Sunday, 30 December 2007
It's always distressing to see how quickly Koh Chang is changing. As Thailand's second biggest islands it was late developing perhaps because of turmoil in neighbouring Cambodia but now they're building like there's no tomorrow.
When I first came here seven years ago the roads were rough tracks which wound through the palm trees. Now they're dusty highways with streams of traffic and the once sleepy villages have joined up in an ugly sprawl of scruffy buildings.
The beaches are still relatively well managed and the mountains are pristine but why oh why do the Thais foul their own nest with such abandon. Everything is illegal; this is a National Park after all; and in the pursuit of the tourist dollar anything goes.
After you land from the ferry, the road takes you through Klong Son and it's a shambles of builders' merchants, markets and car workshops, a terrible shock for the arriving tourist. And with everything happening unplanned with no sewagwe systems or regulations on outfalls and with increasing demand on supplies of water and power, it's a miracle if anything ever works.
While I have every sympathy for the poor underpaid workers who keep the place humming, what Koh Chang really needs is a massive recession in the tourism industry to slow things down a bit.
In February we stayed in the last bamboo huts on White Sand Beach where I could swing my hammock on the nearby coconut palms. Now these huts are all gone and a massive conference centre and rooms are being built. At least it's set back from the sea but it's out of scale and a total disaster.
At present there is demand and the beach is full but as a result the Thais are throwing money at Koh Chang thus ensuring that there is massive over-supply and that few businesses will make any money. I shall not be weeping for the fat cats who fail to make millions out of the rape of so beautiful an island.
Ultimately the tourists will stop coming as soon this island will not be worth visiting unless something radical is done to control the current rate of development. It would be naive though to think that anything will be done and the pace of change will thus be the only thing that stays the same.
Monday, 24 December 2007
Being on Koh Chang at Christmas is no hardship, though to be honest it’s Christmas and Saturday night and New Year’s Eve and a Full Moon Party rolled into one every night of the year.
But then the morning after it’s always tranquil on the beach, clean and unsullied, the waves gently lapping ashore, the sea and mountains untroubled by the bacchanalia of the night before.
At White Sands the beach is more than two kilometers long and it offers an astounding choice of small bars and restaurants, each with its own local charm and character. It’s hard to single any out but for my hangover breakfast I love ‘15 Palms’ near to where you hit the beach when you arrive from the ferry. It’s got all the comforts inside such as leather sofas, a pool table, old prints on the wall and it serves farang food that’s always beautifully cooked and presented. We don’t wander too far away from it when we chill out on the beach during the day and then as night falls it looks quite spectacular.
’15 Palms’ is carefully lit with a designer’s flair, the pale lanterns flattering the gentle terra cotta colours, the palm trees picked out with soft spotlights. A brilliant moon rises over the jungle clad mountains, peeping through the palms and a beer or two is enough to take you tripping as you stand with the sea behind you gazing at it all, the lights reflecting on the wet sand. ‘15 Palms’ really is magic.
For a lively evening, it’s hard to beat Sabay Bar further down the beach where the mats and cushions are laid out on the sand and we recline with a cold beer and enjoy the entertainment. The bar has a Polynesian and South Seas theme and we’re harassed by natives with spears who wander round stirring things up and making sure nobody gets bored.
A Filipino band plays live music and they’re world class. The lead singer and keyboard player might have been Elton John in another incarnation. It’s only a beach bar on a small Thai island but here they play perfect covers of a huge range of songs and sing their hearts out for a baht or two. If they were in New York they’d be lionized.
Then the natives turn into fire dancers and perform for us. The fire show is the event of the evening and it’s the best I’ve seen anywhere in Thailand. On all Thai beaches, lithe young beach boys twirl blazing ropes and rods and it’s fun because they always drop them. Here it’s really professional and well choreographed, a full dramatic performance with six dancers and sometimes hula girls too, the music adding to a great atmosphere.
There’s one quiet little waiter who at the witching hour turns into the star of the fire dance. His act is incredibly varied and he comes into the audience whirling fire and doing forward rolls down the sand. He’s quaint and distinctive and everyone loves him because he wears owly little specs which look rather comic on a native in war paint and loin cloth. He tells Cat he can’t wear contact lenses because the heat of the fire would melt them.
