As home on the water as anywhere else.
“To the front of the boat, to the front of the boat!” Joop, the captain, gestured vigorously as we approached a low bridge. I scrambled out of the seat next to her and rolled across the cushions towards the bow. Another group, approaching from the opposite direction, seemed to be involved in similar somersaults moving to balance the boat’s weight. We slipped under the bridge and, with the potential calamity averted; Joop brought me deeper into the heart of her canal community.
The canal communities in Bangkok’s Thonburi District hug and spill into the cloudy brown water. I could easily have jumped off the boat and, if feeling particularly bold, joined numerous families for lunch, hopped onto an idle scooter and rode away, saved a penalty kick, joined a group of elderly men for a game of mah-jong, helped a monk turn off a faucet and leaped uninvited into a wedding. Everything was open and within arms reach. My pen danced across the page as I desperately tried to record the passing ocular buffet.
The children, with toothy ivory white smiles, were the most delightful surprise of the trip. A few feet from our boat they teetered fearlessly on pipes before back flipping into the water. They were everywhere along the canals: small brown heads bobbing like buoys in the dirty, coffee coloured stream. One daring little rascal, naked, his skin a similar hue to the murky water, grabbed the rail of our boat and let it carry him along shrieking and laughing before letting go. The boys were all over the place but where were the girls I asked Joop.
“Girls not allowed in the canals.”
She thought for a moment and dropped her ever present smile “Too dangerous.” she said and, as if reaching an epiphany, added “And too dirty.”
There were several tourist boats like mine noisily chugging through the canals. The apparent ease with which the residents politely accepted legions of us into their lives was impressive and a little unexpected. Families eating, washing, playing, dressing, sleeping were in naked view. Did they mind? No, apparently not. But surely this complete absence of privacy must have bothered them or was I viewing matters through a western lens.
“No it doesn’t bother us,” Joop said smiling at my suggestion.
“Since I was a young girl foreigners visited these canals. If not for you, the government would fill them in and build roads.”
History of the Bangkok Canals
In the 19th Century Bangkok really was a floating city, and deserved its title as Venice of the East. 400,000 inhabitants lived in floating houses on the river and the rest lived in amphibious habitats – houses on stilts on river or canal banks. The river was the community.
Beginning in the mid 19th century, King Mongkut (Rama IV.) and then his son King Chulalongkorn (Rama V.) pursued a policy of modernization: roads and railways were built on and beside the canals. In their blind, perhaps reckless, race to keep pace with the developed world, Bangkok’s unique aquatic communities were displaced: paved and replaced with roads and car parks.
We passed the Taling Chan market and saw wizened old women in dug out canoes selling food – chicken, pork, eggs and spices to locals bunched together on barges. Further on, pass the market, old crumbling temples poked out from fleeting pockets of brush. Shortly after the market we left the canal and joined a wider channel – a tributary of Bangkok’s main river the Chao Phraya. Shirtless fisherman lined the shores casting with their home made rods into the calm waters under stilted buildings. In the middle of the river, water busses, tourist boats, barges and tugboats passed dangerously close to each other. In the mist of this crowded marine traffic, a hunched figure in a dazzling purple frock paddled, with swiftness and dexterity, from the shore to our boat.
When this brave character reached us I expected to view the countenance of a lean, chiseled rower. Instead it was a happy, chatty granny named Dow who had been chasing tourist boats for over 20 years. Her heavy canoe was stocked with cold beer and trinkets. I bought a cold Singha beer and five golden elephant key chains. Before she pushed off I asked her if there were any difficulties in her profession: large waves, water snakes, too many vessels on the water?
“Ice!” She quickly replied and pushed off to chase a long, sleek cruiser bursting with tourists.
If Bangkok is an evolving city of contrasts: a dizzy, seething mixture of old and new, opulence and poverty, temples and mosques, markets and malls then the industrious canal communities showcase a slower more traditional lifestyle. The lives of the inhabitants, basic and authentic, are displayed along these narrow waterways. Go ahead, pass noisily through their living room – they don’t mind – honestly.
Taking a Trip on the Bangkok Canals
We hired a boat from the Saphan Taksin pier which is conveniently located under the Skytrain Station of the same name. To get there, take the train to the last station (Saphan Taksin) on the Silom line and walk directly under the station to the pier. At the pier, men at booths sell a variety of canal and river tours.
Alternatively, about 5 minutes walk north east from Khao San road, is the Tha Phra Athit River express pier in Banglamphu district. It is located on Ratchadamnoen road under a low bridge, not far from either Wat Ratchanada, Wat Saket or Democracy Monument.
You can book a seat on a group tour, hire your own boat, or join the students, office workers and monks on the public boats. Expect to pay between 400 – 1000 baht to charter a longtail boat for one hour. There is no set price and you can negotiate with the operators. It is polite and appreciated to tip the boat operators since the bulk of their earnings come from your charity.
The average fare on the public express boats and canal boats is 5 – 10 baht depending on distance.
Bangkok Canal Info Online
The following websites provide further information on tours and the canals.