Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Sketching Mahakan Fort Community

Pom Mahakan
Copyright © Favian Ee

I had just visited Bangkok in November 2016 for the inaugural AsiaLink Sketchwalk. Within 3 months I was back again. It is extremely rare that I would visit a same location in such a short duration, but the urgency to make this trip meant it could not be delayed - Mahakan Fort Community was going to be torn down.

Mahakan Fort is one of 2 remaining fortifications on Rattanakosin Island in Bangkok. It stands at the gateway to the royal city. To the south of the fort lies a community that is said to be about 2 centuries old. It is unique, with houses made of wood and zinc, some 2 storeys high. The community has occupied the space for over a century, but, as I learned, they were renting the land from the land owners, who had since sold the plot to the local government. The government has been trying to evict the community for the last 20 years, intending to turn the area into a public park. Several houses had already been demolished before I visited in November and the date for further demolition was scheduled for February. Hence I made the trip back in January 2017 to sketch the place one last time, and to learn about the situation at the fort.

Day 1: Arriving in Bangkok

I booked a night flight, since I had to work in the morning. I was determined to travel without check-in luggage, but I was not a light packer and the bags I had were not terribly light either. So instead of paying for check-in luggage on my budget flight, I spent more money buying a new bag and a photographer's vest. Barely made it past customs! I think my new Cabin Zero bag and my daypack totalled 9.9kg after I removed my SLR and plastic folder and iPad. It was a huge relief. But it also meant that I couldn't go shopping for souvenirs unless I wanted to pay for more luggage weight. I spent the 2-hour flight recalling and drawing the contents of my bags.

Sketches of my packing list that I did on the plane. I finished it later.
Copyright © Favian Ee


First sketch in Bangkok!
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Mahakan Fort at night from my taxi
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My 6 sqm room
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After having dinner at the airport, I decided to take a cab to my hotel. I got my room at a really good rate. After my ordeal during my last trip, I scoured the room for signs of bedbugs. To my horror, I found one in a corner! I immediately requested a change of room, which they obliged. To be fair, it's a nice clean hotel with great location, and travelers can bring bedbugs in anytime. Thankfully my new room was clean and bedbug-free.

Day 2: Sketching with Urban Sketchers, Thailand


I didn't get to try much street food during the last trip so I headed to a food street down the road from where I was staying for breakfast. Cheap and good! I did a sketch there too.

My hotel floor had a good view of the Democracy Monument
Copyright © Favian Ee

Street market breakfast!
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Draw your food!
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After breakfast, I met up with my friends from the previous trip for a morning of sketching at Mahakan Fort Community. We could hear the headman making announcements over the amplifier. I was told he also told the residents of our visit.

Oh and I
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Tae. I should've worn my stripes too!
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Tae and Aat
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Louis and Oh
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My sketch of the House of Thai Massage
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Sketches by Tae and me
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Copyright © Favian Ee

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House of Gold Melting Artisan
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House of Waterworks
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Small lane between houses. Exit from the community is up ahead.
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Palace Police's House
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Ong Ang Canal
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Water monitors frequent the khlongs
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House of Thai Music
The headman stays here
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Demolished house
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Community Space with House of Thai Massage in the centre
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After some serious sketching, we had lunch at the temple market across the street before going back for round 2.

Lunch at the temple market
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The Community Space
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Sketching from the second level terrace of
the House of Thai Massage
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My sketches for the morning and afternoon
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Show-and-Tell!
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We parted ways in the afternoon. Tae became my tour guide for the day and took me around the different communities in the area.


Walkabout the surrounding communities
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Copyright © Favian Ee

Back at Mahakan Fort Community
Here's a demolished house where we sketched along the khlong
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Copyright © Favian Ee


We met up again with Louis while finishing our last sketch at Mahakan Fort Community and went off to meet Mor and Sutien for dinner.

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No, Tae didn't model for this restaurant
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Friends in all places!
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After dinner, my friends took me to the famous Khao San Road and the neighbouring Rambuttri Road. It's extremely touristy. Not my kind of thing. Loud music, street hawkers, tourist traps, crowds of caucasians and other foreigners... I composed a haiku once about places like these:

Manicured spaces
The tourist travels abroad
Never leaving home

This was one of those typical Southeast Asian tourist traps made to appeal to western tourists. It is a culture of its own, but I find it inauthentic. I don't like loud music and crowds either. I see travel as a learning experience, and that means getting local, eating local food, experiencing local life and art. If all we do during your travels is huddle in tourist traps and shopping malls, I think we're really missing a lot and forming false impressions of our host country.

Nevertheless these kinds of things are part of a country's tourist culture, and I appreciate that my friends brought me here to have a looksee. Watch out for pickpockets if you go tho'.

Copyright © Favian Ee

Copyright © Favian Ee

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Copyright © Favian Ee

Mor, Tae, Sutien
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We stopped for supper before going back. It's great to have friends in different countries, and I've made so many over the years being part of Urban Sketchers.