After the fire dance, the Filipino musicians play inside the nightclub which is like a huge, high roofed native hut. The music inside is harder, the adrenalin pumping and I can feel the bass hitting my chest as it pounds out of the amplifier. It’s always packed and throbbing with dancers but tonight will be the Full Moon Party as well as Christmas Eve. It’s going to be a long, tough night!
A few night’s back Cat and I afterwards went on with some friends ten kilometers down the island to find a karaoke place. It was quite a laugh, a scruffy open sided shack run by ladyboys. Sadly there wasn’t much choice of western music and I was reduced to singing ‘Summer Holiday’ which I suppose was vaguely appropriate. I couldn’t sing ‘My Way’ though because they hadn’t got it!
Then we came back to White Sands Beach where all the bars were observing the 2.00 am curfew except one. At KC Bar we again sat on the sand and sank more Sang Som, watching fire dancers of the enthusiast kind. It was really good fun.
At KC it’s hard to tell who’s a waiter and who’s a customer. It’s very laid back, a place where work and play are rolled into one, where you eat lotus and honey and soak up sand and salt and sweat and are swept away on a tide of goodwill, wrapped in the hot blanket of the tropical night. It’s just so very Thai.
Yes, the one thing the Thais really excel at is throwing a party. On Koh Chang the mood’s always there and that’s what the jaded, winter weary westerners so love when they come here.
Just before we came to the island, we went to a party at the school in Sangkha, our local town. It’s a dull little market town out in the middle of nowhere yet the school managed a party on the scale of which I haven’t seen anywhere. Covering the football field were over three hundred tables for eight, each with nice white table clothes. A fine Thai dinner with drinks was then served with excellent service and effortless ease, a logistics exercise on a massive scale.
All the while we were entertained by music and singers of national standard on a huge stage specially erected, powerfully amplified and projected onto screens around the field to give us a close up view.
Being in Thailand is a great way of escaping Christmas, that grueling mid-winter festival. Here on Koh Chang it’s a mid-summer festival every night of the year and it’s going to be hard to leave.
Friday, 21 December 2007
In a blog titled, ‘This Is Thailand!’ I reported earlier (11 March 2007) that a rare black cinereous vulture had been discovered in Thailand and that Kasetsart University’s veterinarian department had nursed it back to health. A party of five Thais was then due to fly with it on Thai Airways to Beijing and Ulan Batur, Mongolia where the bird was to be taken to a vulture reserve and released into the wild.
It is now with the deepest regret that I have to inform you that the said vulture has instead been shot by a rebel soldier in Burma’s Shan State and is no more. (Bangkok Post, 23 November 2007.) While I do not think that this will provoke a diplomatic incident, it is indeed sad considering the repeated media publicity that this vulture received and because I’m especially fond of vultures.
What I had forgotten was the frequent press reports that the said cinereous vulture, since named Anakin, never in fact made it to Mongolia, for diplomatic reasons. It seems that despite proof that it was free of bird flu, the South Korean and Chinese governments refused it a transit visa to pass through their capitals.
While as feared this now reduces the world population of black cinereous vultures to 19,999, it seems that vultures are under serious threat elsewhere. In Nepal they have been decimated because they feed on the carcases of deceased sacred cows and are poisoned by the drug Diclophenac. This is an anti-inflammatory which I take for my gammy knee and which Nepalese cows apparently also take for theirs. A cow with four gammy knees must need a high dose and so its carcase is not the best food for vultures which are highly allergic to the drug.
To help the population recover, they are now therefore providing the vultures with organic meat to eat which has to be a good thing as I’d find it hard to live in a world without vultures.
Just like me, some people do love vultures. My friend Jeremy who was getting married asked on his wedding list for a black stuffed vulture but the nearest he got was a leather pig from Harrods called Boris. What a cruel world!
All of which reminds me, I must change my will. At the moment in the bit at page nineteen about my green and ecological funeral, it expresses the wish that after my death my executors expose my body on a high rock to be consumed by vultures, cinereous and otherwise. I fear though that this is not a good idea as, in view of the treatment for my gammy knee, the very last vultures could be dropping from the skies, which really wasn’t my intention.
