All That Glitters

The Sad Story of the Customs House

And a Plea for Its Salvation

Bangkok Post, April 28, 2001

Cultural heritage is all around us - and none so apparent as the magnificent buildings in Bangkok's Golden District - but pity future generations who will suffer due to the careless attitudes and governmental bureaucracy of today, which leaves our precious resources in ruins

There is a series of buildings on the bank of the Chao Phraya River that include the East Asiatic Company, The Oriental Hotel, the French Embassy, the Taxation Department or Bang Rak Fire Department, the Portuguese Embassy and the Shangri-La Hotel, that stand on a stretch of land that might be called Bangkok's Golden District.

The reference to the precious metal doesn't have to do only with the fact that these structures and the land they occupy are worth a lot of money. It also acknowledges their historical value as the city's first elegant and fashionable district, a quality that it still retains after well over a century.

This area was also the subject of a political dispute between Thailand and France. Its architecture is evidence of the western influence that was being felt in Thailand at the time. Things like this have a significance that is as valuable as anything made of gold.

This district is also a part of town that attracts some of the most intense interest from those who pass it in boats on the river. These are the tourists enjoying expensive lunches or suppers during luxury river cruises, and passengers aboard the commuter boats who zip up and down the river every few minutes. These latter include bank employees, civil servants, students, even beggars, all packed in like sardines. All of them, people of many races, colours, and social classes, turn to look at this row of buildings.

Millions of people have surveyed them, and as they looked they experienced various thoughts and feelings. The Taxation Department, later the fire station, is located in the middle of the district. It is as precious as gold from a historical standpoint because it was once an important place: built by a western architect during the reign of King Rama V, it was once known as the Customs House. Many high-ranking officials worked there, and at times it was used as the venue for elegant parties given for ambassadors or prominent government officials, who savoured its romantic riverside atmosphere.


Two boys peak through a window of the Bang Rak fire station building, where stray dogs, rats, cockroaches and lizards have taken over, and share the premises peacefully with one another. This situation invites the question: Why has it been allowed to deteriorate into such a state?

But today it's like gold that has been smeared with dirty asphalt, and the inside of the building is little different from the rubbish bin of a market. Stray dogs, rats, cockroaches and lizards have taken over, and share the premises peacefully with one another.

This situation invites the question: Who is in charge here? Why has it been allowed to deteriorate into such a state? The answer is that the building is now the Bang Rak fire station. The Fire Department moved in more than 30 years ago and constructed a small building on the open area in front to serve as an office. The remaining space was used to park the fire engines. The fire-extinguishing boats were moored at the pier adjoining the building.

The old buildings consisted of two two-storey structures that were used to house the families of the firemen. Originally the rooms inside were spacious, but these were divided up into separate rooms for each family using crude, cheaply-made wooden walls. In many places the wooden floors are rotten and crumbling, so pieces of scrap wood have been used to cover them over.

The banister of the stairway is so loose and wobbly that it's ready to break off. Anyone who tried to use it to stop himself from falling would be in trouble. Many of the wooden bars attaching it to the floor have broken away.

Wires have been stretched across almost all of the window frames for drying clothes. The floor of the lower storey is saturated with water and littered with dog droppings, plastic bottles and soggy scraps of old paper, so filthy that you can't tell what it's made of, or what colour it is.

It's both surprising and sad that people could be expected to live in such a place. It's dark and it stinks. How can high-ranking police let the living conditions of their subordinates and their families sink as low as this? And what happens if this overcrowded building, parts of whose rickety staircases have collapsed, ever catches fire? Will the firemen, whose daily work it is to put out fires elsewhere in town, be able to help themselves? It would seem that this building could anticipate the darkest of futures, but in June of last year it was reported the Tourism Authority of Thailand had long been considering this building in terms of its tourism potential. The World Heritage Company had studied it and produced a plan for its preservation and development back in 1996.


In front of the Bang Rak fire station.

In essence, this plan called for the use of the old building as a venue for artistic and cultural activities. It also stipulated that the government, with its unwieldy codes of rules and procedures, should not be the ones to put it into effect, as a private company would be able to do it more efficiently.

As soon as word got out that this building was being considered for development, the sound of snarling filled the air. It came from the Police Department, who denounced the plan because the people living in the building had not been consulted first. They also regretted the money spent on studying the building and producing the development plan, because after the plan had been made, who could ensure that it would be put into effect? After all, the owners of the building hadn't agreed to anything.

