Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The Venice of the East?

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.

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