So I’ll have to think again about the funeral. Back to the cardboard coffin I suppose, recycled of course from the unsold copies of my book!
Sunday, 16 December 2007
Koh Chang is Thailand’s second biggest island, a dragon’s back of jungle clad mountains asleep on a warm tropical sea. As I sketch out this story sitting by my beach hut under the palm trees, the sky is blue, the horizon sharp and the gentle waves are swishing up a beach of perfect white sand. No wonder it’s called White Sands Beach.
This sounds like a parody of a southern paradise but just I can’t keep away. Cat and I were here for my sixtieth and there was no reason to wait for the earth to go full circle before coming back on holiday for a week or two.
Koh Chang is unrivalled for sea and beaches, though for me the mountains and jungle come a close second. The trouble is that even monsoon forest such as this is hard to get into and is potentially dangerous. I’ve scrambled up some steep watercourses here before on previous trips but it’s easy to break a leg and you’ll soon get lost if you’re too ambitious. Nonetheless I was determined to do some jungle walks, this time with a guide.
After breakfast at ‘15 Palms’, my favourite bar on the beach, my friend Mike and I went into Ann’s Island Travel nearby to ask about jungle trekking and were pleased to be offered brochures for three different guides.
I’ve always been fascinated by the sharp phallic peak that stands high behind White Sands Beach. For this reason and just because it’s there, this was the Everest we chose to climb. According to the map in the Koh Chang Free Guide we’d picked up in ‘15 Palms’, this is Khao Chom Prasat which is 626 metres above sea level and yes, we were definitely going for the big one.
Next day early, Mike and I met up with our delightful guide, Toon and his young ‘safety man’ he calls ‘the Boss’. He drove us a kilometer or so along the beach and parked and soon we were leaving the rubber trees behind and pushing upwards through the dry jungle. It was hard going, the slope often not far from the vertical, the surface a crumbly mix of loose soil, stones, dry leaves and twigs.
Slipping and sliding, clinging onto roots and trees, we made a good pace and eventually broke out into the open where we could look up at the sheer face of the peak. We stopped there for water and a breather and Toon pointed out the breeding place of a wild pig, a heap of leaves and sticks that still had a piggy odour clinging to it. All the way he and ‘the Boss’ kept pointing out birds and insects to us and it was great to be with two Thais with a deep love for their natural environment and for conservation.
Looking upwards I now wondered how we would ever make it to the top of so sheer a rock. Toon told us there was no track and offered to rope us together but we declined and set off regardless, climbing slowly through the trees and scrub to the top. Yes, it was tough and Toon was impressed when I told him I was in my seventh decade. Normally it takes them three hours to get to the top but we had done it in two.
The summit of Chom Prasat is flat with a low forest cover and we sat there and listened to the insects, birds and monkeys and ate the fried rice and fruit that Toon had brought for us. It was now 32 degrees and we were drenched with sweat but despite the futility and pain, there’s no greater feeling than making it to the top.
Toon then took us to some rocky view points where we could look out over White Sands Beach, across much of the island and over the water to Trat and Chantaburi provinces. It’s all spectacularly beautiful and quite out of the ordinary.
I sat precariously on a rock looking down at a 500 metre drop as an eagle circled above us. It had been a big effort to get there, earning me more than a blister and a bruise or two but this moment alone made it worth while.
Most of life is smooth and predictable with little that’s truly memorable. Just occasionally you can take your chance, step beyond your usual confines and wheel and soar with the eagles.
Next time though I’m going to bring with me some decent walking shoes that don’t let me down by falling apart at the seams!
[Toon can be booked through Ann’s Island Travel next to ‘15 Palms’ on White Sands Beach where a range of easier walks and other trips are available. Call 039-551430 or 081-9105870 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Saturday, 15 December 2007
If you’ve threshed your rice out in the fields, you’ll have to bring the rice sacks home in the trailer behind your rot tai, the powerful little one axled ‘iron buffalo’ which serves to plough the fields, power the pumps and saws and haul every load that needs to be moved.