Day 3: Sketching at Mahakan Fort

I was on my own again. This was my first true solo trip. I had breakfast at a streetside stall my Singapore friends tried during the previous trip. Noodle soup with mixed meats. Yum! After that, I had to get some of that coffee Oh bought for me the day before.

Street food breakfast!
Copyright © Favian Ee

Copyright © Favian Ee

Loha Prasat, the metal castle
(a temple, actually. Also called Wat Ratchanatdaram)
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Hipster coffee inside Wat Ratchanatdaram
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First order of the day was a visit to Mahakan Fort Community again. I made the acquaintance of a resident by the name of Nuan (actually her nickname. Many locals have nicknames on top of their full names). She let me sit in her house to sketch and tried her best to make me comfortable.

Fighting cocks!
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Copyright © Favian Ee

Copyright © Favian Ee


Copyright © Favian Ee
 
Nuan and the paintings she was given
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My sketch of Nuan
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Nuan with my sketch of her house
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My sketch of Nuan's house
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In her barely serviceable English, Nuan told me about her family. She had lived at Mahakan Fort Community all 40 decades of her life. Her parents moved in after they got married. Her mom had just passed on the week before and her dad was ill. She was proud to show me 2 watercolour pieces given to her and asked me to do a drawing of her, which I happily obliged. I met her daughter and her niece too.

Nuan, her daughter and her niece
Copyright © Favian Ee


I decided to take a walk round the city and have lunch at the place Tae and I ended up for dessert the day before. Good traditional Thai food!

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Pad thai and lemongrass drink
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I went back to Mahakan Fort Community for more sketching and to take photos of the place at sunset. I popped by Nuan's place again. Her extended family was around (they share the house) and they were eating bugs. They offered me some but I declined, not because I'm afraid of eating bugs, but because Tae told me to be careful of those sold at Khao San Road as some may have been killed using insecticide.

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Copyright © Favian Ee

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Copyright © Favian Ee

House 95
Sadly this house has just been demolished
in spite of earlier agreements to conserve it
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Copyright © Favian Ee

Copyright © Favian Ee

Sunset at Mahakan Fort
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Sunset at Wat Ratchanatdaram
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Evening in Mahakan Fort Community
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Nuan and family
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Fireworks shop
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Night falls at Wat Ratchanatdaram
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Pom Mahakan and the Golden Mount
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I decided to spoil myself a little after a hot day so I headed to Dialogue cafe for dinner.

Maps from Dialogue Cafe
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Dinner of pizza, waffles with ice cream and honey soda at Dialogue Cafe
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I did one more sketch after dinner from a photo I took earlier.

Sunset at Mahakan Fort
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Neverending circus
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Day 4: Visit to Phra Sumen Fort

Breakfast was back at the food street. I decided to buy some fritters for my new friend Nuan.

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Fritters for me and Nuan
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Morning was spent back at Mahakan Fort Community. I was in luck! There were some university students on a learning trip, and they were having a sharing session with Khun Kob, the headman. Nuan had set up a stall selling sausages and fishballs and she gave me some.

School visit!
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Copyright © Favian Ee



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I took some photos with the group of students and asked them to write their names in my sketchbook for me.


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I took the opportunity to explore the community more.

Map of Mahakan Fort Community
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Exhibition area in the House of Thai Massage
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Sketch of Mahakan Fort and surrounds in the
House of Thai Massage
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Khun Kob (Thawatchai Woramahakun)
Mahakan Fort Community leader
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House of Earthenware
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House of Earthenware
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House of Earthenware
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Provision shop

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Fighting cocks

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House of Zebra Dove Cages
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Zebra dove cages
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Before leaving for the afternoon, I did one more sketch of the fort itself.

Pom Mahakan (Mahakan Fort)
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My sketch of Pom Mahakan
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It was really hot. After lunch at a coffeeshop, I decided I needed some air-con, so I popped in a restaurant to cool off and do some drawing.

Copyright © Favian Ee

Copyright © Favian Ee



The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around the city, going down Khao San Road and Rambuttri Road again (this time in the daytime), while making my way to the riverside and Phra Sumen Fort.

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Finally reached Phra Sumen Fort
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Pom Phra Sumen
1 of 2 remaining fortifications around the royal city
There used to be 14 such forts
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Pom Phra Sumen
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Pom Phra Sumen
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Memorial to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej
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Pom Phra Sumen in Santichaiprakarn Park
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Sunset on the Chao Phraya River
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Pom Phra Sumen
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Dinner was across the road from Pom Phra Sumen at a newly reopened restaurant, Nopparat. It's a family-run establishment and I had a wonderful meal at an amazing price! The proprietor's son is an art student and he had painted a beautiful mural on the wall of the late King Bhumibol.

Dinner at Nopparat
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Paat here painted the mural on the wall of his family's restaurant
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I walked back to my hotel and got myself a drink and dessert and did one last sketch for the day of Pom Phra Sumen.

