Born on the water, grown from the water, and perhaps soon enough drowning in water, this is a city that turns its back and grows away from its riverfront at its own risk. By world standards, the Chao Phraya, snaking its way through the metropolis, clogged with clunky barges and flashy tourist cruisers, churned up with lurking catfish and bits of mangrove, is neither especially wide nor grand, scenic nor epic. Never mind that it was named with a noble court title and has been referred to ever since as “River of Kings.” (History tells us Bangkok only came into full flower when the royals decided to decamp from the far bank to the near.) Only the Grand Palace’s glinting spires and the occasional dusting off of royal barges give hint that it was ever so.
As in many other Asian cities, planners have let much along the Chao Phraya’s banks sprout or rot haphazardly. Where this might be an occasion for promenades and parks, only a grotesque cavalcade of bone-white, ziggurat-slanted hotels interrupt the waterway’s long-time utilitarian purpose. Even the bridges are confused and miscellaneous, without unifying design. Warehouses and abandoned churches, decrepit piers, and ramshackle tenements alternate with neo-classical oddities and luxury condos. Where most Thais consider this an inconvenient place to live, too far from malls and amenities, its tributary khlong (canals) squatted upon by the poor, foreigners grab most available balconies with a view, still clinging to the exoticism of bygone days that only the river can conjure.
And yet, even for the locals, the Chao Phraya is more than that. Look it up: its non-Nile-like length of a mere 372 kilometres, redirected endlessly by human intervention, engenders a watershed area of more a third of the nation. Because Thailand is a country defined by fecund wetness—incessant rains, waterfalls, paddies, annual Songkran splashing—the river is like a tether, keeping the capital’s highest-flying urban conceits attached to something more eternal. Bangkok’s roots, like shafts of rice, are all in the muck of this river.
While hardly a native myself, it’s only when I take time to travel the Chao Phraya that I feel that clutch in the throat, that urge to take snapshots incessantly, which means I have come to somewhere unlike anywhere else on the planet—that I am confronted, confounded, and mostly comforted by that indefinable sensation of experiencing something called “sense of place.” Besides, to be on the water, near the water, and close to the people who through love or circumstance still cling to it, is about as peaceful an escape as is possible, as relaxing as a hundred of the best foot massages rolled into one.
Every time I have an excuse to take one of Chao Phraya speedboats, I am reminded that public transport can indeed turn mythic: the rhythmic whistle-tooting of the crew helping to steer boats to dock, the old-fashioned canisters for ticket dispensing. This used to be my route for taking my daughter to dance lessons at Patravadi, the wonderful arts centre that unfortunately has fled to Hua Hin (founded by a famed actress with a family fortune earned by forebears who owned the river’s ferry lines). Even when I brought my ninety-year-old mother to Bangkok on what would prove a painful, last visit, she fell for the charms of river watching from the patio of the Oriental—by far her favourite experience in the city and probably the only spot she found more merry than menacing.
Among my best memories of water world meanderings is a Sunday afternoon spent along Khlong Bang Luang. Like most foreigners, I had only recently heard of this quaint stretch of Thonburi, so easily reached by BTS to Wongwian Yai and short taxi, yet so entirely removed from all modern bustle. And I might not have ever heard about it but for the draw of a curious landmark called The Artist’s House, or Baan Silapin. The place is found across a single, steep stone bridge over a canal plied by numerous long-tail boats hired at exorbitant rates. A shaded boardwalk on the far side is now crammed with makeshift restaurants, massage dens, bric-a-brac purveyors, and groceries, taking advantage of the pedestrian traffic and festooned with rainbow-colored bags of feed, resembling packing peanuts, for the surprisingly thick and thriving populace of fish (that I took as a positive sign of the khlong’s ongoing habitability). Having brought my eleven-year-old daughter to see how the other half lives on this less developed side of the river, she found her main delight in tossing treats into the water, stimulating sudden feeding frenzies.
Complaining all the while about the heat, she nonetheless led me through narrow back alleys where kids got old-fashioned crew cuts in sumptuous, old-fashioned barber chairs, to the tiny, tumbledown chapel of the neighbourhood temple to throw joss sticks and pick out paper fortunes telling us to “tread carefully, avoid new business endeavours.” She also delighted in watching two old ladies demonstrate their step-by-step recipe for pad thai in a giant wok mounted before their miniature shop front. We took our noodles down to the river to a table provided by a pony-tailed leather craftsman named Naimoo, who told us he paid less than a hundred dollars rent and largely slept outdoors beside the canal, while his favourite oldies from the Sixties blasted through tinny speakers. Except for the rumbling boats, his Beatles’ selection was all that broke the restful silence.
As for the Artist’s House, it seemed more a bunch of interconnected wood shacks circled around a courtyard filled with extravagant foliage, a pet monitor lizard, and an ancient stone chedi. Some humble fried fish was served in tables by the river, and, of course, the place was crammed with postcards and souvenirs. There were supposed to be art classes, but in the linked galleries upstairs, exhibiting canvasses predictably picaresque, the only instruction was an introduction to tarot card reading. Still, for B100 there were papier–mâchépiggy banks we could decorate ourselves with the paints and brushes provided. And the courtyard soon filled for a show with traditional puppets—performed every day except Wednesdays—which turned out to be more about two emcees making endless Thai banter into microphones, interrupted occasionally by a team of masked kids getting their marionettes to strike humorous poses. Now angry, now haughty, now happy.
The day was enervating—our four aimless hours in the Bang Luang ‘hood seemed more like ten. And yet neither my daughter nor I wanted to head back to our lives across the river.
Why can’t we all leave the Sukhumvits, the Ramkamhaengs, and the inhuman boulevards of continual noise and night, forsake our security gates and air con, for our very own rickety pier where we can see and smell the river through the floorboards? For the sake of the Chao Phraya’s future, perhaps it’s best if we don’t.