Truly the Chao Phraya River is the lifeblood of Bangkok. With its juxtaposition of dimly painted wooden shacks,
set up against temples and high-rise, metallic reflection buildings,
it is a hodgepodge of modern yet traditional,
of religion versus secular, of calm versus chaos.
At times I found it unsavory, yet other times it was alluring as a photographers dream. These are the things that make the Chao Phraya River so evocative. It is here in the waterways that I got my first introduction to the city that my friend Kalil loves and has been talking about for years for me to visit. His love affair with Thailand is well documented.
It is no wonder that Thailand is known as the “Venice of the East”.
Riding boats that are powered by a noisy motor, we sputter past monasteries, temples, and ramshackled huts on stilts over pea green then coffee colored waterways, where there are asian-hatted fisherman along the shores. With each glide of the decorated, colorful boats (“klongs”), we go deeper into its grips. The waterways get narrower and narrower as we make our way pass rickety housing and orange-robed monks.
My eyes wide, not quite sure which side of the boat I should sit, as the photo opportunities were immense. It takes me a while to get into the rhythm of the visual stimulation coming at me. I see reflections of colorful tin buildings in the water, not knowing whether to take the photo of the reflection or the actual shack as it waves at me in the water.
I would have liked to better understand these river people and their homes and culture that I saw on the river that day… a naked, squatting man, large lizards, laundry washers, workers, fire pits,
colorful laundry hanging in the wind, trash, a satellite dish, orange latex gloves on stilts and lounging hammocks beside blue step stools. Everything is so random.
It was an assault on the visual senses.
I was surprised at the smiling faces staring back at me, the early morning coffee they were having on their balconies while facing the river.
It is only moments that I see their faces and then we are gone. Moments of two cultures clashing against each other. Them seeing me and me seeing them in seconds from the boat, each staring one at the other. The ride provides glimpses into each others lives.
Soon we come across a school yard of children who are putting celebration lanterns into the water.
At first they seem to shy away from the cameras, as we are like paparazzi tourists flashing by, but soon enough, Sammie, our local guide begins to sing a Thai song really loud that draws them in and they begin to sing and to launch their lanterns into the waterways. Everyone seems to know this traditional Thai song and the children sing along. Then the long-tail boat driver puts the boat into reverse so that for more than a few seconds we can experience the children of Thailand and see them, one by one, launch their dreams.
The lanterns are made from banana leaves, lotus flowers, candles, and incense. These floating rafts (the literal translation of Loy Krathong) are sent flaming down Bangkok’s waterways, carrying away the owner’s bad luck, ensuring a fresh start and the beginning of a new dream. As they drop them in the water, secretly I make a wish, that I will come to understand them, their culture and the people of Thailand, before I leave, as I find it fascinating from a Western point of view. In Thailand, what you see is what you get. Organized chaos for a Westerner, yet the native Thailanders all seem at ease and know what is going on.
In case you need it: Here is a list of the boats/ferries on the Chao Phraya River for you to get around.
Disclosure: My trip to Bangkok, Thailand was provided by Thai Airways, in conjunction with the Tourism Authority of Thailand.