Fly me to the moon: The Bangkok optician who makes bamboo saxophones In an old-style shophouse on Atsadang Road, Waiboon Tungyuenyong has turned his love for music into a rewarding side career
Not far from Bangkok’s Khlong Lod canal lies an optician’s run by a man named Waiboon Tungyuenyong. It is set in a long row of shophouses that lines one side of Atsadang Road.
The story of the shop and its owner is replicated many times over in this part of the city, with one exception. This particular store also doubles as a purveyor of bamboo saxophones.
“I was born here, upstairs,” Waiboon explains, gesturing to the ceiling. “My parents came from mainland China, and they ran a shop, like a 7-Eleven. Next door was a general store, selling hammers, nails, mosquito nets. This area was the centre of Bangkok around 80 years ago. The suburbs were just fields.”
Bangkok’s shift from genteel town to economic and political hub is mirrored by its growth outwards, down the canals, along Charoen Krung, towards Sukhumvit and beyond. The city’s initial boom was engendered by hundreds of Chinese migrant workers and their families.
Waiboon isn’t sure what triggered his parent’s move. Initially working as a chef, his father eventually saved up enough to set up his own business. Klong Lod used to be surrounded by government offices, which proved lucrative, as hundreds of employees poured out at lunchtime to purchase goods.
People would also travel in from the rural areas, due to a lack of amenities in the countryside. Eventually the shop started to stock items imported from Japan such as watches and eye-glass frames. While European goods were highly desirable, they were beyond the reach of most people’s pocket.
The bamboo saxophones, however, came from pure curiosity.
“About 30 years ago, I watched a TV show with this German guy on it, who made bamboo saxophones in the northern part of Thailand,” says Waiboon. “I can play flute, and the bamboo instrument has the same fingering. The sound touched my heart. I felt sure I could play it.”
Eventually the two met in Bangkok, and Waiboon took to teaching himself to play the instrument, as well as trying to learn tunes off the radio.
“I always listened to the radio at night,” he recalls. “Frank Sinatra, Pat Boone, Beethoven, instrumental music. I was always listening, but I didn’t know the names of the songs.”
He would occasionally go to a friend’s nearby record store to find out the names. A particular favorite was “Baby Elephant Walk” by Henry Mancini.
This would lead to Waiboon occasionally accompanying local restaurant bands, in what were effectively early karaoke bars.
“I didn’t know the notes, my timing was so bad. I didn’t know which key it was in either. I’d write the keys down to remember for each song.”
His playing intrigued some of the other customers, who wanted to know where they could get a similar instrument.
“They said, ‘If you can play it, you can make it’. Every time I went out, it was the same. So I thought if I can make it, then I can make money. This was the starting point.”
Having no background in manufacturing instruments, Waiboon began a four-year period of trial and error, during which friends would occasionally suggest he should give up on his quest.
Eventually he put together his first prototype, but the sound was terrible. Despondent, he put it in the window of his shop, where it stayed for almost a year.
“One day a customer asked if it was for sale. I told him ‘you can’t play it.’ He asked to try, and it sounded fine.
“It’s because before, the wood wasn’t properly dry, so there was no sound. So then I learned you have to let the bamboo dry out first. After this I had success. Now I hold it over a grill. It darkens the wood, and kills any bugs at the same time.”
Around the back of the store lies Waiboon’s workshop, dotted with cuts of bamboo, machinery and half-made instruments. There’s also a photo on the wall commemorating the time he played for Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn at a trade fare.
Like Por, the overseer of nearby Klong Lod market, I wonder if he has a successor in mind.
“Sometimes people ask me to teach them, but they don’t have the patience, and they can’t pick the wood,” Waiboon laments.
He then picks up his recently-made tenor sax, and the notes of “Fly Me To The Moon” waft out into the afternoon air.
Waiboon Optics is located on Thanon Atsadang, Klond Lod. Saxophones start from 5,000 baht each. It takes Waiboon 2-4 weeks to make a bamboo saxophone, depending on the model.