If you want us to leave, they said, you must find a plot of land where a new fire station can be built, together with residences for the firemen and their families. Furthermore, money would have to be provided for their construction. So the glimmer of hope that the building might be saved seemed to have been extinguished, and as a result, questions started to be asked. Then, at the beginning of this month, a seminar was held at Thammasat University's Thai Kadi Research Institute on the topic, "Proposals for the Restoration of Old Buildings: the Case of the Customs Department Building".

A number of experts gave their views. Dr Kasem Sirisamphan, former Minister of Education, said the building had first come to his attention 20 years ago when he was campaigning in the district. While he was serving as minister he had asked officials to investigate it and find a way to restore it, but the answer he received was that the Fire Department refused to move out unless a new location could be found for the department, and buildings constructed. When he heard that the Tourism Authority wanted to develop it, he said, he was very happy.

Pisit Charoenwongsa, director of the Seameo Regional Centre for Archaeology and the Fine Arts, said there are two reasons why historically significant buildings overseen by the government are allowed to deteriorate: first, the officials concerned don't know the importance of the structures and, second, they don't know how to care for them properly, even though they are national heritage sites.

According to Kemtat Visvayodhin of the Bureau of the Crown Property's Conservation Project Division, solving the problems connected with this building is very simple. "It's a question of what the government wants to do," he said. "Very wealthy people in the private sector have studied the situation and are ready to take complete charge of the restoration at any time. However much money the police are asking for, they are prepared to pay it. The matter is completely in the government's hands. All it takes is one sheet of paper to order the fire station to be moved."The final speaker on this subject was Suwanchai Rittirak of the TAT's Tourism Resources Development Department. "The Tourism Authority of Thailand has already sent a letter to the Ministry of Finance stating that we are interested in developing this building and have a working plan for doing so," he said. "We requested approval so that we could proceed with the implementation of the plan.

"The reason that we had to inform the Ministry of Finance was that the Bureau of State Property Management, which is part of the Treasury Department, is responsible for maintaining both old and new government buildings, and as such were the ones to make any decisions.

"The answer we received from the Ministry of Finance at the beginning of February of this year was very short: 'The Ministry of Finance has received this request and wishes to inform you that the answer is 'Not Approved', as a plan already exists for the restoration and development of the Customs Department building." Suwanchai's words were like the sound of a judge's gavel signalling the end of the trial. The official answer was like the verdict of a judge who presides over a dictatorial court whose ears are deaf to reason: truth, justice and openness are not factors and have no part in its decisions. No details are given as to the already existing plan for the development of the Customs Department building. When will it be implemented? Does it bear comparison with the one proposed by the TAT? The seminar concluded without being able to propose any solutions to the dilemma.

Since the Treasury Department's Bureau of State Property (BSP) Management and the Customs Department are both in the Ministry of Finance, this ministry is the proper place to go with any questions on the matter. Wanno Thirakowit, director of the Bureau of State Property Management explains: "The Ministry of Finance asked the BSP to resolve this problem more than a year ago, since the Customs Department wanted to return to this building. The first problem is that a new location must first be found for the Bang Rak fire station.

"There is a building, used by the Revenue Department, which used to be based in Bang Rak but moved to new quarters long ago. We'd like the Bang Rak Fire Department to move in there, but there is a problem. No maintenance has been done on the building since the Revenue Department moved out. People have invaded it and moved in, so many of them that now it's become a crowded slum. We can't throw them out because it's become a problem that concerns a large number of people, so we'd have to find a new place for these slum-dwellers to live, too.

"There is a plot of land in Bangkok Noi, but it is in the middle of a cultivated area and there's no access to it by road. We contacted the BMA and asked them to put in a road, but it will be some time before the BMA receives a budget for that." As regards the views of the Customs Department itself, Sarisa Mongkolchaisit, the head of the department's Public Relations Section, explained, "In the past, people just talked about the fact that the Customs Department still had a building on the bank of the Chao Phraya River. Then, three years ago, the Ministry of Finance asked us whether or not we had any plans for it.

"We replied that we had thought of it, but had not yet gone to check on the building's structure, and had made no plans at all. Money would be required, and at present the department was not concerned with the issue. If anything was to be done, a committee would have to be appointed to study it, and to estimate what the expenses would be. Finally, there was the question of what we would do with the building. To date, nothing whatsoever has been done in connection with any of this." It seems incredible that every approach to this problem has wound up stalled in some dark corner. If the building could be folded up like a piece of paper, it would be stuffed away in a drawer which would be locked and the key thrown away.

Pity the Thai people, who have these cultural treasures, beautiful things that once gone can never be replaced, but which are allowed to fall to pieces in the hands of their government.

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