The Waters of Bangkok

Everyone knows that Bangkok is on a big river, but visitors might not realize that it has many canals, as well. It’s actually situated on a river delta, somewhat like New Orleans, so the waterways are an unavoidable part of the landscape. Rather than trying to avoid them, let’s embrace them.

It used to be possible to go to the riverfront, find a long-tail boat operator, and pay them a few hundred baht to take you around the canals for a few hours. We couldn’t find any freelancers, though; all the obvious access points are now curated by aggressive agents who try to sell access to the boats for as much as ฿1500 per hour. Invoking my most ferocious bargaining skills, I still couldn’t get the price below ฿900. But having spent a good hour trying to find a boat, we were not going to give up over a few hundred baht.

We are the only customers at the moment. Our jolly craft cuts across the many lanes of traffic on the Chao Phraya River to start up a canal on the west side. But only a few hundred meters in, we slow down as a small skiff approaches us. It’s piled almost to overflowing with merchandise, mostly cheap souvenirs. Looks like our skipper is not going anywhere until we buy something. I take a bottle of water, which we need anyway, for a reasonable ฿20, so it’s a win-win–but I note the racket.

The canal is lined with a variety of scenes. Backs of houses, few devoted to water access (or beautification of the view). A few lovely homes. Many temples. Some industrial sites with barge access.

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As we return, we see a public dock where a bunch of tourists are standing. Are they waiting for a public water-bus?Our friend the floating merchant is hanging nearby; he knows just enough English to persuade them that our boat is the ride they need. They all board, so the private part of our tour is over. And they all need a beer (they’re German), so I understand what the skiff-paddler was waiting for. Doing some guesstimates in my head, I figure the merchant cleared about ฿400 on this one boatload of customers. The average wage for a sales or service job is about ฿300 a day, so he’s doing pretty well, even after giving the longtail skipper a kickback.7579

And then there’s the mandatory cruise-by of Wat Arun, the most revered of the riverside temples. (We don’t go to visit, because it’s closed for the upcoming cremation ceremony).

The next day, we want more water-oriented excitement, so we book a bicycle tour of riverside landmarks. Again, we are the only customers (it really is the off-season), but this doesn’t deter our cheerful guide. We meet in the open space around a cute temple–why do so many Thai temples look like fairy-tale movie sets?

We cycle through unlikely-looking back alleys to reach some of the city’s oldest non-Thai landmarks. The old (abandoned) Customs House was the first structure in the city designed by a European architect. The Chinese temple is just about as old, but still in use. There have always been a lot of Chinese people in Thailand, mostly traders; over the centuries, some of the icons of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism have become popular in Thai culture.

Next stop, Chinatown. You can get just about anything in the busy street market. Like dried squid, in any of about 10 different sizes.

Then, we board a small ferry boat to cross the river. Along with us is a monk, carrying a package of fresh flowers from the market, for temple ceremonies.

On the west bank, there are many more sites to visit, but only one that really captures my attention. Wat Prayoon, a temple with a love garden built around a lake; the lake is full of turtles. Hundreds of turtles! The garden is carefully tended by a topiarist (not a monk?) A lovely place to cool off between manic episodes of cycling through impossible twisty alleys or nerve-wracking traffic, in the noonday heat.

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Finally, back at the ferry crossing. Waiting in line ahead of us is a pig, who looks just as beat by the heat. No clue as to why the pig is here, or even who brought her, but my curiosity is overcome by my empathy.

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