Last spotted in San Francisco, USA on March 28, 2003, 1:23 pm
Who is he? Where is he going? Where has he been? David Barrett / Quinthar
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Running through the heart of Bangkok, indeed through the heart of all Thai history and culture, is the river. Lots of cities have rivers, but Bangkok has one unlike any I've ever seen.

In general, cities with rivers use them to make scenic waterfront property, host cargo movement, or allow pleasure cruises. It's a pretty, albeit mostly cosmetic accoutrement to an otherwise land-locked city. For Bangkok, however, the river is a crucial and daily component to many peoples lives. The most interesting way it touches the Thai routine, in my opinion, are the water taxis.

Set every few blocks down the riverfront are water taxi stops: floating docks jutting out into the bulging river from layer upon layer of waterside housing. I walk down onto the unstable contraption (which is in continuous motion due to the incessant river activity) and wait just a few minutes until the next taxi arrives (though it's actually more like a bus, given how many people it seats and how the route is fixed). When it comes, it typically overshoots the dock by a bit and then swings its long end around and slams it into reverse, before slamming it into the dock. The dock jolts, my heart jumps, and the engine roars as its full power is used to jam the back of the boat against the rocking platform. In a mass, people jump over the tumultuous divide between the boat and dock in both directions. The crowd carries me forward and it's my turn to make the leap, water splashing up and out as the boat struggles to maintain contact with the tires hung down into the sloshing water. I land safely and the crowd draws me down into the cabin, where I am forced to stand as I cannot find a seat

My patience pays off and I find a nice seat in the very front, next to the driver. He's a young, well-groomed guy with an intense, focused demeanor. The controls of the boat seem surprisingly minimal, implying a great deal of skill on the part of the pilot. When it comes time to dock (which happens quite often), he again overshoots the landing point, yanks back on the combined throttle/gear selector, and slams the boat into the dock. He carefully balances the waves and angle and force of the engine against the floating surface just long enough for the last passenger to make the transition between sea and land, and then slams the throttle forward and off we go.
The water taxis are but one of many users of the river. There are also "long boats" (like those down in the islands), "really long boats" (think long boat, but way longer, skinnier, faster, more colorful, and more dangerous), "big fat boats" (almost like Chinese junks), "real-life paper boats" (looking like the paper boats you used to make and float in the gutter, the kind that don't appear to have a front or back or any engine, yet somehow get around anyway), "transverse taxis" (ok, I'm making that name up, but the taxis that go directly across the river are wide and tall and short), and so on. By "so on", I mean what's pictured: floating logs meandering down the river, untowed by anyone, topped by a waving flag and two guys standing bored and patiently.
Of the many strange things about the Bangkok river is the nature of waterfront property. I would have expected that Thailand, even more than most countries given the importance of water to their cultural history, would place high monetary value on the waterfront property. However, that seems to be anything but the case. The river is lined with squalid, rundown shacks that literally overflow into the river. And when I say literally, I don't mean metaphorically, like most people. I mean literally, it's not possible to determine where the water ends and the land begins, because the houses all extend out into the water, even to the point of flooding its lower level. Some of them go further to add fences that run out into the river, carving off a tiny section just like someone might have in an urban neighborhood. But unlike normal yards, these have floating boats or detritus floating within the gated domain.
A pretty view from the water taxi home after a long day of nothing.

Copyright 2021 - David Barrett -