Bangkok Artery : Ebb, Flow of Life Pulsate on the River

Times Staff Writer

The traffic is bewildering, and made no better by hot-rodders dragging in the gaps.

Collisions are a major problem. So, too, a longtime law enforcement officer says, is the noise, which has blasted to new levels in the past decade. And pollution resists remedy.

All this is on the river. It’s where Bangkokians go to escape the motorized madness of the streets.

Thailand’s great river, the Chao Phraya, rolls from the north, through the rice lands of the central plain, past the buildings of Bangkok, out into the Gulf of Thailand. It is at once spring, drain, irrigator, highway, employer and more to the Thais. It always has been.


A City Like Venice

A Portuguese Jesuit, writing home in 1554, described his visit to the old Siamese capital of Ayutthaya, upriver from Bangkok: “This city is like Venice because one travels more by water than one does by land. I’ve heard it be said by many that there were over 200,000 boats, both large and small. I do not know if there are 200,000 boats but I did see a league’s length of waterway which was so full that one could not pass.”

An accurate census of boats might be no easier today, for no house on a river or a canal is without its little sampan dugout, but the marine police in Bangkok list 7,000 registered boats in the capital area and nearly 100,000 nationwide. Most are motorized, and a variety can be seen from the banks of the Chao Phraya in the heart of Bangkok.

Armada of Ferries


Crossing the river is an armada of water taxis and passenger ferries. Homeward-bound office clerks leave Bangkok’s skyscrapers for their homes in Thonburi, on the west side of the river, a five-minute ride in the little open-sided taxis, which carry billboards for soft drinks and toothpaste atop their awnings.

Bridges span the river, but going by water is quicker. At rush hour, Bangkok drivers are caught in a viscous gridlock.

The cross-river boats weave through the main thread of Chao Phraya’s traffic, intercity ferries and the huge beamy barges that carry the produce of the north and the central plains to the 6 million people of Bangkok. Riding low headed downriver, barges loaded with rice or sand seem certain to be swamped before they reach the warehouse and cement plants in Bangkok’s port. But empty and headed north, they bounce along like plastic toys behind their little towboats.

Blasting about through all this is a relative newcomer to the river traffic, the long-tail boat, an all-purpose, high-speed mover of people and light freight. The gaily painted boats are high-bow, shallow-draft, rooster-tailing outboard canoes. Like Dennis Conner’s America’s Cup yacht, their specialty is straight-line speed; the long tail is a six-foot propeller shaft.


In Bangkok, as elsewhere on the river, what amounts to a watery thoroughfare is also home to many Thais whose livelihoods depend on the Chao Phraya.

“If I had land, I’d be a farmer,” Jua Sawadee, 59, mused. “Farming is not as dangerous, and you can sleep at night.”

Sawadee, a boatman for 40 years, was killing another afternoon on the family sampan, waiting for the middleman to unload a shipment of salt that he had brought up from Samut Sakorn on the Gulf of Thailand. He had been docked at the little riverfront warehouse seven days, he said, and if his cargo was not unloaded in the next 48 hours, he would take a loss on the trip.

Family Lives Aboard


With him aboard his 45-foot cargo barge were his son and daughter-in-law, the crew. They cook, eat and sleep on the barge, in a small area aft, the only space on board not filled with salt. The couple’s two young boys were along this trip. When school is in session, they stay at home with relatives. For boat families with no other choice, there is a boarding school north of Bangkok for their children.

Saibua Inpub, 49, and his family have made their home on an old wooden barge for the last 18 years. At one time, nine people were living aboard, rolling out sleeping mats on the linoleum floor of what once was the hold. Tied up to a makeshift dock on the Thonburi side of the river, the houseboat rises and falls with the tide. Saibua’s wife and daughter cook on the dock, and bathe and wash clothes and dishes in the river.

“We don’t drink it, of course,” the wife said. “It’s too polluted.”

