Ken May

The teaching river

the waterways of Thailand and ayutthaya

Remove the coins and open your eyes.
Charon’s sails have been reset.
Classmates rejoice in muffled sighs.
Their lessons are not over yet.

And the River Flows…
Ayutthaya’s past, as well as its future, depended on its rivers. Just take a look outside and you can see it. Family barges carry construction cargo to Bangkok, ferries shuttle locals to the other side, long-tail boats transport tourists from temple to temple, while dinner boats softly eddy to the tide. Small wooden vessels paddled by fisherman drift toward the day’s catch, while knotted nets are wishfully cast. Children swim sparingly and women shyly take baths. You can still feel it: the soul of Ayutthaya shimmers on its sunset waters. All it takes is a single phone call – and I am back on a boat, the cool breeze gently massaging my face.
Truth be told, I have taken as many as 150 boat rides in Ayutthaya. My love of this city’s waterways first struck me in the year 2000. I had just flew into Thailand for a new teaching job. Luck was with me. The first place that I looked at for housing was located right beside the Chao Phraya River. I rented the small stilted bungalow on the spot. There was no reason to look for anything else. After years of teaching abroad I had finally found what I was looking for. That night I was mesmerized by the brightly lit karaoke boats. In the morning I awoke to what sounded like neighbors mowing their lawn, and this noise turned out to be a long-tail boat full of tourists. There is a mysterious energy behind this Thai lifestyle. And I was curious and ripe for river exploration.

I established a friendship with a Thai woman who had learned to operate her own boat by age thirteen. Her father had taught her before he died. Her family made their living with boat taxis. They spoke no English, but navigated the water well. They had to know the river; their home was located on a remote tributary. This woman was independent. She didn’t work for any tourism syndicate. She was just a single parent trying to support her family. We hit it off from the start. What I appreciated was her willingness to take me anywhere. Most tour operators merely made a circle around Ayutthaya Island, briefly stopping at two preset destinations. However, my friend allowed me to explore every small canal and to make lengthy excursions outside of Ayutthaya. I could stop randomly whenever something caught my eye. Soon enough I began to record patterns of local wildlife. I learned when elephants liked to bathe. I discovered the habitats of the giant monitor lizards. I acquired a sense of when the water hyacinths (what my boat chauffeur calls “the giant vegetables”) would clog canals to prevent passage. During this educational process, I fell in love with the classroom of the river.

River tours quickly became my addiction. I visited the waterways every weekend. I taught my boat operator English and she gave me lessons about the river. However, this exploration all came to an end in 2002. The Chao Phraya, with all its powerful beauty, has its dark side. Every view years she likes to remind locals not to take her for granted. Shortly after the monsoon season my home was flooded. Entire houses filled with water. Children swam and fished inside the bedroom below my bungalow. Plumbing stopped working and rolling electrical blackouts complicated my day. Lizards and insects crawled into my home seeking higher ground. Frogs rooted around my kitchen. Large trees were carried away by rapidly moving water. The Chao Phraya River was having its revenge. My friend was prevented from docking her boat in front of my home. I knew it was time to go. I left Thailand for America.

Take Me to the Bridge …
Harold Stephens, author of “The Chao Phraya: River of Kings”, writes that the famous 365 kilometer river is formed by four tributaries: the Wang (400km), the Yom (555km), the Ping (590km), and the Nam (627km). The Ping and the Nam meet at Nakhon Sawan, and this is where the Chao Phraya originates. Before Thailand’s river system became cluttered with bridges and dams, travelers could go all the way from the Gulf of Thailand to Chiang Mai – a six month long journey. In 1957, Thailand’s first major dam was constructed at Chainat above Ayutthaya, which permanently altered Thailand’s rice production center. The Bumibol Dam, completed shortly later in 1964, prevented long distance travel upriver; and the Saporn Bridge in Bangkok – also called the King Taksin Bridge – put an end to the passage of tall ships in 1976. Thailand’s river highway system have never been the same.

