A “river rap” from Charlie Lee—the self-titled “river rat” of the Chao Phraya—who, along with his business partner, Captain Kao, operates the BuaKao boat, offering historical and adventurous river explorations, khlong cruises, and even venturing as far south as the Gulf of Thailand. Here, he details a day in the life of a boat Captain and the vast changes he has witnessed during more than 20 years on the river.
In conversation with David J. Constable
How long have you lived in Bangkok?
Twenty plus years now.
What drew you to the river?
I was seeking something different from the city to expand my adventures outside of Soi Cowboy. There’s a different kinetic sculpture along the water. I like the fresh air, well, fresh for Bangkok and much better than breathing in all of the fumes and dirt on those traffic-choked highways. And romance, too.
What’s an average day for you on the water?
I’ll head to the boat about 11am—it’s called BuaKao which translates as “White Lotus”—with Captain Kao and we’ll get things prepared and roll up the shades. Then, check the oil, start the engine, cast off, buy fuel and ice then take it easy in the run up before guests arrive. I’ll greet the new crew, introduce them to the Captain and the river, then head down to Khlong Dalkanong, westward to Khlong Bang Khun Thien, taking in the old communities.
All of these backwater areas are several hundred years older than Bangkok, they were thriving productive villages during the Ayutthaya Period. There are many temples to be absorbed and some people appear as if from the past—monks rowing for alms, local waterside general stores surrounded by boats—where locals still shop, trade, talk… this was then the local newsroom.
Between the fish, birds and lizards, there is an abundance of wildlife, so it’s always interesting to see this in the water. We’ll appreciate the backwaters for a few hours before returning to the main river with its action and heavy surf, the number of boats causing large swells of water, often lifting the boat to exhilarating heights. Then, it’s goodbye time to the visiting crew and off to moor the boat, which has its challenges in different forms depending if the tide is coming in or out and at what speed.
What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen over the years to the river and riverside?
Watching bridges being built—Rama 8, Bhumibol Bridge— Khachanapisek Bridge—and the significant increase of buildings along the riverside, which continues even now at an impressive speed. I have witnessed the change from 30 story buildings to 70 story buildings, a dramatic difference especially seen from river level. Plus, all of the new malls being built. The khlongs have also experienced changes as massive housing projects have been built. Also, along with the new mass transit lines, condos have popped up like corn in the field, especially near transit stations. A whole new demographic is forming in what used to be, to me, jungle outposts.
What is something you know but others might not about the Chao Phraya River?
That the deepest part of the river, stretching 2 kilometres in front of Siriraj Hospital from Khlong Bangkok Yai to Khlong Bangkok Noi, used to be solid land.
How important is the river and the khlongs to life of Bangkokians?
Most Bangkokians hardly know there is a river as their daily lives do not intermingle with river activities, so it’s not essential to them. Many Thais are afraid of the river stemming from ancient spiritual beliefs.
On the other hand, those that know and experience the river due to their work or living proximity have the water in their mind and hearts always. The river is influenced by ocean tides every day, so there’s much talk about tide levels, often with several high waves coming close together which causes near flooding circumstances. Tide levels vary between 1 to 3 metres per day depending on the gravitational demands of the solar system.
Due to a large number of goods delivered by the river, the Chao Phraya is an essential item for all Bangkokians if they know it or not. Additionally, thousands of fish are caught from the river and consumed every day. Also, lots of swimming and bathing of humans and their beloved dogs and motorcycles.
What is the future of the Chao Phraya and how do you see it changing?
The Chao Phraya will keep on flowing, demanding its rights as the strong brown god it is. The large flat delta that caresses its boundaries along the full 372 km length will remain loyal providing fertile rice fields, cattle grazing and a carefree lifestyle.
This is just my river rap, but it’s what I’ve seen and how I see things here evolving. In reality, manmade items are more significant and of an intrusive influence. In the past 10 years, I have seen a substantial increase in the number of boats on the river, a massive expansion of buildings at the river’s edge, and in congested areas more oil in the river.
Several ancient riverside communities are under threat, with many already pushed off their land by high dollar property developments. I love the old original homes and am saddened when they disappear. There is a small increase in pleasure boating on the river with flashy fibreglass boats appearing more frequently. This activity may give more attention to the river regarding aesthetic and safety value, thus bringing improvements.
Being quite familiar with the Marine Department I’m encouraged by their operations and attentiveness to river activities. Another working group to mention are the hundreds of people crewing the yellow boats which have the job of plucking trash and water hyacinth from the river and khlongs. They tackle this never-ending job with smiles and dedication. Positive results from these efforts are evident to me as an active river rat, the river appears cleaner of floating debris than in the past. Lots of trash is still there, the mental attitude takes a long time to change, but I think it’s happening to positive effects.