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Water of the Heart

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)

* * *

Traffic 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.

For 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 behavior.

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 city.

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 Ayutthaya.”

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 offer.

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 markets.

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 balm.



© Copyright 2016 by Steve Van Beek
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