Ayutthaya Island is formed by three rivers: The Chao Phraya, the Lopburi, and the Pasak (570km). A fourth river, the Noi, also runs through the Ayutthaya province. The main three rivers formed a natural boundary that was ideal protection from invaders. A moat was eventually dug on Ayutthaya’s eastern side that allowed the city to be completely encircled by water. This easily navigated land-locked island evolved into a thriving cultural center known by Europeans as the “Venice of the East”. There were more than 400 temples scattered around the city. Foreign nations were allowed to establish factories and residency camps off the island. The Chinese, who had conducted river trade with Thailand by its Sukothai period (1238-1350), established the earliest foreign relationships in Ayutthaya. The Portuguese made the first European contact in 1511. The Dutch (1605), the British (1612), and the French (1662) followed suit. Muslims from Persia and Malaysia also experienced significant diplomatic presence during this time. Many traces of these communities can still be found along the shores of the Chao Phraya. Ayutthaya remained Thailand’s capital (1350-1767) until it was destroyed by the Burmese.

Harold Stephens was one of the early tourists to explore Ayutthaya’s waters in modern times. Like Joseph Conrad, who had sailed to Thailand in 1888, Stephens fell in love with the Chao Phraya. He lived along the water while outfitting his schooner, which he later sailed on Thailand’s river highways. Thailand has changed a great deal since this time, but Stephens continues his trips to Ayutthaya. I understand this craving. There is a part of me that also returns, like a rising tide trying to stretch its way into deeper territory. Therefore, I was surprised that Stephens skips a much needed chapter about Ayutthaya in this book. He provides readers with a detailed tour from the mouth of Bangkok to Bang Pa-In, then majestically leaps to the northern region around Chiang Mai. How can this gap be explained? As a teacher, I decided that I could provoke my students to write about Ayutthaya’s tour sites by themselves. They could do this research as part of my tourism class.

Stepping into the Same River Twice …
Fast forward to 2005. My return was anchored to a new situation. Students are now preoccupied with shopping malls, mobile phones, and western fashion. The rivers are too commonplace to cast that spell on them. Traditional fishing communities and boat operators are too often dismissed for having low social status. My students no longer felt any passion for boats. How then, could I help students to fall in love with their own rivers?

As a teacher I pointed out the economic advantages of river tourism. I shared observations about how tourism had changed during my absence. It had gotten much more prominent. Tourists were staying longer. I acquired statistics from the local branch of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Over 3 million tourists came to Ayutthaya last year, an increase by nearly 1 million since 1993. Tourist visits have risen in Ayutthaya despite the SARS virus, regional terrorism, rising oil costs, and the recent tsunami. Tourism revenue was nearly 4.5 billion Baht locally in 2004, an amount that has more than doubled in the past decade. Foreign tourists spend an average of 2,212 Baht per day. With this data, I tried to install a sense that this money could be in their pocket, if they developed strategic tours for untapped markets. I requested students to interview tourists and share the results in class. I wanted them to document recent trends and patterns. My goal was to convince them that Ayutthaya’s economic well-being could still be found in its rivers.

The circle tour had really started to click with tourists. Many visitors were spending an extra day in the city just to see it by river. I could visibly count an increase of long-tail boats on the water since 2002. Groups were sharing boats that looped around Ayutthaya Island. Tourists usually made brief stops at Wat Phanachoeng to visit a 19-meter sitting Buddha image (that dates to the 14th century) and Wat Chaiwatthanaram to walk around its massive prang (a phallic tower designed in the Khmer architectural style). A trickle of more adventurous tourist were now venturing to Wat Phutthaisawan to see its hall of Buddha images and the reclining Buddha that hides inside its towering white prang. Some had even started going to the Elephant Kraal by boat. The standard tour lasted around two hours or less. A rare group of tourists were now taking converted rice barges all the way from Bangkok to Ayutthaya and staying at the more expensive hotels. Ayutthaya surges with the energy of change and development.

