THE THONBURI CANALS | Darrin Henry
A dead cat floating in the canal, arguing with my wife and a non-English speaking boat driver who thought shouting louder made us understand him better, are my over-riding memories of our first day in Bangkok.
Personally I blame the jet lag that put us on the long tail boat for the Thonburi canal tour, as our decision making was quite skewed for two days after arriving in Thailand. But that’s another story.
Canals, or klongs, were once the lifeblood of Bangkok, branching off like tiny veins from the main artery, the sizeable Chao Phraya River, which winds its way through the centre of the city. Today the waterway network is considerably reduced, existing mainly on the western side of the Chao Phraya.
Our tuk tuk taxi dropped us off at the pier to catch our reserved long tail boat. It was meant to be a special personalised tour, Sharon and I the only passengers; unfortunately too late we realised the driver didn’t speak English.
A quick chug across the Chao Phraya to our first stop, the Buddhist temple, Wat Arun, or ‘Temple of Dawn.’ This was a big disappointment as the place felt over commercialised and lacking the religious reverence I had expected. Souvenir sellers were everywhere attempting to offload wares to frazzled looking tour parties. On top of this the temple’s central spire, or prang, was almost completely shrouded in scaffolding, as were two of the four outer spires. A few of the smaller buildings in the grounds, as well as some large statues, were also encased in scaffolding, giving the feeling of a building site visit.
We re-joined our animated boat driver and headed off to begin the canal tour.
This was the situation as it stood at that time: We were struggling with the heat and humidity; our body clocks were seven hours out of sync; we had no idea what our driver was muttering; and we were very disappointment with the Wat Arun ‘building site’ visit. This found us sitting in the boat waiting for the canal locks to open, in a sour mood.
Two more long tail boats joined us in the narrow lock. The sight of other tourists with the same sour expressions sitting in their boats lightened our mood as we took comfort in the probability it wasn’t just us who had expected better.
Entering the Thonburi canal system our mood lifted as the fascinating lifestyles began to be revealed all along the banks. River constructions that appeared to defy physics. Houses balanced on spindly stilts – how do they do that! I’ve known houses on land crack from foundations that shift ever so slightly, so building in the water?
Our driver, give him his due, slowed the boat every time I lifted the camera to my eye. There was so much to photograph.
The water did not look hygienic to put it mildly, yet we saw three kids happily swimming at one spot.
Floating markets in this part of the world are quite famous, originating from waterway lifestyles. Basically vendors who pedal their wares from canoes or kayaks directly to other river users. Our ‘floating market’ experience was just three vendors. But hopeful smiles turned to scowls when we decided not to make a purchase. Sharon was interested in one of the cute hats, but refused point blank when the boatman punched 450 (baht) onto his calculator to show the price. (We later found the same hat in Bangkok for less than 100 baht). The vendor’s final suggestion was we buy a beer for our driver, which I refused having already paid over the odds for the tour (again, another story). I never actually saw the subsequent transaction but a beer was handed over to our driver anyway and I realised it must be ‘payment’ for bringing business.
At one point our driver slowed down and started pointing excitedly at an abandoned wooden shack. Try as I might I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Becoming more and more exasperated our driver left the engine idling and came walking down the boat to us, making me look along the line of his pointing, all the while ‘talking’ loudly in Thai. “God, please let me see what it is I’m supposed to be looking at,” was all I could think! Then suddenly there was movement and both Sharon and I spotted the large monitor lizard. These are quite common on the Bangkok canals, however, they are also difficult to spot if motionless. Our driver shook his head as he returned to the engine controls. We moved on. After this though I was able to spot the monitor lizards easily on my own.
The canal tour is promoted as an historical cultural experience, a window into a bygone way of life that has been overtaken by a web of asphalt and a jungle of concrete towers. Many canals were also drained or filled to combat the risk of cholera. The contrast of upmarket, posh looking apartment blocks standing shoulder to shoulder with wooden shack-like dwellings was startling. Residents on the verandas or porches ignored us as they went about their routine, obviously used to gawking tourists.
The Thonburi network is manmade and often referred to as, ‘the Venice of the East.’ In its heyday they were crucial to keeping the city functioning. The boat was the main form of transport and the khlongs connected homes, temples, and public spaces.
Our tour came to an end with one more drama. Quite suddenly our driver stopped the boat, tied up to a bridge pillar and started rambling and gesticulating toward us and the river. The only words we could make out were “forty.” We had already paid a sizeable sum in advance so this seemed out of order. We were both worried he was going to make us swim if we didn’t cough up the cash.
“Forty Baht,” I asked in an attempt to clarify, to which he seemed pleased and started making signs and noises of approval.
Having had enough I decided to put my foot down and refused to pay. Our back and forth ‘discussion’ continued for about two minutes, the driver speaking Thai and me in English. By now Sharon and I were also arguing over whether we should pay up; proving that barriers to agreement that day was more than just language.
Eventually our driver gave up and indicated we were waiting for the lock ahead to open. We all sat in tense silence for the rest of the wait, perhaps another five minutes. To match the gloom in the boat, we then spotted a hairless dead cat floating in the canal.
I can’t be 100% sure the driver wanted us to pay him extra cash, perhaps it was just the language misunderstanding, however, when I mentioned “Baht” it did prompt a big positive reaction from him. I guess we’ll never know for sure.
Quite clearly my advice to anyone else visiting Bangkok and taking a canal boat tour is, make sure you have guide who speaks your language. Oh, and acclimatise first; the canals in March/April have a humid ‘swampy’ feel that is energy sapping and relationship ‘testing.’
Other than that, the canal tour was quite fascinating. For photography it might be an idea to do the tour earlier in the day or later in the afternoon otherwise the harsh midday shadows can hide a lot of the riverside detail in the pictures.
I’m glad to say by that evening we had a good laugh about the whole experience.