso inthe Chiang Saen style was fitted with a head in the Rattanakosin style. The torso had been salvaged from the ruin of its former abode in Ayutthaya.
By royal command, the precinct of the monastery named Wat Ku in Nonthaburi Province was chosen as the site for the construction of a building to commemorate the tragic drowning of Queen Sunantha Kumariraj, royal consort of King Rama V.
The only fort, called pom in Thai, left of originally five built early in the 19th century at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, named Phlaeng Fai Fa, was matched through the construction of the fort named Phra Chula Chomklao, during 1884 through 1893. It is located south of Phra Samut Chedi in the district of the same name in Samut Prakan Province.
As work progressed on the reconstruction of the world’s tallest pagoda known as Phra Pathom Chedi, its surroundings were settled and grew to the size of a town. Nearing the completion of buildings attached to the pagoda, Nakhon Pathom Town had come into existence.
RIPARIAN WAY OF LIFE AND DOMESTIC MARKET ECONOMY
Throughout history, until the end of the 19th century, both rivers and canals served several purposes simultaneously, including water supply for domestic consumption, watering livestock, rearing aquatic animals, crop irrigation, drainage of floodwater, waste disposal, and defence. Equally essential were transport and communication across the alluvial, marshy lands of the Lower Central Plain which had almost exclusively been waterborne. Ayutthaya as the capital city of Siam had been paraphrased as the “Venice of the East”, an eponym inherited by Bangkok.
Floating markets owe their existence to the foresight of KingChulalongkorn, Rama V (1868-1910), who had ordered the expansion of the canal network complete with water gates and sluices, thus connecting the Chao Phraya, Tha Chin or Nakhon Chai Si, and Mae Klong rivers, which has fostered trade across the provinces.
Regular boat services connect, to this day, locations throughout the Central Plain and beyond, as far west as Ratchaburi Town and as far east as Chachoengsao Town. Several such routes lead through the maze of narrow canals in what has been nicknamed the “Garden of Thailand”.
ROYALLY INITIATED INFRASTRUCTURE DEVELOPMENT
The plain formed by downstream river basins and their estuaries had been going through a metamorphosis that is characteristic of the start-up of modernization and development in Thailand. Historical settlements clustered along the Chao Phraya River, mostly on its west bank and in its immediate, undulating hinterland had been brought back to life. New settlements were established, often at abandoned historical sites. Toward the east of the Chao Phraya River, vast marshy lands had covered the plain up to the foothills of the mountain massif called Khao Yai, throughout earlier history. By royal command, around the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, the biggest land consolidation project ever was implemented by draining the marsh through a system of 14 parallel canals, called khlong in Thai, that run in north-south direction and, by natural gravity, feed the water into the main canal, Khlong Rangsit, which runs from east to west, in an almost straight line, and empties into the Chao Phraya River.
To improve communication and transportation required for major projects, more canals were constructed such as Khlong Maha Sawasdi and Khlong Chedi. Availing of thisinfrastructure, King Rama VI had the summer palace of Sanam Chand constructed, beginning in 1907, when still Crown Prince. Nowadays, the ensemble of elegant buildings houses municipal offices and a museum.
By royal command, the town of Nakhon Khuean Khan, established as a fortification at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, located in present-day Samut Prakan Province, during the First and Second Reigns, was renamed Phra Pradaeng, in the year 1915.
The transition durig the recent six decades, coinciding with the Ninth Reign, the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej [Rama IX, since 1946], has taken Thailand from the status of an agrarian country to that of a newly industrializing state. Major challenges are the conservation of the natural environment, harnessing of natural resources, conservation of the built environment, preservation of ethnic diversity, and urbanization.
ROYALLY INITIATED ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
The significance of the conservation of the natural environment is evident from the numerous assessments, activities, and installations throughout the Lower Central Plain. Examples chosen illustrate two facets.
One example highlights a problem situation that is characteristic of wetlands under the impact of modernization. At Wat Phai Lom on the Chao Phraya River, in Pathum Thani Province, one of the very oldest monasteries dating from the Sukhothai Period, the well-known sanctuary for Indian open-billed storks seems doomed. Upstream dams have reduced water supply needed by the dipterocarpus trees in which the birds nest, and chemical fertilizers keep poisoning the apple snail, the storks’ primary source of feed. Like in other such instances, conservation action is expected to protect that bird sancturary.
Another case has set an example of how a monastery takes a lead in recognizing current needs in a changing environment. Wat Sala Daeng Nuea, situated on the Chao Phraya River in Pathum Thani Province as well, is not solely known for its ancient edifices, including some Mon-style chedi, an ordination hall with a wooden pulpit, a neat ensemble of monk quarters, kudi, a library, and a water filtering installation of yore such as is hardly found anywhere else. Another unique feature is the daily chanting in the Mon language. For the exemplary cleanliness in its compound as well as in the surroundings of the local community, for protecting the environment and safeguarding against polluting the Chao Phraya River, in 1998 the monastery was presented with an award by the Ministry of Public Health. Noteworthy as well is the upholding of tradition by the community through the ongoing construction of houses using a design that blends traditional Thai and Mon styles.