The circle tour was now standard practice among students. Tourism majors had already undertaken this trip several times. I was the teacher who originally introduced students to this popular boat ride. It has since become a tradition at our university. The circle trip is an amazing journey, but I was looking for a different fix. I had already seen even the smallest temples a dozen times already. After my return, in 2005, it was the slow moving canals that fascinated me most. I craved the peace and quiet of the remote streams outside of Ayutthaya Island. The rivers are packed with wildlife. There are many exotic birds, a large number of lengthy monitor lizards, herds of bathing elephants, and even rare python sightings. Some of the local flora and fauna has retreated to these less disturbed areas. In addition, the countryside temple ruins tend to me more interesting because they are not manicured. Overgrown shrubs give them a more honest appearance of an ancient past.

The problem is that tourists love to see big things. They flock to the biggest temples, the highest mountains, and the largest Buddha images. Small and ordinary objects are often stepped on along the way to grander destinations. However, simple village temples and scenic bends on a canal can be even more beautiful if the audience is willing to take the time to notice them. With this dilemma in mind, after watching the sun set with an orange glow from my new home beside the Chao Phraya River, I came up with a theory. I could renew my student’s love of their natural scenery if I help them step into a different river. They were getting immune to the basic circle tour, because they had experienced it so many times. The next day in class I promised them a new river to explore, one that we could float on for three hours without seeing a single tourist. I knew I could easily introduce them to a tourist-less boat ride, but my real gamble was that these small things had the power to put that spell over them.

Into the Heart of Darkness (Eco-Tour #1) …
I lured students to the remote countryside with the bait of lunch. It works every time. Due to scheduling conflicts, we made a last minute appointment for a scorching Saturday afternoon. This group represented only 1/3 of class, since it was only a scouting expedition. I introduced them to my old friend, the boat operator. She had given us a discount. One goal was to encourage her to share knowledge about tour guiding with my students. In return, they would develop a brochure with a site map for her business. As karma unfolded, a former teacher at our university contacted me the night before. He had read my previous article on and realized that I was back in Thailand. He scurried onto the next bus, so that he could join us. I love it when a coincidence like this proves that people are actually reading my articles. However, I sort of dread the time when students discover that I am writing about them, which is why I am using extra perfect tenses this month just to confuse them. (Just in case: bonus points for any student that turns this article in with all past-perfect tenses circled. Due next Friday. No copying!).
I had worried about this excursion for several days. I wasn’t sure how my students would respond to it. We loaded the boat to maximum capacity and like Colonel Kurtz I began barking out questions: What is the name of that temple? Is there anything there worth seeing? What is that bird called? Can you find out its name in English? Gardenias? Where are the fields of gardenias? I tore out dreaded hyacinths from the river and dissected them with a sharp knife to display the critters living inside the “giant vegetables”. We pioneered down remote creeks to learn how deep they could be navigated. Many of Ayutthaya’s best river routes have been blocked by roads and enclosed gate ways. Our class prodded potential passageways. We charted unique sites along the quay.

Our loyal boat operator taught us the names of obscure river pathways, and students translated them into English. The second teacher that joined us was supposed to play tourist, but his innate skills kicked in and he began to lecture instead. The students listened, repeated, and took occasional notes. Before long all three adults spontaneously combusted into educators. Rubba-dub-dub, three of us in a tub, and I was the candlestick maker. Our conversations flowed from recreation to reincarnation, and from lizard lairs to motor repairs. All three of us teachers optioned different methods. We splintered and pulled pupils from all directions. Then our calm little boat ride really began to get crazy. The confused students started to explain information to us. Each student specialized in something unique and they could introduce that information into our boat. They made spontaneous requests to alter our course. From the front of the boat, I made feeble attempts to seize authority and control. I wanted to provide communicative illumination. Meanwhile, students crowded around the center coming up with fresh ideas. The horror! The horror!

As our boat coasted back to the shore of the city there was a quiet sense of peace. Something felt understated. I am not sure what it was. It was like I had smoked a left-handed cigarette or something. Anyway, my students took the bait. They became interested in the river. I was reeling them into a wave of fluvial learning. It must have clicked, because the following week I caught them designing a classroom trip to Ko Samet. There were making plans for a holiday vacation together.

