The backwaters of Bangkok

Water world: A long-tail boat on a Bangkok khlong.
Water world: A long-tail boat on a Bangkok khlong. Photo: Getty Images

A long-tail boat ride through these canal communities is a must before it's too late, writes Caroline Shearing.

The melodious clacking of a seashell wind chime swaying in the tropical breeze called attention to a precariously perched stilt-house on the canal ahead. As our boat approached, a young girl appeared on this humble abode's rickety verandah, her arms weighed down with a pile of damp washing, while close by a thumb-sucking toddler watched from the confines of a tatty hammock. A boy on the opposite bank, hollowing out a coconut from atop a pile of old car seats, turned to smile and wave in our direction, while the rib-thin dog beside him wagged its tail in welcome.

Just 25 minutes after leaving central Bangkok, we had entered a network of enchanting and - given their proximity to the heart of this frenetic city - astonishingly rural waterways, known locally as khlongs, that have remained largely unchanged for centuries.

Thai children in a canal side store.
Thai children in a canal side store. Photo: Alamy

The tranquil scene was belied, however, by the sight of a thick, dark stain running high around the shack's sun-bleached exterior. A tidemark of tragedy: a reminder of the humanitarian crisis that befell Bangkok in 2011, when millions fled their homes and more than 800 people lost their lives in the worst flooding to hit Thailand's capital city in half a century. The flood waters, which rose three metres in places, disrupted manufacturing and led to tourist sites being closed for several months.

In central Bangkok, there is now little sign of the disaster. But when I travelled to Bangkok Noi, a canal district to the west of the city that was among the areas worst affected, the impact of the flooding on a way of life that is increasingly under threat was still very much evident.

A heron alighted gracefully on a nearby corrugated roof and lily pads bobbed at the water's edge in our wake as, with almost balletic precision, the driver of the long-tail boat on which I was travelling manoeuvred it into a waterway barely more than an arm's span wide. Ramshackle stilt houses crowded in on either side, while lines of washing strung between the banks passed within touching distance overhead. Watermarks were visible on many of these makeshift homes, but a glimpse into their dark depths revealed that, despite the devastation wreaked here, a semblance of normality had returned.

The gentle phut-phut of our boat's engine was largely ignored as we caught sight of families tucking into pots of rice, an elderly man tending a tub of bougainvillea, a child transfixed by a battered spinning-top, and blackened feet protruding from hammocks on cluttered verandahs.

A smiling woman beckoned us over and, in exchange for a few baht, handed me a basket of warm, crusty bread. I tossed a chunk into the water and immediately a frenzy of catfish surfaced. Such was the ferocity of the ensuing fight for food that by the time the basket had emptied I was left wringing out my dress.

We proceeded in a languorous fashion past brightly coloured spirit houses, intricately carved shrines to accommodate the spirits of the dead, before the canal widened and a stomach-rumbling aroma of frying bananas filled the air as we encountered an elderly woman paddling her canoe of treats in the direction of an area popular with tourist boats.

We stopped for refreshment at a khlong-side kiosk. Ake, the English-speaking guide accompanying me - essential if you want to explore the waterways away from the main tourist routes - translated as I asked the girl at the kiosk if she had been there during the flooding.

Through Ake she told me her family had been lucky: they managed to move their stock in time. Others saw their belongings and livelihoods washed away. Pointing to a watermark on the exterior of her family's business, little more than a shack selling basic provisions, she repeated: "Chok dee [lucky]".

It's no longer just the threat of flooding itself that poses a danger to the estimated 6500 households living, in most cases on disputed land, on the banks of Bangkok's khlongs. Global manufacturing was seriously disrupted by the prolonged closure of Bangkok's factories and international businesses are now putting pressure on Thailand's government to improve flood defences.

In the past century, many of the city's canals have been concreted over or diverted and the proximity of these waterways to central Bangkok, albeit currently without convenient commuter links, means this rustic way of life could be gone within a decade.

As our journey neared its end, Ake was suddenly animated. "Look!" he exclaimed, and I followed the direction of his gaze. The brutish shape of a monitor lizard rose from the water. Clinging to a house stilt with one claw, it greedily devoured a meaty white fish with the other.

Go and see this watery world now, before a tidal wave of development engulfs it forever.

See bangkok.sawadee.com/canals.htm for information about cruising Bangkok's canals.

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