The Venice of the East
How Bangkok's waterways could improve your life no end
Over a hundred years ago when European travelers journeyed to Bangkok, they were amazed and impressed by the complex and highly efficient canal system that allowed Bangkok to build itself into an important SE Asian capital and indeed Bangkok was even dubbed the ‘Venice of the East'. However over the last 100 years the rise of the steam train, diesel train and the motor car has meant that a lot of the well planned and efficient canal system has been filled in to make way for railways and roads.
Going back of course, Bangkok was even chosen as the modern day capital of Thailand (formerly Siam) primarily because of its fantastic natural canal system, with waterways. Indeed it was initially thought modern-day Thonburi would be an ideal site for a new capital for the Kingdom, and this plan was altered when the advantages if the natural canals that ran through modern day Bangkok were recognized.
It is then strangely ironic how history has now developed as Bangkok itself has developed, and perhaps Bangkok and its modern day inhabitants are starting to realize the wisdom behind the inhabitants of the original Bangkok (more about this later). As mentioned, the introduction of the steam train and subsequent rail system led to the closure and indeed deliberate destruction of many of the canal systems. Therefore not only replacing watery thoroughfares with industrial style railways, but also destroying commercial and retail zones and communities such as floating markets. And later railways themselves were replaced or added to with concrete or tarmac roads that led to the filling in of many more natural waterways to satisfy the growing demand for cars, trucks and buses.
Fast forward to the present day and it has become apparent (I wish I could say clear) to Bangkok's politicians that one of the main causes for last year's floods and the problems Bangkok face in alleviating the city from the excess water was due to the lack of natural canals, and if the city looked like it did many decades ago the problems would have been reduced, indeed perhaps non-existent. Therefore there is now at last a movement to open up some the unused canals in Bangkok, and who knows perhaps go back to using the canals as was the case in Bangkok 100 years go.
Any reader, who has lived in Bangkok near a canal for any length of time, will know not only how efficient and inexpensive the system is, but also how unappreciated and unused the system is by expats in general and how they could easily benefit from cheap, reliable and extremely quick transport around Bangkok.
If you live on Ramkamhaeng road, Sukhumvit road or Phetchburi road, you will be familiar with the canal that stretches from Bangkapi, where there is a station for the Mall Bangkapi, all the way down the length of Ramkamhaeng road and then turns to run parallel to both Sukhumvit and Phetchburi roads simultaneously. The canal then stretches all the way down past Siam square area and heads West and terminates near the Grand Palace.
This stretch of canal has many boats running along its length from about 6am to 7pm at night and transports office workers, students, shop owners and a whole host of mainly locals to and from their places of business free of traffic jams each and every day. However this form of transport is not very popular with expats despite its low cost, reliability and speed. The reasons for this could easily be because of the noise and dirt that goes with the noisy diesel engine boats, and during downpours it can be an uncomfortable form of travel.
However downpours do not dominate the year's weather and on a sunny day a ride on the canal can be one of the most pleasurable ways to travel around Bangkok. To take advantage of the current canal system it is advisable to live within walking distance or a short motorbike taxi ride of one the jetties along the canal, and with boats pulling up at the jetties every five minutes or so you never have to wait long.
If for example you live in Thonglor then Noble Solo is located only five mins walk from the Thonglor canal jetty and gives the resident a chance to experience two contrasting sides to Bangkok, the hip trendy and up market social scene that dominates Thonglor, whilst travelling on the traditional low-cost but extremely enjoyable canal system.
Further down the canal it meets Siam Square and once again it is possible to take advantage of the canal system as it goes past Condo One Siam, a mid-range condo located within walking distance of the MBK center and Siam square. A short walk over the canal bridge will allow residents to travel quickly and cheaply from West to North East of Bangkok, and with many stops in between allows easy commute to places such as the UN buildings, Asoke and Phrakanong.
Hopefully the dreadful scenes we saw last year with the flooding will have a silver lining and will encourage the Bangkok politicians to open up the canal system, not only to avoid further flooding, but also to give Bangkok another way to navigate the city and therefore reduce congestion on the roads. And perhaps by pumping money into re-opening a natural canal system the BMA will be able to save money on building elevated roads and railways.
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I used to live near the Pan Fa Bridge so I took the canal boat all the time. It's a 12 minute ride to the Ratchethewi landing (Jim Thompson House) and not more than a 10 minute walk to MBK from there. The boats are much more efficient than any manner of road transportation, but the canals need to be dredged and reopened for boat traffic more sooner than later. The government's recent car-buying incentive program has put thousands of more cars on the road in Bkk, so more active canal routes would be a godsend.
By Guy, bkk (2nd January 2013)
When I took a canal boat with a friend, I really enjoyed it; however, the canal system is somewhat confusing for a newbie. I know the boats don't always stop at every stop, and since I don't know the area well, I'm worried I'd end up somewhere other than where I want to be. Can you explain the system to me? So far, this is what I gathered:
As a boat approaches, you have to jump on, because it doesn't fully stop for anyone. Then, one of the behelmeted brazen ticket women who cling to the outside of the boat will take some random amount of baht from you, depending on how far you wish to go. You can jump off whenever you'd like-- whether at a pier or not.
How can you find out where is stops, what the stops are called, etc in Thai? I don't know enough Thai to ask them. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
By Sarah, Salaya (20th December 2012)
I have still never used the riverboat to travel around the city in Bangkok. I guess I need to try it! Great article, very interesting read!
By Elizabeth Frantz Larson, Bangkok, Thailand (18th December 2012)
Have you noticed the graffiti artwork popping up all over Bangkok, especially on walls lining the canals. For a city where walls and buildings aren't painted that often I think it looks nice
By Roger Norman, Bangkok (10th December 2012)
Actually Ben, a number of years ago, I taught a guy who was a Thai water pollution expert. He said that cleaning up Bangkok's canals was not actually that big a job. But it would cost an awful lot of money. And that's where the stumbling block is.
On a seperate note, I had to laugh out loud a few weeks ago. I was in a taxi and the driver had the radio tuned to one of those boring English news programs, where someone was droning on about the meaning and tradition of the Loy Krathong festival.
The person actually said - and I quote - "Loy Krathong is a festival that celebrates the Thai people's intimate relationship with the waterways"
Sitting in the back of the cab. I damn near pissed myself. Is that the same Thai people who chuck tons of garbage into the canals on a daily basis? I thought.
And you know what? - I think it was.
By philip, (10th December 2012)
As abysmal as traffic can be in Bangkok the simply truth is that most of the canals, as they stand now, are simply not suitable to move even small boats for any significant distance. They are too narrow or cross by very low bridges or blocked by modern development and gates which have long-since stopped functioning.
And you say that expats are under-appreciative of the canal transport system. But what about how under-appreciative the Thai populace are of their canals in general?
Most of the hundred of canals that still criss-cross the city are now stagnant strips of putrid-smelling filmy filth. There's good reason why expats don't want to go near this water.
I have no doubt that it was glorious in its heyday, but it would take some serious overhaul to make the canal system useful and appealing again.
By Ben, Pinklao (10th December 2012)
I've always been very envious Neil of those farangs who 'got to grips' with canal transportation at a very early stage of living here in Bangkok. I remember in the 90s, I had a good pal who zipped around Bangkok using only canal boats and there was me stuck on buses for hours and hours.
Perhaps it's because I can't swim that I never ever felt like taking the plunge where canal travel is concerned (no pun intended)
But I have travelled up and down the mighty Chao Phrya river on various boats and ferries, and as you rightly say in the blog - it's a lovely way to travel in a city that isn't really known for its 'lovely' travel options.
By philip, (9th December 2012)