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Introduction to The Chao Phya
I do not know much about gods, but I think that the river is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable, patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of com-merce; then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges. The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten by the dwellers in cities.
T.S. Eliot
The Four Quartets


Four thin blue veins descending from the upper edge of the page are the only indication the atlas provides of the grandeur of the Chao Phya River. As they wriggle through craggy ranges, they are augmented by capillaries of huai, small streams flowing from side valleys which thicken the veins to a semblance of majesty.

At the southern periphery of the northern hills, the quartet descends into the broad alluvial Central Plains where two of the rivers flow into the other two. Still farther south, the now-engorged twins collide, virtually at right angles, the brachiation conjoining at Nakhon Sawan. It is here, at the virtual heart of the Central Plains that the Chao Phya River proper begins. As if sensing its ultimate destina-tion, the meandering river takes a bolder course, its bends flattening and broadening as it moves southward. Blue ink flows down the atlas page counter to compass point through brown and green before entering the country's vibrant heart, Bangkok. A few dozen kilometers below the kingdom's capital, the line splays to become a mass of blue inscribed "Gulf of Thailand".

The atlas's static blue line provides little indication of the river's character or of the vital role the Chao Phya has played, and continues to play, in Thai consciousness. It is not a raging torrent like many great rivers of the world; its shallow gradient mitigates against whitewater rapids of thunderous ferocity. But neither is it a passive force, its waters merely bearing Thailand's history to the sea. As the principal shaper of Thai heritage, culture, and econom-ics, the river has molded the nation's values, been a life source for its rich agriculture, served as a highway for commerce, linked its cities, and barred its enemies.

Return to the top of the atlas page. A finger slide down the four blue veins - the Ping, Wang, Yom, and Nan - traces the political and economic development of Thailand from its 13th century inception as a nation to the present day. If one accepts the theory that Thailand was populated by Tai emigrants filtering south from China, it is to the northern river valleys that they migrated. If one favors the thesis of proto-Thais emerging from caves to claim their destiny, it is equally evident that they chose to carve their villages and farms from the thick jungles crowding the fertile riverbanks.

Thailand's history as a nation begins in the north. Over the centuries, kingdom succeeded kingdom, moving steadily southward along the rivers: the Sukhothai kingdom (1238-1350) near the Yom River, Ayutthaya (1350-1767) on the Chao Phya, Thonburi (1767-1782) on the right bank of the Chao Phya, and Bangkok (1782-present) on the left bank. Most of Thailand's major central and northern minor kingdoms were also founded on the banks of the Chao Phya or its affluents.
The moving finger also traces Thailand's economic development. It begins in the North with slash-and-burn hill-tribe agriculture, passes through rice fields of the Central Plains, and ends in the industrialized cityscape of Bangkok. While other areas of Thailand have remained comparatively poor, the northern and central regions etched by the Chao Phya have become economic powerhouses and major population centers.

Some scholars contend that Sayam, the name by which Thailand was known until this century, translates as "people of the river", [2] the "river" denoted being the Chao Phya. Rivers and water symbolism are inextricably bound up with Thai village and cultural life. Water is the incubator for the staple foods of rice and fish. It is the principal element in rites of passage and in Thailand's two most important festivals, Songkran and Loy Krathong. Its soft sensuality pervades the flowing lines of Sukhothai Buddha images, the sinuous lines and planes that proliferate in wat (monastery) architecture and mural paintings. The river provides an allegory of the Thai mode of negotiating life's obstacles: it does not confront them, it flows around them. Thais do not live as independent entities, they blend their lives together, melding through consensus and compromise to preserve a liquid continuity whose sur-face, while often masking turmoil and contradiction, serves to lubricate social interaction.

For centuries, the rivers coursed untrammeled, the movements of travelers using them as roadsteads, dictated by the waters' whims. From the 1700s, boatmen poled wooden barges up the Ping River on six-week journeys to Chiang Mai. They timed their return voyages to coincide with the monsoon flows, braving the rapids above Sam Ngao, and then paddling the flatter stretches of the lower river to the sea.

The introduction of steam-driven launches in the mid-1800s changed travelers' perceptions of the river. Rather than flowing with it, they subverted the Chao Phya's force to the brawn of powerful engines, using the waterways as mere motive surfaces on which to glide to distant destinations. By the 1970s, the river had all but ceased to serve even that purpose. Highways were built far from the rivers and commerce streamed along them. Far-sighted riparian entrepreneurs relocated their businesses to the towns that began springing up on highway shoulders, consigning the riverbanks to

history. In the 1950s came the dam builders who treated the river, not as a natural entity, but as a component in an evolutionary progression towards prosperity. Over the next 20 years, engineers would turn portions of the Chao Phya and three of its four tributaries into still ponds to light cities, power industries, irrigate crops, and quell floods. The intricate irrigation systems of the North would be aban-doned for diesel pumps which sucked water as if from a storage tank. The rivers would become mere ditches to guide or divert the silent waters from their journey through the mountains to the sea.

Today, the Chao Phya River is seriously endangered, a provider whose very existence is threatened by the people it serves. Its original importance forgotten, it is regarded as an exploitable ad-junct to development, transformed from a vital ecosystem into a con-duit for irrigation and drinking water, and for waste. Contrary to popular belief that its degeneration is the work of lower river urban and corporate interests, it is being destroyed along its entire length, from headwaters to mouth. Towns of all sizes deposit trash on its banks, factories flush sewage and chemicals into its flowing waters. huge dredges cut deep into banks and bottoms, scooping up sand for construction projects. The process alters the river's course, disrupts its hydrology, kills its fish, and erodes valuable farmlands. Ships moored in the harbor discharge oils which destroy the mangroves and poison the oyster beds in the Gulf.

In the villages, trees are cut, allowing the growth of brambles which choke waterways and invade farmlands. Without tree roots to cement the soil, riverbanks crumble and flow away. Heed-less of the consequences, fishermen employ destructive techniques to catch fish. Pesticides and herbicides seep into the water during monsoon rains, and detergents are washed into it bringing eutrophica-tion and death to large numbers of fish. Like the houses that now face away from the rivers, Thais seem to have turned their backs to the Chao Phya.

And yet the myth of its greatness persists. Thais refer with pride to the Chao Phya's ancient lineage as the "River of Kings". It is an important psychological conceit which anchors their faith in nationhood, and buoys them in their progress towards material prosper-ity.

This book attempts to document the changing beliefs about, and uses of, the Chao Phya River system over the centuries. Its purpose is to discover how an entity which performs a vital role in daily commerce and life is being destroyed by seemingly contradictory aims and attitudes. At times this book may seem to be a polemic on short-sightedness. It is meant, however, not as a cruci-fixion but as a hope for its resurrection.
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