In search of angels in the City of Angels

24 04 2011

Bangkok, the City of Angels, is a city that has always managed to surprise me with a delightful find every time I have the time to wander around it. So it was to be on my last visit there recently, in which I was able to seek out not one, but two beautiful houses of worship, both Catholic, along the Chao Phraya River. The first, off Charoen Krung (New Road), which I understand is the first paved road in Thailand, is set amongst some delightful pieces of European style buildings in the old Farang Quarter of Bangkok, far, as it seemed to be; from the hustle and bustle that Bangkok has come to be associated with. The house of worship is the Assumption Cathedral, built in 1910 with an Romanesque fashioned red brick exterior with twin towers and a centre rose window, featuring an elaborately gorgeous Rococo style interior that is unusual as churches in this part of the world go.

The gorgeous Rococo style interior of the Assumption Cathedral.

The rose window see from the interior.

The Romanesque red brick exterior of the cathedral.

Another view of the Rococo interior of the Cathedral.

Stained glass panels inside the Cathedral.

Around the square where the Cathedral is are some other wonderful examples of European style architecture, the Venetian style East Asiatic Company building by the river being one, complete with a Venetian style skyway. Another notable building is the Renaissance style Catholic Centre, also by the river, from which I chanced upon the Archbishop Emeritus of Bangkok, Michael Michai Cardinal Kitbunchu emerging. The area around the Cathedral also contains the Assumption College, the Assumption Convent, the Catholic Mission and several other buildings.

The East Asiatic Company building as seen from the river.

The East Asiatic Company building as seen from the side.

Arches along the building's side.

A skyway between buildings.

The Renaissance style Catholic Centre by the river.

Chanced upon His Grace, Michael Michai Cardinal Kitbunchu, Archbishop Emeritus of Bangkok emerging from the Catholic Centre.

The Assumption Convent.

From the area where the Cathedral is, I continued further north along the river. This took me past the Central Post Office and about a kilometre up Charoen Krung, I came to the Neo Gothic style Holy Rosary Church, referred to locally as Wat Kalawar, after the Thai word for Calvary. The church had its origins in the Portuguese who settled in Bangkok, and was built originally in the late 1700s, and one that was rebuilt at the end of the 1800s, and now catering to the Vietnamese and Cambodian community. The church’s interior has been wonderfully restored over the years and features a gilded ceiling and some magnificent Romanesque stained glass. Certainly, the search for angels in the City of Angels, was one that yielded not just a few angels, but some gems of churches in a city that is perhaps better known for its beautiful Buddhist temples, gems that on the evidence of what I had seen, are some of the best to be found in South East Asia.

I continued north up Charoen Krung ...

... past the Central Post Office ...

... coming to another Catholic church by the river, the Holy Rosary Church, built originally by the Portuguese.

The façade of the Holy Rosary Church.

Where, I did find an angel, in the form of a holy water font.

The interior of the church.

Another view of the interior.

The church features some wonderful Romanesque style stained glass panels.


The Bridge over the River Kwai

22 12 2010

It might have been because of the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down”, that I have held a long fascination with bridges, having many doses of it throughout my early childhood. It was a fascination that was also fed by my regular encounters with the two railway bridges from my childhood journeys through the Bukit Timah area, and of those with the magnificent Anderson and Cavenagh Bridges that sets our Civic District apart from much of the rest of Singapore, and maybe by the picture of the red oxide coated Forth Rail Bridge on the back of a postcard that my mother had for much of my childhood displayed on her dresser. There were of course bridges of significance that I encountered in my diet of war inspired movies and novels that might also have fed that fascination: one being “A Bridge Too Far” over Arnhem that was the subject of Cornelius Ryan’s novel which was adapted by William Goldman for the movie of the same name; and the so-called “Bridge on the River Kwai”, part of the infamous Death Railway, that was made famous by the 1957 David Lean movie based on a novel entitled “Bridge Over the River Kwai” by French writer Pierre Boulle, which I had watched many times on TV.

Poster for the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai".

The bridge over the River Kwai in Dec 1984.

The bridge in 2006.

That I guess was what compelled me to visit the bridge that stands over the River Kwai today, or the River Mae Khlung as it should rightly have been (the river has since been renamed as the “Kwai Yai” for the tourists). The bridge that stands today isn’t the wooden bridge built in 1943 that was the subject of the movie, but a second more sturdy bridge of concrete and steel built by the Prisoners of War (POW) also in 1943. It stands as a powerful symbol of the pain, suffering and death that was inflicted on the POWs who were put to work on the infamous Siam to Burma rail supply line that the Japanese intended to use on their push towards India. Estimates vary but at least 100,000 POWs and labourers died in the construction of the railway due to the harsh conditions, starvation and malaria.

