From wreckage of heritage in Phrae rises new hope for Thai conservation
Torn down despite its 127-year history, Phrae province’s historic Bombay Burmah Trading Co building may be gone for now. But hope is growing that it will be restored to its colonial-era glory and set a badly needed precedent for architectural conservation in Thailand.
Bit by bit, the Fine Arts Department is now rebuilding the old teak trading post, a legacy of Phrae’s 19th-century status as a major logging centre. Reconstruction began late last week after the demolition triggered uproar among locals and became a national issue.
“Response to the demolition, both legally and in terms of the restoration, is now heading in a positive direction,” said Pattana Saengriang of the Phrae Old Town Conservation Network last week, after the government engaged his network in the process to investigate the scandal and to restore the heritage building.
Even Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha commented on the demolition, vowing that wrongdoers would be punished and the trading post restored.
“This is a historical building with cultural roots. You can’t just bring it down,” the PM said last week.
Though it is against the law to repair or modify, let alone demolish, a historical structure without permission from authorities, destruction of heritage buildings in Thailand is all too common.
By law, a historical site is broadly defined as immovable property deemed to have artistic, historical or archaeological value on the basis of age, construction characteristics, or history.
Although the two-storey building at the centre of the scandal in Phrae is not on the Fine Arts Department’s list of historical sites, it is by law a historical structure that must be conserved.
The wooden building was a testament to the 19th-century teakwood trade that linked northern Thailand with the world.
Britain’s Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation expanded its business from Burma to Thailand (then known as Siam) in 1889. Three years later it built its trading post in Phrae, transporting timber by boat down the Yom River to Bangkok. The firm’s arrival turned Phrae into a world-famous centre for golden teakwood.
When the firm’s logging operations stopped in 1921, the trading post was handed over to the Phrae Forestry Office. The Royal Forest Department later on placed the building in the care of Protected Area Regional Office 13 (Phrae). It had since served as Chetawan Arboretum’s learning centre until its recent demolition.
Locals said they were not consulted about plans to dismantle the heritage building, also a popular tourist attraction. They were shocked to find the landmark disappear almost overnight in early June under the so-called project to improve the building under Bt4.56-million budget.
The shock wave spread quickly around the country.
Bangkok resident Nanthana Udomchaiphatthanakit was dismayed to hear the heritage building was gone.
“I visited the arboretum and explored this structure last October. It was very sad to see its beautiful gable broken to pieces,” she explained, referring to photographs of the delicate wood trim lying smashed on the ground.
Describing herself as fan of colonial-style structures, Nanthana appreciates the value of old architecture for the stories it tells. “Each building is unique and charming in its own way. It represents the events and people of a bygone era that once flowed between its walls,” she explained.
Nanthana keenly followed the live-video meeting at which Phrae locals gave officials a serious grilling over the controversial project. “I respect Phrae people for speaking up and fighting for their heritage,” she said.
She hopes Thais can learn a key lesson from the case – that loss of precious heritage is not inevitable if the public stands up to demand it is restored as a legacy for future generations.
“I hope people will cherish and protect their heritage. Let’s learn from this case. Don’t let anyone destroy our historical structures,” Nanthana said.
Public outrage at the demolition in Phrae sparked an investigation, leading to the chief of Chetawan Arboretum being slapped with a transfer. The ongoing probe indicates the destruction took place before the Fine Arts Department had approved details of the project to repair and improve the arboretum’s Forestry Learning Centre.
Hope is growing, therefore, that this case will set a precedent in Thailand. Owners of old buildings may now think twice before defying the law with rushed demolitions, preferring to conserve them instead. Citizens who value their history, meanwhile, may speak up louder and join forces, in the knowledge that their voices can make a difference.
The old Bombay Burmah Trading Co post is, after all, not the only heritage building in Thailand. Its destruction comes not long after the owners of Plai Nern Palace and the former owner of the buildings that now served as the Bangkokian Museum fought hard to preserve the charming architectural heritages in Bangkok. They survive as some of the few places where Thais can still experience life as it was lived by their forebears a century ago.
The BIG Trees Project is another fine example of what “people power” can do for conservation. Back in 2010, a group of Bangkok residents joined together to stop a company from chopping down rain trees that had stood in the Sukhumvit area for 50 to 100 years. Within days, the group grew via social media to over 3,000 members and their call to conserve Bangkok’s greenery attracted national attention. The group focuses on how to preserve the trees and environment without blocking urban development.
Over the years, the BIG Trees Project has won more and more acceptance and allies. As a result, it has managed to save many of the grand old trees that decorate the capital, notably the giants in front of CentralWorld that were threatened by construction of the Skywalk.
The BIG Trees Project’s Facebook page has earned over 150,000 likes and its activities receive constant public support. Meanwhile its initiatives have now extended beyond Bangkok to the whole country, proof that public cooperation can turn the tide towards conservation of heritage in Thailand.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk