It was Salvatore Besso, in the early 20th century, who wrote of Bangkok as the “Venice of the Far East, the capital still wrapped in mystery, in spite of the thousand efforts of modernism amidst its maze of canals”. The city’s large network of canals presumably reminded the Italian of home, and his remark has gone on to become one of the enduring cliches of the Thai capital.
Today, many of Bangkok’s canals have been abandoned, built over and filled in, but there remains a significant network of waterways that are still used for transport and commerce. As Bangkok’s roads have become ever more crowded, canals have become vital transport routes for desperate commuters. A journey along them is a little like stepping back in time, even if the boats all have engines these days.
I went to the Tha Chang river taxi terminal, one of many places where it’s possible to hire a Longtail boat, the ones that have an extended propellor sticking out of the back. I asked around and found a boat operator who said he’d be sailing in 20 minutes, once a couple of other people had arrived. An hour later I was still waiting. Eventually they decided to set off with me as the only passenger.
It turned out that I wasn’t alone on the boat, the captain’s wife and young child would be my companions for the journey. Despite the challenges of communication, we had a lot of sign language conversations and, after buying drinks for everyone from a man in a canoe, we were firm friends.
At first I was a little disappointed that the boat wasn’t one of the iconic Longtail boats that seem to gracefully skim over the water at high speed. Our boat travelled far more sedately, and I could stand at the front and back of it for panoramic views along the canals. It allowed me to get a better sense of the route and the communities that lined the canals.
It’s been some time since I visited Venice, and I remember there being strong odours in parts of the city, but by comparison Bangkok’s canals are a clear and present danger to human health. Very few Bangkok homes are connected to the sewage system, and around 60 percent of human ‘waste’ is untreated when it flows into the city’s waterways. Add myriad other forms of pollution and you begin to wonder if the water is toxic…
I was mentally checking off all the vaccinations I’ve had to protect me from a range of tropical illnesses, and I reckoned my chances of surviving a fall in the water to be only 50/50. All the more surprising then that young children were swimming in the water. It was 36ºC and humid so it was understandable, but you couldn’t pay me to take a swim in these waters.
As we made our way along the ‘canal tour’ route through the ancient Thonburi district on the western side of the city, we passed numerous buildings on stilts. Many were in a state of decay, others were clearly homes of wealthier residents, well maintained and sometimes with gardens. We passed ornate and brightly decorated temples, fishermen floating in inner tubes, and people in canoes going about their daily business.
While the canals might be a relic of the past, they could play an enhanced role in the city’s future – and not just because of the congestion on the roads. Bangkok is slowly sinking – something it shares with Venice at least – at a time when global warming is raising sea levels. Travel by boat may well become the only viable option in some parts of the city.
It was a fascinating trip. We stopped at Taling Chan Floating Market, which although busy with both foreign and domestic tourists, was a lot of fun. The canoes are more like floating kitchens than shops, with charcoal grills inside the boats, which are moored next to floating platforms that double as seated dinning areas. But more of that next time…