A view of the bridge from the far bank. The two straight-sided spans were transported from Japan after the end of the war as part of Japanese war reparations, to replace the two original arched spans which were brought over from Java by the Japanese which were destroyed.

Another view of the bridge.

Information plate on one of the replacement spans.

One of the original arched spans which the Japanese brought over from Java.

My first visit to the bridge which is about 5 kilometres out of Kanchanaburi , which is located 130 kilometres west of Bangkok was in December 1984 – back then I was struck by the surreal calm that taking a walk on the bridge provided despite the presence of the tourists (not the hordes that one encounters these days) and the vendors trying to hawk a few souvenirs. I did return some twenty years later – dismayed to find that the bridge had been overrun by hordes of tourists and the area now dominated by the tourist shops that have somehow destroyed the peace that I had first encountered in 1984. Still, taking a walk on the bridge provides a wonderful experience, and certainly once across the bridge, the far back does provide that sense of calm absent on the near side.

Taking a photograph of the bridge in 1984.

On the bridge in 2006.

Around the bridge, there is the River Kwae Bridge railway station which is certainly worth a visit. The station in fact provides an gateway for rail passengers coming from the south who can make a connection at Nakhon Pathom, and also directly from Bangkok. The line itself runs over part of the original Death Railway route to Nam Tok. The line which was assessed to be too poorly constructed to support commercial use was sold by the British in 1946 to Siam for a sum of ₤1.5M which included 65 locomotives, 1125 wagons and other stock, and revived in 1948. The train also runs through and stops at the town of Kanchanaburi.

Ticket counter at the River Kwai Bridge Station.

River Kwai Bridge Station.

An old steam locomotive (#719) on display at River Kwai Bridge Station.

Beyond the area where the bridge is, it makes sense to also pay a visit to one of the war museums to have a sense of what went on, as well as the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. The museum I visited was the JEATH (Japan, England, Australia Thailand, England) War Museum, which is housed inside the grounds of the Wat Chai Chumphon temple and is built around huts meant to replicate those that the POWs had been housed in and contains graphic images showing the conditions the prisoners had lived in.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in 1984.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

Plaque at the entrance of the War Cemetery.

Plaque at the War Cemetery.

The JEATH War Museum.

Exhibit at the JEATH War Museum in 1984 with photographs of the bridge destroyed in 1945 by allied bombings.

The death of an icon in the City of Angels

17 11 2010

One of the sad things about the violent Red Shirt protests that occurred in May of this year, is the destruction of what had been an cinematic icon in Bangkok, the Siam Theatre. One of the few remaining single seat cinemas left in Bangkok, the Siam Theatre has stood in the Siam Square area since 1967 and has thus far, withstood the dramatic changes that the area has undergone in the four decades since. One of the more dramatic changes to area, the Skytrain (BTS) line and station which leaves much of the very busy Rama I Road in its shadow, in fact, provided a vantage point from which I was able, on a recent visit to Bangkok, to see the demolition of the burnt out shell of the former Siam Theatre and some of the surrounding shops for myself.

The view of the demolition of the buildings damaged during Red Shirt protests in May that included the iconic Siam Theatre.

I had first been acquainted with the area at the back end of 1984, during a stay that coincided with the release of Murray Head’s hit “One Night in Bangkok”. That stay, during which I spent not just a night, but some five and a half weeks in the City of Angels, gave me an opportunity to explore a city that I had only once before visited as a teenager in which I was not just to become acquainted with much of Central Bangkok, but with parts of Sukhumvit Road and the Klong Toei area.

How the area around Rama I Road and the former Siam Theatre had looked in 1992 before the BTS was built (source:

Siam Square had somehow seemed to be a centre of focus somehow, with me frequenting the shops and food stalls in the area on many occasions, once even being brave enough to catch a movie at Siam Theatre … one for which I would most remember for the audience scrambling to their feet at the image of the much revered King and Queen, as the National Anthem was played. On my more recent trips to the city, I have often visited the area – not recognising much of it as a result of the changes that have taken place, as well as for the Skytrain line which now dominates part of the area. What I was able to identify immediately on my previous visits was always the old Siam Theatre, which sadly is now only a memory.

A lady contemplates the changes taking place around Siam Square.

More of the demolition work in the area.

