Take me to the river

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

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.

www.thai­land.net.au

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