As new buildings go up all over the city, Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river is the only quiet zone. But for how much longer? We took a look around during Loy Krathong, the festival of lights.
Everyone is wearing black. This particular week in November is a tricky time to be in Bangkok because King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away so recently. The country’s monarch for 70 long years, he was a constant during the turbulent times when the Red Shirts fought the Yellow Shirts and a military government was in power. King Bhumibol’s portrait is everywhere. Condolences are offered on TV, in hotels, on expressway billboards. Mourning hangs like a shroud over the city, and the legendary Thai smile now seems clouded by pain. History never slows its pace, so there’s a simultaneity of emotions. A two-speed city is pausing to remember while carrying on as usual; catching a bus, but not running to catch it; celebrating the festival of lights Loy Krathong – but not as enthusiastically as usual. Loy Krathong translates roughly as “floating a basket.” The krathong “basket” is made from a slice of banana tree trunk (or more rarely, bread or Styrofoam) and banana leaves, and decorated with flowers, candles and coins. These are an offering to the river goddess Mae Khongkha to thank the river for its water. With this ritual, Thais affirm their identity and the status quo, which seems more important than ever before. Everything has been thrown into question now: What comes next? The river itself is changing too – or undergoing change.
Our captain’s name is Jeansawat Thanakorn, but everyone calls him Oun. A young man, he has the indifferent gaze that comes from ferrying people across the Chao Phraya day after day. His long-tail boat was handed down to him by his father, whose own father handed it down to him. Oun shrugs. “There’s more traffic, the boats are bigger, the waves are higher. I can’t imagine life without the river.” Poetry – spoken prosaically as if the one were a logical conclusion of the other.
He steers the boat into one of the locks leading to the klongs, the canal network. Once a fine tracery of waterways, many klongs have now been filled in, blocked off, or are no longer navigable. Bangkok succeeded in diverting traffic to the streets and improving the sewage system, but created an epic congestion problem in the process. Our boat speeds forward as the wind whistles a melody. Stilt houses rise out of the water, beyond them golden temples and magnificent palaces. Waterfront homes are back in style. Every front yard has a spirit house, a shrine to the home’s protective spirit. Young boys dive off the bank into the murky waters. Trash collectors, mailmen and doctors work the canals in boats. On the banks, plump, tourist-fed monitor lizards bask in the sunshine. Orchid farms whoosh past. Mud walls are well shored up – Bangkok is prey to flooding (see inset). Suddenly, we spot a monk (tattooed arms, shaven head, gleaming orange robe) in a banana grove, slashing at the palm trees with a pole to bring down leaves that will be woven into krathongs. Somnuk Phra, 65, is from Maphrao Tia temple. He was born in a hut behind it, and the temple is where he wants to die. He says no more, just grins and silently carries on slashing, then catches a frog in the grass and sets it down at the water’s edge. A calm cog in the workings of the Chao, he waves us goodbye. The final lock gates open and Oun picks up speed. The sun has not yet set, but the moon is high. The river stretches out before us like a promise once again.
On Thai maps, it’s often just called “Menam,” which means river. This great river requires no name. Westerners call it the Chao Phraya, river of kings. Rulers settled on the Chao: It’s where the Kingdom of Siam arose. But now the river is being taken over by hotels on its banks, and by developers. Everything here is close together: old and new, rich and poor, street food and fine restaurant fare. The effect is that of a double exposure – of two contrasting images superimposed on one another. Here, an old watercolor, there, the skyline of the financial district like something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Cranes on the west bank are putting up a giant shopping mall. When it’s completed, the Icon Siam will be the city’s tallest and most expensive structure. Until now, the Chao was a place of tranquility. A major artery, but broad and open. Not that it’s really quiet on the Chao, with long-tail boats roaring through the waves, ferry captains honking at fishing boats, and dinner cruisers blaring dance music as they plow the waters. But relative to the bedlam of Bangkok, it’s pure peace.
Michael Biedassek is fighting the building boom that has spread to the Chao. “I’m a realistic optimist. Giving up is not an option.” Biedassek set up Bangkokvanguards, ostensibly just a cycle tour company, but actually one that draws attention to the city’s problems. The tours don’t visit classic attractions, but the places where the old is wrestling with the new. “It hurts to see what’s happening to our city’s heritage,” says Biedassek, who was born in Germany to a Thai mother and a German father. For a long time, Thailand was just a summer vacation destination for him, but then he started taking more interest in his mother’s homeland, where he has now been living for the past 15 years.
Change isn’t always bad, but moderation is key
Biedassek cycles on ahead, past cookshops steaming tom kha gai into the night, down Bamrung Muang Road, where artisans still craft golden Buddhas, but are fast disappearing as rents rise, and through Amulet Market, which still clings fast to its traditional place on the riverbank. An upmarket mall glitters where old warehouses stood not long ago – our guide discovers new construction on every ride. Our tour ends at Mahakan Fort, where the city fathers want to move the old community out and create a park. The dispute has been raging for the past 20 years. Biedassek points to the old streets: teak houses, an ancient, toothless man chopping papaya, a small marketplace – a premonition hangs over them all. “Why not keep the houses and show tourists how people lived a hundred years ago? They’d rather build a dead stone square that nobody will use,” Biedassek rages. Sometimes he despairs of the city that is so fascinating and problematic, so magical and overwhelming.
At Pak Klong flower market, three hours before the festival of lights begins, people are buying last-minute flowers for their krathong – 700 grams of jasmine at the reduced festival rate of 300 bahts (eight euros). “Marigolds for prosperity, lotus for purity, orchids for passion,” says vendor Kaewpila Phong. “You used to be able to buy vegetables here, but not anymore. Only we flower sellers are left.” She looks around. Was that remark too critical?
Night falls on the city and the city falls into night. People surge toward the river. The biggest crowds are outside Wat Arun, and all the ferries are disgorging pilgrims. It’s impossible to keep track of everything that’s going on, but perhaps it’s better to just look into your own heart. What do I want from the river goddess? Loy Krathong is organized chaos. In the air, mosquitoes and smoke; on the water, candles. People are burning pottery Thai buddhas at the temple. Sparks fly; the crowd retreats. Krathongs become caught in the algae. People slip past each other, sweating. Beneath a bodhi tree, a monk beats his drum three times, the Buddhists’ sacred response. When he boards a riverboat, we do, too. The engine falls silent beneath Krung Thon Bridge. Slowly, the monk drops the krathong over the side. Thais believe that if a candle burns a long time, it brings luck. This year, many candles are burning for the king. The monk prays – perhaps for a blessing for his temple or himself. But perhaps he has also remembered the river, which feeds and motivates them all, and gives them life. When a series of waves hit it, his floral float falters, but then the candle rights itself and the krathong sails away, its flame gleaming in the darkness.
Let the river take you here
1 Wat Arun Temple | 2 Flower Market | 3 Grand Palace | 4 Amulet Market | 5 Khaosan Road | 6 Bangkokvanguard Tours | 7 Mahakan Fort