Is the BMA’s plan for Rattanakosin going to create a hub of heritage and culture? Or does the Old Town need rescuing from its supposed-saviors? 

On Aug 27 this year, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) announced plans to revive its Rattanakosin conservation and development strategy, written back in 1997. The plan would see full-force preservation efforts take effect in Bangkok’s “Old Town.” The BMA’s regular Old Town commentator, Sakchai Boonma, director of the Land Acquisition Division, Public Works Department, came out to make comparisons between Rattanakosin—the area of Bangkok home to the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Mahathat and other monuments—and the Champs-Elysees, the historic axis of Paris. 

But early warning signs show that the BMA’s idea of conservation may be at odds with existing communities in the area. Already, the controversial clearance of the Mahakan Fort community has seen old homes and trees bulldozed to make way for a sterile new public lawn unveiled to a chorus of social media groans in July—and Mahakan may just be the start. 

As state agencies, including the BMA, the Interior Ministry and Tourism and Sports Ministry, are relocated in order to preserve Rattanakosin’s “historic” status, is the area in danger of losing all sense of community in pursuit of a sanitized version of history?

In charge of alleviating these fears are the academics of Chulalongkorn University’s Town Planning Department, who have been chosen to carry out the restructuring plan. Six years ago, they drew up the Bangkok Vision 2032 plan, an ambitious, 20-year running project to turn Bangkok into an even greater regional powerhouse with Rattanakosin’s historic status at its core.

Here, we look at those plans and ask those involved: are we doing what’s right for Bangkok

 


What will happen to the area under the BMA’s plan? 


The Rattanakosin plan is not all about conservation of existing Bangkok monuments. Central to the current plans is also a raft of new constructions aimed at making the area more approachable and modern, as well as updates to existing structures. Here’s what: 
 
MRT Wat Mangkon Credit: www.facebook.com/bkktrains 

The railway stations


To support better transportation to and from the Old Town, a total of three MRT lines will cut through Rattanakosin Island: the existing Blue Line (Hua Lamphong-Bang Khae, Tao Poon-Tha Phra), the Purple Line (Tao Pun-Rat Burana) and the under-construction Orange Line that will travel under the Chao Phraya River and link Siriraj Hospital, Sanam Luang and Democracy Monument in one route extending from the Thailand Cultural Centre to Min Buri. An expected three Orange Line stations will be located on Rattanakosin Island, in addition to four Blue Line stations.  


Building structures and architecture


According to the Town Planning Department, strict building control for high-rise construction will remain in the area, which stipulates stringent height restrictions. In addition, new structural regulations will govern Ratchadamnoen Avenue, enforcing buildings to conform to an “old European” style of architecture in either light gray or yellow with roofs in a single shade of red-brown.
 
Credit: www.facebook.com/Chao-Phraya-for-All

The Chao Phraya Riverside Promenade


Originally announced back in 2015, the controversial river promenade will run along both sides of the Chao Phraya River from Rama 7 Bridge (in the north of Bangkok above Chatuchack Market) to Phra Pinklao Bridge (located between Phra Sumen Fort and Sanam Luang parade ground in the Old Town). In July 2017, the government demolished 14 communities that stood in the path of the promenade, with residents relocated to new accommodation. According to The Nation, the Rattanakosin and Old Cities Conservation and Development Committee has proposed that the promenade be shortened from its total 14-kilometer length (seven kilometers on each side of the river) to stop far outside the Old Town at Bang Sue canal. The BMA has yet to announce its conclusion.

 


Is anything being moved out of the area?

Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives
 

Government agencies


To comply with the BMA’s historic vision, several of its own agencies are being relocated from Rattanakosin to other parts of the city. The BMA is to move to the Din Daeng area, while its old building will be turned into a museum. The Ministry of Interior will be combined with the Royal Irrigation Department located in Pak Kret, Nonthaburi. The Ministry of Transport is to move to Bang Sue district and the Tourism and Sports Ministry to the Government Complex Chaengwattana together with the Department of Tourism. But with so many jobs moving from the area, the plan has the potential to endanger businesses that rely on daytime trade, such as food vendors. 
 

 

Mahakan Fort 


Open since the evening of Jul 24, Mahakan Fort Park is the end result of a 59-year-long dispute between the local Mahakan community and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). After years of protests and refusals, the last of the residents—who claim their family lineage in the neighborhood dates right back to the early Rattanakosin Era, during the reign of King Rama III (1824-1851)—were evicted from the area in April 2018. This paved the way for the BMA to spend B69 million on launching a new public park. The dispute at Mahakan Fort dates right back to 1959, when the government bought back land from around Mahakan Fort in an effort to preserve the fort and its surrounding area from all but 11 owners who refused to sell. The model scheme to create parks in the Rattanakosin area came later, in 1978, followed in 1992 by the BMA’s royal decree to improve Rattanakosin’s urban planning—including the expropriation of land on which the Mahakan Fort community lived. 

 


Island State

What exactly is Rattanakosin Island?

 Sao Ching Cha
 
Democracy Monument

Bangkok’s first ever settlement, Rattanakosin Island dates back 230 years. The name “island” comes from the Chao Phraya River that runs along the area’s western border, and the Khlong Lot canal that completely rings its eastern perimeter. The area is home to over 51,000 permanent residents and over 19,000 homes. It’s also where Bangkok’s grandest historic monuments sit, including the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Mahathat.

 


Local Perspective

Here’s what those who live and work in Rattanakosin think about how their neighborhood is changing.

“I’ve heard of the news for a while, but have not yet seen anything done to the area. I don’t think I’ll be affected. I can roll with change.”
Boontun Chantaroeng, tuk tuk driver

 

“We have invested a great deal into our businesses in this area and fear that the development plan will affect us a lot. My brother who’s also a street vendor around the Ministry of Interior has already been affected. I’m quite sure the same will happen to me.”
Amnaj Otatawong, street vendor

 

We used to have a big community until Mahakan Fort was turned into a park. It was hard see people you knew grew up here having to leave the area. They did get paid to leave, so that’s better than nothing.
Sunthorn Pothong, former Mahakan Fort resident 


Expert Opinion

Is this the right plan for Bangkok’s Old Town?

 

Dr. Siriwit Issaro
Assistant to the Bangkok Vision 2032 project consulting team

“The Rattanakosin conservation and development strategy is part of the 2032 project to develop culture and innovation over a 20-year development plan. Bangkok Vision wants to turn Bangkok into a travel center of Asia and to change the face of Rattanakosin town into a nicer, structured area. But to make it like the Champs-Elysees might not be as easy. We have to admit that there's still quite a lot that has to be done to make this project really work, like how we still lack discipline and how the climate here isn't exactly like that of Paris. Developing just an area but not as a whole, I think it will be hard."

 

Dr. Amorn Wanichwiwatana
Member of the Constitution Drafting Commission and lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

“The plan itself is great if thinking in terms of lighter traffic, clean structures and approachable ways of traveling. The only part that seems to be lacking about this whole plan is any mention about managing the high-rise condos along the Chao Phraya River that have been standing since before building regulation was taken seriously. I personally think that if the Rattanakosin development plan is really to be carried out, then just as the ministries are being moved out to have buildings in the area fit the same architectural style, then those condos should be no exception.”