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Chao Phraya: River of life in Bangkok
Thailand's two mighty rivers, the Chao Phraya and the Mekong, are far more than just its lifelines, as even any unattentive visitor to Bangkok is likely to learn. In fact, the Kingdom of Siam (as the country was once known) owes its very existence to the ebb and flow of the majestic Chao Phraya. For centuries, this river and its tributaries, which make up the country's main river system, famously functioned as a natural defence against invaders. In the 16th century, when Ayutthaya, Thailand's most famous realm of yore, came under a series of attacks from Burmese marauders, it was the river, and its regular flooding, that helped the Siamese armies defend their lands. All the defenders had to do was hold out till the rains came as the floods would unerringly follow to push back the invaders.
Times may have changed, and Thailand raises no armies to fend off invaders, but the Chao Phraya, on whose banks Bangkok is situated, remains a major presence in the lives of the city's populace. Bangkok's 12 million inhabitants share close cultural, religious and personal ties with the river. Its waters are such an intricate part of residents' lives that many will tell the curious tourist that they feel 'weird' if they do not wake up to the sound of the water sloshing in one of the city's many canals.
"The river is a part of my life. I grew up with the sound of the flowing water. Waking up and jumping into the river is one of my fondest childhood memories, " says Prasit Pongwitet, a resident. "I would feel weird if I wake up on a day without the sound of the tide. It seems like everything just flows away with it, including the bad experiences that happen each day, " adds my middle-aged taxi driver.
There's little indication of this quasi-cathartic association with the river when one first views it from the air. As the Bangkok Airways jet descends to make a landing at the Suvarnabhumi airport, the suburbs of the city look to be a giant chess board of brown and green, of neatly parceled bits of land crisscrossed by the mossy green waters of the river flowing through canals.
A boat ride through the canals on the Chao Phraya's tranquil waters soon provide more than a sneak peek into life in this city, the Venice of the East. For tens of kilometers the river meanders gently, with its navigable canals connecting various parts of the city, and even large districts to each other. Houses have backyards that open on to the river and children play not only with cats or dogs but also with the fish.
But floods are still a part of life, met with stoic acceptance by inhabitants. Large parts of the city were inundated last year and more than 400 lives across the country were lost. Yet dignified Thai restraint, like much else about the land's famously genteel ways, is what one generally encounters.
Sethaphan Buddhani, Tourism Authority of Thailand, Mumbai's boss says that Thais know how to live with the floods. "Our association with water is such that we know when the water is coming, " he said. In the course of an elaborate description of how people live here, Buddhani says that most homes would own a boat too. "We build homes in such a way that when the water comes it does not hinder our daily lives, " points out Buddhani, who used to live by the riverside in Bangkok close to where the kingdom's famous Royal Barge is moored.
An interesting local custom has residents looking to spot the local water monitor to predict conditions. And even though the Thai word 'hea' is an insult, and even considered a hex traditionally, the spotting of these reptiles is seen as a good sign for the river. "Their presence in the canals confirms that the water quality is good if not the best, " says Poom, a local.
Buddhani also points out that as the influence of western modes of living increases, many Bangkok residents have either moved away from the river or have started to build living spaces lower than what traditional methods prescribe. "During the flood season these people face a lot of problems because their homes then get inundated, " he says. But in spite of such change, Buddhani adds, with a wistful smile, that people do come back to the river at some point in their lives, or keep narrating stories that are inextricably woven around the river.
The traditional way of life by the river can be experienced by any visitor to Bangkok by taking a boat ride through the Klong Bang Luang and Klong Lad Mayom canals. The Klong Lad Mayom is also famous among tourists for a special floating market. Set up in 2004, the market was the brainchild of a distinguished resident of the city. As Westernization rapidly began to overwhelm traditional ways, he came up with the idea of setting up a 'new' floating market to preserve the canal community's ancient ways.
Floating markets are a well-known Thai tradition. The most famous one, Damnoen Saduak, is a daily affair about 100 kilometers southwest of Bangkok. The Klong Lad Mayom one is frequented by folks looking for organically grown produce, besides, of course, tourist staples like Thai handicrafts, pottery, paintings and woodwork.
There's another benefit of riding along the waters of the Klong Bang Luang: visitors, if lucky, may just be able to spot a water monitor, gliding in the glistening waters, or basking indolently on the banks, another one of this river-city's happy residents.
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