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Cruising the canals of Bangkok



Taking a giant leap onto the already overcrowded commuter boat, I was able to grab onto a rope which swayed wildly as the boat's motors roared into action. Then we careened full speed ahead into the narrow canal also known as Khlong (canal) Saen Saeb.  

The boat's well-dressed passengers seemed happily oblivious to the danger factor as they calmly sat looking out over the water. Sometimes referred to as the Venice of the East, Bangkok's watery ways are more like a high-speed version and although the canals are not used as much as they were historically, they cover hundreds of kilometres and are well travelled by locals and tourists alike. In this particular boat there were only a handful of tourists, and every few minutes, people hopped on and off the boats. During rush hour, the canals are only for well-coordinated locals and not slow-paced, camera-toting tourists such as myself.   

It was hard to see as the water sprayed up from both sides of the boat, and I had to feel my way along the boat's edge with the rope as a guide hoping that a space would reveal itself closer to the back of the boat.

Looking all around me I noticed that nobody made room for me... then it occurred to me that I just had to do what the Thai people do. So I released my Canadian "polite personal space hang-up" and slid over to the nearest bench and proceeded to sit down even though the bench was full. Miraculously everyone pushed over and space was made for me somehow, for which I will always be eternally grateful.

As we sped along, large walls of hanging bougainvillea cascaded down onto the narrow walkways and brightly coloured pots of flowers decorated the old-timber-frame homes on stilts. Busy canal markets displayed their clothing and wares with hanging bits of rope and metal rods like a never ending multi-coloured curtain on the stage. For me, the canals are a perfect blend of past and present in the steamy beautiful chaos of Bangkok. The rich vibrant colour and culture of the canals tells the story of Bangkok and mesmerizes you with its people, beauty and gritty edges.

Suddenly everybody seated in the boat put their heads between their legs or ducked down... I automatically did the same thing and the whole boat roof lowered instantly just over our heads as the boat went under an extremely low-ceiling bridge.

Apparently everybody knows when and where to do this, so pay attention otherwise you might end up going for an unexpected swim in the canal! After the boat roof flipped back up, a boat worker came over and held out her had for payment — luckily I had exact change, as the only thing keeping her from falling off the boat was her vice-like grip on the rope rail as she moved expertly up and down the boat sides remembering who had and hadn't paid.

One thing you never have to worry about while navigating the Bangkok canals is food. Countless vendors with curbside barbecues are an integral part of city life, and you only have to walk five minutes in any direction to have your choice of delicious Thai food served fresh daily from the markets. Everything tastes superb. 

Until 1851 the canals were used as the main way of getting around the city. That is why there are so many temples, markets and cafes, as well as fascinating architecture, along the way. If you are very lucky you will see enormous monitor lizards up close and personal, as they sun themselves casually on the quieter canal routes. Thais believe these water monitors to be bad luck and the word for them in Thai is an insult (used in a similar way as a particular vulgar term in English that literally means an anal orifice).

Local archeology shows that the city has been using canals throughout history with prehistoric crisscross grids going back some five thousand years. Many of the canals have been filled in as road transportation, but there are still a wonderful variety of boat choices and tours ranging from decadent dining to floating markets.

So for those that want to ride the amazing waterways of the ancient kingdom of Siam, be brave, make sure to wear sensible shoes and don't fall in!