Folding doors of wooden shophouses gradually opened as morning came. Some shop owners arranged their shelves and filled the space with packages of snacks, daily-use products, and even postcards, while some others prepared their cooking tools to make noodles and hot meals. Coffee shops started to turn on soft music.
The shophouses line a narrow concrete alley in the waterfront community of Hua Takhe in the Lat Krabang district of Bangkok. From time to time, long-tail boats pass by. However, for a long time, life was slow like the water that flowed in the Prawet Burirom Canal that passes through the community.
"I like this area very much. It is very peaceful. Just sitting by the canal with my cats makes me feel relaxed," said Chavalit Satthamsakul, 53, who was born not far from the community. About a decade ago, he rented and renovated the two-storey shophouse on the corner of Talat Kao Hua Takhe or the old Hua Takhe market in the community. He opened the shophouse as a cafe, known as the Ban Si Yaek Hua Takhe Cafe and Guesthouse, and also has two rooms for rent on the second floor.
Veera Chaemsai is a kite maker who teaches visitors how to make a leaf kite. He hosts workshops in the market every month to teach people how to make a small Chula-style kite. Constructing the traditional kite takes about two hours, unlike a leaf kite, which can be made within five minutes. The leaf can be collected from trees like the ton chongko (orchid tree) and pho thale (portia tree). The leaf must also have a stalk and be pressed in a heavy book for about four months. Then he creates two holes at one-third length and on both sides of the midrib and inserts a thread and fastens it before attaching the 1m-long tail made of kite papers, at which point the leaf kite is then ready to fly. He also cuts leaves in the shape of a butterfly so the kite looks cute.
"I just wanted to have a space for myself and my friends to hang out," he recalled when he first opened his business. Fortunately, it was not only the people of his circle who liked the old house but other visitors as well. His cafe is quite large and has seats along the Prawet Burirom and Hua Takhe canals where customers can chill out.
Ambha Bunyaket initiated the tourism club more than a decade ago. At that time, she wanted her community to have life for those who still lived in the old shophouses. Today, the Hua Takhe community is a popular tourist attraction in Bangkok.
Not far from his cafe are other coffeehouses and eateries. Each outlet has been developed by those who either live in the community or outsiders who love the ambience of a rural atmosphere.
Located on the east side of the city and next to Chachoengsao, the Hua Takhe community is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the capital. It was founded during the period of King Rama V when the King initiated a project to extend the watercourse from Phra Khanong Canal to Chachoengsao.
The canal, which is 46km long, is named Khlong Prawet Burirom and was dug under the command of Chao Phraya Surawongse Waiyawat between 1878 and 1880.
Many old shophouses in Talat Khao Hua Takhe or the old Hua Takhe market, which had closed in the past, were renovated and reopened as coffee shops, restaurants, art galleries and guesthouses. One old barbershop in the area does not offer haircut services any more but it is still open for the public to visit and experience the old ambience. The market is open daily and it is a popular place for students living around the area to stop by after class to enjoy food, snacks and cold drinks.
The main purpose of this canal was for transportation and logistics. After the project was completed, the commander was rewarded 1,041 rai of land along the canal. He wanted to develop the area for the education of kids living in remote areas. However, he died before he could achieve his goal. His daughter, Liam Bunnag, inherited the land. She donated it to the Education Ministry, and the area later became the home of King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL), Chang Silp College (or the college of Fine Arts), a library of the Fine Arts Department and Protpittayapayat School. The old Hua Takhe community, along with its market, is located in the same area.
Making a model boat is an activity one can learn when visiting the Hua Takhe community. The workshop is organised on request by Thanawarat Kanjanachomthanan, a boat builder. His father passed on the knowledge to him when he was young and when the community started to welcome tourists, he joined the effort by introducing a short class on traditional boat models. The workshop along with other classes such as making a leaf kite and a paper garland are hosted in Rong Rahat. The house was renovated and decorated with parts of norias to be the centre of art and craft activities.
After the canal was dug, the land along the canal was acquired by Chinese labourers, mostly Teochew, who excavated the canal as well as the Mon ethnic group who migrated from Burma during the King Rama IV period and settled in Phra Pradaeng, and later Lat Krabang on the east side of the Chao Phraya River.
The Hua Takhe community gradually expanded thanks to its strategic location.
Jira Srisaket, 66, teaches me and my travel companions, who joined on a trip organised by the KTC Press Club, how to make a paper garland called phuang mahot. The garland is used for home and temple decorations in auspicious ceremonies by the Mon ethnic group. Jira is also a descendant of the Mon people, and she is regarded as an expert in paper garlands in the Hua Takhe community.
