Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Watgate: Chiang Mai’s International Suburb

                                                                          by Jim Goodman

site of the former Watgate river port
       When King Mengrai of the state of Lanna conquered the ancient Kingdom of Haripunchai in the late 13th century, he decided it was time to move his capital from Fang to somewhere closer to the center of his expanded realm.  Rather then move into Haripunchai (today’s Lamphun), he opted to make that old city Lanna’s spiritual center and instead build a new one at Wiang Kum Kam, about 25 km north.  Unfortunately, located beside the Ping River, the site was prone to regular flooding.
       Fed up with this situation, in 1296 he laid the foundations for Chiang Mai, literally “New City”, a few kilometers north and several hundred meters west of the Ping River, beyond the reach of any flood.  Besides the moats and walls around the city, eventually another wall went up between the eastern side of the city and the river, extending all the way around to the neighborhoods outside the moats to the southwest.  Most of the capital’s commoners lived inside this wall.
the vihatn of Wat Ketdaram
       Some lived along the river, though, for it was Lanna’s prime communication link.  The main port was on the east bank, opposite what is now Warorot market, in what became the district of Watgate.  Except for the small community involved with river trade, most of the area was agricultural and the farms didn’t extend very far from the river.  Nevertheless, in 1428 the royal government sponsored the construction of a temple close to the port, Wat Ketkaram, to service the spiritual needs of the inhabitants.  For over four centuries it was the only religious building east of the Ping River.
          In the late 18th century, after two centuries of rule over Lanna, Burmese authority began to collapse.  Sporadic revolts broke out at various places in the north.  Because they were uncoordinated, the Burmese suppressed them and in some cases retaliated by expelling people from the cities that revolted, such as the entire population of Chiang Mai.  King Kawila of Lampang, allied with the Kingdom of Siam, expelled the Burmese from their Chiang Mai garrison in 1774 and then went on to chase them out of the rest of Lanna over the next several years. 
rainbow strikes the chedi at Wat Ketkaram
Chedi Chula Manee at Loy Krathong
       Rama I of the new Rattanakosin Dynasty appointed Kawila King of Lanna in 1782, but the city was deserted and the campaign against the Burmese far from finished.  Only in 1796, five hundred years after Mengrai founded the city, Kawila finally settled in the capital.  He had spent the previous few years going around to persuade scattered ex-residents to move back, now that it was again safe.
Sala Bitr, the former Chinese school
       Slowly but surely Chiang Mai’s population grew and commerce and agriculture returned to normal.  Watgate port became active again, a business community settled in around it, augmented in the 19th century by Chinese immigrants, who sponsored a major renovation and expansion of Wat Ketkaram.  The renovated Chedi Chula Mani, said to house a hair of the Buddha, is the oldest original building in the compound, whole the rest are 19th and 20th century constructions.
       The viharn (assembly hall) is a beautiful example of the Rattanakosin style, with its multi-layered roof of orange tiles and golden trimmings.  The color red dominates the interior, with tall columns supporting the roofs, a gilded seated Buddha at the far end and a painting of a standing Buddha flanking one of the columns.
the 'dogs' of Wat Ketkaram
       Near the chedi stands a small, elegant open shrine to a standing Buddha, while next to it is the larger ubosot (ordination hall), with the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac sculpted around the exterior walls.  Flanking the doors are high-relief vertical descending tigers, a feature copied on the doors of the abbot’s residence on the other side of the chedi. 
       Behind the shrine stands Sala Bitr, built of dark teakwood and embellished with gold on the door panels and shutters.  The attractive two-story building was originally a school for Chinese but is now empty.  A much larger modern school in the eastern part of the compound has replaced it.
dog sculptures next to the chedi
viharn interior
       The very clean and tidy compound has one other unique feature—its dogs, not the real animals but statues of them.  The chedi was built in the Year of the Dog.  Thus dogs are honored here with statues of various breeds, including ones not native to Thailand.    
the Attaqwa Mosque
         With peace and prosperity continuing, Watgate continued to expand.  Besides the Chinese coming up from Bangkok, the district attracted Muslim Chinese (Hui) in the1870s after the suppression of the Muslim Revolt in Yunnan.  They also established themselves in Warorot, but a large community settled a few blocks east of the river.  They built the Attaqwa Mosque, which eventually included a school with teachers trained in Cairo and Saudi Arabia.  Today the school has 150 students and the language of instruction is Arabic.
