Greater Bangkok is networked with a watery web of more than 300km of canals. In a city that is famous for its urban sprawl and epic traffic, one of the unexpected pleasures is to find peace and tranquillity by heading for the canals.
Words and photography by Mark Eveleigh
He darts his longtail boat away from his mooring spot at Phra Athit pier and – with quick-fire bursts of throttle and rapid changes of direction – ducks and dives between the jostling vessels of what is surely one of the world’s busiest urban waterways.
Mr Lek powers us out into the main channel of Bangkok’s great river to shoot past the bow of an old timber rice barge, bustling truculently upriver like an old lady on her way to the morning market. Two needle-shaped commuter boats, emblazoned with adverts for Tiger Balm and Kratingdaeng, fly past with their cargoes of workers, school kids and saffron-robed monks. An immense convoy of sand barges – great black hulks like trudging pack animals – looms in the middle of the river. Once it has passed, Mr Lek guns his powerful engine, and we blast across the front of a gleaming white tourist cruiser, a sleek river princess encrusted with neon-tinted gems around her jutting bow.
The rearing nose of our boat peers cautiously into the narrow channel of the Khlong Mon canal, and within minutes we’re in another world.
“An expanse of brown houses of bamboo, of mats, of leaves, of a vegetable-matter style of architecture, sprung out of the brown soil on the banks of the muddy river.” Joseph Conrad penned these words 130 years ago in what is now the Authors’ Lounge of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, but even today in bustling business boomtown Bangkok you don’t have to go far to find an old side of the city that can have changed little in the last century.
Mr Lek dulls the roar of his engine to a steady throb as we ride along Khlong Mon canal. This is the narrowest of central Bangkok’s main canals (known here as khlongs), and it was originally inhabited by Mon people from Myanmar who acted as the king’s tax collectors. The royal tax collectors may have moved on, but in many ways life
has changed little over the centuries, and people still bathe, fish and wash their laundry in the waterway that serves as their community’s main street. Miniature houses stand in front of many of the homes: ‘God Houses’ on their single sturdy pillars and smaller ‘Spirit Houses’ raised on four stilts.
“We Buddhists believe that all the land is occupied by spirits,” Saraporn Watcharasemakul, a guide for tour company
Backyard Travel, tells me, “so before we build a house, we must make a spirit house for them to move into so that they will be happy.”
We drift peacefully down the canal towards Khlong Bang Luang, where an old man throws handfuls of rice to giant catfish that are raising their scaly backs like sea-serpents in the river.
“We never eat these fish,” Saraporn explains. “The man is making offerings to the fish so that they will carry away any bad luck. So, if we were to eat the fish, we would be cursed with that same luck.”
Bang Luang Wat temple rises above us on the river bank, richly gilded with ornate sweeping roofs that seem to be reaching like twisted fingers for the heavens. Even here the holy library stands on stilts in its own catfish pond, but in this case the little moat is designed to prevent termites from making a short feast of the priceless parchments and
sacred documents within.
We continue our voyage and Mr Lek guides us out onto the wider Khlong Bangkok Yai. The curve of this canal actually follows the original path of the main Chao Phraya River; because water always chooses the path of least resistance, another canal that was created to allow more direct transportation downstream widened until it developed into the main flow of the river, and the old path – Khlong Bangkok Yai – was relegated to a secondary canal.
While some khlongs were built for commerce or reserved for the sole use of kings, others were created as a means of moving troops to the front lines. The 54 km Khlong Saen Saeb was built almost 200 years ago as the best way of moving troops and provisions towards the defences during Thailand’s wars with Vietnam and Cambodia. Even today, Saen Saeb remains the most convenient route across town during rush hour, and the canal is used by thousands
of commuters each day. Many of the bridges here are so low that, during high water, the ticket collectors wear crash-helmets and the boats are equipped with a special lever so that the skipper is able to collapse the roof. The effect gives the appearance of some sort of James Bond jet boat as the ferry races towards an impossibly narrow gap and folds downwards as it approaches the bridge.
There’s probably no other city in the world where the dramas of daily life are played out so fascinatingly on the rivers and canals. It is impossible to really get under the skin of the City of Angels until you have spent time cruising the far-flung fringes of Bangkok’s water margins.
The ‘Rose of the North’, Chiang Mai provides a striking contrast to the dynamic bustle offered by Thailand’s southern cities: an idyllic escape framed by lush rainforests, thundering waterfalls and beautiful flowers. Expect to see Thailand in its most natural state in Chiang Mai, where visitors can take a leisurely journey into the forest or get closer to nature by staying at one of the adventure camps.
The largest city in northern Thailand was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lan Na, one of the country’s early established states. This historical wealth makes Chiang Mai one of the most culturally significant cities in the country
today, with various beautiful temples and festivals – including the famous traditional Thai New Year festival, Songkran, held every year in April. Chiang Mai is where visitors will be greeted with an authentically Thai attitude and lifestyle, with hundreds of ancient monasteries towering in the backdrop.
For a taste of true paradise, head south from Bangkok to Koh Samui. The island may not be one of the newly discovered tourism islands, but that’s one of the best things about it. Its intimate white-sand beaches are home to a host of some of the most luxurious resorts in Asia, such as the family-friendly beachfront Sheraton Samui and the romantically secluded villas of Vana Belle, complete with world-class restaurants serving Thai and international cuisines, and comprehensive spa facilities. The most popular of the beaches is Chaweng, the longest, most beautiful beach on the island.
Beyond the doors of the prestigious temporary residences, Koh Samui offers clean walking and market streets that come alive at night with steaming food stalls, authentic family-run seafood restaurants, and lively bars and pubs.
Still, a trip to Koh Samui would not be complete without a visit to the islands’ most famous landmark, the 12 m-high Big Buddha shrine on the island’s northern coast.
In the wake of the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand is in a 30-day state of mourning. While tourists are still visiting the beaches and enjoying the nightlife, all entertainment events for the month have been either postponed or cancelled as a show of respect. During this mourning period, the Thai people will wear black, white or subdued colours, while government employees and members of the royal family will wear black for a full year. While this dress code does not apply to travellers, wearing darker colours and showing respect will be appreciated by the Thai people. During this time, you may notice many shaved heads, which is a cultural sign of respect for the recently deceased. King Bhumibol Adulyadej reigned for 70 years from June 1946. Highly revered and much loved as a unifying figure by the Thai people, he was the world’s longest-reigning monarch.
Jakarta to Bangkok
Flight Time 3 hours 5 minutes
Frequency 21 ﬂights per week
Bangkok to Chiang Mai
Frequency 28 ﬂights per week
Codeshare route with Bangkok Airways
Bangkok to Koh Samui
Frequency 42 ﬂights per week
Codeshare route with Bangkok Airways
5 Senses – Taste
You don’t qualify as an old Bangkok hand unless you’ve sampled fried locusts and barbecued scorpion. Backyard Travel (www.backyardtravel. com) can arrange wonderfully insightful day trips around Bangkok’s waterways and colourful local markets. Whatever tour you take, be sure to pick the guide’s brains for the most exciting and delicious – or simply most bizarre – street-food delicacies. With its urban-chic design charm, Sheepshank (www.sheepshankpublichouse.com) is one of the most alluring riverside eateries for more formal fare.