Monday, March 30, 2009

venice of the east

Though their prominence has lessened in the last 100 years, it used to be impossible to discuss Bangkok without talk of its canals and rivers. Bangkok is where it is at all because of the massive Chao Phraya river, upon whose banks the city stretches, empties just south of here into the Gulf of Thailand, and there’s a convenient deep-water tight S-curve here. Originally located north of here and on the other side of the river (long story), the city has always made excellent use of the monopoly this estuary gives to the import and export of anything relating to the entire Mekong delta (i.e. northern Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos). The river is still busy today with barges, taxis, tourist boats, and more. The commerce and culture visible from the water gives an excellent glimpse into the true nature of the city: inspiring temples, copious market goods, luxury hotels, and dangerously derelict hovels all line the banks.

The river is only the beginning of the watery nature of the city, though. European visitors of old dubbed Bangkok the “Venice of the East” for the hundreds of miles of liquid lanes that crisscrossed the metropolis, and for the ornate architecture that lined the waterways. Roads were only introduced in the late 1800s for the equestrian enjoyments of the foreign diplomats, and remained lesser avenues of transport through the early part of the 1900s. While some of the canals were filled in or paved over to create today’s roads, most still remain tucked between or beneath buildings and are girded with filthy cement as coping mechanisms for the 6-month monsoon season that threatens to drown this marshy, low-laying sprawl every year. Now, in the dry months, most of the canals are little more than fetid slime tracks that listlessly slosh the trash about and shock the nose, though some are still navigable and utilized pathways for the various water-busses that speed overcrowded with commuters along the old routes. I prefer getting around via canals, as it’s much quicker and cheaper than along the roads or by train.

From what I’ve been told, the city will show its true swampy self when the rainy season starts in about two months: all this extreme humidity and rivers and canals are nothing compared to wading through the streets up to your chest in the muck. I guess I’ll enjoy this relative dryness while I can.

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