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AsiaTuesday, November 7

Thai Treasure Divers Lose Out to Economic Growth

Thailand's economy is growing, but that has led to some clashes with traditional ways of life. One community has long lived on Bangkok's largest river. But a new development is forcing residents to pack up and move inland.

Running through central Bangkok is the Chao Phraya River. On it is the city's largest floating village, Mittakham. About 300 people live there. The community is estimated to be about 100 years old.

A development project means the community is scheduled to be torn down. Its residents are being forced to move from the river that's given them their livelihoods for generations.

One of them is 53-year-old Jamroen Bua-Sri. Every day, he puts on a steel helmet and goes into the river to hunt for antiques and other treasures. He's one of about 40 such divers. The river was a crucial trade route linking the ancient capital of Ayutthaya to China and other Asian countries, so it's surprising what can turn up.

"My grandfather was a fisherman. One day, he found something in the river, and there were people who paid for it. So he began to search for lost treasures in the river," says Jamroen. He has salvaged more than 10,000 items. He says this is an amulet from the early Ayutthaya Kingdom period that ended in the mid-1700s. Some artifacts retrieved by the divers have even gone into national museum collections.

Jamroen now has to find a new way to make a living. Looking back, he's proud of his life's work. "The Chao Phraya River is my heart and soul. If the riverside communities go, so will the opportunities for treasure hunting," he says.

Even though times are changing, Jamroen says he still plans on teaching his profession to his son with the hope that tradition can be preserved with economic progress.