Take me to the river
From Page 5 the current tugs at their feet. Family boats are moored at their doorsteps and verandas hang over the water, offering an outdoor living room of hammocks suspended between the roof posts.
Gardens of morning glory float beneath the verandas while buoyed nets catch breakfast as families sleep. In the early light people are at their morning ablutions. They wade down their front steps into the wide, warm bath of the Chao Phraya, the women in sarongs, the men in tattoos and shorts.
By midday we are sailing into Bangkok amid thickening crowds of barges, ferries, river taxis and sampans. Bridges span the river and the city’s glittering temples rise from the banks. Beyond the gilded roofs of the Grand Palace and the wonderful profile of Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, lies the Mandarin Oriental hotel, its old Authors’ Wing almost hidden among the trees.
Bangkok has not always shown its appreciation for the river that created it. With the modernisation that came in the 1950s, the city turned its back on the water. Many of the old canals were filled in and the city spread along new and faceless avenues. This affront to the water goddess did not go unpunished. Bangkok is sinking at the rate of 12cm a year, considerably faster than Venice. The new avenues and the traffic they have inspired have claimed much of the city’s soul.
The city boasts some of the greatest traffic jams this side of Los Angeles. An average Bangkok motorist can spend hours a day in traffic and much thought has been devoted to in-car comfort. Televisions and food warmers are common accessories. Petrol stations do a roaring trade in a car potty that allows motorists to relieve themselves in situ.
The river and the canals are now the only escape. Many of the canals on the Thonburi side of the river survived the modernising purges and are now the city’s most delightful thoroughfares. As for the river, hotels and offices are hurrying to relocate along its banks. River transport is now the best way to get around the city.
Turn down any of the alleys towards the river and you leave a world of traffic for one of people. At the end of lanes of coconut sellers, warehouses, riverside cafes and floating jetties, the river buses and taxis arrive and depart in a dramatic wash of water. The Chao Phraya River Express, flying different coloured flags to indicate its various stops, is the best way to see the city.
At Tha Thien I disembark to have my fortune told. I feel I need a second opinion; this past lives thing is unnerving. Wat Pho is the greatest of Thai temples, a confusion of gilded chedis (towers), marble pediments, soaring roofs of green and orange tiles, serpents curling above the gables, mirrored pillars. Somerset Maugham was overcome. ‘‘ It makes you laugh with delight to think that anything so fantastic could exist on this sombre earth.’’
I find a fortune teller just inside the temple’s main gate. He peers myopically at my palms, his face so close to my love lines, he appears to be smelling them. My future is sweetly scented with long life, great riches, many wives, few problems and a successful family holiday in 2010. I couldn’t have asked for more. He doesn’t once mention the past lives. I give him a generous tip.
Across the river in Thonburi I take to the longtail boats that serve as taxis through its maze of canals, or klongs . This is where one finds old Bangkok, a leisurely waterborne world. Schoolchildren are waiting with their satchels on the front steps of canalside houses for the river bus, while women in big hats go shopping in sampans, paddling between open-front shops and riverside stalls.
Old ladies row between houses, calling through the open shutters, selling charcoal, vegetables, cut flowers and newspapers. The postman, sorting letters, passes in a little motor launch.
We cruise far out along the Klong Bangkok Noi into the Klong Kut. We are leaving the city behind and the canal is narrowing between coconut groves. People are swimming from their doorsteps. We come upon a floating market, a village affair, where the sampans of buyers and sellers nudge one another between a row of canalside shops.
Life in these watery lanes seems to have taken on the peaceful rhythms of the river lapping the porches. It is just the place to escape one’s past lives.
A two-day, one-night cruise on one of the Mekhala fleet’s converted riceboats starts at about 10,980 baht ($475), including transfers, meals, guide and shore excursions. More: www.asian-oasis.com/ bangkok/cruises/mekhala.html.