วันเสาร์ที่ 6 มีนาคม พ.ศ. 2553


"IT IS PERHAPS THE MOST UNIQUE AND GRACEFUL OBJECT OF architecture in Siam; shining like a jewel on the broad bosom of the river, fantastic and gilded, flashing back the glory of the sun, and duplicated in shifting shadows in the limpid waters below."
Anna Leonowens, governess to His Majesty King Rama IV's children, was known for her fanciful turn of mind, yet, for all its purple prose, this description of her first sight of Phra Samut Chedi as she arrived in Thailand by sea in 1862 captures the awe of what was once an initial glimpse of the Kingdom that greeted all travellers. Situated at the mouth of the majestic Chao Phraya River, in Samut Prakan, historically known as Pak Nam or "river mouth", the 38-metre-high chedi is missed by today's air travellers, but it remains one of the many interesting sights to be seen on a fascinating, if offbeat, day excursion from Bangkok.
Directly south of the Thai capital, Samut Prakan province straddles the Chao Phraya estuary and, as such, it possessed strategic importance during the centuries when access to the Kingdom was by sea. It provided the initial point of contact for arriving ships and formed Bangkok's first line of defence.
Today, Samut Prakan is little known to visitors aside from its two major tourist attractions, the Crocodile Farm and the Ancient City, and while these are admirable, to see nothing else of the province is to miss glimpses into Thai history, as well as scenes so characteristic of provincial life.
Founded as a small fishing village in the 1620s, when Ayutthaya was the capital, Samut Prakan originally stood on the west bank of the river, in what is now Phra Pradaeng district, and consisted of little more than a humble collection of bamboo huts. With increasing foreign trade in the latter half of the 17th century, however, it quickly grew in importance as the point where arriving ships had to stop to allow onboard a pilot and custom officials, as well as being obliged to offload all of their cannon.
After the establishment of Bangkok as the capital in the late 18th century, Samut Prakan's strategic importance became even greater and its walls, moats and other fortifications strengthened. However, in 1819, this was still deemed insufficient protection and HM King Rama II commanded the town to be relocated across the river to Pak Nam to better guard against possible attacks from the sea. Subsequently, gun batteries were built on both sides of the Chao Phraya, as well as on a little mud island that lay in midstream. By the late 19th century, more than 20 "forts", more strictly fortified gun emplacements, had been constructed at various points along the riverbank and, while many of these are now in a dilapidated state, a few have been preserved as historical sites.
Surprisingly, history proved the defences to be more a deterrent than anything else and only once were they engaged in any significant hostile action. This was the famous Pak Nam incident on July 13, 1893, when the French sent two gunboats up the Chao Phraya River during a territorial dispute with Thailand. A skirmish ensued with an exchange of fire between the foreign ships and Chulachomklao Fort on the west bank of the river. The engagement was brief and, while there were casualties on both sides, damage to life and property was limited. Although a minor affair, the incident prompted the start of negotiations between Thailand and France.
The historical significance of the area, however, is not limited to military action and includes milestones in national development. The first telegraph service in Thailand, inaugurated in 1875, operated between Bangkok and Samut Prakan, a distance of 45 kilometres. The link was later extended via a submarine cable to a lighthouse in the river.Nam remains more interesting than one might expect. There are various ways of getting there. Highway 3 leads directly from Bangkok to Samut Prakan town, a distance of 29 kilometres, though a more scenic approach is to cross the Chao Phraya via the new Industrial Ring Road suspension bridge, itself a superb sight, and then travel down the west bank of the river to Phra Samut Chedi, which so caught the eye of Anna Leonowens.
In the early 19th century, HM King Rama II conceived the idea of having a temple constructed in the middle of the river. Although he died before his dream could be realised, his successor, HM King Rama III, took over the task and, in 1828,
a temple with a 20-metre-high bell-shaped chedi was completed on a natural sandbank in midstream. Later, HM King Rama V, wishing to make it readily apparent to all visitors to Thailand that his people were Buddhist, raised the height of the chedi to 38 metres and had 12 sacred relics of the Buddha enshrined within it.It was and still is a striking sight to greet anyone arriving
by sea, but it is no longer in mid-river; the accumulation of silt brought down by flood waters has joined the island to the west bank. This has not lessened the enchantment of the place; the chedi stands brilliant white in the bright sunlight. Buddha images inside the small temple hall are encrusted with gold leaf placed in acts of daily devotion and in a building to the rear, housing a statue of HM King Rama II, are colourful murals illustrating the history of the area.
Next to Phra Samut Chedi is the ferry pier for crossing over to Samut Prakan town. A few metres out from the riverbank is a small island, the downstream tip of which is cleared of its otherwise dense coverage of mangroves, palms and brush to reveal Phi Sua Samut Fort. Recently opened to the public, it's a quiet spot where gun emplacements, ammunition bunkers and fortified walls capture the atmosphere of what in the 19th century was an inner line of defence.
Rounding the island, the ferry crosses the main channel of the Chao Phraya, where cargo ships, container docks and storage silos present a very different picture of river activity to that seen around Bangkok's luxury riverside hotels.
The ferry docks on the east bank directly by Pak Nam Market, one of the best traditional wet markets in Thailand. A huge covered area, it's lined with stalls piled high with vegetables, meat and, of course, fish and seafood as fresh
) and as good as it gets. The place teems with activity as knowledgeable shoppers pick out the best buys, while sellers and market porters continually restock and rearrange their stalls, packing the fish with fresh ice, scooping shellfish into neat pyramids and generally displaying their produce to best effect under the glare of naked light bulbs.Outside the market, the bustle is no less and Samut Prakan appears as a lively provincial capital, totally characteristic of the true Thailand, far removed from the tourist trails despite Bangkok being only half an hour away. The city pillar, Lak Muang, is worth visiting partly for its appearance, housed as it is in a small Chinese shrine-style, typically ornate and complete with dragon-entwined columns and an air redolent of incense, and partly for its scene of daily devotion that comes from its being very much a focal point for the local community.
Other cultural sights include the nearby Wat Pichai Songkhram, which has an interesting chedi decorated with a lotus pattern and statues of kneeling angels, and Wat Asokaram. The latter, a notable meditation centre, is located some six kilometres south of the town and is striking for Phra Thutangkha Chedi, an unusual four-storey structure that incorporates 13 chedis representing the 13 duties of a monk.