Dive Back in TimeWritten by Jane Littlefair
A 19th Century Thai mansion in Bangkok has been reimagined as a scuba diving school, creating a unique destination for culture buffs and sports fans alike. Here, its owner explains this most unlikely of pairings.
Set aside the city guidebooks and forget about ticking off your must-see tourist attractions, sometimes you need to look a little harder to find truly unique gems. And Sol Heng Tai Mansion in Bangkok is one such diamond. One of the few traditional, Hokkien-style houses left in Bangkok, and one that has been preserved and protected along the ages, it is nestled in the small and crowded alleys of Talat Noi. Built in 1800’s, the mansion was once the district’s centre for trading and tax collection. And today, all the original features of the historical mansion remain – apart, that is, from the addition of a fully functional, 4-metre deep scuba diving pool in the middle of its courtyard. Because, in quite the turnaround, it has taken on a new lease of life as a dive school at the hands of its current owner, and 8th generation of his family who have walked its floors, scuba diving instructor Poosak Posayachinda.
Once upon a time, 230 years ago, the mansion was simply a home for its occupiers and a centre for trading birds nests between Thailand and China. It’s reincarnation as something his ancestors could never have imagined all started thanks to Poosak’s own sphere of interest (he began teaching diving 24 years ago.) After searching unsuccessfully all over Bangkok for a site where he could open a dive school, he decided to step back to his ancestral roots, leading him home to his family home, So Heng Tai. In 2004, he built a 4 metre diving pool right in the centre of the house, and as of today he has taught over 6000 people how to scuba dive in it, earning its name as one of the most popular diving pools in Bangkok. “This is not my house,” he explains, of how he sees it. “I never built this house. But I want it to remind me of the person who did. Just look at the beautiful teak, wood and granite. They built it to last, they built it for the children to live in, and I think they would want to keep it this way.”
With no social media platforms, the business relies heavily on word-of-mouth promotion, and one can imagine its extraordinary location plays into its popularity well. Considered one of Bangkok’s best-kept national secrets, So Heng Tai is a hotspot for sightseers and divers alike, and Poosak hopes that the people that come through its doors not only learn a skill, but discover a bit about the two cultures that shaped the walls around them, too. “I didn’t open this house because I was desperate. I opened this house for people to learn about diving and the history of Thai-Chinese culture.”
Poosak explains how most Thais have some Chinese ancestry, and voices the ‘one pillow and one mattress’ phrase that has stuck with him for life, a long stated saying used to signify the struggle and hardship faced by his ancestors. ”We originally migrated from China and some of our ancestors who came here became the richest people in Thailand,” he says. “I want the new generation who have heard of the phrase ‘your grandparents came to this country with one pillow and one mattress’ to know where they landed on the first night. And we are lucky that the wind took us to Thailand.”
They may have arrived with nothing on them but a pillow and a mattress, but written all over the majestic and historical So Heng Tai mansion are stories of aspiration and achievement. A testament to hard work and history, the building is more than a piece of the past, it is a story of endurance. As Poosak reimagines its purpose, he is telling that story to a whole new generation.
Address: 282 Soi Wanit 2, Khwaeng Talat Noi, Khet Samphanthawong, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10100, Thailand
Telephone: +66 80 218 7000