Sketch of Pom Phra Sumen
Copyright © Favian Ee


Day 5: Saying Goodbye

Breakfast on my last day was at a coffeeshop nearby since the food street seemed to be pretty much closed on a Saturday morning. I had a few things to accomplish today, the first was to search for and purchase a native Thai flute called the Khlui.

Breakfast at some coffeeshop
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The Giant Swing
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Many firearms stores around Old Siam
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I walked to Old Siam Plaza where my Bangkok friends told me I could find an instrument stall. Sure enough I did! The stall owner, Muth, told me he also did music for animation. He gave me a 200 baht discount on a beautiful piece I picked made of black payunt wood, which originally cost 2500 baht.

Muth, the musical instrument seller
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My new khlui
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Bangkok Metropolitan Administration building
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After packing, I checked out and paid one final visit to Mahakan Fort Community on my way to the jetty to make my way to town. I said goodbye to Nuan and Khun Kob. Nobody knows if I'll ever see them again once the community is demolished.

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House of Likay
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Copyright © Favian Ee

Copyright © Favian Ee

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Copyright © Favian Ee


The ferry is a quick way to get into town via the khlongs (canals). Road traffic is notoriously horrible in Bangkok. The ferries are cheap and traffic-free. Only thing is the water is extremely dirty - maybe even toxic - so you want to protect your face since the ferries sit very low in the water.

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Raise the blinds to avoid splashes!
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Khlongs
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I went to town to visit a painter friend's exhibition. Boat was also having a watercolour demo. I had lunch at a mall and met Tae, Yukan, and another friend before heading to Chulalongkorn University with all my bags to see the demo and exhibition. Boat's work is simply AMAZING.

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Copyright © Favian Ee

Boat's watercolour pieces!
Photo Copyright © Favian Ee

Boat's watercolour pieces!
Photo Copyright © Favian Ee

Boat's watercolour pieces!
Photo Copyright © Favian Ee

Boat's demo
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After the exhibition, it was time to head to the airport. I took the Airport Rail Link, a monorail service that connects to Suvarnabhumi Airport. The express service was out so I took the normal service.

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Copyright © Favian Ee

Suvarnabhumi airport
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Dinner was at the airport. I spent most of my baht on the khlui, and finished the rest of it on snacks. I sat next to a Swedish chap who had some bad food poisoning and was traveling to Singapore for a few days. My dad picked me up from Changi Airport and drove me home.



Post Script

If I were to sum up this trip in one word, it would be "preservation". I guess the lingering question is: Do we really need to demolish an entire community to create an open public park? I don't know the reasons behind the government's decision, but I haven't heard any good explanation. The way the authorities have chosen to carry out the demolition have riled more than a few feathers. The voices of supporters and lobby groups have pretty much fallen on deaf ears. Just a few days ago, demolition of several more houses began, including the 2-storey House 95 where I met some little children playing at the staircase.

Urbanization always carries a price. Singapore faces it all the time. At least for us the demolition of old buildings is to make way for infrastructure, and not simply a park. We have more conservation here in Singapore, but it's the type of conservation that preserves the structure while removing its original character. In space-scarce Singapore, I guess we shouldn't complain too much since we do have some heritage after all, but so much is lost to urbanization, not the least of which is an older less hurried way of life, free from the trappings of consumerism and materialism.

It is a shame the Mahakan Fort Community has to endure such a fate. The residents have no legal ownership of the land, and thus have little say. I'm glad to have been able to visit and sketch the place, and that many other artists have made effort to document the community and the quaint wooden houses, some of which have stood there for over a hundred years, but have fallen in minutes under the bulldozer. Where will the residents live? Is the compensation adequate? What will become of this space? Why did it have to happen?

I have no answers, and answers don't seem to be forthcoming. The situation seems complex. Even if the government has every right to do what it wishes with the land that has been legally purchased, the lives involved and affected make things hard to swallow. There's really nothing I can do, and it seems selfish of me to have visited only to take in the place before it is gone, but hopefully what I've left behind are newly-forged friendships, and what I can share are thoughts of how we might want to think about urbanization, conservation, and preservation.

Copyright © Favian Ee

Copyright © Favian Ee

Copyright © Favian Ee



Goodbye, Mahakan Fort Community. It was nice knowing you...



Links:


Green Space vs. Community: The future of Mahakan Fort
http://bk.asia-city.com/city-living/news/future-mahakan-fort-green-space-community

Final countdown for historic Mahakan Fort community
http://www.bangkokpost.com/learning/learning-news/922233/countdown-ending-for-historic-mahakan-fort-community

Mahakan Fort's historic houses to be demolished
http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/general/1208917/mahakan-forts-historic-houses-to-be-demolished

Mahakan Fort mourns loss of century-old house
http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/general/1209977/mahakan-fort-mourns-loss-of-century-old-house


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