       Around the same time Watgate witnessed the arrival of Western missionaries.  They built the first church in 1868 near the river at the southeast corner of the district.  The most prominent were Dr. Daniel and Sophie McGilvary, austere and dedicated, who believed Buddhism was superstitious idolatry and local people needed a true religion like Christianity to save them from the Devil. 
Muslim girls passing through Wat Ketkaram
       Local people felt Buddhism was quite good enough for them and so conversion was slow.  After several years McGilvary could count only eight converts and two of them were killed for it.  The missionary then had to turn his attention to efforts to get the Court in Siam to issue a decree that no one was to be harmed because of conversion.  That success protected his new Christians but did not speed up the conversion rate.
       The next step was to set up schools.  Chiang Mai didn’t have schools then.  All education was in the monasteries and only for boys.  In 1878 the McGilvary couple opened the Phra Racha Chaiya Girls School, named after the young daughter of Chiang Mai’s King Inthawichayanon.   This princess later grew up with the name Dara Rasami and today is revered and remembered as the most famous lady in late Lanna history.  The school eventually changed its name to Dara Academy and now has both girl and boy students.
the Christian School Chapel, Chiang Mai's oldest church
the church at Prince Royal's College
       Dara Rasami’s youth coincided with a time of great political anxiety in the country.  France had begun taking over Indochina and Great Britain had already subjugated much of Burma.  In 1883 a rumor spread that Queen Victoria wished to adopt Dara Radami.  Having just been through problems with British logging interests in the north, the rumor alarmed the Siamese Court.  They viewed it as a possible first step toward seizing Lanna. 
April flowers on Rattanakosin Road
       King Rama V dispatched a delegate to Chiang Mai to propose a royal marriage.  In 1886, the year Britain annexed northern Burma, Dara Rasami left her home to live in the royal palace in Bangkok as one of the king’s consorts.  She and her entourage continued to dress in Lanna style, with very long hair tied in a bun at the top of the head and sarongs with Lanna designs.  Other Court ladies looked down on them, considered them Lao foreigners.  These ladies wore their hair shorter and preferred different kind of sarongs, a style they believed was more ‘civilized’.
       In late1889 she bore the king a daughter, who unfortunately died in early 1892.  The distraught mother destroyed all photos and portraits of the girl.  Princess Dara bore no more children but remained in Bangkok until 1908, when she made a visit to Chiang Mai. Lampang and Lamphun to visit her relatives.  On her arrival in April she was greeted by royal and military officials, soldiers and commoners from all over Lanna.  Likewise, upon her return to Bangkok in November, the King and Court, government officials and Bangkok residents welcomed her back with a flotilla of a hundred royal boats.
Princess Dara Rasami in Chiang Mai
Siri Guru Singh Sabha, Sikh temple on Charoenrat Road
       In 1910 Rama V died.  Four years later Princess Dara asked his successor Rama Vi for permission to return permanently to Chiang Mai.  She remained active in her royal duties and patronage projects until she died in 1933.
       Much had changed since Princess Dara first moved to Bangkok.  In 1887 the missionaries opened another school in Watgate—the Chiang Mai Boys School.  This institution would educate Thai boys in subjects they did not study at the monasteries, like science, mathematics and, naturally, Protestant Christian theology.  It was successful and won royal favor such that in 1906, expanding into new buildings, Crown Prince Maha Vajiravudh, later Rama VI, came up from Bangkok to lay the cornerstone.  Thereafter its name was Prince Royal’s College.