Drinking water is brought by bucket from a city tap ashore, or caught during rain showers in large earthenware jugs.


Living Rent-Free

The family is satisfied with life on the water. It is, after all, rent-free, though the city must be paid for an electrical connection that has brought television to the old barge.

The Chao Phraya, its tributaries in the north and the canals dug from their banks have been a historical strength of Thailand. Until this century, the inland waterways, nearly 1,000 miles in total length, were the backbone of transportation and commerce, and brought irrigated, wet-rice farming to areas where inconsistent rainfall presented problems before.

The modernization of the early 1900s brought roads and railways, which now carry a majority of the freight, but has not altered the Thais’ strong relationship with water. Some Thai historians say that the first road was built in Bangkok only at the insistence of foreign diplomats who wanted to drive their carriages along the river bank.


After World War II, the city’s network of canals fell victim to the demand for more roads for passenger and commercial traffic. Most were simply paved over. The industrial and domestic waste that they once carried away was shifted to a pipe system, which has proved inadequate.

Business created needed jobs, however, and that priority diminished the few voices raised against pollution and the cement landscape in the early years of modernization.

Canals Now Are Sewers

Bangkok has lost forever the charm and beauty of its canal days. The remaining canals now are “open sewers,” according to Suraphol Sudara, a university professor and president of the Siam Environment Club, a private coalition. He was not speaking rhetorically; the city’s household sewage is dumped untreated into the remaining canals and the Chao Phraya.


At times during the year, the river level permits flushing of the canals. Suraphol recalled a recent occasion: “I was walking by the canal near the Hilton Hotel, and it was clear and fresh, just like the old days.”

But once the water lies still, stagnation begins. It turns bright green first, with the growth of new vegetation. Then, as the vegetation dies and rots, the water turns a gray-black color and emits a revolting stench. Everywhere in Bangkok, children can be seen playing in the murk.

“Diarrheal diseases are the main problem,” said Suraphol, who estimates that 60% of Thailand’s water pollution comes from domestic waste.

After some celebrated cases of major industrial pollution, one involving a state brewery, big factories have accepted controls, the environmentalist said.


“The problem now is the small factory, usually illegal,” he noted. “Places that make noodles or motorcycle batteries, that sort of thing.”

Laments Lack of Plan

The problem is Bangkok itself, Suraphol asserted. “The city does not have a good plan. It’s got to be the capital, the port, the center of education, of industry. Everything is here.”

Under the weight of the city’s postwar growth, major improvements in domestic waste disposal seem unattainable because of the costs. Meanwhile, the level of coliform bacteria, a main sewage product, remains high, though technically within acceptable levels.


Upriver, where the population is thinner, the pollution is less. For hundreds of miles north of the capital, the river bank is lined with stilted houses, some of them new concrete homes, others of weathered wood. On the canals as on the river, the front door is on the water side. That is where the mailbox is located for the water-borne postman, where the school boat drops the children off after classes, and where the old folks sit in the late afternoon, catching the river breeze and watching the traffic.

Each home has a stairway from the deck to the water, and it is just a few steps down for a swim, a bath, a hair rinse. Young boys ignore the steps and simply jump in from the deck.

Field on Land Side

Out back, on the landward side, the house opens onto a village road or a rice field. That is the work side.


“I myself would like to have a house on the river,” Suraphol, the environmentalist, said.

He and other environmentalists, still rooted like their countrymen to a river culture, might like to see Bangkok restored to its Venetian past. But those days are now buried under concrete, the pastoral pace left in the wake of a long-tail boat.

Faced with such a prospect, Thais of a century ago would have had a solution, according to Englebert Kaempfer in his book “History of Japan and Siam.” In the 1880s, he wrote, about 350,000 Thais lived in raft-houses, three-room homes built on log rafts and tethered to the shore.

“If a family and the children were getting bored with the noisy, busy areas and wanted to move,” he related, " . . . they just waited for the water to come up and let it take their home away.”