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PLAYING KING KHLONG IN VERY OLD BANGKOK

by JOHN BORTHWICK

“Venice of the East”, “the Big Mango” and so on. Over the years Bangkok has been lumbered with several farang-concocted sub-titles, none of which Thais use. (Nor, when speaking among themselves, do Thais even call the place “Bangkok” — their capital is Krung Thep.) One term that’s gone right out the window is the colonial sigh, from the days when the capital had a web of canals, “Bangkok, the Venice of the East”. Today that makes as much sense as dubbing Venice “the Bangkok of the West”.

A friend and I are paddling kayaks along some of those remaining canals, or khlongs, that once earned the city its faux-Venetian title. This remnant water world is in the Taling Chan district of west bank Bangkok. With temples to the left, and mangroves and monitor lizards to the right, it seems a parallel universe to the vortex of malls and avalanche traffic of mid-town Bangkok.

“I liked the way of life here when I was young but we’ve lost it,” says Kayak Bangkok’s Khun Boum Niyamosatha as he launches our kayaks from his garden wall beside Khlong Bansai. Having lived 40 years in shade of the canal’s mahogany trees and bamboo copses, Khun Niyamosatha wanted to revive the interest of his fellow, vehicle-obsessed Bangkokians in what he calls “the spirit of the waterways.” He rents kayaks, at the almost philanthropic price of 200 baht, to those who care to rediscover that spirit. Ironically, he often has more foreign customers than Thais, perhaps because, as he notes, “Thais mostly like what is ‘in trend’.”

These kayaks are simple craft with just three moving parts — a paddle and your own two arms. With a hand-drawn map written in Thai as our only navigation aid (fortunately I am paddling with a Thai-speaking friend), we set out on a self-guided, 13-km loop. The breeze is at our backs, as is the tide. It’s a lazy Sunday and we glide through the water margins of suburban villages and forgotten marshes. Homes, grand or ramshackle and everything between, made of teak, tin or marble, back onto the khlong. Families sharing lunch overlooking the water do a double take at the apparition of a Thai lady and foreign tourist paddling by. The local traffic is usually longtail boats and occasional hawkers in wooden canoes.

Our halfway point is the weekend Lat Mayom floating market, with the khlong running right through its middle. We hop ashore for steamed prawns with noodles and ginger, over which my friend, a professional tour guide, fills in some background. The khlongs were traditionally used for transportation and floating markets. The “Venice of the East”, however, lost its tenuous claim to that name during the 20th century when most of its smaller waterways on the eastern side of the Chao Phraya River — today’s central Bangkok — were filled in for roads and development.

As for Bangkok’s various names, we are in its suburbs on the Thonburi, or western, side of the river, which was the site of a very early settlement called Bangkok (“village of wild plums”). When the Thai capital moved from there across to the eastern side of the Chao Phraya in 1782, resident foreigners of that time continued to use the old name, Bangkok, for the new settlement. The Thai people, however, used their new city’s proper name, Krung Thep and it remains the term they use in Thai. (The two words, Krung Thep, are the first in the longest capital city name in the world, which in translation goes, “The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha …” and ever onwards, in a 20-word litany of superlatives.)

Having lunched and cruised the market — one of the region’s best and most authentic — we retrieve our kayaks and paddle back into the floating world of that earlier Bangkok, a place of liquid alleys and water hyacinth, of side-by-side mansions, shanties and spirit houses, plus today’s satellite dishes and longtail boats. Thankfully, the latter see us coming and slow down in order to not swamp our tiny craft with their wash. As for the khlong’s turbid waters, “Don’t fall in” is the only instruction.

Passing an ornate Buddhist temple I hear a wave of booming, live, rock music. A kilometer later at the next temple I hear another blast of heavy-metal meditation guitar. So, what’s it all about, Somchai? When young Thai men prepare for their traditional stint of several months as a novice Buddhist monk they often have an investiture party. The celebrations I’ve heard today might herald several young dudes giving up of sex and drink and whatever — but rock n’ roll apparently is much harder to kick.

Egrets, reeds, palms and catfish. Dredges, ducks and markets. I could paddle forever through this urban jungle of the most storied kind. But, battling now against the afternoon tide, we round a last bend and there is Khun Niyamosatha’s exuberant garden, and the end of our line. Behind us are probably the best four hours and two hundred baht’s worth of arm work and insights to be had anywhere east of Venice.

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Kayak Bangkok is in Taling Chan, a half-hour drive from mid-town. Kayaks cost 200 baht per person, with life jackets provided. Options include a 4, 6 or 13km paddle route; allow 4 hours for the latter. The excursion is self-guided, not escorted; preferably bring a Thai-speaking companion. Book in advance. The easiest way is through Absolutely Fantastic Holidays: absolutelyfantasticholidays.com.

Or, Kayak Bangkok on Facebook; http://tinyurl.com/jc4pzbc

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