Future of WWII air-raid shelter at closing Thai zoo remains unclear
AS Sunday’s closing of Thailand’s oldest zoo approaches, the future of a World War II air-raid shelter, the only historical spot inside the zoo, remains unclear.
After having been open to the public for eight decades, Dusit Zoo announced in early August that the zoo at the current location in central Bangkok will be no more.
Visitors have since flocked to the soon-to-be defunct zoo to relive old memories from their childhood days, or simply to enjoy being around the animals.
But some Thais have also wondered what fate awaits the old underground shelter, which was built by the Thai government in the years following the 1941 Japanese invasion to protect Bangkok citizens from Allied bombing raids.
Thailand was a neutral country when Japan invaded it on Dec. 8, 1941, just after attacking the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. It forced Thailand to allow passage for its troops to fight to capture British-held Malaya and Burma.
A number of air-raid shelters were subsequently built across Bangkok, including at Dusit Zoo, which was once a public park.
After the war ended, the underground shelter – a rectangular room 10 metres long, 4m wide and 2m high – was turned into an exhibition at the zoo.
In the corner of the damp, dimly lit shelter sit statues of a huddled-up family, including one of a woman cradling a baby in her lap.
Natthapong Pingate, 46, who was visiting the zoo recently with his aging mother, understands why the zoo’s planned relocation to a far bigger place outside Bangkok will be good for its animals, but cannot help but feel a bit of sadness over the zoo’s closure.
“When my mother was young, she witnessed the bombing, which wrought damage not only across central Bangkok, but also on the outskirts of the capital. To us, the airraid shelter is a reminder of the war,” Natthapong said.
Many air-raid shelters in Bangkok no longer exist, including a large one that was once in front of Hua Lamphong Railway Station, the capital’s main railway station. That shelter has been replaced by a fountain and elephant monument.
Those that remain are scattered at a few places, such as Parusakawan Palace, which now hosts the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency, Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University, a public university near the zoo, and Asiatique The Riverfront, a large shopping mall by the Chao Phraya River.
The government’s Zoological Park Organisation says the zoo’s closure, delayed by one month to accommodate an influx of visitors, will not be further postponed.
The zoo will be relocated to a site in Pathum Thani Province north of Bangkok three times the size of the current site. However, construction of the new zoo has not yet begun; it is expected to begin next year or later, with the opening planned within the next three years.
Its more than 1000 animals are being temporarily transferred to six public zoos in different provinces.
Chonlada Khumlap, a 20-year-old university student, hopes that the airraid shelter will remain open to the public, even after the zoo closes, to help Thais learn about history.
“If the air-raid shelter is demolished or access to it is prohibited, I think it would be bad,” said Chonlada, during her first, and possibly her last, visit to the zoo.
Chonlada said she was taught at school about World War II – such as foreign invasion of her country, Thailand being part of the war and the war’s effects on Thai people – but had never visited a wartime relic before.
“Being inside the narrow and pitch-dark shelter, I felt sad. It must have been so scary to be there during the war.” – Kyodo
Statues of Japanese Imperial Army soldiers near a World War II air-raid shelter at Dusit Zoo in Bangkok on August 16.