Overland Asia Diary #6 The Khlongs of Bangkok

Bangkok: Smoky, greasy, street food vendors; Endless nightlife, neon signs, flashing billboards; Towering skyscrapers, space-age technology, skytrains and crowded metros. Endless nightclubs, sex tourism, party central, A city that never sleeps.

Whatever your preconceptions and experiences of Bangkok are, the city was a hell of a lot different way-back-when. A land of floating markets and canal-boat transport, driven by the relentless flooding of the wet season, a large chunk of the year that would turn the city into a swamp and render land transport redundant. Nicknamed the Venice of the Orient, Bangkok was primarily accessed via the khlongs, or canals as we’ve come to know them in the west.

Khlong boat station
One of the many boat stops along the canal

Due to the atrocities of cholera, the development of modern roading and the general modernization of Bangkok, many of the original klongs became disused 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 land somehow left behind by the modern age, where floating markets are commonplace and breakfast is spent watching the world glide by from your rickety, stilted riverhouse.

Being somebody who never quite settles for what regular tourism has on offer, I rejected the idea of another boat ride down the Chao Phraya River. As I’ve mentioned in the past, my father didn’t travel for most of his life, it wasn’t until I was a teenager that, thanks to his job sending him to China, he developed an insatiable wanderlust. But it was not directed at the kind of places one might find on a tour, in fact it was quite the opposite. He enjoyed the nuances of the everyday – scanning the shelves of a foreign supermarket, or walking in the suburbs admiring the different types of trees. I, in some way, inherited this curiosity from him, and the small canals of Bangkok came up every time he spoke about Bangkok, like it was a secret doorway he had discovered into the life of a more traditional Bangkok.

So, of course I was now on a mission. Where were these canals? How was I to explore one?

Khlong vistas from my perch
Khlong vistas from my perch

Luckily it didn’t take too much research to uncover the khlong saen saep express boat. A commonly used form of local transport that stretches from the very innermost end of central Bangkok out into suburbs of the city so quiet that you feel you must have fallen asleep, only to wake up in a tiny rural village.

Now I’d found my route, it was time to decide which part of the khlong we were to traverse. It quickly became clear the only reasonable solution was to embark at the midway mark (where our most convenient metro stop was located) and 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.

From end to end we spent the good part of a day exploring this entirely new face to a city I thought I had known. The khlong-side cafes and city-stops gave way to unreal local neighborhoods, 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 passes by a number of ornate, gold leafed wats and orange robed monks bathe and launder their robes in the tiny khlongs that branch off to the sides. The retaining walls house colourful street art and rambling vines, side-by-side floating houses with hanging laundry and riverside restaurants heaving with hungry commuters.

Views from the boat. Photo by Flo
Views from the boat. Photo by Flo

As we meandered off at the very central Phanfa Bridge, I was quickly 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 Bangkok, but now it was time for dinner.

If you’ve ever visited Bangkok as a tourist, you’ll know all about Patpong market. A sleazy hive of strip shows, nightclubs, sex shows and over priced knock-off souvenirs. Well, that’s the direction we were wandering, except we kept going – past Silom, Sukhumvit. All the places people might normally stop.. I had my sights set on the well-known street food district of Bang Rak. Visions of mango rice and fresh, hot pad thai danced in my head. However, 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, sitting around enjoying what looked like half-decent food.

What we discovered still baffles me to this day. A large establishment, taking up both sides of the alleyway. Mama’s – and there, sure enough, was mama. A slightly overbearing yet delightful Thai women seated on her pedestal, looking over everything and commanding the other staff about the place.

Street art along the canal walls. <a href="http://19178-km-plus-loin.com">Photo by Flo</a>
Street art along the canal walls. Photo by Flo

The food was exceptional, some of the best Thai I have ever tasted. I gorged on spicy red duck curry with fresh lychee and pineapple, and crispy spring rolls. Our bill was so low I initially thought we had missed out something, and the quantity of food we ordered was such that we couldn’t possibly finish it all. Yet, despite many foreign tourists and a sign claiming many years of establishment, no amount of website, tripadvisor or guidebook hunting has ever turned it up.

Even more mysteriously, as we sat and enjoyed our meal, numerous cars passed down the alleyway. Every single one a shiny, new model with blacked out front windows and a sole, dressed up woman in the back; occasionally a well dressed man or two. The alleyway lead to nothing, and the whole scenario screamed of some bad gangster movie set in Bangkok. We marvelled at the unusual activity, and for the last 45 minutes of our dining experience a police car sat in the middle of the main road in silence, lights flashing, doors open.

Bangkok – a city of infinite mysteries.

 

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