Propelled from an ancient city into a space-aged modern one at the blink of an eye, Bangkok has undergone many changes in recent times. What was once a city of floating markets and traders of spices and silk is now a global tourism destination. A sprawling metropolis set against a futuristic landscape of skytrains and megamalls.
Once, the Venice of the Orient
The floating markets and canal-boat transport that once defined Thailand’s capital were born out of necessity. The relentless flooding of the long, wet season would turn the city into a swamp, rendering land transport redundant. Nicknamed the Venice of the Orient, for the longest time Bangkok was primarily accessed via the khlongs.
Due to the atrocities of cholera, the development of modern roading, and the modernization of Bangkok, many of the original khlongs are now unused or filled in. But on the side of the city known as Thonburi, you can still catch a glimpse of the old, romanticized orient. A glimpse of a land somehow left behind by the modern age. A place where floating markets are commonplace and breakfast is spent watching the world glide by from your rickety, stilted river-house.
Being somebody who hardly ever settles for what regular tourism has on offer, I rejected the idea of another boat ride down the Chao Phraya River. Not that there’s a problem with that of course – but I yearned for something out of the ordinary.
Exploring the Khlongs
My father didn’t travel for most of his life, it wasn’t until I was a teenager that he travelled to China for business. From that moment forward, he developed an insatiable, and contagious wanderlust. His love of travel was never directed at the kind of places one might find on a tour, much like my own, it was quite the opposite. He enjoyed the nuances of every day – scanning the shelves of a foreign supermarket, or walking in the suburbs admiring the different types of trees. I inherited this curiosity from him, and the small canals of Bangkok came up every time he spoke about Bangkok. When he told stories of the khlongs it was as if he had discovered a secret doorway into the life of a more traditional Bangkok.
Without him around to tell me any further, I was now on a mission without a guide. Where were these canals? How was I to explore one?
It took only a little research to uncover the Khlong Saen Saep express boat. Local transport that stretches from the very innermost end of central Bangkok out into suburbs of the city. It stretches out to corners so quiet that you feel you must have fallen asleep, only to awake in a tiny rural village.
Finding a boat, choosing a route
It became clear the only reasonable solution was to embark at the midway mark closest to where I currently was. From there, follow the khlong to its most far-reaching stop, and then turn around the full length of the canal – if only to see what was at the other farthest end. For some, that seems a lot of travelling, with little destination in mind – but sometimes the journey is what it’s all about. I needed to sit and watch, to find out exactly what it was my father raved about so very often before his death.
From end to end we spent the day exploring, wide-eyed and in awe of a new face to a city I thought I had known. The khlong-side cafes and city-stops gave way to unreal local neighbourhoods, rickety housing balancing on poles and parts of the city so devoid of traffic noise that the only sounds were miner birds and the splutter of the passing boats.
The route passed by ornate, gold-leafed wats where orange-robed monks bathe and laundered in the tiny canals branching off to the sides. The retaining walls housed colourful street art and rambling vines. Side-by-side floating houses dangled with hanging laundry and riverside restaurants heaved with hungry commuters.
Return to the Bangkok bustle
Coming off the central Phanfa Bridge after a full day on the water, I snapped back into modern day Bangkok at the hiss of touts and splutter of tuk-tuks. It had been a dream-like trip into a more suburban and rural Bangkok, and we stumbled bleary-eyed back into the midst of the chaos to find a good meal.
Visions of mango rice and fresh, hot pad Thai danced in my head. But, after a series of street-food indecisions and severe lack of phone battery, it was beginning to get late, and everyone was starting to pack up. We had wandered for quite some time now without finding any real clusters of vendors, and I was giving up hope that we would find somewhere good to eat. In a last-ditch attempt, we spotted an alleyway restaurant that still had quite a few groups.
Delicious dining down hidden alleys
What we discovered still baffles me to this day. A large establishment, taking up both sides of the alleyway. An overbearing yet delightful Thai woman sat upon her pedestal, watching over and commanding staff about the place.
The food was exceptional. I gorged on spicy red duck curry with fresh lychee and pineapple, and crispy spring rolls as I contemplated the day passed.
As we sat and enjoyed a spectacular meal in the most unexpected of places, cars passed down the alleyway. Every single one a shiny, new model with blacked out front windows and a single dressed up woman in the backseat. The alleyway leads to nothing, and the whole scenario screamed of some bad gangster movie.
Whilst marvelling at the unusual activity, I spotted a police car sat in the middle of the main road in silence, lights flashing, doors open. As if the only purpose was to consolidate everything I already knew, that Bangkok truly is a city of infinite mysteries.