The roads are crowded with them and they are a definite hazard, especially at night as they rarely have lights and it’s easy to run up the back of them. Occasionally someone has nailed an old music CD on the back of the trailer to act as a reflector, a strange juxtaposition of the old and new.
Sometimes when taken home, the rice sacks can immediately be lifted into the rice barns where they’ll be kept until needed. If the rice is damp however, it’ll have to be laid out and dried. A couple of years ago, there was unseasonal rain during the rice harvest and many of the back roads were spread with tons of rice, out drying in the sun.
This year, our neighbour had hers spread out on fine blue netting in front of her rice barn and I saw her repeatedly raking it and turning it over to get it dry. She told me this was the crop from her seventeen rai of land (about eight acres) and it was going to take two or three days work to get it dry. Only then could it be put back in the sacks and stored. If stored damp, it would of course tend to germinate and to be tainted with mildew.
She is a rich farmer, her former husband a teacher, the first in the village to have a pickup many years ago, but still she follows the age old pattern of husbandry on the family’s land, bringing the harvest home.
Many small farmers are deep in debt and today the roads to the rice merchants’ depots are crowded with old pickups and rot tai taking their rice for sale. They need a quick return to pay off the credit they needed to raise the crop, though if only they could wait a few months the price would surely go up. This year there was flooding in the central plains and with a significant proportion of the harvest lost, the price is now quite high at ten baht a kilo, though with only modest rains the yield around here has been below normal.
Many families keep much of their crop for their own use. It stays in their rice barn or is displayed under the porch at the front of the house for all to see as a symbol of their productivity.
It’s always kept unhusked as brown rice is more resistant to rats and pests and as and when they need it, they’ll put a sack on a push cart behind the motorcycle and take it to the local rice mill. The mill is a small machine kept by a neighbour who turns it into white rice (khao san) in return for a proportion of the rice and the husks that he feeds to his pigs. Thus the nice fat sack you take to the mill is very much smaller when finally you get the white rice home again.
It’s surprising how many people here have bank accounts, though money has little real emotional pull and is spent easily. Many an Isaan man with a comfortable credit balance would feel far happier to have his rice barn full of bulging brown sacks. For rice is the staple and without it life cannot be sustained.
There’s an ocean of rice to be harvested and threshed and it all ripens at much the same time. The day thus isn’t long enough for the threshing machines to get round everyone and thresh it all so the rice farmers of Thailand also do it at night. They have to as the machines are heavily booked and also because it’s fun and a great excuse for a party, something the Thais never ever miss.
This is the day everyone’s been waiting for. Granny is sweeping up the grain that’s fallen on the ground by the neat pile of rice stooks waiting to be threshed. She tells me the thresher should come today but she’s no idea when. A pig’s been killed and they’re all busy preparing a big meal for all comers, chopping and pounding and firing up the charcoal.
These neighbours have chosen to bring the rice in to be threshed at the back of the house rather than out in the fields. This way they’ll have the straw handy for the buffaloes and not scattered far away. It’s also better as it’s not too far when you’ve got yourself tanked up on the lao khao as you work so you can still stagger back for the party.
I walk a couple of houses along the soi from ours and wander in the pitch darkness down to the back, following the steady thump of the thresher, my camera at the ready, and come across a timeless scene. The old truck with the blue thresher mounted on it is there, the big diesel engine and machinery in full throat, perhaps twenty people taking turns to throw the bundles of rice into its gullet, before it spits out the straw in powerful spurts high into the air.
It’s a magical microcosm. We’re all cradled together in the pool of light created by the truck’s spot lights, a circular world of flying straw, dark faceless figures moving relentlessly, filled with noise and dust and smells and framed by tall, shadowy palm trees, beyond them the all-enveloping blackness of the night.
I move around taking photos but nobody stops work for a moment, despite the flashes. Theirs is serious stuff though it’s always fun. They’re shouting and laughing and cracking comments about the long-nosed alien among them who’s at play, taking pretty pictures of an exotic scene. Most of them I’m sure I know well but I hardly recognize anyone as they’re all swathed up in clothes to keep out the dust and straw, only their eyes showing through narrow slits.