A stroll around the Makkasan area

15 11 2010

The Makkasan area of Bangkok is well known as being where the main depot of the State Railways of Thailand (SRT) is as well as an area that is known for its slums. The area also contains the delightful little (old) Makkasan Station, a station that would probably trace its origins back to the opening of the depot as far back as 1910, a century ago.

Makkasan Station is along the Eastern Commuter Line which connects Central Bangkok with Chachoengsao.

Slums are very much in evidence around the Makkasan area of Bangkok.

A view of the Makkasan area of Bangkok which has long been associated with the railway.

A rail truss bridge in the Makkasan area.

Much of the old Makkasan Staton building that we see today would have been erected post war, but delightful nonetheless with a charm of a old rural station. It serves as a focal point for the area: an open air market operating in its shadow every morning, and operates as a station along the Eastern Commuter Line that runs from Bangkok’s Central Station, Hua Lamphong, to Chachoengsao some 60 kilometres away, serving primarily as an alighting point for workers at the train depot. There is in fact now, a newer Makkasan Station – developed to serve the Airport Line that links central Bangkok with Suvarnabhumi Airport, which overshadows the old Makkasan (along with the elevated train line that runs parallel to the commuter line in the Makkasan area), and that would probably be the one that most would now think of as Makkasan Station, lying maybe a kilometre to the east of the old station.

The old commuter line, running parallel to the elevated new line - the Airport Link which provides a quick route from Central Bangkok to Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The market around Makkasan Station.

The market around Makkasan Station.

What can be seen at the old Makkasan Station and the area around it is possibly a cross section of life in the Bangkok that hasn’t yet been overrun by the skyscrapers and traffic – giving almost a glimpse into a world that perhaps is hidden to most tourists. It is a world that I would have very much liked to have had the time to explore – as I did the klongs off the Chao Phraya River close to the Klong Toei area a quarter of a century ago … something I guess I should prepare a post on, but given the limited time at my disposal, I was only able to catch a glimpse of the area and of life in the area.

The view from the main road of Makkasan Station.

The entrance to the station.

A tuk-tuk outside Makkasan Station.

On the spot repairs on a tuk-tuk outside Makkasan Station.

A proud resident of Makkasan.

Navigating through the labyrinth that is the market and the vehicles parked in front of the station, I found my way to the entrance of the station, and I immediately got a sense of the old world feel. The little station is in fact a gem waiting to be explored, its main lobby serving as a waiting area with wooden and stone benches providing the weary traveller with a place to rest before his next journey, as well as housing the ticket counter and a convenience shop. In the lobby, I was able to catch a glimpse at life at a standstill, something which escapes you on the busy streets beyond the station. Besides travellers waiting for the next train to arrive – something that I missed out on seeing, there were also children at play, bringing life from the streets to the lobby.

From the main lobby looking out to the platform ... A column supporting the new Airport Link partially obscures the Makkasan Train Depot in the background.

A view of the waiting area.

The waiting area and the ticket counter.

The convenience shop at Makkasan Station.

The platform at Makkasan Station.

Another view of the platform at Makkasan Station.


A child from the streets, playing at the station lobby.

A close-up of the ticket counter.

Across the platform (as on the platform itself) where I had again felt that I was in another world, one far removed from the hustle and bustle on the main streets on other side of the station, I was able to peek across at the yard of the train depot, where a wealth of old locomotives – including some steam locomotives … I managed to get a photograph of one through the gate before a security guard prevented me from taking any more (I am not sure why as there seems to be a wealth of photographs of some of the old locomotives in the yard on railfan sites). After a quick glance and a last look around, it was time for me to go, and not having the hour that it took me to walk to the area from where I was based, it was a quick ten minute rush back to the madness that is Central Bangkok, helter-skelter, seated on the backseat of a tuk-tuk.

Stepping into another world on the platform of Makkasan Station.

The elevated Airport Link next to the old line at Makkasan Station.

An old diesel locomotive in the yard of the train depot at Makkasan as seen from the station platform.

An old steam locomotive in the yard as seen through a gate.

A view of the station from across the tracks.

The station office.

Passengers waiting at the platform.

More scenes around the Makkasan area:

A slum area in Makkasan.

Buildings built over a high pressure pipeline!

A piece of old machinery at the Thai Labour Museum in the vicinity.

A religious procession taking place ... I think it's for the ordination of a monk.

A drummer at the procession.

Revisiting the Ramayana

26 03 2010

My introduction to the Ramayana was a brief and uninformed one all those years back when as a five-year old child being cared for by my maternal grandmother I would sit with her through whatever kept her amused her on the television set. Besides the doses of P. Ramlee and Pontianak movies which seemed to be regular features on the few television stations that existed back then. Another programme that would keep her entertained was the Kelantanese shadow puppet play which was based on the tales passed down through the generations based on stories from the Ramayana. It was only later perhaps, when an introduction to the history of Singapore as a primary school student, in which emphasis was placed on the races and religions of Singapore, and in secondary school, where the history of India was taught, that I developed a deeper appreciation for the Ramayana.

