Five years ago, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) introduced the 'reclaiming pavements for pedestrians’ plan with the goal of bringing cleanliness, safety and orderliness to the city. The urban authority faced many challenges including criticism of the effects on street vendors and other stakeholders. Bangkok has learned lessons from conflicts over public space over the years and has created a new approach that is responsive to individual city needs.
Khlong Ong Ang (literally meaning pottery canal), an old town area of Bangkok, could serve as a regulatory model that has successfully transformed a dilapidated toy market and a severely polluted canal into a new recreational oasis attracting busy foot traffic from locals and foreign visitors alike.
Once a scruffy market for toys and electronic gadgets enthusiasts, Klong Ong Ang is now Bangkok’s latest leisure hotspot for people from all walks of life after undergoing a major beautification.
On the weekend, the waterfront transforms into a vibrant walking street from 4pm to 10pm, and appeals to urbanites for the cooling river breeze and a diversity of activities. This is the first time in 30 years that people can get close to the water in this particular klong and they celebrate in different ways.
Families enjoying an evening strolls and taking selfies with the graffiti on the walls as the backdrop; youngsters kayaking and paddle boarding on the canal; young children munching street food and older folk enjoying live music – all are now common sights at Klong Ong Ang. The walking street is aimed to stimulate the community's economy and generate revenue from tourism. The walking street's event theme will be changed every week.
The BMA couldn’t have asked for more. This was exactly the image the authorities had in mind when they started evicting hundreds of street vendors five years ago, and then dismantling the illegal structures, cleaning the canal water, and beautifying the walkways, turning the area into a new cultural destination for city dwellers. Naturally, the city faced harsh criticisms from the public, who felt nostalgic to leave behind the old charms of the side walk vendors, despite their many health and safety hazards to pedestrians. However, as Klong Ong Ang emerged, the public has now a better understanding and appreciation of the city’s visions and plans. After the demolition work in 2015, the 750m section between the Osathanon Bridge and the Damrong Sathit (Saphan Lek) Bridge went through a major revamp in 2018.
As a result, the section, which is now called Klong Ong Ang, is spotless. The 1.5-km walkways on both sides of the waterfront, have been paved and are illuminated by street lamps while the canal has been cleaned and its sides reinforced with concrete. Artsy elements have been added on the walls along the section with graffiti depicting stories of bygone Bangkok. New drainage covers have been designed for the old town district. Cosplay is encouraged. A 6.4km route between Bang Lamphu and Klong Ong Ang has been designed for kayaking and paddle boarding.
The beautified, well-lit section offering various activities has been dubbed Bangkok’s version of South Korea’s Cheonggyecheon or the Thai take on the Dutch Amstel. The area has undergone many changes over the last two centuries. Dug in 1783 at the order of King Rama I, the section was designed to connect the northern and southern parts of the Chao Phraya River, and sweeps its way through the bustling Chinese and Indian neighbourhoods of Yaowarat and Phahurat. The area was also a popular earthenware market.
Thanks to strong commitment by government agencies, the complete demolition in late October not only marked success in reclaiming public space, but also brought back a place to float krathongs for the first time in decades during the Loy Krathong Festival in November.
Since then, the area has become another Loy Krathong spot and a popular weekend destination. Some have questioned if the facelift is only for show, pointing out that the revamped section is only a tiny part of 7km Klong Rob Krung (literally means canal around the old town) and the rest of the canal has been left in a poor state. More than a dozen mature trees were felled during the rehabilitation, the argument being that they could fall and cause damage to people’s life and property. The cultural elements, namely cosplay and graffiti, and activities like kayaking seem irrelevant to the local lifestyle.
(Updated 16 March 2021)
However, all doubts have been put aside as Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) announced in mid-March 2021 that Klong Ong Ang renovation project was awarded the 2020 Asian Townscape Awards from UN-Habitat Fukuoka, making Thailand one of six countries that were chosen for the landscape improvement project. The other recipients of the award were Japan, South Korea, China, Nepal and Malaysia.
The 2020 Asian Townscape Awards are hosted by the UN-Habitat Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, in cooperation with the Fukuoka Asian Urban Research Centre, Asian Habitat Society, and Asia Townscape Design Society, and designed to honour cities, regions, projects, etc. that have played a significant role as models in landscape construction for the purpose of materialising a living environment that is happy and fulfilling to the people of Asia.
Of course winning the award is rewarding and fufilling to those who realised this project, however, the crux of the matter goes beyond the award itself. This particular project has drawn collaboration and ownership from the local community and brought life back into a street that used to be neglected. It has given the community a spirit of hope and unity as well as a sense of resilience to overcome even unprecedented hardship due to Covid. And it has done many Bangkokians proud. That, in itself, is a reward that is appreciated far beyond any other international recognition or award.
Of course, you should only believe all of this when you’ve visited the place yourself. The typical carefree ambiance and lively chatter of local Thais will let you know that Thailand has never let any adversities overwhelm them. Immersing yourself in the atmosphere of Ong Ang Canal will be like a breath of fresh air when you take your face mask off for a rest from Covid.