The rice is filling the huge brown sacks that take two strong men to drag them away. The number of sacks is now growing fast and the bulk of the stooks is getting smaller, the hay pile half way up the palm trees.
At last the thresher falls silent. Now they’re loading the rice sacks onto the trailers and hauling them away, most to be put in the rice barn for use over the coming year.
The work done, they can remove their masks and talk to me and I can see who they are. Some of the men want a photo and I’m happy to oblige. The whole scene is blurry, softened by the night and the warm glow of rice alcohol. They’re hot and tired but elated. There’s plenty of food to be had and more bottles of lao khao. It’s going to be a long and rowdy night!
Tuesday, 11 December 2007
The rice has been cut and is lying in the fields in small stooks or bundles where it will be left for a few days to dry. The next stage is threshing. While in the Thai language threshing is ‘nuat khao’, ‘nuat Thai’ is Thai massage. They’re massaging the rice!
Threshing used to be done by hand, a laborious process in which the stooks were beaten on the ground to dislodge the grains which were then tossed on woven trays and fanned to winnow away the scraps of chaff and grass. Now it’s all done by machine and the work of days is done in a few hours.
The thresher is booked and arrives in the field where everyone is waiting in a fever of excitement. This is the climax of the year when the bags of rice will be anxiously counted and they’ll know for sure what sort of a crop they’ve got.
It’s a substantial machine mounted on an old truck and is always painted pale blue. It arrives under its own steam and the vehicle’s prop shaft is dropped down so that the diesel engine can supply power to the thresher. A complex series of rubber belts taken off the shaft then drives the machinery that shakes the grains off the stalks. These dribble into a brown hessian sack, while the straw is ejected in a steady stream high into the air. This forms a hay stack that will be used as animal feed over the coming dry season.
Threshing needs a big gang of labour as many loads of stooks have been brought together and these have to be tossed into the hungry machine for the job to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. The hire is paid by the hour and the machine is booked for another job as soon as this one is finished.
It’s a hot and messy job and everyone’s swathed in balaclavas, long shirts and trousers, plus hat and rubber boots. They stand on the stack taking it in turns to throw the stooks into the chute, the dust and chaff flying, the machinery roaring and grinding and spitting fumes.
It’s hard work but nobody objects as this is a universal festival, celebrating fertility and the season’s cycle of labour. It’s sociable and fun and there’s alcohol and food to be had. The women do their share of the heavy work but they’ve also brought with them big aluminium pots full of dark curries and of course large quantities of cooked white rice.
It’s a great atmosphere out there in the fields, all dry and brown with only the rice stubble now in the fields. There’s bright colour and laughter and children and dogs and a grandmother or two always there to lend a hand and to take part in this great harvest home. Just as real life should be.
It must have been like this half an age ago in the West when agriculture was still labour intensive and large numbers worked on the land. Now at harvest festival in English village churches there are tins of peas and produce bought in the supermarket stacked high by the altar and it isn’t quite the same any more.
So I now feel lucky to be so closely a part of all that goes on in our village in the rice fields of Thailand today. It’s a world I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d be a part of.
Thursday, 6 December 2007
I find it difficult to resist taking pictures of a buffalo, especially when a proud owner asks me to and plonks two small children on its back.
Although the days when buffaloes were the rice farmer's essential work mate are long gone, there is still a strong affection for buffaloes. Many people still keep them, raising them for meat and there's money to be made. This man has seven and he could buy a decent second hand pickup with the proceeds.
Cat says she would never eat buffalo though. She remembers Yuie too well, the buffalo of her childhood to even consider it. The French eat horse but I as a Brit likewise never would.
Rural Thais remember swimming with the buffaloes, tumbling off their backs into the muddy water, taking them out to graze in the morning and sitting with them as the eat, sometimes riding on their backs and having races with their friends. It's then hard not to bond with them.
Buffaloes are not as stupid as they look and they're good natured and work hard. I'd never eat my work mate either, especially when it's such an icon!