Among the natural resources, water has been of vital significance for the Lower Central Plain, both as the proverbial source of life and as a threat to life. Its harnessing, hence, has distinctive components, two of which are chosen as examples. In recent history, during the Fifth Reign, the harnessing of waters abundant in the vast marsh to the north of the capital city of Bangkok was accomplished through the huge drainage project that largely covers the present-day province of Pathum Thani. Its salutary effects include land consolidation, transportation, irrigation, aquaculture and, though to a limited extent, flood protection. In the present Ninth Reign, H. M. the King deviced the “Monkey Cheek Project” (known in Thai as the kaem ling project), in 1995, to regulate excess water. Flood control is effected in such a way that loodwaters are channelled to bypass the capital city of Bangkok in the east and west. In the west, floodwaters are directed towards flood retention basins, the said “monkey cheeks or kaem ling” in the marshy, largely uninhabitable coastal areas of Samut Sakhon Province and the southwestern part of the Bangkok Metropolitan Area. Whenever the sea water surges and floodwaters cannot be eliminated, they are retained in those “cheeks”. In the east, canals from Pathum Thani Province to the coast of Samut Prakan Province were deepened. Since the completion of the Pa Sak Jolasid Dam and the Upper Nakhon Nayok Watershed Development Project, both of which store water in reservoirs, the eastern flood protection scheme is effective.
These retention basins and the drainage canals also have the salutary impact of supporting mangrove restoration and conservation along the adjacent coast. Naturally and historically, with the flooding and ebbing tides there were mangrove forests in abundance throughout the brackish river estuaries. By nature, these forests are the habitat of many kinds of trees, in addition to the great variety of mangroves, of aquatic and invertebrate animals, and of birds. For much of this widlife, mangrove forests are the sole habitat where to nest, breed and hatch. Hence, the conservation of mangrove forests through royal initiative preserves the source of marine life as well, on which fisheries, livelihood, and food security depend.
INTERFACING OF MODERNIZATION WITH PRESERVATION
The vicinity of the central downstream river basins and estuaries to Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city since 1782, has triggered a sprawling urbanization into the surrounding area. As of the year 2005, the provinces of Samut Sakhon, Nakhon Pathom, Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani and Samut Prakan have become part of the Greater Bangkok Region. The provinces of Nonthaburi and Samut Prakan have been brought one step forward and are part of the Bangkok Metropolitan Area. This has particular relevance in terms of urban planning along the three national highways named Sukhumwit Road toward the east, Phahonyothin Road toward the north, and Phetkasem Road toward the west. Three urbanized and highlyindustrialized corridors have evolved.
Change and development are exemplified by the northern corridor, in the direction of and encompassing Ayutthaya Town, where an industrial zone along with a virtual academic hub have emerged. Following is an exemplary overview of the trend as evident in Pathum Thani Province. The Royal Jubilee Agricultural Museum [Phiphithaphan Kan Kaset Chaloem Phra Kiat] is housed in altogether nine buildings. Thematic displays feature food production, farming activities, forestry, agricultural communities, and decorative flower cultivation. There also is an aquarium. Specialized facilities offer information about agriculture as well as natural resources, linked to training and seminar facilities. The royally initiated research centre covers agriculture, fisheries, forestry, mangrove conservation,and land development.
Built in celebration of H. M. the King’s 60th Birthday Anniversary, in the shape of dice, the National Science Museum [Ongkan Phiphithaphan Withayasat Haeng Chat] displays exhibits in sections dedicated to documents, models and specimens of scientists’ work; fossil relics and evidence of early history of humankind within the borders of Thailand; cave shelters and wooden houses; indigenous ergology and technologies in the fields of geology, hydrology, housing, agricultural production, and construction; special displays of human ingenuity as well as everyday appliances; and examples of Thai indigenous knowledge.
Beginning in 1972, the province has become an academic hub, with an unparalleled concentration of institutions and organizations. They include the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), an international, autonomous postgraduate-level university, relocated there in 1972.
As of the year 2005, others are, in alphabetical order, Bangkok University, East Asia University, Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi, Rangsit University, Shinawatra University, Sirindhorn International Institute of Technology, and Thammasat University. Organizations engaged in research, notably research and development, demonstration and dissemination, human resource development, and policy research as well as strategic planning include the Asian DisasterPreparedness Center, the Technopolis with the Thailand Environment Research Center and the Asia – Europe Environmental Research and Training Center, the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) Research & Development Institute and, a recent addition, Thailand’s Science Park.
Thailand’s first, privately developed industrial estate, Nava Nakhon, was established in the early 1970s. A sports complex meeting the requirements as venue of an international event was built for the 13th Asian Games. In the recent past, the Royal Thai Mint was relocated. It is housed in a building whose postmodern design blends Thai elements with functional requirements of an industrial complex, situated on a spacious ground.
Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.
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