WHAT’S IN A NAME?
LEONARD H. LE BLANC III
It is hard to imagine that over 150 years ago what is now Silom Road was nothing more than an area of paddy fields and vegetable gardens. Silom Road got its start in 1861 after complaints by Western residents to King Rama IV about the lack of roads in Bangkok where expats might promenade in the evening for relaxation. Along with Charoen Krung and Hualampong Roads it was one of the first thoroughfares constructed by the government.
Originally Silom Road was a canal, called Klong Silom, which saw construction started in 1858. The canal, completed in 1861, was two kilometres long and 12 metres wide. The name ‘Silom’ derived from a windmill a foreigner had built nearby (‘Silom’ is ‘windmill’ in Thai). The purpose of the canal was to transport cattle to the markets at Sala Daeng, near the present intersection of Silom and King Rama IV Roads. Silom Road was constructed at about the same time and running parallel to the canal, connecting the Chao Phraya River and Pra Khanong canal. The dirt excavated from the canal was piled up along the banks and became the roadway surface. Silom Road was first called Thanon Kwang (meaning Cross Road) since it connected Charoen Krung and Thanon Trong (meaning Straight Road, later to be called Rama IV) roadways. At the time there were only a few houses clustered near Charoen Krung and Rama IV Roads, mainly filled with Western, Chinese and Indian residents. The surrounding area was used for growing rice, mangoes, green onions, bananas, Chinese cabbage, sugar cane and betel nuts. Since this was considered the suburbs, some Thai noblemen and civil servants became fond of the idyllic life away from the city centre, so the district grew more residential.
From 1887 onwards Silom Road opened the way for private construction of two parallel roads, Sathorn and Suriwongse. In 1888, Luang Sathornrajayukti (Yom Pisalbutr) started construction on another road-canal, running parallel to Silom. This road was named ‘Sathorn’. The area continued to open up to more residents and around 1893 Chao Phya Surawongsewattanasak ordered construction of Surawongse Road, also parallel to Silom. During the reign of King Rama VI (1910-1925) a tramline opened up connecting Charoen Krung Road and Pratunam through Silom. Later the Nai Lert bus line operated along the same route.
Business activity started in 1912 when official land deeds were issued, consisting of homes and offices. After 1945, business rapidly expanded and Silom saw more commercial enterprises established along the road. In 1950 Patpong Road was constructed to connect Silom and Suriwongse. Bangkok’s accelerated development saw the end of the tramway lines and in 1965 the canal was filled in to allow more space for roadway traffic. Major banks, insurance companies, financial firms and related businesses started to be established thus cementing Silom’s reputation as “The Wall Street of Thailand.”
There are several noteworthy sites along Silom Road reflecting the strong international connections the road has always retained. One of the most distinctive landmarks is the Hindu Temple of the Goddess Uma, built in 1895 by Indian residents who wanted a temple to practice their religion. The temple was constructed in the Southern-style of temple architecture.
Another interesting landmark is the large Christian cemetery. A group of priests bought a paddy field in 1905 and converted it. This was when Silom was still a quiet, leafy suburban street with horse-drawn carriages. The site was later expanded to where it is now the largest cemetery in the city. Because it sits on probably the most prime commercial land in Bangkok there have been on-going discussions whether or not to move the cemetery elsewhere since it has reached its limit for further burials.
One of the most striking buildings on Silom is the Dusit Thani hotel at the corner of King Rama IV Road. Originally the site held a large home constructed in 1887. It was demolished in 1966 and the Dusit Thani was built in 1970 as one of the premier hotels in the city, a distinction it holds to date.
Now Silom is a bustling concentration of all manner of businesses. Leading bank headquarters, shopping malls, stores that specialize in jewelry, textiles, antiques and souvenirs, hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues and related firms are all clustered along the roadway. Although other major shopping centres have opened up in other parts of the city, Silom remains the premier place to do business in Bangkok.