It’s November and the rice is maturing in the fields. The rains are faltering, the fields are drying out and from a rich emerald green the standing rice has taken on a hint of gold. When it’s ripe and when labour’s available it will then be painstakingly cut.
Cat tells me that in past years when there were fewer people in the village it took much longer to harvest the rice and it might still be in the fields late in December. Bringing it in was a long process.
Now it seems to be cut over a few weeks as each field ripens according to the variety of rice and when it was sown. Even so I hear grumbles about shortages of labour. Cat’s sister-in-law says that it’s increasingly difficult to find people to do a day’s work for 120 baht. Last year she and Mungorn were the first to harvest and they had about eighty people in their fields and it was all done in a day. Today I saw Mali out in the fields cutting rice and she was totally alone.
Cultivating rice is unbelievably labour intensive. I wrote earlier about the back breaking task of planting out the rice seedlings in the flooded fields one at a time. Similarly the rice is cut with small sickles a handful at a time.
You see the workers, mostly women, in their broad brimmed hats advancing slowly together across a field cutting the rice. Then the heads are gathered into small bundles and tied with a rice stalk and left on the ground to dry. The rice growing region of South East Asia is an unforgiving ocean of toil.
Cutting is arduous work though it’s not as bad as planting. It’s dryer now and less hot than earlier in the year and as they cut only the top six inches or so of the stalk, they don’t have to bend down low. Even so despite the fun they seem to make of everything, this is not work anyone really wants to do and change is in the air.
It costs about 500 baht a rai to hire a big harvesting machine and these have to be the thing of the future. As the younger generation goes to the towns and into the wage economy, mechanization will rapidly advance. You need to have reasonably large fields accessible from the road but the cost of using a harvester is about the same as manual labour, though the wastage of rice is greater. As labour inevitably becomes more scarce and expensive, there will be more and more harvesters and the old ways will slowly die.
Somebody asked me the other day if we use sickles to cut the wheat in Europe. I guess we never did but used scythes. That was a long time back, remembering that steam traction engines ruled supreme for many years before the advent of tractors and the combine harvester.
Harvesting in the West is thus now a clinical process with a handful of men managing massive machines that bestride the broad acres of wheat. The romance has all gone but here in Thailand, despite the hard and unremitting work, it’s still very much alive. The big parties of workers are old friends and they enjoy good food, fiery spirits, flirtation and fun together out there in the rice fields.
The collective effort of bringing in the rice is something that everyone here shares, that brings the community together, that binds and defines the place, even though there’s little money to be made. It symbolizes the seasons and fertility and is survival itself. There’s a definite satisfaction in producing your own food, far more so than opening the freezer cabinet in the supermarket.
Last night we sat down to eat fish gathered from the rice fields with locally produced rice and our own vegetables. Okay there were some sauces in bottles but I found it special that we were almost self-sufficient, even though I hadn’t raised a finger to produce any of it.
My own life has been very far from the soil and for that I have some regrets. Now of course I have the special privilege of enjoying an urban standard of living but with all the pleasures of being in the countryside. I shall have to control my rose tinted romanticism though as it’s still a hard life here and those who work in the fields get very little in return.
Thursday, 29 November 2007
Something every child raised in a Thai rice growing village will always remember is harvest time. It's a wonderful occasion as in all farming communities.
Mama Papa are out in the fields cutting the rice and you go out early with them and play all day long in the warm sunshine. It's not too hot and its dry and you get to ride on Papa's little tractor and to sit and eat with all the workers... uncles, aunts and cousins, while granny chews betel and keeps an eye on you.
The grown ups are drinking lao khao and are very happy. The hard cycle of the rice crop is nearly over and there'll be some money coming in, good food, celebration. The dry season is long, featureless and hot but now is the time to be out in the fields with the family for the great climax of the farming year.
Harvesting rice is a subject that's notoriously difficult to photograph though. It's usually a haphazard jumble of figures in a flat landscape. They wear broad brimmed hats and keep their heads down and it's hard to get any faces or to compose a decent picture. But capturing the kids is another matter. They all know me and they gaze in wonderment or even pose for me.