The River of No Return (Eco-Tour #2) …
Suthon Sukphisit, in “The Vanishing Face of Thailand”, writes about an unusual floating village that is located inside the Ayutthaya province. This town had once been part of an important trade line connecting Bangkok to Suphanburi. Homes, markets, and local businesses once floated on a canal. The buildings were constructed on top of bamboo buoys that adjusted to the level of the water. The buildings could rise during flood season and sink at times of drought. Two temples stood beside the canal bank, and both these rivals are notorious for legendary fighting. Recent road construction has nearly brought the village’s gentle lifestyle to an end. Boat owners were forced to lift their rafts out of the water and place houses on stilts. This requirement was at an exorbitant cost that many owners could not afford. A new canal was dug to relocate the homes of those who couldn’t pay. The progressive development of new roads, fueled by massive construction contracts, was bringing the old architectural style its demise. I was immediately enticed by the idea of visiting.

The floating village, Ban Chao Ched, is part of a small town called Sena. Its remote canal fed into the Noi River. This information made me smile, because I had finally found a new river to step in. I immediately arranged to go exploring. Three of my students lived in Sena and two of them had already enrolled in this class. I plied them with questions about the floating village. To my surprise they claimed that it didn’t exist. How could that be? There had to be at least a few holdouts floating on the water. Suthon Sukphisit’s book was published in 1997, surely the floating village couldn’t have evaporated since then. I sent them back into the field for more research. The floating market in Bangkok has led to big money for the city’s tourism industry. I hoped that the local officials in Sena would have had the same foresight. However, even after a second round, they reported that there was no floating village. Yet, during this learning process, the students had come up with an unique plan of their own.

A group of students walked into my office early one morning. One of them placed some material on my desk, which they had translated into English. There was a book written by a famous monk from Sena, a brochure for a homestay at a different location, and a complete itinerary. I was impressed. Apparently, they had the initiative to spend the weekend together coming up with something new. Before long the entire class was loaded into a mini-van for our next destination. We also hooked up with alumni from my tourism classes of 2002. It was a surprise reunion.

The first stop was at Wat Rangchorrakea (the Crocodile Temple). It had gotten this name because it was founded on a bank among crocodile infested waters. The meat-loving reptiles have long since gone. The last remaining species lived inside a cage at the temple. Locals used to throw coins into its mouth for good luck. A few students remember doing this as a child. There is also a shrine to a diamond-eyed cat. The feline had intensely bright green and blue eyes. Its stuffed body can still be seen along with scraps of food and cat toys left as offerings. There is a small Buddha image at the temple. Legend has it that a foreigner once shot it with a gun, only to witness real blood pouring out of the wound. I am sure that the offender probably died or went crazy afterward in spiritual retribution. Another local story is that tears once poured from the eyes of the Buddha image before a fire broke out, warning villagers in advance. I love these local folk stories. You seldom get them from guidebooks.

The next stop was at a homestay that could only be reached by boat. The place is located in the middle of a rice field, but every winter it gets heavily flooded. A large lake forms from October to January. You could water ski on it. Rice crops are planted after the water drains. After harvest, water fills the fields once again in a continuous cycle. This pattern is ideal for farmers to derive income throughout the year. We spent one hour on the boat. I got to hear my students scream as the boat rocked and bounced on the temporary lake. The isolated homestay was surrounded by water, acting as a type of bird sanctuary. Cool breezes wafted in from all direction. There is amazing sunset views and plenty of fresh rural air. Tourists can stay with the family by appointment (#09-881-1042). A shared room, boat ride, and two meals can be experienced for only 500 Baht per night. Unfortunately, our class could not spend the night, so we took another quick jaunt on the water. Long-tail boats are rare in these distant parts. Your more likely to find a quiet wooden boat with paddle.

The next stop was at Wat Bangnomkho (Dairy Cow Temple). My attention was first drawn to a large Banyan tree that was covered with women’s dresses. I asked why vendors were selling clothing at a temple. One student corrected me that the dresses were hanging to a tree because a female spirit lived inside it. I should have known. But, this is what tour guides are for. They should add local color and detail that tourists wouldn’t know otherwise. Clothing trees? Taxidermied cats? Lucky crocodiles? Bleeding statues? This is the type of information that makes a place interesting. I was glad to have students pointing them out. They had anticipated what I would be curious to know.

