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Tensions Flare in Ancient Thai City Over New Chinese-Backed High-Speed Railway

Aerial view of an elevated track, still under construction as part of the Thai-Chinese Bangkok-Nong Khai high-speed railway project, in Nakhon Ratchasima province. Jack TAYLOR / AFP

Majestic royal palaces, serene Buddhist monasteries, and ancient sacred Buddhist relics known as stupas with intricate carvings stand in stillness, towering above a viewer gazing from the ground. This is Thailand’s Historic City of Ayutthaya: the old city north of the capital Bangkok situated in the middle of three rivers, home to the country’s centuries-old crafts and legacies. In 1991, when Ayutthaya became a UNESCO World Heritage, the UN agency described Ayutthaya as a city that “flourished from the 14th to the 18th centuries, during which time it grew to be one of the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban areas…”

Strategically located at the head of the Gulf of Siam, Ayutthaya rose to be a global trade and diplomacy center, exchanging ambassadors with countries as far as France, India, Japan, and China. This allowed Ayutthaya to enjoy the status as a bridge between the East and the West, rich with art, culture, and advanced urban technologies and architecture, up until it was destroyed by the Burmese army in the mid-1700s. 

Today, Ayutthaya is a city of ancient ruins. It is also one of Thailand’s most magnetic tourism sites, mesmerizing millions of visitors each year. The archaeological treasure’s popularity continued to be primarily boosted by Chinese visitors – Thailand’s major source of tourism revenue – and nostalgia to the country’s past among Thais that see them donning traditional costumes for selfies among the ruins. Just weeks ago, the visit of pop icon Lalisa from K-pop group Blackpink further propelled Ayutthaya’s charm into the global stage.

 A Thai couple admires the Buddha stone statue at the 14th century Wat Mahathat temple complex in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok. Romeo GACAD / AFP

Ayutthaya has faced many tides of history, and now, it finds itself in the midst of a major one. China’s grand plan to build a new silk road – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – will lay out a $12 billion pan-Eurasia rail system, which includes a high-speed train network that will cut through the heart of Ayutthaya’s land smothered with old and vulnerable pagodas. Many Thais embrace the prospects of boosted tourism and economic benefits, while historians and archaeologists are concerned that the infrastructure could irreversibly alter Ayutthaya. 

The BRI rail in Thailand consists of a 608-km route and is part of the line that will stretch from the south of China to the Strait of Malacca. The Indochina section links Kunming to the border town of Boten through Vientiane in Laos before cutting into Thailand in Nong Khai, snaking downward to Bangkok, and finally to Malaysia and Singapore.

The construction of the rail linking Thailand and Laos has not begun. Currently, the Thai government is building the 250-km route linking the Capital Bangkok to the northeastern town of Korat or Nakhon Ratchasima, which is set to open by 2027. The rest of Thailand’s section – Korat-Nong Khai – is expected to begin construction next year.

As the project starts in Ayutthaya and is set to pass through the historical precincts, academics and some local residents are raising concerns about potential damage of the city ruins that could emerge from construction drilling and the operation of the rail. Advocates proposed that an underground rail should be considered, and the rail line should be shifted away from the city center – both costly options.

The Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) – which was conducted by the developer State Railway of Thailand (SRT) at the request of UNESCO – showed that there is a potential for reduced aesthetic quality as a result of the proximity between the ruins and the elevated rail line.

For example, 11 historical sites will be located just a hundred meters from the rail line and another 37 sites will be surrounded by rail within the 200-meter to 500-meter radius. As a result, the view of the stupas’ dome will be adjacent to the rail line once built, according to the HIA.

But the real impact could go far beyond HIA’s evaluation, according to Thai archaeologist Pipad Krajaejun. He believed that there was clearly a lack of awareness about the historical values of Ayutthaya, as the old city risks losing its UNESCO World Heritage status. 

“The city draws tourists, but losing the World Heritage status could also affect tourism,” Krajaejun said.

In May, the SRT said the high-speed train station would be built 1.5 kilometers away from the Ayutthaya Historical Park, a safe distance that would support tourism, reduce traffic jams and minimize the vibration currently caused by a high number of vehicles in the area including tour buses. 

For some other Ayutthaya residents, the rail could be an opportunity. The sight of the unfinished rail foundation poles in parts of the city drew the attention of foreign visitors, who hoped it would help cut short the traveling time from Bangkok which heavily relies on the road system. The only train line linking the capital and Ayutthaya opened in 1896 and has since undergone very little to no improvements.

Sudarat Methasawangvanich, a tour guide and a resident of Ayutthaya, is excited about the high-speed train as she believes that the new infrastructure is going to boost tourism. Instead of getting stuck in traffic jams for two hours on the way to Ayutthaya from Bangkok, visitors can get there in 30 minutes once the high-speed train opens, which means that tourists will be able to visit more places in a day. 

“Which is good for the local economy,” Methasawangvanich said. 

Stakes Are Too High to Fail

The BRI’s connection railway must be scrutinized from geopolitical, geoeconomics, and sociocultural perspectives, but eventually, it should happen, said Daniele Carminati, a senior lecturer at the School of International Relations and Diplomacy at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Regardless of Ayutthaya’s conservation concerns, or Thailand’s new regime’s diplomacy recalibration, the stakes of the project are too high for both China and Thailand. 

For Thailand, “China is too important to truly stand up to, [as] the relations are multifaceted at all levels of society, politics, and economics,” said Carminati. As for China, the superpower will get a major reputation boost if the project is successful. 

Carminati pointed to how the project is going in Laos, which he said is “going well”. The Laos section of the railway successfully opened in December 2021, and the country’s economy is expected to expand. With upgrades to major connectivity infrastructure complete and reopening of borders including with China, international tourist arrivals are projected to double to 2.6 million in 2023 from a year earlier. Transit freight is expected to continue its steady expansion, with 1.3 million passengers and 1.9 million tons of cargo transported through the Laos–China railway in 2022. 

The opening of the China-Laos railway in the Laotian capital Vientiane on November 24, 2021. STR / LAO NATIONAL TV / AFPTV / AFP

“The idea to connect the region, or at least mainland Southeast Asia/Indochina, with China through a reliable, efficient, and widespread rail network has been idealized or envisioned for decades, and few would have been optimistic until the Lao section was completed,” Carminati said.

“I and fellow academics do not oppose the train rail,” Krajaejun the archaeologist said. “Our concern is that the train is going to run through the ancient city on a rail that is lifted about 19 meters from the ground.”

Jitsiree Thongnoi is a journalist based in Bangkok, Thailand. She focuses on politics, social equity and China’s role in Southeast Asia.

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