Founded on one side of the Chao Phraya, Bangkok is a city both by and of the river. Due to the expansion of the greater metropolitan area over time, the Chao Phraya no longer runs along one side of the city, but rather, right through the middle, in what is now South East Asia’s largest urban sprawl. Despite having the region’s most extensive highways, coupled with an increasingly advanced and far-reaching subway and skytrain system, Bangkok’s ageing but vital river ferry network carries on, cloyingly preserved in dilapidated amber — its very existence a taunt to newer forms of transport, asking the question, “Think you can do better?” In some ways, it has yet to be surpassed.
Every morning at first light, from the northern most and the southern most piers of Bangkok’s river ferry network, the tireless crewmen and women of the Chao Phraya Express Boats set about their duties, readying the distinctive orange and white, elongated, floating workhorses on the city’s original riverine thoroughfare — the mighty, murky and meandering River of Kings. Each vessel is manned by three people: a driver, a ticket vendor, and a linesman. As they cast off their first line and head towards one another from the waterway’s opposing peripheries, they begin their aquatic ballet dance from one riverbank to another, up and down — personifying the metaphor of two ships crossing paths —carrying with each route a revolving menagerie of passengers on one of the last surviving river ferry networks still in operation in a major city, anywhere in the world.
When the capital was founded, everything about Bangkok began and ended with the river. Over the centuries, a mixture of trade, politics and commerce ushered in waves of growth, with much of that prosperity expanding outwards, away from the sodden, mud-clogged embankments of the Chao Phraya. Canals were paved over as the search for dryer, less flood prone land literally cemented the city’s future. Now that the future is well and truly here, Bangkok is once again reorienting its attention back towards the river, with skyrocketing property prices and developments that are becoming truly iconic in name and in scale.
Despite the advent of electric cars, skytrains, subways, monorails and even hybrid buses on dedicated tracks, the river ferry network (in its current guise since 1971) has survived against the odds — holding on and holding out as the most cost-effective, north-south, travel artery for the river bound community. While there are innumerable variations on the kinds of vessels that now ply up and down the river — from electric, fully air-conditioned commuter catamarans and double decker tourist hop-ons, or the ubiquitous dragonfly-like long tail boats with their garlanded prows, to luxuriously plush, Riva-esque hotel cruisers — nothing fully captures the river experience of people and places in all its uninhibited intensity like the quinquagenarian wooden boats of the ferry network. These faded, venerable dames of transport, snorting and chortling about their business, fighting against and flowing with the currents, day in and day out.
Altogether, there are presently 37 stops on the network that are serviced (and sometimes not) by a small flotilla of crafts designated either express or local — alternating from either side of the Chao Phraya — running at approximately 30 minute intervals throughout the day from 6am to 6pm. There is no better way to see Bangkok, in full contact with all your senses, as the constantly moving montage of cityscapes glides by with every passing jetty. Each ferry stop is named either for the surrounding area, or for a notable entity within proximity to the pier — fanciful and poetic names, mostly in Thai, although some in English, in honour of Kings and Temples. A water bound history lesson of who’s who and what’s what, and where’s where in Bangkok — providing the kind of oral motor, syllabic exercises that would challenge even the most experienced of linguists.
To ride on the Chao Phraya Express Boats is to experience an older, more engaged form of travel — one where we are less sheltered from the elements, less buffered from the comforts that cocoon us so effectively in today’s world. At the same time, all our senses are lavished with sights, sounds, smells and the sheer physicality resulting from the movement and vibration of these hulking and heaving vessels. There are no shortages of pagodas, stupas, domes, minarets, spires or dragon-tiled rooftops representing every major religion and their accompanying communities. Architectural styles both grand and grim — towering, glass and steel testaments to the titans of commerce and developement, glorious royal edifices, government ministries set against the most squalid of riverside tenements, lush gardens and commemorative parks, bustling riverside markets, dockyards, hospitals, universities, elegant mansions, gleaming high rises, bridges monumental in style and name, and the entire grand bazaar of life that still vividly, vibrantly, even stubbornly continues to populate both sides of the river embracing and fighting progress at the same time.
Then there are the people — Bangkok comprises a cosmopolitan and dynamic populace, awash with tourists and migrants. For within the potpourri of people that tumble in and out the ferries at each stop, you are likely to see a wide cross section of society, both local and foreign. There are the office workers and students with their sensible day bags, heads firmly planted downwards looking at their smartphone screens, earphones plugged in (with noise reduction these days) and trying their best to inure themselves as much as possible to the daily grind of commuting. There are the tourists, some with rucksacks so large they give you cause to worry of some impending weight imbalance on the vessel. There are dreamers and travel optimists of many sorts (myself included) who ceaselessly marvel at the carnival of external stimuli that pulsates on either side of the boat. There are those who have their favoured spots — some standing, some sitting, some on the left and some on the right, some at the front, or some at the rear, some seeking the sun, others seeking the shade. There are cosmetic pretties, ever-lost hippies, budding photo journalists, social media mavens, cash toting Ah-Mahs, shell-shocked veterans, multi-lingual guides and their flock, representing a multitude of nationalities. Often, you hear words like Siam, ‘The King and I’, Grand Palace, Temple of Dawn, and Reclining Buddha spoken, frequently tinged and twisted by varying accents and dialects.
Onboard, the atmosphere is always more dynamic than any bus or train, be they above or below ground — everyone is persistently aware or curious about where they are and where they are heading towards. When the weather is wet and inclement, everyone huddles behind the semi transparent PVC screens that have to be manually pulled up (and on occasion, held up) to prevent the elemental realities splashing in. On the rare cool days in winter, there is no better form of transportation to be on. At high tide, amidst a torrential monsoon, the onboard tension and anxiety can be palpable.
Whether you are newly arrived to this truly vast metropolis — fast approaching megacity status — or perhaps a part of subsequent generations who have long lived here, you cannot fail to become just that little bit more alive and cognisant of what’s around you, the minute you step on a river ferry. The river conjures its magic, weaving a spell that gently washes over everyone who travels along its epic and storied waterway. It seems not to matter how much the city has grown, and at times, even strained against the forceful will of the Chao Phraya. The river refuses to be ignored — it persists in running its course through this city, as unrelentingly as ever. For now, the ferries dutifully carry on about their way, like Little Toot or Scuffy the Tugboat, possibly wishing for bigger, better things, oblivious to the daily thrills and tribulations they continue to provide for thousands of passengers every day.
The Chao Phraya Express Boats
2 responses to “A River Runs Through It”
The Footpath Files
Stories from the Streets of Bangkok
Proudly powered by WordPress
Leave a Reply