In an old guidebook to Bangkok, dating back about 150 years, the writer mentioned a “Red House” on the East bank of the Chao Phraya River exactly 2.3 miles south of Paknam. I have read quite a few contemporary accounts by travellers from the 19th Century that described their first arrival in the Kingdom of Siam. None of them mentioned a Red House. In fact, most just said that there were only mangrove forests and nipa palm trees on both sides of the river. There wasn’t any sign of houses until they reached Paknam about 6 miles north of the river mouth. Using Google Earth, I located a small fishing village alongside a small canal exactly 2.3 miles away from the town. I studied the satellite image closely but I couldn’t see any obvious candidate for a Red House. Even if this was the right place, the chances of it still being there was slim, but I thought that it was worth checking out.
I next studied a map I had of the area. That was when I discovered that the canal was called Khlong Sala Daeng and the fishing village was called Ban Klong Sala Daeng. In Thai, this is often translated as “red pavilion”. This was too much of a coincidence not to be significant. I was sure that I had located the correct location for the Red House that was mentioned in the old guidebook, but I still had no idea what it was or whether it would still be there. The most famous “Sala Daeng” is of course located in Bangkok. By another strange coincidence, this was named after the red roof of the train station on the Paknam Railway. They also had a “Sala Daeng” in Phra Pradaeng. This was more of an open sided pavilion alongside the canal where people could sit and relax. A sala could also be a shelter for a shrine. But, it would have to be big as the foreigners called it the “Red House” and it could be seen from the river.
At the weekend I decided to go and visit Sala Daeng Village. Access is via Taiban Road just past the turn off for Saphan Pla Samut Prakan. This is the big fishing wharf which is also worth a look if you can time your visit to the offloading of a fishing boat. When I arrived at the turn-off I soon realized that the track alongside the canal was too narrow for my car. It was only wide enough for motorcycles and for people to walk. I had already measured the distance on Google Earth and knew that the village was 1.2 kms away. At the top of the track there were some motorcycle taxis. I went over to check with them that this was indeed Sala Daeng Canal. They affirmed that it was and asked if I wanted a lift there. I knew that it wouldn’t cost much to go but I preferred to walk. A few minutes after leaving the busy road, I turned a corner and I was soon alone walking along a path next to the narrow canal. On both sides of the concrete path were nipa palm trees as far as I could see.
Every now and then my peace and quiet was interrupted by the sound of motorbikes. Some of these were local people, others were the motorcycle taxis. The guy in the picture with a red shirt was transporting the leaves of the nipa palm tree that he had just cut. These would be trimmed and dried and later made into wrappers for tobacco. I didn’t meet anyone else walking along this path and obviously they must have all thought that I was crazy to be out walking in the mid-day sun. The only person that I met was a fisherman that was using a net to catch some fish. But, he told me that he hadn’t had any luck so far. In this picture you can see a pair of mud skippers or lung fish which are quite prevalent in this area. Usually they quickly dart across the water if they hear someone coming. At an intersection, I came across a wooden spirit house. This was painted red and the words “daeng noi” were fixed on it. This loosely translates as “Little Red”. I felt that I was getting closer. If there was a small one then “Big Red” could be further up this path.
After walking for about 25 minutes I arrived on the outskirts of the fishing village. I passed some people who were producing different things from the nipa palm tree. This woman was trimming the leaves for making wrappers for tobacco. Someone else was sewing the leaves together to make a thatch for a roof. At another house they were cutting open the fruit to extract a jelly like substance that can be boiled and used in curries. While I was taking pictures, the old woman cutting open the fruit asked for some money. I wasn’t sure if she was joking but I gave my stock reply that I didn’t have any money. I don’t think that she believed me. But then a motorcycle taxi driver that was waiting there said that I obviously didn’t have any money as I just walked here all the way from the road. If I had some money then obviously I would have come on the motorcycle taxi. This of course made perfect sense to everyone and they all agreed that I must be poor. Someone then asked me where I was going. I said that I was looking for Sala Daeng. She replied that I was here already. I knew that would happen. People are so used to place names that they sometimes forget that they are named after places or events. So I said that I was looking for the “sala”. She then said I should go over the bridge and head towards the canal mouth. I was getting closer.
Once over the bridge I was walking down a narrow walk way with houses on both sides. That was when I started hearing the first shouts of “farang”. Obviously this place don’t get many tourists, let alone foreigners. I was starting to cause a bit of a stir. Someone ran ahead of me shouting “The farang are coming! The farang are coming!” I almost expected them to start tolling the warning bell. As I walked down the path I could hear everyone talking about me. Normally in town people pretend not to notice me. Here I was obviously something of a sensation. It was almost like I had found an isolated community that never had any contact with foreigners. Of course that was silly, but then two of the old woman that I passed were sitting there topless, oblivious that I was walking past. Several people asked me where I was going. Again I said that I was looking for “Sala Daeng” and again they told me that I had already arrived. So, I said that I was looking for the “sala”. They then gestured ahead of me and said that it was just around the corner. I was nearly there. My heart was racing. Could this really be the Red House still here after all these years?
I finally reached an open area where there was a big open sided sala with a small red roofed shrine at one end. This obviously wasn’t my “Red House” as it was not only too small but didn’t look old enough. However, this was obviously the sala that people were sending me to. The tall shelter was also used for a kind of communal area for activities and ceremonies. The walls of the shrine were painted yellow. They could have at least painted it red in recognition that their town was called “sala daeng”. There were some locals there and I asked them about “sala daeng”, an old building that was more than 150 years old. At first they said that I was probably in the wrong place. The “sala daeng” that I wanted was in Bangkok. I smiled and said that I had an old map (really an account in an old guidebook) that pinpointed a red building to be exactly here a long time ago. They seemed intrigued but no-one knew of the significance of their village being called “sala daeng”. They said that their shrine wasn’t that old and had been moved a number of times.
I wasn’t really expecting to find the Red House still intact. It would have been made of wood and wouldn’t have survived such a long period of time. My research also showed me that the river used to be a lot wider at this point and so the canal mouth was originally much further inland. As I was about to leave, a woman came up to me to say that there was an older shrine that had been abandoned now. It was further inland but there was no longer any path to get there. It was now surrounded by mud and nipa palm trees. I am not sure if this was my Red House. It could be just another spirit house. A “sala” is more of an open-sided house rather than a shrine. So, for the time being the mystery continues. I did contact a local historian but he has never heard of a Red House alongside the river. However, he did concede that I had most likely located the correct spot for where it would have been all those years ago.