Until you’ve skimmed the city’s choppy canals, you haven’t seen the original heart of Bangkok
One of the quickest ways to neutralize Bangkok’s metropolitan overload is to leave the concrete behind and disappear into Bangkok’s intricate network of canals and rivers. Crisscrossing the city in all directions, these murky green waterways move cargo and passenger traffic both within the city and without, provide a seemingly endless source of water for bathing, cooking, irrigation and recreation, and conjure up a parallel universe in which 18th-century Siam collides with 21st-century Thailand.
Viewed from above, Bangkok’s canal world resembles a quirky, skewed mandala, the quasi-circular diagrams created by Buddhist artists as an object for meditation. Much like Hindu-Buddhist mythology’s Mount Meru—around which the cosmos unfolds in concentric continents alternating with slender cosmic oceans—Thailand’s sweltering capital straddles a vast spider web of natural and artificial canals, fanning out through sultry river delta for several hundred square miles.
The Thais have always had a deep affinity for water, dating to the early first millennium when they began migrating—from where remains a matter of lively debate—into river valleys throughout Thailand and neighbouring Laos and Myanmar. Buckminster Fuller believed the prevalence of the Meru myth in South and Southeast Asia suggested a migration from the Indian and Pacific ocean archipelagos and continental coasts to the Himalayan heart of Asia. For Fuller, the orderly alternation of land and water in the Meru mandala pointed to an Oceanic origin for Asian civilization and religious archetypes. Whatever the circumstances, the Siamese never strayed far from water. Thailand’s ruling monarchy, which has flourished for nearly a thousand years, transferred the royal capital from central Thailand’s Ayutthaya—a richly endowed city itself surrounded by canals and rivers—to the banks of the Chao Phraya River in 1769 following a disastrous war with the Burmese.
Using thousands of Khmer prisoners of war, King Rama I augmented Bangkok’s natural canal-and-river system with hundreds of artificial waterways. All fed into Thailand’s hydraulic lifeline—the broad Chao Phraya River—which bisected the city centre into two halves, Bangkok proper and Thonburi, the river’s ‘right bank’. The Chao Phraya in turn disgorges itself into the Gulf of Thailand, a vast cul-de-sac of the South China Sea.
The canal expansion changed the geography of the city. Taking one of the river’s largest natural curves, city planners added two lengthy canals—Banglamphu Canal and Ong Ang Canal—to create a royal island called Ko Ratanakosin.
This island quicky began to accumulate an impressive architectural portfolio centered on The Grand Palace, political hub of the new Siamese capital. Brahman priests and Buddhist monks consecrated the palace in 1782 along with an adjacent royal monastery, Wat Phra Kaew. Lining the long, shaded cloisters of the monastery, deep-hued frescoes, highlighted with rich golds and watery blues, transpose the Hindu god Rama’s heroic exploits on to visions of Bangkok’s canal network 200 years ago.
Portuguese priest Fernao Mendez Pinto was the first to use the epithet ‘Venice of the East’, referring not to Bangkok but to Ayutthaya, in a letter to the Society of Jesus in Lisbon in 1554, but two hundred years later it came to be used to describe the new capital of Bangkok as well. In 1855, British envoy Sir John Bowring noted in his reports: “The highways of Bangkok are not streets or roads but the river and the canals. Boats are the universal means of conveyance and communication.”
Visiting traders and diplomats from Europe marveled at not only the sheer scale of the waterways but also the exotic life encountered both on and off the water. While walking along the Chao Phraya one afternoon in 1824, English trader Robert Hunter spotted what he thought was a creature with eight limbs and two heads swimming in the river. When the oddity lifted itself on to a canoe, Hunter was surprised to see it was in fact two 13-year-old boys who were fused together at the chest. The Briton was so intrigued that he sponsored a medical examination of the boys and later introduced them to Bangkok’s Western social circuits as ‘the Siamese twins’.
Throughout the history of the Chakri Dynasty, royal administrations added to the system. Khlong Mahawawat (khlong means “canal”) was dug during the reign of King Rama IV to link the Chao Phraya River with the Tha Chin River. Lined with fruit orchards and stilted houses draped with fishing nets, Khlong Mahawawat is still one of the most traditional and least visited of the Bangkok canals. Khlong Saen Saep came about to shorten travel between the Chao Phraya and Bang Pakong rivers and today is heavily used by boat taxi commuters moving across the city from east to west and vice versa.
The section of the Chao Phraya River extending between the Bangkok Noi and Bangkok Yai canals was originally a canal dug as a shortcut across a large loop in the original river course. This canal broadened and merged with the Chao Phraya River such that today most people assume it’s the natural course of the river. Meanwhile, the original river loop narrowed and became shallower, becoming the Bangkok Noi and Bangkok Yai ‘canals’. Following the Second World War, when the Japanese briefly occupied parts of the city, Thai engineers built bridges over the Chao Phraya River and began filling in canals to provide space for new roads and shophouses. However, as Bangkok tumbled headlong into the 1980s, racking up double-digit growth for over a decade, gridlock traffic and choking vehicle fumes induced nostalgia for the city’s water-borne origins.
Gliding west off the Chao Phraya into Khlong Bangkok Noi knocks 50 years off big-city progress. As your boat penetrates Bangkok’s right bank, the scenery transforms into a snug corridor of teak houses on stilts, old Buddhist temples, and banana groves. Thai women in straw lampshade hats hawk steaming bowls of rice noodles from wooden canoes. Mobile banks and post offices putter along atop tiny barges, further demonstrating that virtually any errand on land can also be done on water.
Authentic floating markets, in which wooden canoes laden with fruits, vegetables, noodles, and handicrafts cluster together near bridges and riverbanks waiting for customers, have disappeared from central Bangkok. Adjacent Samut Songkhram Province, however, practically floats on canals intersecting the lazy bends of the Mae Klong River, creating the perfect environment for talat nam.