Shadow puppets on display at the Peranakan Museum.

The Ramayana as most of us would know, is an epic tale revolving around the universal theme of the triumph of good over evil, that has its roots in Hinduism, which has spread in various forms and interpretations throughout much of Asia. The storyline in itself, revolving around the central characters of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata and the monkey god Hanuman who participate in a struggle against Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, which includes stories of love and conquest, is fascinating enough to keep the audiences enthralled. The message brought by the epic tale has served as a powerful means to impart values onto the societies that have embraced Hinduism and Buddhism at some point in their history, and the tales have kept generations of young and old captivated both through the creative means by which the story is related throughout Asia, puppetry and other forms of live performances being commonly used as a means.

Shadow puppets on display. Shadow puppets are made of cow or buffalo hide.

Travelling through much of South-East Asia, one would come across the many forms – masks and puppets being seen throughout much of Indonesia, where the art was thought to have originated from, and Indochina, where it is believed to have taken root since early Angkorian times. This is still seen in Cambodia where the Sbeik Thom shadow puppet play depicts scenes from the Ramayana, and Sbeik Touch, is used to depict plays on daily village life.

Shadow puppetry as seen in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It is believed that the artform, originating from Indonesia, had existed in Cambodia since early Angkorian times.

Live performances of the Ramayana take place throughout South-East Asia in many forms. Masks and costumes are also used in live plays as seen a a theatre in Siem Reap.

Mask Detail: An exhibit at the Ramayana Revisited Exhibition.

In Thailand, the version of the Ramayana told there, the Ramakien has become an important component of the Siamese culture and is in fact the national epic, is performed in many ways, through dance and other forms of theatre, including puppetry and Nang – one of the first methods used for the performance of the Ramakien. Nang is the Siamese version of shadow puppetry adopted by the Thais, and would have its roots in the Indonesian and Angkor versions. The Ramakien has, along with the traditional cast of characters from the Ramayana, also some of its own, including Maiyarap, the Lord of the Underworld, who features prominently in the rather interesting form of puppet play that is performed by the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre. Various scenes from the Ramakien are enacted daily at a theatre at the Suan Lum area near Lumpini Park in Bangkok. In this, more than one puppeteer manipulates the puppet, standing behind it. The puppeteers are visible to the audience and actually mimic the movement of the puppets throughout the show.

A puppeteer at the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre in Bangkok showing a smaller version of the puppets used at the theatre.

The shadow puppet play, which in this part of the world, Wayang Kulit, that I sat through with my grandmother all those years back is possible the first means by which the story was related in much of South-East Asia, having its origins in the Javanese form that pre-dates the arrival of Hinduism in South-East Asia. In this, puppets made of cow or buffalo hide are used to cast shadows on a white sheet, with the movements and voices of the characters controlled by a master puppeteer, known as the Tok Dalang, accompanied by the captivating music of the Gamelan, used to depict scenes from both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. This was a thriving art form in what is now a muslim Indonesia and Malaysia, despite the Hindu origins of the stories. Much of it has been adapted using the characters from the stories such as Sri Rama and Sita Dewi, and in some versions there is a bit of comic amusement introduced by the characters of court jesters, Pak Dogol and Wak Long.

Kelantanese shadow puppets on display at the Ramayana Revisited exhibition at the Peranakan Museum.

Casting a bright shadow ... shadow puppetry is a simple form of theatre that has kept generations entertained throughout much of South-East Asia.

A scene from Wayang Kulit Siam - a display at the Ramayana Revisited exhibition.

Wayang Kulit has always fascinated me since that early introduction by my grandmother, who having come from the island of Java, had herself been fascinated with the tales of the Ramayana in the form of the dancing shadows, since her childhood. The fascination is one that has also been fed perhaps by my father, who as a scout master, tried his hand at his own version of shadow puppet play using cardboard cut-outs, a kerosene lamp and a white bed sheet, as campfire entertainment. With the Ramayana Revisited exhibition on at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, which along with the various depictions of the tale from the India, also has displays associated with the many forms that have taken root in South-East Asia, I was glad to have been reminded of this fascination I have had with both the Ramayana and Wayang Kulit, as well as with bringing those wonderful memories of sitting beside my grandmother all those years ago as a five-year old boy back to me.