From the "Mother of Waters" on the hem
of whose skirts Bangkok was built to the smallest "klong"
in the countryside, Thailand's destiny is and has always been
inextricably tied to the waters which course through its heart.
As a means of transport or as the principal element in rites of
passage, water is the very stuff of life to a Thai.
“... the Siamese... may almost said to be amphibious;
they seem to pass more than half their lives in or on the water,
and their chief food is the supply they get from it, fish. Everywhere
we see canoes and boats, many of them propelled by women and little
boys... to its dexterous management every child is trained; women
and men are equally accustomed to the use of the oar, the paddle
and the rudder... one unique feature of this curious city, as
of several others in Siam, is her floating houses... They are
buoyed up by bamboo rafts and moored to the bank or to posts driven
into the mud. They are nearly all occupied as shops or stores...”
The Land of the White Elephant
By Frank Vincent, Jr. (1882)
* * *
is snarled, nothing moves. I'm stranded on a small bridge that
spans a narrow canal in the late afternoon Bangkok heat. In the
car next to me, a driver drums softly on his steering wheel, his
frustration palpable. He catches me watching him, smiles ruefully,
and shrugs his shoulders.
He turns to look over the bridge parapet and I follow his gaze
to see an old woman quietly padding a sampan along the canal,
oblivious to the tumult on the bridge. My compatriot on this concrete
ribbon watches her for a long moment and then turns back to grin
conspiratorially at me, nodding his head at the recognition of
a truth. I smile too. We both know, as does the old woman, that
if all this disappeared tomorrow, if every car internally combusted
right out of existence, Thailand would continue to function as
it has for centuries along the vast network of rivers and waterways
that course through its heart.
eleven years, I lived in a house on stilts on the right bank of
one of Asia's great rivers: the Chao Phya. From my balcony, I
could see the city's major landmarks — Wat Arun (the Temple
of Dawn), Wat Po, the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple
of the Emerald Buddha), the Fine Arts University, Thammasat University
— amidst the ramshackle wooden houses threatening to topple
into the flowing waters.
The river was my tutor on Thai culture. The monuments were static
reminders of past glory, but the river was a living entity, teeming
with vibrant life at every hour of the day and night. Spurred
by my fascination with the river, I explored the canals which
fed into it, a journey through the vascular system of arteries
and capillaries. There, I discovered the soul of Thailand and
the one element of nature that more than any other defines its
culture and shapes its people: water.
To a Thai, water is the stuff of life. It provides him sustenance,
a highway for commerce, a medium for celebrations. It protects
him, anoints his rites of passage, and provides a model for proper
Thailand's development down the centuries has been inextricably
bound to the river that flowed by and under my house. A forefinger
sliding down the blue lines of a Thailand map traces the nation's
history. It began at Sukhothai on the banks of the Yom, a Chao
Phya tributary. On a stone pillar, the thirteenth-century monarch,
King Ramkamhaeng, carved these words: “In the fields there
is rice, in the water there are fish; the faces of the people
shine brightly.” By his inscription, Ramkamhaeng acknowledged
his subjects’ debt to water which nurtures both staples
of the Thai diet.
When the Thais moved their capital from Sukhothai in the 14th
century — ostensibly because the Yom shifted its course,
denying the city its life-giving water — they chose the
oxbow of the Lopburi River at a place they named Ayutthaya. A
race of inveterate river engineers, they dug a canal across the
oxbow to create a defensive moat, and diverted the Chao Phya and
the Pasak rivers to flow into the Lopburi and around their walled
Ayutthaya's streets were canals, more than 140 kilometers of
them. The city's waterborne existence prompted several seventeenth--century
European visitors to dub it “The Venice of the East”.
Contemporary writers recorded that more than 100,000 boats plied
the waterways. Beyond the city walls, the rivers served as roadsteads
carrying Thai products to the world, ultimately making it one
of the richest realms in Asia. Ayutthaya's liquid seal might have
preserved it had treacherous Thais not opened the gates to Burmese
invaders who pillaged the city, destroying it in 1767.
When the vanquished Thais moved their capital to Thonburi in
1767 and then Bangkok in 1782, their new kings sought to emulate
Ayutthaya's glory. They cut a canal across another oxbow of the
Chao Phya River and dug two more concentric canals beyond it to
create a series of islands, the innermost in the shape of a conch.
In a moment of whimsy, the king ordered the excavation of a canal
running eastward from a main arterial, so the people “could
go boating and singing and reciting poems during the high-water
season just like the custom observed in the former capital of
In the city and suburbs, other canals were dug to serve as streets.
Their banks were lined by thousands of floating houses that rose
above harm when the annual floods inundated the rest of the city.
Riverside houses were raised on stilts so the floodwaters flowed
harmlessly beneath them. Not until 1863 did Bangkok build its
first paved road, New Road. Today, most Bangkok canals have been
filled in for streets and the floating houses have been removed
from the river and canals. When it rains, the streets revert to
their former role as canals, paralyzing traffic, and flooding
houses. Progress, it would seem, has done little to improve life
in this low-lying city.
The river is the stage for an ever-changing show. Several days
after moving into my stilt house, I thought I had seen everything
it could offer. Four thousand days later, I was still being surprised.
The variety of craft that ply it is remarkable. A tugboat pulls
a line of rice or sand-laden teak barges like railcars behind
a locomotive. On the barges’ stern decks sit the family
homes, television aerials sprouting from their flat roofs.
A double-decker boat carries goods on its lower deck and passengers
on the upper. At the end of Buddhist Lent in October, it becomes
a holiday boat, its pilothouse festooned with saffron Buddhist
flags and its engine noise drowned out by the clash of cymbals
and longdrums, as pilgrims celebrate while cruising to a distant
temple to make donations and thereby gain merit.
