Reflections Blog

The Canals of Bangkok

Debra and I recently traveled to Thailand as a point of departure for three weeks of hiking and sightseeing in Bhutan and Nepal.  Bangkok and its environs are home to 14 million people. Thailand has a population of 67 million, 20 million of whom are ethnic Chinese. The vast majority of people are Buddhist, and that is reflected in the traditional Thai manner of greeting and departing--the namaste. The tourist-facing people are invariably polite, as you would expect, but we experienced that gentleness in everyday people on the street, too.Boys swimming in the canal

We arrived in Bangkok late in the evening on the day following the day we departed--we had crossed the international date line. Weary and jet lagged, we arrived at the Shangri-La Hotel with very few people still stirring, got to our room, took sleeping pills, and lay down for a hard night's rest. We were awake by 6 am but had at least slept for about six hours. After rousing ourselves, we took a walk through the city. The Shangri-La is an opulent hotel on the Chao Phraya River (the River of Kings) but just a few steps outside the hotel and you are quickly immersed in a third-world Asian country.   It is safe to walk the streets, and the sights, sounds, and smells are fascinating.

Chaos and color on the canalImpressions: street vendors selling raffle tickets, cheap souvenirs, or clothing; tuk tuks zooming by, each looking in worse repair than the last; schoolgirls in their uniforms clutching book bags; the njsizzling aroma of deep fried food; threadworn shops selling flowers, plastic bags of consumable drinks of unknown origin, and foods that defy description; and bushel baskets filled with exotic fruits--kaew-mung-korns (dragon fruit), mgors (rambutans, which have rinds of red and yellow hairs), chom-poos (rose apples, which taste vaguely like pears), and, my favorites, mang-kuts, which have delicious white flesh inside their purplish shells, and are little known outside of Thailand.

We returned to the hotel and, after a late breakfast, arranged for a tour of the river and canal system that Bangkok is famous for. That experience was astonishing in just about every sense of that word.

Some buildings on the canal are collapsingBangkok calls itself "the Venice of the East," but if you've ever been to Venice you would not confuse the elegance and charm of that Italian city with the canal system in Bangkok. Imagine an arterial system built in concentric circles throughout a city of 14 million.

Add that only 2 percent of Bangkok's residences are connected to a sewage system and that the citizens of Bangkok produce 2.5 metric tons of liquid waste each day, only 60 percent of which is treated. Add that there are garbage and vegetable waste stations built next to the canals and discharge directly into them.

Add roiling schools of catfish numbering in the hundreds fighting over food thrown into the canals, their bodies so densely packed that the water appears to be boiling. Then add tens of thousands of boats navigating through these waterways every day, their propellers churning carp, vegetable waste, and garbage into a putrid mush that turns the water a deathly shade of brown.
Roiling catfish feeding on fast food
To call these canals a health hazard would be like saying that skydiving without a parachute is dangerous. There may be more polluted rivers in the world (the Ganges comes to mind), but it is hard to imagine a worse environmental mess than this one. I say this as a member of the Sierra Club and as someone committed to protecting and preserving the environment, but I realize that whatever environmental concerns we have at home pale in comparison to the monstrous environmental issues here.

Clearly, as their population grows and the river is degraded even further, the Thai people face an epic environmental catastrophe, but the cost and effort required to restore the river and canal system to health would be on an unimaginable scale. It makes me glad I'm living now because I can't fathom what this earth will be like in another two or three hundred years of accelerating human abuse of our environment and natural resources.A garbage processing plant on the canal

Environmental sadness aside, there is some charm to Bangkok's canal culture. We toured the canals in one of the city's long boats--a kind of water taxi powered by an exposed automobile engine with a long crank shaft angled into the water so that the propeller lies just below the water's surface. No doubt this makes for a shallow draft, but it makes the boats unwieldy.

At every sharp turn, the pilot has to turn the engine outside the boat's narrow beam, and you feel like the boat could capsize at any moment. But after you lean precariously over the brown water for a suspenseful few moments, the turn is negotiated, the boat rights itself, and the engine roars to life again as the boat spurts forward.

One of the canal's many long boatsAlong the banks of these narrow channels are buildings in various stages of decay: homes and small shops, some on stilts, some squatting on concrete pilings, others perched bravely on the water itself, all slowly sinking in the muck, a few leaning precariously or already partially collapsed, as though weary from old age and favoring one leg or the other.

Their faces are worn raw from the heat and humidity, but some offer the ragged smiles of clothes hanging from a line or a row of brightly colored flowerpots suspended from corrugated tin roofs. Near the water's edge at many of these canal houses are small Buddhist shrines, gilded and gold with a faux opulence that, at first glance, seems incongruous with the general squalor of the place but reflects the canal people's enduring belief that this life is merely the flickering of a candle whose light will burn forever.

A Komodo Dragon sunning itselfAs we guide along, we pass two Komodo dragons sunning themselves on rocks lining the canal. Later, a gaggle of boys throw themselves off the bank and frolic in the water, splashing each other and laughing in silly abandon.

We see a man in an inner tube swimming across the canal. He a carrying a large inflated plastic bag with his teeth while he uses both arms to paddle, and we see that the bag is filled with groceries. Other men are washing themselves in the canal, wearing loin cloths wrapped around their pelvis.

Women are talking to each other, sitting outside their homes or shops. Others are hanging laundry or pausing for a smoke in the midday heat. An older man and his son have thrown a net into the water and pull out a large white-bellied carp. For these people, the canal is not the polluted artery I perceive. For them, the canal is simply their source--of water, transport, commerce, recreation, and community.

As we pass people on the canal, they smile and wave to us or offer namaste. To a person, they are friendly and engaging, welcoming us to their world without a care or a second thought. This is a part of Bangkok we will not forget.

 

Photos by Debra A. Parmenter and Terry R. Bacon

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