Historic Dusit Zoo packed on final day open to public

Visitors feed a hippopotamus at Dusit Zoo on Aug 18. The country’s oldest zoo will close after Sunday. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

Throngs of animal lovers packed Dusit Zoo for their final look at the country’s oldest and most famous animal park on Sunday.

The zoo, better known as Khao Din Wana, has seen an unusually high number of visitors on Sunday since the gates opened at 8am. The zoo will close forever at 6pm.

The zoo deployed extra staff on Sunday to service the visitors and Thailand Post officials were taking photos of the signs and animals for special commemorative stamps.

The Zoological Park Organisation originally planned to shut the popular attraction at the end of August, but decided to defer the closure for another month to give animal lovers more time to experience an institution that has long memories for many.

About 1,000 animals will be temporarily moved to six public zoos in Chonburi, Chiang Mai, Nakhon Ratchasima, Songkhla, Ubon Ratchathani and Khon Kaen, while their permanent new home in Pathum Thani is built. Construction of the new zoo has not yet started. It is expected to begin next year, with the opening planned within the next three years.

Many people have posted messages on the zoo’s Facebook account since it announced the closing date. Some were from parents pleading for the zoo to stay open until next month to give them time to take their children after the close of the first school semester. Many asked for details of the new locations of the animals so that they could plan for a reunion.

King Chulalongkorn originally established the facility in 1895 as a Royal Private Garden with a number of wild animals, including a herd of axis deer from Java Island in what is now Indonesia.

Dusit became the first public zoo in Thailand in 1938 after royal permission was given by King Ananda Mahidol.

Over the years, the zoo grew into one of the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand, drawing more than 2 million visitors a year and generating 150 million baht in revenue for the country.

Statues of Japanese Imperial Army soldiers are seen by a World War II air-raid shelter inside Dusit Zoo.(Kyodo photo)

With the closure just hours away, the future of a World War II air-raid shelter, the principal historical point of interest at the zoo, remains unclear.

Some Thais have speculated on the fate awaiting the old underground shelter, which was built by the government in the years following the 1941 Japanese invasion to protect residents of Bangkok from Allied bombing raids.

Thailand was a neutral country when Japan invaded it on Dec 8, 1941, the day after attacking the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Japan forced Thailand to allow passage for its troops to attack 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, 4 metres wide and 2 metres 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 in the outskirts of the capital. To us, the air-raid shelter is a reminder of the war,” Mr Natthapong said.

Many of the old air-raid shelters in Bangkok no longer exist, including a large one that was once in front of Hua Lamphong 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 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.

Chonlada Khumlap, a 20-year-old university student, hopes that the air-raid 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 Ms Chonlada, during her first, and possibly her last, visit to the zoo.

Ms Chonlada said she was taught at school about Thailand’s role in World War II, and the suffering that occurred, but had never visited a real 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.”

As to the fate of the air-raid shelter, Dusit Zoo director Pitak Unson has said it is up to the Crown Property Bureau, the zoo’s landlord. No official announcement has been made on future plans for the entire site.

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