Excerpts from the author’s weekend experience on the river
Captain John Bush existed, and by contemporary accounts he was just as his name suggests. Anna Leonowens, of Anna and the King of Siam fame, first met him when he sailed out to meet her incoming ship on the night of 15th March 1862. Anna, alone except for her six-year-old son, had been distraught to learn no one had arranged accommodation for her in Bangkok, but the kindly captain took her and the lad ashore and housed them in his riverside home.
Anna, when writing the book that would immortalise her, described him as “a cheery Englishman, with a round, ruddy, rousing face,” and added that he and his wife had shown her many kindnesses.
I’m staying in that very same spot where the captain had his house. The narrow thoroughfare is known as Captain Bush Lane, and these days it is best known as the address of the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers.
I have been spending much of my time (too much!) in the Club Lounge on the 27th floor, where the view of the Chao Phraya River would have completely astounded the captain. I have also been downstairs to Sambal, where I have sat outside on the deck, watching the rice barges and pleasure launches slip past, a view that the captain will have known well and which hasn’t changed much in its essence since his time.
This stretch of the riverbank is where Bangkok’s European community settled in the middle of the 19th century, when the signing of the Bowring Treaty in 1855 opened Siam to Western trade.
Follow the neighbouring lane as it meanders down to the river, and we find another structure that would have been familiar to Captain Bush. An Italian architect named Joachim Grassi designed the Customs House, and when it opened it was one of the most splendid buildings in Bangkok. Today the massive building sags and rots. The Bang Rak Fire Brigade nominally occupies the place, but even the firemen seem to have given up using it as a dormitory. I went inside the entrance hall, and found it being used for a fashion shoot; an elegant European girl was being photographed against the rough walling and the faded teak staircase.
Follow the side lane that leads past the French Embassy and we are at a cluster of historic buildings that includes the Oriental hotel, the offices of the East Asiatic Company (whose owner had built the Oriental), and Assumption Cathedral. In the lanes are several shophouses that have been converted into restaurants, including the famous Tongue Thai and Odds Rock Steak.
Beyond Assumption are many other historic buildings. Wat Suan Plu is especially noted for its beautiful Rama V-era timber houses for the monks. Muslims from Java who arrived in the reign of Rama IV founded the tiny Ban Oou Mosque. Wat Yannawa has a chapel built by Rama III to resemble a Chinese cargo ship, a yannawa.
We encounter Captain Bush again at Bangkok Dock, a large dry dock that he helped to found in 1865, and where he was a shareholder. The final resting place of the captain is the Protestant Cemetery, further down Charoen Krung Road, where he was buried in 1905 under an obelisk whose inscription was composed by King Rama V.