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Sanam Luang Then And Now


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Sanam Luang then and now

By Manote Tripathi

The Nation


Our hallowed ground is green again. What memories it holds!

Bangkok has reopened Sanam Luang following a 10-month makeover, evidently determined to keep its historical significance untarnished by mundane modernity.

Fresher, cleaner, greener and with tamarind trees all around, the 74-rai Royal Ground is now protected by law against homeless people, beggars, touts, hookers, hawkers and parked cars.

No one at all gets in between 10pm and 5am the next morning. When visitors are allowed in, they can't bring alcohol.

Break the new rules and you could spend 10 years in jail and forfeit Bt1 million.

All this is in aid of restoring Sanam Luang to its former grandeur. This vast space originated, after all, as Thong Phra Mane - the royal cremation ground - during the reign of King Rama I. Numerous other ceremonies of the court have also taken place there.

"The northern half was contained within the walls of the Wang Na, the palace of the second king," filmmaker and historian Steve van Beek says of the park's early appearance.

"In Rama III's day, rice was planted there. Later photos show cows grazing, which lent a nice bucolic touch - the countryside in the middle of the city."

Rama III even had a pavilion erected at the south end so he could observe the rice planting and cultivation.

It was King Mongkut - Rama IV - who turned the area into a public playground. He renamed it Sanam Luang and people began flying kites there, harnessing the broad sweeps of breeze.

King Chulalongkorn - Rama V - thought it unnecessary to grow rice near his palace and instead expanded and modernised Sanam Luang for the Kingdom's first national exhibition, held during Bangkok's centenary.

This was also where elaborate entertainment was presented to welcome Rama V home from his two European tours. He brought European sports with him, and soon his courtiers were staging horse races and golf tournaments there.

Golf was regarded as the height of glamour. About 20 punters would play from 7am to noon or so, and took turns bringing the refreshments for the clubhouse, a sala in front of the National Museum.

Things were decidedly less pleasant in the 20th century when

Sanam Luang beca

me a place to plot coups. The park has indeed witnessed some bloody episodes in our political history.

Sanam Luang was one of the first places in Bangkok that van Beek visited when he arrived in 1969 as Sunday-features editor of the old Bangkok World newspaper.

He's researched and written about it in his books, often using rare vintage photos. In 1969 it still had the bustling weekend market that finally relocated to Chatuchak

in 1987.

"It was less chaotic than it is now - more like an upcountry market," van Beek says. "Although it sold the same range of products and food, it seemed like less of a commercial and aesthetically ugly venture than Chatuchak today. We liked it for all the delicacies and exotic foods it offered.

"And later I'd go to Sanam Luang to fly kites in the hot season."

Long-time Bangkok resident Simon Bonython's book "Jatujak Weekend Market" also recalls the "good old days" in Sanam Luang. He too came to Thailand in 1969. The Australian was blown over by the buzz of the hawkers and traders.

Prime Minister Plaek Pibulsongkhram envisioned a flea market in every province and gave Bangkok a big one in 1948. The Sanam Luang market was the best place in the country to find foreign-language books among the thousands of vendors - as well as just about anything else one could imagine.

Nation Group assistant editor Nithinand Yorsaengrat, who's also written about Thai history, remembers lots of lively fun at the crowded Sanam Luang weekend market.

"My father always went there to buy books and he took me with him. To me, Sanam Luang was the huge place with a million things to buy, and it sold especially books. It was where you could see ordinary people's lively faces."

Van Beek remembers New Year's Eve 1973 when the city put on one of its first big modern extravaganzas. Sanam Luang and the grassy strip along Rajdamnoen Road in front of Saranrom Park were lined with three-metre-tall speakers and 200 huge screens, not all of them showing the same movie.

"The din was deafening - I'm sure no tree had a single leaf left by the time it all ended in the wee hours," he says. "Windows were rattling kilometres away! Oddly, you could stand directly in front of the screen and hear the soundtrack quite clearly."

Like many Bangkok old-timers, both Thai and expatriate, Van Beek has mixed feelings about the refurbished Sanam Luang. He loves the renewed freshness but laments the fences and overnight closure.

"Historically it lost its original purpose as a holy ground for royal cremations," he says, "but I'd have preferred to see it turned into more of a proper park with trees planted in the areas not reserved for the cremations. As it is, it's just a vast open space to get lost in, and it gets very hot during the day.

"At least the developers have resisted the usual tendency with Bangkok parks to fill an empty space with concrete structures and pathways. That just basically turns a countryside oasis in the city into an extension of the urban sprawl."

Nithinand appreciates the greener Sanam Luang and the ban on political activities, but says there's little left there now for common folks.

"The middle-class Bangkokians and tourists need beautiful public parks," she says. "We need a great green lung that's peaceful.

"But there's another side to the coin - this great big peaceful green lung will no longer be available for ordinary people. Sanam Luang has become just a neat and beautiful park that looks like it ought to be on a magazine cover."


-- The Nation 2011-08-29

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