One thing I noticed by myself, however, was that this temple was packed with visitors – only all of them were Thai. Wat Bangnomkho is widely known for a famous monk that could perform healing miracles. Odds are that you would recognize Phra Luang Por Parn’s face if you have ever looked for amulets. Thai visitors crowded around his quiescent image to say prayers and ask for blessings. Then it struck me how domestic and foreign tourists are essentially different. Thais visit a place because of a personal or spiritual connection to it. Foreign tourists just want to have fun and check out some big stuff. Although this line is slowly blurring, most western travelers wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere that isn’t mentioned in their guidebook.

Our final event was lunch, of course, after all this is Thailand. My students took me for a seafood lunch at Chaoched Paphao restaurant. The outdoor dining establishment had enormous fish living in a pond, which we fed with our leftovers. While I was digesting food, and enjoying updates by a former student, I couldn’t help but notice that my present students had gotten it right. They created something fresh and original. They not only provided information in English, but they also stuck to a well-timed three hour itinerary. Moreover, they had saved one more surprise for me. The canal with the floating village was located near this restaurant. It has been blocked off by a new road, so whatever it is that remains might be strangled before long. A blink of an eye and you would miss it. By a few more years, the floating village will have been gone if measures weren’t made to protect it by a few rebellious holdouts. One student from Sena was particularly proud to have tracked the canal. “See, over there,” see exclaimed, “that house is still floating on the water”. It looked like a few more buildings might have survived. The stagnant water had appeal, if not for tourists then at least for amateur historians. My students renewed my motivation. Now, I had a new river and a good excuse for exploration.

The Albatross Hangs around the Neck …
Lonely Planet writer, Joe Cummings, has spoke about the dilemma of publicizing obscure destinations. On one hand, an increase in tourism can improve the lives of locals with added income. Villagers can afford better housing or send their children to nicer schools. On the other hand, a boom in tourism will alter the mood of a location. Crime, corruption, and pollution inevitably seep in. I feel apprehension about promoting these new tours. I want to show gratitude to certain locals for treating me with kindness, but this new contact will alter the location’s chemistry. In some ways I am lighting a fuse that leads to a powder keg. The very things that attract me to these rivers can be destroyed by a high population of tourists.

I can visualize long-tail boats clogging a river like a log jam. I imagine speed boats and water skiers disturbing the peace and quiet of rural neighborhoods. I can picture more rivers being destroyed by more roads to bring in more tourists. Fish might migrate upstream or the Monitor lizards relocate due to excessive traffic. Discarded plastic bags could clutter the river’s surface and broken beer bottles might bob on the bottom – making a simple swim a dangerous endeavor. The women who bathe in the stream will become self-conscious once voyeurs start taking digital photographs. They could go inside and close their doors. There is already a massive 500 room hotel being constructed on the Pasak River. New homestays, health spas, and houses are on the way. There is big money in Ayutthaya’s tourism industry. Development has already started to roll with momentum. The question is at what cost to it natural scenery?

Hiding in the back of my mind is the secret hope that these tours will fail. I want to keep these water ways to myself; saving them only for a private group of friends who can appreciate them. However, eco-tourism in Sena could have saved the floating village of Ban Chao Ched if developers had understood its tourism potential. Eco-tours can promote conscious tourism. On the other hand, less scrupulous travel agencies can ruin natural scenery as bad as a 1767 Burmese invader if they are only concerned about maximizing profits. I am not qualified to walk this tightrope. I am a teacher, not a tour guide. Ultimately, it is my students own choice. I can show them how to appreciate the simplicity of their rivers and educate them about the value of the environment. We can practice English for tourism and experiment with tour guiding. But, this is Thailand. Only my students can decide what constituted success. Will the tourism boom be short-term hustle for quick cash or will it be something sustainable for generations. That is the type of test that can’t be answered with fancy essays or multiple choice questions. It is an examination of life over time. It is the albatross around their neck.


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