Ferryboats convey human cargo from one bank to the other, day
and night. Rua-duan express boats speed commuters up and down
the river between the southern extremities of the city and Pakkret
beyond its northern boundaries. For seven baht, one can enjoy
a breezy ride past the finest cityscape any Asian capital can
The most spectacular Thai boats, the Royal Barges. appear on
royal holidays. In a ceremony four centuries old, a magnificent
procession of gilded boats carries the royal family down the Chao
Phya to Wat Arun. There, the king presents new robes to monks
at the end of the monsoon festival of Tod Kathin. The fleet has
been so expensive to maintain that in the past thirty years, it
has been seen only in 1968, 1982, 1987, 1997 and 2002. Then, the
fifty-two barges, propelled by 2,300 oarsmen wielding gold-tipped
paddles and chanting ancient songs, progressed in a breathtaking
cavalcade downriver to the Royal Landing at the Grand Palace.
It was led by the 44.5-metre-long Sri Suphannahongse, its prow
in the shape of a golden mythical swan.
Far removed from the splendor of the Royal Barges but displaying
a Thai genius for improvisation is the rua hang yao, or long-tailed
boat. Designed for use in shallow water, the long, narrow craft
is a marvel of simplicity. A car engine balanced on a pivot conveys
its power down a long drive shaft to a propeller. The arrangement
allows the boat virtually to pivot on its axis, an advantage in
a narrow canal. These “buses” cruise canals that deeper-draft
boats cannot penetrate. At full throttle, the boat carves the
water like a knife blade, spewing a high rooster tail in its wake.
In the years that I lived on the riverbank, there were few days
that a sampan did not stop outside my door, its paddler ringing
a bell or clacking bamboo sticks to call my attention to the wares
or services he or she offered. Noodles were boiled in charcoal-fired
cauldrons, bananas or glutinous rice roasted on a grill, pineapples
or watermelons were displayed for my perusal, a junk dealer offered
to buy old bottles, rusty tins, or newspapers. Perhaps the most
unusual vendor appeared one hot afternoon with several steaming
pots of colored liquids. Smiling shyly, he asked if I had any
clothes I wanted dyed.
It is in the Thonburi canals west of the river that one finds
respite from the city and discovers Thailand as it once was. Leaving
the river via Bangkok Yai or Bangkok Noi canals, he plunges into
jungle one would hardly suspect existed so close to the city.
Here, life moves at a slower pace. The palm fronds slat the afternoon
sun like a Venetian blind, platting a zebra hide on the gray water.
A young girl dips a brown paddle in the water and sends tiny ripples
that splash against the banks as her sampan silently glides through
the coconut plantations that stretch both sides of the canals.
A break in the trees reveals a market garden, parallel strips
of leafy green separated by water. A farmer walks down the knee-deep
channel, scooping water to irrigate vegetables destined for city
Houses are raised on stilts to allow the cool breeze to pass
beneath them. Villagers converse in pavilions built at the water's
edge; nearby a woman bathes her child. Children splash in the
shallows, the droplets becoming tiny diamonds which flash prismatically
in the bright sunshine.
A jar of water and a dipper are set at the gateways to many
houses. Leaving cool water for a thirsty stranger to refresh himself
is considered an act of hospitality. It also reflects one of the
cardinal Thai virtues, that he have nam jai (water of the heart),
the Thai equivalent of “the milk of human kindness.”
Further down the canal, a barber shop perches on stilts. Beyond
it is a Buddhist wat or monastery. It faces water because Buddha
meditated to attain Enlightenment while facing a river. On the
base of older wats is a curved line representing the deckline
of a boat, a Mahayana Buddhist concept likening a monastery to
a ship carrying the faithful to salvation.
In the wat's dim interior is a Buddha image whose form reflects
the Thai penchant for flowing lines. Unlike the Khmers who applied
hammer to chisel to hack figures from stone, Thai sculptors mounded
them in clay and cast them in molten bronze. The stellar examples
of this tradition were the Buddha images created by Sukhothai
sculptors. The liquid grace of the stance and satin sheen of the
skin are regarded as the epitome of Thai bronze craftsmanship.
If one spends time at a wat or nearby houses, he discovers how
water is employed in the most important rites in a Thai's life.
A baby is bathed in water to celebrate its successful birth. A
monk sprinkles water on a congregation to bless them. Wedding
guests pour scented water over a bridal couple's hands to convey
good fortune. Mourners pour scented water from the same shell
over a dead person's hand at a funeral to ask his forgiveness.
On religious holidays, important Buddha images are washed to
purify them. The three most important Buddhist holidays —
Makha Puja, Visakha Puja and Asalaha Puja — are commemorated
by a candlelit triple circumambulation of the wat as the full
moon is rising. The procession is likened to the swirling of water
around a ship carrying the faithful to salvation.
Thailand's two most popular festivals are celebrated in rivers
and canals. On Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year each April,
the sun sparkles on cascades of water poured over one's friends
to signify blessing and purification. On the November full-moon
night, the rivers shimmer with the light of thousands of candlelit
krathongs, tiny banana-leaf boats launched to thank Mae Khongkha
(derived from “Ganges”), the river goddess, for her
beneficence in the previous year.
But these are surface manifestations of a people who spend their
lives on or around water. The still waters have made them gentle,
aware that patience is stronger than force, just as water wears
away rock. Water defines their interaction with their fellows.
Like a river flowing around an obstacle, they avoid confrontation,
maintaining a placid surface and flowing with life. It is a concept
my impatient friend in the next car, and I find it easy to forget
in the chaos of city life. And when that happens, I know I must
plunge into the canals once again to rediscover their soothing