"Boats either from Bangkok or Chachoengsao stopped in our community to rest or trade. People bought and sold farm produce, clothes, food supplies, fishing nets and farm tools. Almost everything can be found in the market," said Ambha Bunyaket, the president of Chumchon Khon Rak Hua Takhe (or the Hua Takhe Community Admirers' Club).
Vasana Kangsawat continues the work of her mother by making khao tom khluk, a dessert made of sticky rice and banana. Khao tom khluk may look like khao tom mat but the latter is cooked in coconut milk mixed with sugar and wrapped in banana leaves and steamed for an hour. However, khao tom khluk, is made of soaked sticky rice stuffed with a banana and wrapped with banana leaves before it is boiled for a couple of hours. Before serving, Vasana sprinkles coconut flakes. Those who like sweetness can add sugar on top.
During the glory years, the community was home to rice mills, wooden-boat builders and noria makers. Their services were needed because people mainly commuted by boat and many of them were farmers. The community was also crowded not only with shoppers and sellers but people who wanted to catch a train to Bangkok.
An outdoor exhibition in Chang Silp College, or the College of Fine Arts, is where you can see about 20 sculptural masterpieces up-close. The works were created by Prof Silpa Bhirasri, an Italian-born sculptor who is regarded as the father of modern art in Thailand and the founder of Silpakorn University, and his pupils. One of the notable sculptures is the maquette of the 15.875m Buddha image in Phutthamonthon Park in Nakhon Pathom. Seven scale models were created for seven art institutes to make seven parts. The artist's team in Chang Silp College created the right arm, and the real size is about 10 times bigger than the model, according to Charan Nongbua, director of the college. The college also houses a large gallery, which displays numerous types of arts created by national and well-known artists and its students.
As the years went on, the main mode of transport changed to roads and the trading hub became smaller. As a result, a new Hua Takhe market was set up near the main road and the locals started to move out, especially after a big fire in 1994. The fire burnt down more than 150 homes on the south bank of the canal, but fortunately 58 shophouses on the other side were not destroyed and still stand today. However, people still kept moving out and shophouses closed down one after another. In the early 2000s, the community seemed like a ghost town and drug use became rampant. Only a handful of houses were regularly open.
"Our community was dying," recalled Ambha.
She wanted to find a solution to bring life back to her hometown. She talked to the remaining neighbours and friends, and some of them agreed with her suggestions but some were still against it.
The old technique of lai rod nam or gilded black lacquer is taught in the Chang Silp College. The technique has a number of steps, including drawing a pattern on a lacquer-coated material and applying pure gold leaves. The last step is to gently rub the surface after pouring water, called rod nam in Thai. This is where the technique gets its name. The art of lai rod nam is often used for decoration of Tripitaka cabinets or wooden windows of prayer and ordination halls in a temple. The style can be applied in the modern world, such as with earrings or phone/computer cases.
"They said our community was remote. Those who wanted to visit us must have an intention to come and not just be passers-by," she said, adding that they thought the community did not have anything to offer visitors.
"My initial goal was not to lure tourists. I only wanted to preserve what we have and to bring back the spirit of the community. I wanted the young generation to come back and further develop the community," she said.
She set up a tourism club and worked with the Chang Silp College and KMITL after she noticed that art students came to spend time in the community to sketch, draw and paint the old shophouses along the canal. In 2008, a pilot project to promote the Hua Takhe community as an art destination began.
During the first few years, the community organised an art event every first week of the month. They hosted art exhibitions and organised workshops in any available space in the market to share knowledge about lacquer pieces, sculptures, drawings and making kites with visitors. Meanwhile, students from Protpittayapayat School came to perform dances or sing in the market to create a lively atmosphere.
A collection of crocodile street arts makes the community vibrant. Locals believe that plenty of crocodiles, or takhe (or chorakhe), once lived in the area. The name Hua Takhe, meaning crocodiles' heads, is taken from crocodile skulls found when the Hua Takhe Canal was dug.
Years later, some shophouses were renovated and converted into coffee shops, guest houses, gift shops and art galleries. Some old shops such as grocery stores, a farm-tool shop and a television-repair shop also opened. A notable one among them is the A Frame shop, which displays several large and old pictures of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit The Queen Mother all over their walls.
Food and snack outlets can also be found along the alley of the community and vendors are happy to talk to visitors. They do not shy away from cameras either, as each shop allows customers to sit as long as they like.
Next month, a new activity hall called the Rong Rahat, meaning a facility for making noria or rahat wit nam in Thai, will open.
Moreover, the tourism club plans to host art and craft activities in Rong Rahat. It will be a centre where visitors can learn about local wisdom like making a leaf kite, a boat model and a paper garland.
"I am glad to see that our people are happy and our visitors like our small community. For those who love a peaceful place, they don't have to travel far upcountry, just visit us, the old Hua Takhe community," she said.