Everyday thousands of tourists pass up and down the Chao Phraya river but few pay any attention to the decaying but still magnificent relic of Bangkok’s 19th century Customs House close by to the luxurious Oriental Hotel.
Built in 1888 during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) the Customs House was part of the King’s drive to modernise Siam by restructuring the government administration along modern European lines and by constructing public buildings fit for the new class of bureaucrats. The building was designed in neoclassical style by the Italian architect Joachim Grassi, who resided many years in Siam and was responsible for designing a large number of buildings in Bangkok. At that time the Customs House was one of Bangkok’s most impressive administrative buildings.
The main building of the Customs House is connected to outer buildings by bridges at each end. These wooden bridges are now in a state of disrepair.
For 50 years the Customs House was the gateway to Siam and it would have been the arrival point for most travellers to Siam one hundred years ago. It was also the place where duties would be payable on exports and imports. So what sort of goods would have been dealt with at that time? The tables below show the range of the goods crossing Siam’s borders in the first years of the twentieth century (1 Tical = £20 in 1902). It is no surprise to see that rice tops the table for exports by a large margin. The export of teak was dominated by the British. The British also dominated the import trade seen to range from cotton goods to opium, the latter being distributed in Siam at that time through a highly lucrative government monopoly.
The Customs House was closed in 1949 when port administration moved to Khlong Toei. Subsequently the building was used by the fire service for many years, progressively slipping into disrepair. There are currently plans to restore this magnificent building as a luxury hotel.
The Customs House’s importance to trade is emphasised by two other splendid buildings that stand close by, just past The Oriental Hotel. The white neo-classical East Asiatic Company building was the headquarters of a Danish global trading company. The East Asiatic Company (EAC) began life as H.N. Andersen & Co in 1884, being incorporated in Copenhagen as the EAC thirteen years later. Andersen had previously been the captain of King Mongkut’s (Rama IV) royal ship and was the first to export Thai teak to Europe in competition to the established Burmese teak trade controlled by the British. This kicked-off a huge teak trade between Siam and Europe over the next four decades. The East Asiatic Company employed about 150 elephants in its teak concession in Prae province of northern Siam. The cut teak trees would be floated downriver to Bangkok, a journey of several weeks, where the East Asiatic Company operated a saw mill along the banks of the Chao Phraya River.
The next building along the riverside is the Siamese headquarters for the Banque d’Indochine, established by the French government to manage its financial affairs throughout its Indochinese colonies. The French had great plans for Siam, almost incorporating it forcefully into French controlled Indochina in 1893 (See our article here). But in the end this never happened and the British maintained their dominance in Siam’s trade. At that time trade with Britain made up 93% of Siam’s exports, compared with just 2% for France. By 1903 the Banque d’Indochine in Bangkok had only lent out two million francs (£78,824 at the time). One suspects that the ambitions for Banque d’Indochine in Bangkok were never fulfilled.
Where To Go
- The French Wolf and the Siamese Lamb: The French Threat to Siamese Independence 1858-1907 Patrick Tuck 1995 White lotus Press ISBN9789748496283 Pg 386
- The Kingdom of Siam: Ministry of Agriculture Louisiana Purchase Exhibition St. Louis USA 1904 Reprinted The Siam Society 1988 ISBN9748298132