x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Bobbing through Bangkok by boat

The Thai capital's notoriously choked roadways disappear when you travel by boat.

The Chao Praya runs through the Thai capital and is an important mode of transport, supporting a vast network of barges and ferries. Bloomberg News
The Chao Praya runs through the Thai capital and is an important mode of transport, supporting a vast network of barges and ferries. Bloomberg News

Stop, start. Driving around Bangkok is an exercise in patience and self control, not that my driver seems remotely annoyed by the hesitant queues of traffic at every turn. We join a procession of metallic pink taxis, minivans and cars, large and small, broken up by tuk-tuks and food vendors, either pushing carts of fruit or flowers, or peddling teetering displays of grilled food. Kai yang or chicken slowly roasted over charcoal is obviously a favourite.

I don't mind the jam because I don't have to stare at the faces in the wing mirrors dead ahead. Seated up high, looking right and left, the succession of pauses gives me a ringside seat alongside the pavements of Bangkok, where local people go about their business oblivious to the ragtag of sweating tourists bobbing around them. The skies long to rain: it's 35°C and 92 per cent humidity, which is not usual for this time of year. For now, this particular tourist is grateful to be sitting in comfort in an air-conditioned mini-bus, watching women stringing bloom after bloom of orange marigolds into garlands ready to be taken as an offering to the city's many temples to mark Makha Bucha Day in veneration of the teachings of Buddha. We drive from the relative calm of the financial district of Silom through Chinatown where gold is bought and sold by weight and a bride's price is settled by the thickness of a wedding band, then up along wide, straight Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue towards the Grand Palace, admiring the tinted portraits of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the royal family framed within huge medallions in the central reservation.

More recently, the winged democracy monument on Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue has become the rallying point for the Red Shirts movement, which has brought the city to a standstill periodically over the past few years. Last April and May, protests against the incumbent prime minister ended in military intervention and the deaths of 90 people, with hundreds more injured. Eight months later, the violence has subsided and the tourists have returned en masse, but the Red Shirts are still a visible presence. A demonstration is due to take place and I can see men in what look like bright, shiny red sports shirts gathering in small groups by the roadside. Cars and coaches including mine plod past without so much as a blast of horns.

Crowned the capital of gridlock, it's not hard to see why Bangkok's residents are obsessed with the amount of time spent gazing at an unchanging view of the road. Looking down from the vantage point of the Sky Bar on the 63 floor of the Lebua hotel, 200 metres above street level, the reason for the chaos is clear: the Chao Praya River and its fringe of canals, or khlongs, that once served to transport Thais from A to B, has yet to be replaced by an integrated transport system that can keep up with the leviathan of progress over the past 40 years. The situation just might improve by 2014 with the expansion of the electric rail network but, until then, commuters attempting to travel from Greater Bangkok into the city centre can expect a commute of four to six hours a day, according to Soithup Trisuddhi, the director of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning. Little wonder, then, that the tourists and locals eating and drinking around me tonight, dressed like brightly coloured butterflies in expensive clothes designed to attract attention, are determined to enjoy the moment; a few short hours standing still, destination of choice finally achieved.

The next day, it's a relief when the river and not the road is the main attraction, if not the only topic of conversation. "What do you think of the Red Shirts?" I ask our young guide, who is smiling through a heavy cold, nose red-raw. "It's boring. It makes the traffic worse." We're bobbing on a narrow jetty at Tha Phra Athit waiting to board one of the brightly decorated long-tail boats for a two-hour cruise along one of the quieter waterways. A young man is standing in the river, his long hair wet down his back, washing himself, a leopard-skin sarong and a bright white pair of underpants. A yellow, green and red-striped boat, powered by what looks like a truck's motor, judging from the grill, pulls up and we gingerly step aboard, second-guessing the swell.

My guide astounds me by fastening a life jacket across his chest. He has brought his own - just one - and suddenly the height and the surge of the waters make the Chao Praya seem a most unsuitable place to bathe. The boat sits two abreast snugly, and I'm immediately glad of the tarpaulin, pulled up over the sides of the boat to help prevent a soaking, as the boat powers over the swell, hitting the water with the shock of a bellyflop. The waters are lapping high up against the river banks; the Chao Praya regularly overflows thanks to a combination of heavy downpours during the rainy season and tidal surges from the coast. We cross the river to find quieter waters down Khlong Bangkok Noi, and as a small, low craft on a busy waterway, the dodge-and-weave dash adds to my sense of nervous excitement. As we turn down the side of Siriraj Hospital where the frail king, 84, has lived since September 2009, a team of workmen are hastily cementing ugly looking bricks on top of the existing stone river wall.

Any urgency soon fades, however, as the boat moves into the smoother waters of the narrow canal, engine quietening as the water quickly becomes dead calm. Instead of water-churning ferry boats criss-crossing ahead of us, elderly women in tiny canoes glide alongside selling tourist tat: black stone Buddhas, paper fans, ballpoint pens with gold tasselled ends, and the like. Another, whose old age seems to defy her strength with a paddle, has a stove in front of her and is busy stirring a large pot of noodles. In contrast with the continuous hum of modernity, here the only semblance of frenzy is the writhing masses of catfish, as long as your arm, that wait to be fed by tourists outside the smaller gold-tipped temples. It's as if they know fishing from the temple steps is banned.

On either side of the canal, one and two-storey wooden houses on stilts lean against each other, washing strung outside to dry. Flower pots decorate the edges of verandas, utensils spill out from kitchen doorways and pets wander in and out. Behind, new multi-storey blocks of flats studded with red satellite dishes encroach upon this quiet view of an older Bangkok. Inexplicably, some of the original, shuttered houses in what must be prime riverbank spots have been abandoned and appear dilapidated, like broken teeth in an otherwise lovely smile. Elsewhere, men stripped to the waist are labouring to pile the stilts of would-be houses down into the riverbed. Bright green weeds poke through the water's surface and broad-leaved banana plants, mango and jackfruit trees grow in deep plots, waving joyously over the top of walls. I wonder where the city has gone.

Still further downstream, past enormous lizards soaking up the sun, a handful of palatial teak houses comes into view. "Do you know who lives there?" I ask my guide. "Yes, they're very rich. I know them well," he says. "But they don't know me." The houses often appear on television as sets for period dramas, he explains. It's easy to see why: an enormous central staircase decorated with gold filigree sweeps down from the balcony of one as if to welcome visitors to dry land. Unlike the more simple houses upstream that are completely open to the public gaze, the windows are dark and the houses set back in beautifully landscaped gardens so it's impossible to peer inside. A more ostentatious display of wealth is hard to imagine.

Turning all too soon, we are back on the heaving waters of the mighty Chao Praya; the driver cuts the engine several times and we bob helplessly, adrift, unable to fight the wake of larger vessels. And, almost in an instant, I am back to the ebb and flow, stop and start of modern city life.



If you go

The flight

Return flights with Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Bangkok cost from Dh2,715, including taxes.

The hotel

A one-bedroom Tower Club suite at Lebua (www.lebua.com) costs from US$230 (Dh845) per night, including taxes and breakfast.

The meal

The four-course chef's tasting menu at Sirocco at the Sky Bar, Lebua, costs 4,730 Thai baht (Dh580), including taxes

The tour

A two-hour river cruise, organised through Lebua, costs 3,500 Thai baht (Dh429) per person, reduced to 1,500 Thai baht (Dh184) per person for groups of four to eight.