Checking Out Bangkok's Canals

October 23, 2000

Not only in Venice can you spend a wonderful afternoon exploring a canal. If you chose to explore a canal in Bangkok you will not be in a gondola. You will most likely be in a long-tailed boat with a rather loud and funny looking engine with a long-reaching propeller attached to it. You will be exploring what is called a khlong.

‘Khlong’ means road in the Mon language. Mon people were the first Indian-influenced civilization to arrive in Asia. If you think about how important roads are now, you can imagine how important khlongs were then. There is still a khlong called Khlong Mon in Bangkok.

Khlongs used to play a vital role in the daily life of the city. The Chao Phraya River provided the water needed for these great networks of transportation. The majority of Bangkok’s population once lived along its khlongs and riverbanks. Raft houses were popular accommodation and houses built on stilts along the water’s edge gave easy access to bathing, cooking and drinking water,231000k1.jpg and a variety of shopping and dining options, which simply came paddling by the front door. Khlongs were the super-highways of Bangkok until the age of the automobile arrived.

As automobiles took over the city, many of the khlongs were filled in and made into roads. This is said to have contributed greatly to the increase of the temperature within the city because the cooling effects of this water and the surrounding greenery were greatly reduced. Don’t worry. Khlongs have not been totally eliminated and river life is still alive and well within Bangkok.

The floating markets that make their way through Bangkok’s waterways are one of the major tourist attractions the city offers. Highly publicized photographs of vendors with their boats piled high with fruits and vegetables in swirling arrays of colour make these markets highly sought after photo opportunities by visitors. In my opinion, any khlong is a good khlong. There is a world of wonder waiting on any waterway you231000k2.jpg chose to wander down.

Exploring a khlong is a wonderful way to get the inside scoop on daily life in Thailand. Khlong travel gives you a chance to look into people’s backyards, marvel at the whole other world of river life within the city, and provides a break from the traffic jams and automobiles that pack the city. Khlong travel also allows a magnificent glimpse into the past.

I recently took a khlong journey with an old man nicknamed Uncle Clean near Suhkumvit Soi 77 in Bangkok. Smiling faces, waving hands, engine smoke, and the smell of pollution filled the air as our boat vroomed and chugged away from the pier.

I enjoyed seeing many children splashing and jumping into the water. I watched people fishing, vendors selling noodle soup, fish, and grilled meats from their very small boats, and women doing their laundry. I peered into little shops and stalls set up along the banks. Older and larger rice barges and canoes went by. Other long-tailed boats were busy231000k3.jpg carrying propane gas tanks, large jugs of water, beer kegs, or other people to their correct destinations. People were strolling along the banks, eating in a variety of restaurants along the way, chatting, feeding fish, and watching and waving at us as we passed by. What a relaxing afternoon!

There is a down side to khlong exploration. Many khlongs in Bangkok are massively polluted. Bad smells and dead fish joined the experience. I watched people bathing, brushing their teeth, and drinking the water. Massive piles of rubbish filled the banks and stray trash went floating by. Well, this is also part of the experience and is a good reminder not to litter.

I also spotted some khlong divers at work along the way. Khlong divers dredge on the bottom of the canals in hopes of finding long-lost treasure. They pull up buckets of sludge and sift through it.

Eventually these khlong divers make their way onto the streets of Bangkok to sell the treasures that they have found. If you see a street vendor with big tubs of slime covered coins and other muddy objects on display, chances are you have run into one of these divers.

You have to be prepared to get quite dirty if you want to rumble through the wares and try your luck at finding that something special. I discovered one of these divers in downtown Bangkok one day and so I dove into his stuff. I sifted through goop covered watches, Buddha amulets, alarm clocks, ashtrays, lighting fixtures, meditation beads, Buddha statues, and coins, coins, coins, and more coins.

Imagine my surprise when a 1799 United States liberty coin showed its head in my blackened hand. How I wish that this coin could tell the tale of its journey from America, into a Bangkok khlong, and back into the hands of an American!

The mystery of khlong life is found on the shores, passing by in boats, and hiding in the murky bottoms. For a good time in Thailand, go cruise a khlong.

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