Stories from the people who made the Chao Phraya riverbank their home for over three generations.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) has begun its first phase for the construction of the Chao Phraya River Promenade. Originally proposed in 2015, the promenade will see a 14-kilometer (seven kilometers on each side) stretch of the river turned into a cycle lane, public walkway and riverside landmark.
Exactly what these plans look like has never been made public, a point of huge contention among groups opposed to the project (see below), but still, the government last month began work on the first phase of construction. This resulted in the eviction of five communities living alongside the Chao Phraya’s banks: Pak Klong Bang Khen Mai, Wat Soi Thong, Kiek Kai Pier, Khiew Khai Ka and Wat Chat Kaew Chongkolnee. By the end of the B8.4 billion project, which is earmarked to be complete by 2019, 29 communities will have been evicted.
On the day of their eviction (Jul 21), residents from the Wat Soi Thong, Kiek Kai Pier and Pak Klong Bang Khen Mai communities shared with us their lives on the river, and told us what effect the eviction will have on their families. Here are their stories.
Visutr Nasawang, 66 from the Wat Soi Thong community
“I heard about the development last year, I think sometime after Loy Krathong. At that time, my daughter and I were actually relieved because the BMA didn’t include the land where our house sits in their project. But not so long after that, an officer came to measure the area along the riverbank where my house is. I was shocked to see that. I asked what was happening and the officers just said, ‘It’s nothing, we just want to measure your land, just in case.’ The land belongs to the temple, not the BMA, and I’ve been renting for ages. We pay a few thousand baht annually. Firstly the government officials came and said we could still stay, the second time they came and told us that we couldn’t stay and that the eviction would happen soon. I don’t know exactly what happened but I only have two choices now: see the house demolished without getting anything at all or leave with the compensation. So now I’m about to be homeless. I’m in retirement, which means that my daughter makes most of the income in this household, and what do you expect from the average bachelor’s degree salary? Fighting with the government is impossible because now I can so easily violate the law. They have section 44; what do I have? Also, what is this river walk? Who needs it? The officials came and told me that this is for the sake of Bangkok. The project will enhance the view of Bangkok and be positive for tourism. Seriously? They say I’m now a river intruder but, to be honest, this promenade is going to intrude into the river also, isn’t it?”
Supharat Pothisuwan, 42 from the Kiek Kai Pier community
“At first, the government officials visited around Loy Krathong  to tell us that they were reclaiming our land. My mother and I were very shocked. The officers said that they wanted the eviction done by July. They returned just one week ago and gave us one day to move out before they would tear the house down. We’d been living here for three generations. We felt numb and hopeless, but I also know that I can’t give up. Life goes on even though we are just small people. You know the law says that it’s wrong to stay here anyway. The officials said that our only choice was to leave, and that we would be better off doing it peacefully with the compensation. They even said to me that, if Section 44 has to be implemented on us, there’s a high chance that we will get nothing—no house, no money. On Jul 1, the officers called for all the five communities to gather together, and they got us to sign the eviction papers. We had less than a minute to read through everything. My income used to be around B5,000 a day because I owned a restaurant by the river selling local food, nothing fancy. I converted part of my home into the restaurant and it was going well. The house was almost a century old and has never had any problems. My mother and I understand that living here is against the law so we haven’t protested. We’re thankful that the government has offered all the affected people accommodation in the Kiek Kai Flats. We only wish they could be generous enough to fix the broken doors and windows. My only business has gone forever and we are running out of money.”
Sunisa Khetgulee, 72 from the Kiek Kai Pier community
“I was in the hospital recovering from appendix surgery on the day that the BMA officers came to tell my daughter that my house was to be torn down the following day. I didn’t get to see it happen and I’m glad of that. It’s heartbreaking. My daughter told me about the Kiek Kai Flats arrangement which relieved my sorrow a little. I mean, I’ve lived in that house since I was born. My mom died in that house in her 90s. The government first visited at the end of last year to tell us that the eviction would happen, but they never told us an exact date. They came once and never came back until one day before the eviction. It wasn’t just our family; they did the same thing to every house in this community, telling us to move out immediately. When they started the eviction, they just carried our little children to sit on the road like rubbish bags. This is a true story: they took my fridge. Everybody understands and has agreed to follow the order. We are not trying to romanticize anything or hold on to anything. We get the situation, but wish it had been more organized and clear. No one has ever seen the plan for the promenade. As you can see yourself, the view isn’t that romantic around here anymore.”
Khemmawan Pleumjitr, 27 from the Pak Klong Bang Khen Mai community
“To be honest, I would've had no idea about the promenade if I didn’t hear it on the news. Most of the people from my community found out about the construction from the news or on the street. The government never told us about it, even when they came to tell us to move out from our own houses. I don’t know about other communities. Basically, they just came to tell us that our community is breaking the law by living on the riverbank. It’s good that they at least offered us an amount of compensation and a new place to stay. The room they’ve offered me is not too tiny so I’m ok. But getting a job will be really hard. I’ve lived by the river my whole life and I’m just a street vendor selling things in the community. The economy isn’t that good nowadays. I admit that it’s my family’s fault, from generation to generation, that we have lived beside the river. None of us wants to fight, we are not ignorant. We understand the situation and the law and we have to get what is best for us for now.”
Prakij Thamniam, 56 from the Wat Soi Thong community
“It’s heartbreaking for us to see our house being torn down. We totally understand that it’s illegal to live in this area so we have never planned to protest or anything. Still, my family has lived in this house for four generations now. It’s been there for 100 years. It’s such a huge goodbye for us. After this I decided to take my family back to my hometown in Eastern Thailand. Nothing is left for us in Bangkok anyway. I can’t afford the rent for sure and I’m not comfortable with moving into the flat that the government is providing. The funny thing is that the government came to tear our house down and then left all the dangerous structures for us to try to tear down ourselves. Now I have to ask our neighbors and my siblings to help me tear these pillars down. Life is a bit funny sometimes, you know.”
Yossapon Boonsom, founder of Friends of the River, has led the voice of opposition against the river promenade since it was first proposed in 2015. “We can’t do anything about the eviction now, as you can see. The government has the right to do so according to the law. Those areas belong to them. However, the government cannot start building anything yet as the parliament has not signed any papers to allow the construction to start, and we are still trying as hard as we can to stop the construction from happening. Also, as they have never revealed any official plans for the construction to the public, we are planning to sue the government. That’s our plan for now, along with organizing events to raise people’s awareness about Chao Phraya river conservation. We recently held the Bangkok River Fair. We are not OK with the government keeping its plan confidential. The plan definitely affects the environment of the river and Bangkokians’ lives in general, so it must be made accessible to the public.”
The original idea for the Chao Phraya Promenade stems from the current military government led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha. He is said to have personally initiated the proposal after coming to power in May 2014. In Dec of that year, the cabinet accepted a plan for a 2.5-meter-high, 19.5-meter-wide passageway that included a bike lane. The development would span from Rama VII Bridge to Phra Pinklao Bridge, a total of 14 kilometers. On May 12, 2015, the cabinet voted to build the Chao Phraya river promenade in 18 months, starting Jan 2016. Following strong public outcry, the process was delayed, with no private sector contractors submitting their bid. To ease public concern, the BMA hired King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL) and Khon Kaen University (KKU) in Jan 2016 at a cost of B120 million to study and design the river promenade in seven months under the project name Chao Phraya for All. On the weekend of Mar 18-19, 2017, the Interior Ministry officially announced that the project would go ahead, and include the eviction of 285 households.