=old buildings on Charoenrat Road
display in the Watgate Museum
       In 1888 missionaries opened McCormick Hospital on Kaew Nawarat Road, between Prince Royal’s and Dara Academy.  By establishing the first public health care center, with all the latest modern medicines and treatments, as well as the first formal schools, the missionaries certainly raised their prestige.  Though the great majority of Buddhists clung to their religion, conversions did grow.  Today Chiang Mai province has the largest number of ethnic Thai Christians in the country. 
       Meanwhile another foreign religious community immigrated to Chiang Mai and took up residence in Watgate—Sikhs from British India.  The first arrived in 1905, a cloth merchant who later persuaded many others to join him.  They also got involved in the cloth business, and still are, and in 1907 set up a gurudwara (Sikh temple) on Charoenrat Road along the Ping River—Siri Guru Singh Sabha, a large white block building with a golden dome on the roof.
the British Council, built in 1952
       The Watgate port was still active, but not for long.  When Princess Dara made her 1908 trip she went by train to Nakhon Sawan and by boat from there to Chiang Mai.  The journey took two months and nine days.  In the early 1920s workers completed a railroad and highway from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, reducing travel time either direction to just over a day.  River commerce was over.  But Watgate had already outgrown its port.
       The district included all the neighborhoods on either side of the three roads—Charoen Muang, Kaew Nawarat and Rattanakosin--that ran east of the three main bridges spanning the Ping River.  The new train station stood near the end of Charoen Muang and the northern bus terminal lies near the end of Kaew Nawarat.  The river port was dismantled and farms behind the eastern riverbank largely disappeared, replaced by residential neighborhoods. 
       For a look at the artifacts, crafts, photos and items of everyday use in this period one should visit Wat Ketkaram’s Museum, established around a century ago.  Many Lannna temples have museums, but this is the largest.  Furnishings, images, manuscripts and decorations from the original temple are on display, but the collection also includes a host of objects representing the secular life of the times.  These include baskets, musical instruments, leather cases, old typewriters, radios and phonographs, hunting and fishing gear, wooden animal head trophies, looms, thread winders, classic sarongs and festival rocket launchers.
a modern traditional style house in Watgate
       As the century progressed Watgate retained its importance to Chiang Mai’s educational program.  Dara Academy and Prince Royal’s College expanded into new buildings and today have a few thousand students.  Payap University, another Christian-sponsored institution, opened a campus opposite McCormick Hospital.  Facing Rattanakosin Road, in the rear of the campus, is the McGilvary Institute for religious studies.  Chiang Mai’s first church still stands, now called Chiang Mai Christian School Chapel, next to a Bible Study Institute.
       Besides the Christian schools, Watgate also has some language learning institutes.  The first was the British Council, on Bamrungrat Road, constructed in 1952, whose activities today are basically restricted to teaching English.  Besides English academies, there is also a center nearby for foreigners to learn Thai.
       From the late 90s tourism to Thailand accelerated and affected developments in Watgate.  New restaurants and nightclubs lined the riverbank between Charoen Muang and Kaew Nawarat.  Many of the fine old wooden houses were converted into hotels and art galleries.  The quiet end of Rattanakosin features several buffet grills, though customers are mostly Thai.
NcGilvary Academy, Payap University
       In fact, for all the foreigner presence in Watgate, the district’s residents are still predominantly Thai.  Several Buddhist temples have been built the last few decades, plus a crematorium at the end of Rattanakosin.  Typical of suburban Thai life is the warren of lanes behind this road.  Some of the houses are quite fancy, old or new, others very modest.  The residents include white-collar professionals and ordinary workers and traders, some of whom transport their goods in side carts attached to their motorbikes. Shops on the lanes cater to the neighborhood’s needs, including convenience stores, legal offices, realtors, beauty salons, food stores and small restaurants.
       Bars, karaoke clubs and snack and grill stands are just around the corner, opening in late afternoon.  People also gather at the tables in front of the small essentials shops to have a ‘sundowner’ beer or whisky.  It’s a quiet and convivial scene, far from city congestion and one of the delights of being a resident of Watgate.

Watgate riverside in May

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