Bangkok, the lost Venice of the East
To the casual visitor to Bangkok, it might come as a surprise to learn that Bangkok was a city without roads, up until the latter half of the 19th century!
Most visitors to Bangkok will be well aware of the Chao Phraya river that snakes through the bustling metropolis, but Bangkok’s relationship with waterways doesn’t end there. Take a boat ride out to Bangkok’s “khlongs”, or canals, the next time you’re there, and you’ll soon see why Bangkok earned the title of the “Venice of the East” from Western traders who visited the city in the early 1800’s.
According to this fascinating article, Bangkok at the time boasted a network of hundreds of canals criss-crossing throughout the city. Almost everyone lived on houseboats or stilt houses built right on the water’s edge and got around by boat, as residing on land was a right granted only to nobles and well-off families by the king.
Although the canals are obviously not used as heavily as they probably were centuries ago, it is still very much used by the locals as a form of transport, as seen by the boats tethered to some of the houses like in the photo above.
It’s easy to forget that you’re still in Bangkok, because once you break away from the pack of boats filled with other tourists, you can’t help but notice the jarring contrast of the new city’s constant noise with the silence as you cruise along the khlongs.
And it’s not just the noise – where the new city is overflowing with shiny monoliths, the residences along the banks of the khlongs are decidedly less glamourous. Some houses are bigger, some smaller, but most are run-down, albeit still exuding a bit of ramshackle charm.
In fact, this was probably one of the nicest buildings I saw throughout my whole ride through the canals – I suspect (though I can’t really be sure) that it could’ve been the back of the Jim Thompson House, judging by the architecture. My boat driver wasn’t really much help in pointing out stuff, as he didn’t speak much English and just steered the boat in silence for the most part 😐
Seeing the stilt houses along the canals strangely reminded me of home; the houses looked a lot like the traditional Malay stilt houses we’d see in the kampungs at home, except, obviously, without the water 🙂
But that’s where the similarity ends, because you sure wouldn’t find beautiful temples along the road to the kampungs back home!
There are a lot of temples by the riverside that you’ll see along the way – I never realised how many temples there were in Thailand until then.
And of course, you’re bound to meet some of these folks!
While offering a great photo op, the traders in boats that you’ll meet will be selling your run of the mill touristy souvenirs for the most part, and maybe some snacks and drinks. There’s probably not a lot worth buying, but they’ll probably try to get you to buy a beer for yourself, or if not, your boatman.
Just like the roads on solid land you’re used to, the canals you’ll pass through will vary in size. There are the wide, open “highways”…
… the comfortably mid-sized waterways…
… and “BRO, BACK THE HECK UP BRO” 😛
All of which, will give you a fleeting glimpse into the lives of everyday people, who call the khlongs of Bangkok their home.
While not the most spectacular of Bangkok’s sights, a cruise down the canals is something you could consider if you have some extra time there, or if you just want to see something slightly off the beaten path 🙂
Up next, photos from the beach town of Pattaya!