These shots I took yesterday and I couldn't wait to post them. We're off to Koh Chang for a holiday tomorrow. Cat's going with the village school. For the first time ever the school's got some money from Surin and they're renting buses and all 95kids plus some parents are off to see some museums and have a first ever glimpse of the sea. The children have hardly left the village before, likewise many of the parents. I'm driving down to Koh with Peter, and Cat and Laylai are going to leave the bus in Chantaburi join us on the island.
I'll be posting some descriptions of the rice harvest a little later when I've written them and I might even manage something more about Koh Chang.
Tuesday, 27 November 2007
Cities can be horrible and Bangkok is no exception, though a century ago it was known as the Venice of the East. That was before they filled in its network of canals and replaced them with traffic jams.
To my mind the Chao Phraya River in the heart of Bangkok is still one of the great city riverscapes of the world. I never tire of taking the ferry for a few baht and going upstream from Saphan Thaksin past the great hotels, the Oriental and Peninsular and along the shore lined with temples, wharves and markets. I then get off at Tha Chang where they used to bathe the King’s elephants to visit the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Gaeo.
Apart from the fact that the character of the river has changed little from the days of Joseph Conrad, it is special because it is still so vibrant. In London or Paris for example the rivers are dead but for a few plastic tourist boats, but Bangkok’s river is a key thoroughfare taking thousands of people to work every day, with long barge trains carrying cement, rice, farm produce and all the needs of a big city. The boats are old and wooden and the river’s crowded, bustling, and alive.
I love it and am relieved that the twentieth century has not ripped the heart out of it and that it still is much as it always was.
Sadly though the Bangkok canals are as good as gone, all except for one. From where we stay in Sukhumvit soi 71, it’s only a short walk to Klong San Saeb, perhaps the smelliest canal in the history of mankind. The water is a dark grey and it stinks, and as the boat surges through the churned up water, the spray hits your face despite the blue and white canvas dodgers along the side. I love it for its wild craziness. It’s just so very Thai.
The canal is well placed to take me deeper into Bangkok to Asoke, Pratunam, Ploenchit and wherever I want to go and if you change boats it goes further to Wat Saket near Rajadamnoen Avenue and the Democracy Monument not far from the river itself. It’s an important artery and a great means of avoiding traffic jams for only a few baht.
The boats are long and narrow and carry several hundred people. They come storming into the jetty at speed, the water heaving around them. The boy clinging onto the gunwhale throws a rope over the bollard as the boat overshoots. Its engine is then thrown into reverse and the hull comes crashing against the jetty. This is a sure time to leave the world if you miss your footing and fall into the water as you scramble ashore.
Health and Safety would close the service immediately anywhere but in Thailand as in all respects it’s incredibly dangerous. The water is a glutinous poison. In a narrow canal and with a high closing speed, there have been fatal collisions. The deck hands wear helmets as a sop to safety consciousness as they take your money clinging onto the side of the boat, but you have to be agile getting aboard so it’s definitely not for the faint hearted. That’s exactly why I so love it.
The boats are full of commuters on their daily grind, young men and girls, the wind in their hair, a hand over their mouths to stop the spray. Silent, stoic, jammed in together on the seats or standing like sardines at the back, they do this twice every day. It’s normal, it’s tolerable and they know how to climb up over the gunwhale and ropes in short skirt and spikey heels to get ashore. Yes, it’s a great place for tourists and for people watchers too.
As I stand beside the massive diesel engine, engulfed in the noise and heat and the smell of oil, the tight press of bodies means I couldn’t fall down even if I tried. I feel the rush of hot air and sense the raw power of the propeller as it thrusts the boat forwards, the long wooden hull ahead of me flexing as it hits the waves. The tower blocks slip quickly past, followed by an older era of crooked wooden houses, all festooned with drying clothes, pot plants and the junk and chaos that is so very Bangkok, so very Thai.
This is the unseen Thailand that I always show to my visitors if I can. It’s amazing, it’s ugly, dirty, dangerous, alive and vibrant and I love it for all of that.
This small corner of Bangkok still is the Venice of the East, but Venice was never half as fun. It’s Klong San Saeb and nowhere in the world can ever be quite like it.