Kampung Siam, My Living Treasure

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I was born and bred in Kampung (village) Siam in Pulau Tikus, Penang. For over 200 years, my Kampung Siam has been standing strong and proud of its Thai heritage but now it is at risk of demolition.

Nestled in a cozy but lively Pulau Tikus area, among the many shophouses and two most-visited temples; Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram and Dhamikarama Burmese Temple, is where you will find Kampung Siam –  a territory of enriching Siamese culture combine with your everyday Malaysian life, though a small community but it has so much history that this is the other side of Penang that most don’t know. This location offers together two different eras, two different living styles of Penang.

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One of the houses in Kampung Siam – Image by Trevor Sibert
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My grandfather’s backyard – Image by Trevor Sibert
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My grandfather, on the left peering out of the window – Image by Trevor Sibert

However, this historical land now belongs to a developer that has an intention to turn this village to a budget hotel, well of course this is after all, a prime location. Devastating for the us, the Siamese community but change is inevitable they say. Should this kind of change be taking place?

Here is a brief history – the land was granted by Queen Victoria on May 30 in year 1845. It was clearly written in the grant that the land cannot be bargained, sold and transferred to other parties by the appointed trustees. Then in 1996, the land was no longer a ‘cultural and religious’ site but was rezoned as ‘commercial’ which Kampung Siam residents were not aware of.

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Menora Performer performing during Penang Heritage Site Visit
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Menora Performance – Image by Trevor Sibert

Now that this village and community will be destroyed, is this the cul-de-sac for the Siamese community? How do we preserve our heritage and culture if urban modernization is taking place?

Let’s put this Kampung Siam demolition aside for now, Penang is a remarkably colorful and a historical city and has made it to No.4 in Lonely Planet Top Cities list for Best in Travel 2016. Allow me to brag, the Second Penang Bridge linking the island to the mainland Peninsula Malaysia, is the longest bridge in Southeast Asia. Ha! Excessive pride of my city!

Penang is not sophisticated but admirable, entices travelers with its fusion of old and new – the British colonial architectures, the traditional shophouses, the growing art scene and the historic sights. No further explanation needed why Penang has to uphold the “multicultural heritage” status. Moreover, this tiny island has over 600 accommodations, come to think of it, is it necessary to build another hotel especially on the oldest and only Kampung Siam in Penang?

Is this how we move forward – to not preserve the old because it is deemed to be irrelevant in the modern times? And if people choose to ignore our valuable heritage, inevitably it will disappear along together with our customs and traditions. Unrestricted development will one day create a despair to the society.

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Penang Heritage Trust Visit – Image by Trevor Sibert
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My grandfather Wan Dee Aroonratana on being a Shaman and a Thai Menora Performer

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It is truly devastating as this land is not only where I grew up but it is also where I got most of my inspiration from.

Talking about transformation, people around the world now are more aware and fascinated with experiencing different cultures, customs, traditions and ethnicities. As such, this kind of appreciation has tremendously changed the way people travel and view the world.

At times I wonder if Penang may soon lose its historical site and heritage appeal.

If you are in Penang, do visit the last Kampung Siam in Penang while you still can. The first and only Thai Settlement in Pulau Tikus is imperfectly beautiful in my own opinion.