Bangkok was originally a water borne city with the majority of its residents living on boats along the river or canals. But as the twentieth century progressed more and more canals or “khlongs” were covered over to form roads for the all pervasive motor cars. One legacy of this early history is that Bangkok is a city of hundreds of road bridges, these days hidden in plain sight as the majority of people cross them oblivious in their cars.
In 1894 King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) considered the building of bridges so important to the establishment of a modern city that he initiated a program of funding the construction of a bridge each year to celebrate his birthday. Under this “Chalerm Bridge Series” (Celebration Bridges) a total of seventeen bridges were built around Bangkok numbered according to his birthdays 42 through to 58 (The final two being built after the King’s death). His son and successor King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) continued this for a further six years as the “Chareon Bridge Series” (Progress Bridges).
Unfortunately only three of the original Chalerm Bridges remain, these being Saphan Chalerm Pantu 53, Saphan Chalerm Lok 55 and Saphan Chalerm Lar 56 usually known as “Saphan Hua Chang” (Elephant Head Bridge).
Saphan Chalerm Lar 56 – Elephant Head Bridge
Saphan Chalerm Lar 56 is the most impressive of the remaining birthday bridges. It is located just north of the Siam Discovery Centre on Phaya Thai Road as the road crosses the Saen Saeb Canal. The bridge is notable for the four-headed white elephant pillars at each corner of the bridge. These were to commemorate the fact that King Chulalongkorn had attained the same age as his Grandfather Phra Phutthaloetla Naphalai (Rama II) who had been noted for having four white elephants. It must be said that to the modern eye they look strangely like ballistic missiles !
The postcard of Elephant Head Bridge below from 1909 shows the incredible changes that have transformed Bangkok since the time of the bridge’s construction. There is absolutely no possibility to recreate this photo in today’s dense urban concrete landscape.
Saphan Chalerm Panthu 53
Saphan Chalerm Panthu 53 is perhaps the most well hidden of the remaining birthday bridges. It is located on Charoen Krung Road where the road crosses Sathorn cana,l but it is completely overshadowed by the vast modern structures of Saphan Taksin BTS station and Sathorn Road flyovers.
The bridge itself is made of concrete and wrought iron in a style that was popular in Chulalongkorn’s time. It had a rather confusing genesis since the only surviving documents show it was planned as a larger bridge further north where Yaowarat Road meets Charoen Krung Road. For reasons that are now lost it ended up in its current position across Sathorn Canal.
Furthermore, one kilometre south where Charoen Krung Road crosses Wat Yannawa canal another small bridge uses the same wrought iron balustrade as Saphan Chalerm Panthu 53. It appears that what was originally a single bridge became two bridges in the move south down New Road.
Saphan Chalerm Lok 55
Saphan Chalerm Lok 55 is perhaps the easiest to find of the remaining birthday bridges. It is located on Ratchadamri Road as it crosses Saen Saeb canal in the heart of Pratunam. It is the only birthday bridge made of reinforced concrete. At the time of its construction it was viewed by the King as an important link between the north and south parts of the city which he predicted would be used day and night. Judging by the traffic jams constantly crossing this bridge today he was certainly correct.
Saphan Charoen Rat 31
My favourite birthday bridge is actually the first in the Charoen series sponsored by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) for his 31st birthday in 1911. Saphan Charoen Rat 31 is located on Maharat Road where it crosses the inner moat Rop Krung south of the Grand Palace.
The beautiful sweeping curves of the concrete balustrades together with the rearing wild tigers supporting the pillars makes this bridge quite unique.
The wild tigers that are such a feature of this bridge no doubt allude to the Wild Tiger Corps, a para-military organisation that King Vajiravudh established in the same year as the building of this bridge. He also established the Tiger Cubs organisation for children which became associated with the world scouting movement.