Down by the Riverside
One of Chiang Mai‘s most well known neighborhoods refuses to succumb
to the wheels of progress. It‘s an ancient community that has supported
the city for years; a small riverside neighborhood that is steeped
in history. It‘s Wat Ket and its residents are banding together
to ensure that the dignity of old age is well and truly preserved.
In the 19th century the east banks of the Ping River was known as
baan taa, meaning waterfront“. Strategically located for trade it
was naturally a prosperous place to live. Although the community
was concentrated around the Buddhist temple of Wat Ket, many of
the peoples who originally settled here were foreigners. Mostly
they were Chinese merchants who had married with local girls, or
migrants from Sibsongpanna, the Thai-speaking area of southern China.
If you were to catch a two-legged taxi down the the bustling, muddy
street of what is now Charoenraj Road, you‘d spot Yunnanese, Burmese,
Sikhs and white-bearded missionaries jostling and mingling side
by side. There were also hilltribes people who were mainly employed
as carpenters for the English colonial timber exporters Borneo&Bombay
Burma Co. Ltd.
By the late 19th century, the riverbanks were lined with dozens
of heun pae-house boats made from teak wood and roofed with din
koh, of thin clay tiles. Most of them faced the road so they could
sell their fruit, silks, opium and other exotic wares directly to
the throngs of excited citzens. Meanwhile the back of the boats
were adapted into small homes which also facilitated the transfer
of the goods from the rafts. At that time, transportation and trade
were conducted by river; there was no road link to
Bangkok and Chiang Mai was essentially isolated in the jungle. Goods
would be shifted across the river to a small market on the west
bank and into the hands of the retail merchants. Next to them, vendors
gathered to sell rice, vegetables and other foodstuffs under the
longan trees. This place became known as kad ton lumyai the northern
name for Longan Market, a name that is still recognized today.
Very few visitors would think to venture to the other side of the
Ping to wander around the residential neighborhood of Wat Ket. Not
until a steady stream of restaurants began opening, sporting the
hardwood architecture, offering views of the river and fine dining
in a concrete-free zone. Wat Ket was back on the map.
New faces appeared in the Wat Ket community, entrepreneurs who purchased
old houses by the river from villagers and then converted the buildings
into successful businesses. "The Riverside Bar&Restaurant"
was the first restaurant to settle on the east bank of the river
in 1984. Soon after it was joined by a half-restaurant, half-art
museum now known as "The Gallery". Since then other popular
bar-restaurants and nightspots have appeared.
In recent years the Department of Fine Arts and other organizations
have been campaigning and encouraging the villagers of Wat Ket to
maintain and develop their community with care. Wat Ket temple itself
has witnessed a major renovation.
Perhaps next time you venture down Wat Ket area, you might take
a moment to remember its history - the elephants hauling timber
to the banks, the first sight of Chinese silk, the coffee refineries,
the granaries and the grand teak houses which once proudly overlooked