At Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Work Continues Despite COVID-19

The Buddhist temple of Wat Chaiwatthanaram was commissioned in 1630 by King Prasat Thong in the traditional Khmer style. In 2011, Thailand suffered from severe flooding, accelerating conservation problems at Wat Chaiwatthanaram. In 2012, World Monuments Fund (WMF) was awarded support to undertake critical work developing flood prevention measures, and in 2017, migrated towards a pilot conservation project shifting the focus to the conservation of eight Merus. Work is still ongoing on the site. Here, Nuttida Vanichayalai, a WMF conservator at Wat Chaiwatthanaram, updates us on the status of the project.

Despite the ongoing global pandemic, work continues for our WMF team of 15 at Wat Chaiwatthanaram, where we are currently finishing the conservation of the second tower of Meru and simultaneously starting work on a third, while enacting social distancing best practices.

Fortunately, a significant portion of the Wat Chaiwatthanaram project is focused largely on exterior restoration, so it naturally allows the team to work in open-air - and since the current restoration is running on two Merus towers, there is enough space for everybody to spread out. Each staff member has been assigned an individual working area at least two meters from their neighbors.
These days, in addition to the spatulas that we always have on hand while working on the scaffolding, masks have become our newest ‘conservation tools’. Keeping masks on while carrying out physical interventions, however, is not an easy job under the soaring April heat, among the hottest months of the year. Nonetheless, despite the strict measures and unprecedented circumstances, the Wat Chai team supports each other and are in good spirits.
So far, there have been around 3,000 reported cases of Covid-19 in Thailand. Locally, Ayutthaya, where the site is located, has had eight infected patients. The city is under the Emergency Decree that came into effect nationwide in late March 2020 and is expected to remain in place until the end of May. In line with government guidelines, the Fine Arts Department of Thailand, WMF’s local project partner, closed down all public museums and archaeological sites, including Wat Chai, on March 25, 2020. The situation has had a major impact on Ayutthaya, which, due to its proximity to Bangkok, normally serves as an attraction for historical and cultural tourism among both Thai and foreign visitors. In normal times, the site is filled with tourists nearly year-round, seen packed on coach buses, riding bikes, or sweating on the signature local vehicle, the Tuk-tuk.
Wat Chai itself has faced dramatic changes since the project became fully active in 2017. In early 2018, the site witnessed a sharp increase in visitors after it was featured in a famous Thai period drama. Quickly, a number of local businesses began to pop up along little street in front of the site: restaurants, cafes, and stores renting traditional clothes. Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Wat Chai maintained its place in the spotlight, attracting hundreds of tourists every day. The COVID-19 pandemic has virtually destroyed the tourism economy in the area, only a few of the small local eateries are open for takeout. The project team is used to mixing mortars and cutting bricks amidst crowds and loud noises. Now, everyone is gone. It is totally silent.

The newly-created World Monuments Relief Fund addresses unanticipated financial needs created by the pandemic at our sites around the world and will have an immediate economic impact on the communities and workers that help conserve and protect humanity’s most important treasures.