Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Life Aquatic

Passengers get on a boat on Khlong Saen Saeb in Bangkok Wednesday. 

Bangkok and boats go together like gin and tonic or peanut butter and chocolate. You can't have one without the other. 

Bangkok sits on the Chao Phraya River delta, in fact it's sinking into the delta a little more every year. This city of 12 million floods with depressing regularity. A heavy rain leads to localized flooding. A high tide leads to localized flooding. A heavy rain AND a high tide leads to a lot of localized flooding. (Seriously, the devastating floods of 2011 were exacerbated by very high tides at the same time as heavy rains.

Historically, Bangkok was an aquatic city. The city's infrastructure was built around the Khlongs (Thai word for canal) that crisscrossed the region. People and goods were moved by boats poled through the canals. Even the early brothels that brought the city of a measure of infamy were boats on Khlong Saen Saeb. 

Now most of the canals have been paved over and turned into roads, which flood in the rain and (inadvertently) revert to their natural state as canals, albeit unusable ones. 

Some of the early khlongs still exist in isolated patches. About 100 meters of Khlong Toey, which was once a navigable waterway running east out of Bangkok, still exists in patches as a fetid, polluted backwater.

But boats still provide a valuable and popular form of mass transit. The Chao Phraya River is used by the Chao Phraya Express Boats to move tens of thousands of people everyday from northern and southern suburbs into Bangkok.

A continuous stream of ferries take people from the Bangkok side of the river the Thonburi side of the river (historically, Bangkok started on the Thonburi side and spread eastward to the Bangkok side and beyond).

There's still a network of khlongs on the Thonburi side that people use everyday to get around.

On the Bangkok side, Khlong Saen Saeb is about the only khlong still carrying regularly scheduled passenger boats. Fast boats zip down the khlong, hauling about 80,000 people a day into Bangkok from the eastern suburbs.

I am going to do a project on Bangkok's aquatic life and its boats. This is the first installment. The slideshow is the beginning of what I hope will be a full package on the boats of Bangkok and navigating this amazing city by boat.