Travel

Preserving heritage

Local revitalisation efforts shine the spotlight again on what was once the bustling Samchuk Market in Suphan Buri

published : 5 Jul 2023 at 04:00
newspaper section:
Life

Khun Jamnong Museum, Samchuk Market.

The heart of a community encapsulates its cherished history and aspirations. And in the dynamic community of Samchuk Market in Suphan Buri, that beating heart is surely Baan Khun Jamnong Jeenarak.

Built over a century ago in 1916, this three-storey timber and concrete house, originally owned by a tax collector and landlord who governed the district, was restored and converted into a community museum in 2004. It was part of the broader Samchuk Revitalisation Project (1999–2006) initiated by the Chumchonthai Foundation in close consultation with members of the community. Three years after completion, its resounding success as a “holistic” revitalisation of a “historic commercial hub” was recognised by Unesco with an Award of Merit as part of its 2009 Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

Today, the Khun Jamnong Museum continues to nurture appreciation for local history and contribute meaningfully to the Samchuk Market community’s sense of pride. In addition, the museum lies at the heart of a new economy based not only upon Samchuk Market’s operation — a feat in itself — but cultural tourism as well. Upon entering the building, one’s attention is instantly drawn to an impressive scale model of the old market district. At a glance, the model affords a grasp of the market’s overall layout, in which over 150 two-storey timber shophouses line both sides of the four principal streets that lead to the Tha Chin River — the watery thoroughfare that was once the very raison d’être for this historic commercial settlement.

For pedestrians swept up in the bustling energy of the market, this strategic layout may elude immediate comprehension, as culinary delights (such as roasted duck, rice wrapped in lotus leaf and Thai sponge cake), regional handcrafted mementos and assorted sundries all simultaneously vie for attention. But in the relative calm of the Khun Jamnong Museum, the microcosmic eloquence of the scale model taken together with the informative permanent displays conveys the strong impression that over the course of its existence, the community’s evolution partook larger social, cultural and economic forces that shaped the entire Samchuk district and beyond.

A view of Samchuk Market from Pornpracha Bridge. (Photos: UNESCO/Chairat Chongvattanaki)

One could start with the Tha Chin River basin, which has been attracting human inhabitation with its rich fertility since prehistoric times. As is characteristic of the central plains of Thailand, paddy fields have been, and continue to be, a common sight in the region. Archaeological evidence suggests that the area now known officially as Samchuk district has been populated since the Dvaravati period (6th–11th centuries), and Mahayana Buddhist artefacts dating back to the 13th century have been unearthed at Nern Tang Pra, the district’s most important religious site.

Samchuk district began to experience significant population growth in the early Rattanakosin era (1782-1851), spurred by the growing trade of rice and charcoal. In an age when waterways were the lifeblood of commerce, Samchuk Market prospered as a trading hub that intermingled people and cultural practices of diverse ethnicities, with Chinese merchants comprising the majority.

In Nirat Suphan, a collection of poetic verses recount Sunthorn Phu’s (1786–1855) journey to Suphan Buri in 1842 (apparently undertaken in a futile search for base metals to be transmuted into gold). The renowned early modern court poet evocatively characterised the moniker “Samchuk” as being virtually synonymous in everyday parlance with numerous docked boats and the busy exchange of everyday goods.

Chinese musicians depicted on the doors of a shophouse. 

Samchuk Market enjoyed its golden age in the early decades of the 20th century. After World War II, however, the emergence of more modern markets and evolving modes of transportation that shifted from waterways to concrete highways — the Malaiman Road, or Highway 321 connecting Suphan Buri to Bangkok via Nakhon Pathom especially — precipitated the market’s gradual decline. In 2006, the Treasury Department, which owns much of the land and properties in Samchuk, drafted plans to modernise the entire market area. This would have entailed the eviction of local residents and the destruction of the traditional shophouses. Catalysed into action, the community came together and protested. In response to community efforts, the Fine Arts Department designated the market area as a Local Historic District in 2007, lending support to the grassroots-led revitalisation of Samchuk Market. The Treasury Department relented, and joining hands with the community, a partnership was undertaken to make something more historic and sustainable of this revitalisation than anyone had initially anticipated.

The 2009 citation by Unesco in its Award of Merit for the Samchuk Community and Old Market District underscored that “the community has been the main driving force for the [conservation] project at all levels, from setting policy to establishing urban design guidelines”. As an example of technical achievement, one need only look back to the Khun Jamnong Museum itself. Here, the project’s conservation team meticulously documented construction details of what originated at the turn of the 20th century as a private residence befitting a local official, including the building’s intricate ornamental subtleties (such as the silk-screened ceramic floor tiles) and the early application of the reinforced concrete and timber-frame construction method, to ensure that any restoration would honour both the material and aesthetic qualities of the place.

Local students perform Thai classical music for visitors. 

“In contrast to World Heritage sites, which must satisfy the criteria of outstanding universal value, the Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation programme aims to recognise bottom-up conservation efforts initiated by the private sector or through public-private partnership,” said Montakarn Suvanatap Kittipaisalsilp, associate project officer for culture at Unesco Bangkok.

As demonstrated by the Samchuk Community and Old Market District, such efforts not only keep valued heritage meaningful and purposeful in modern contexts, but also augur well for the long-term sustainable development of local communities.

Noteworthy local conservation projects in the Asia-Pacific region are encouraged to apply for the Unesco Awards. Submissions are accepted until July 31. For more information, visit bangkok.unesco.org.

Chairat Chongvattanakij is a Thai-Canadian consultant specialising in content creation for the Public Information and Outreach team at Unesco Bangkok.

A model of Samchuk district in the museum. 

The balcony of Khun Jamnong Museum. 

Shophouses lining the street at Samchuk Market. 


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