Water defines Bangkok. Established as a trading post on a meandering stretch of the Chao Phraya River not far from the ocean, Bangkok’s fate, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad, has always been dependant on the river.
Bangkok’s tempestuous relationship with the Chao Phraya was demonstrated in 2011. The season’s heavy monsoons produced record floods. By the time we visited in December the water was in retreat. Life was edging back to normal and the tourists were returning. Though the fear of the onslaught of Chao Phraya’s water had passed, numerous piles of sandbags and hastily built cement barrier walls were reminders of the threat. Large pumps continuously propelled thick brown columns of the remaining floodwater into the Chao Phraya.
Historically and today water means transportation in Bangkok. Heavy cargo travels north on the Chao Phraya to reach Thailand’s interior. A short distance to the south is the Bay of Bangkok and the open ocean. Canals or khlongs spread the river’s waters through the metropolitan area creating historically important transportation network. Once the web of manmade waterways was the primary means of heavy transport in the city. Today many of the canals have been paved over. Autos, trucks, scooters, and tuk tuks have replaced boats as the chief means of transport in Bangkok. Nevertheless the Chao Phraya River remains an important shipping corridor.
Staying along the river we watched from our room as an endless parade of long-tail boats, ferries, workboats, and linked clusters of heavy barges towed by colorful tugs navigated the big river’s waters. River transport was an important part of our days; a fast cheap ferry ride was often the most convenient way to get to where we wanted to go. We’d load onto the express boats from the rocking docks and with the whine of a turbocharger, a blast of diesel fumes, and a surge of power we were out again on the river. Traveling on the water feels natural in Bangkok.
Our last full day in Bangkok started with a long-tail boat ride. Long-tail boats are the taxis of the Chao Phraya. They provide custom transport for small groups. Arranged by our hotel we went out in the early morning on a boat to explore the river and a nearby khlong.
Large repurposed automotive engines balanced on pivots power long-tail boats. After we loaded and took seats, our pilot opened the throttle and released a slug of fuel into the engine. The stick-blender propeller blasted a rooster tail of spray into the air and the narrow boat rocketed forward. As we surged away from the dock the roar of a long-tail boat’s motor took its place amongst the chaos of sounds on the Chao Phraya.
When we reached the quieter backwaters of Khlong Bangkok Noi our boat’s sound seemed out of place. Today this khlong is a peaceful residential neighborhood. The channel serves as a secondary means of transport. But this is not to say that only tourists travel this khlong. As we idled through the neighborhood a long-tail boat quickly passed filled with kids dressed in school uniforms. The speeding boat functioned as a school bus.
After our boat tour finished we were back at our hotel pondering the river traffic on the swollen Chao Phraya. This ever-capricious river is the backbone of Thailand. Without the Chao Phraya, Bangkok would not exist. But the relationship between the Thai people and the river is complicated. The river both gives and takes. Commerce and sorrows come hand in hand. The Chao Phraya River is the geological soul of Bangkok.