Some 150 years ago, when Anna Leonowens, the prim English governess who has been immortalized as the “I” in the long-running musical “The King and I” arrived in Thailand, Bangkok was known as the “Venice of the East.”
It was a city of graceful gilded Buddhist temples, ornate palaces and wooden houses built on stilts along lotus-choked but life-sustaining waterways known in the Thai language as “klong.”
When Anna stepped off the barge that had brought her up the quarter-mile-wide Chao Phraya River from the Gulf of Siam, she emerged into a world still struggling to enter the 19th Century, a world King Mongkut (the “King” of the musical) was trying desperately to reshape and modernize by opening Siam’s closed doors to Western science, technology and education.
The klong were among King Mongkut’s first targets. If Bangkok was to take its place as one of Asia’s major cities of commerce, he reasoned, the city’s ubiquitous, foul-smelling, disease-ridden klong would have to be dealt with. The answer was to fill in as many of the putrid canals as possible.
The result of that policy, as noble as its motives might have been, has been the creation of a city with fewer klong but with infinitely more roads–and traffic congestion. Bangkok today is a place trapped under a vaporous black veil of diesel exhaust and assaulted by the incessant whining and sputtering of internal-combustion engines.
Its traffic jams are notorious as the worst in Asia, and though King Mongkut might not like it were he around today, Bangkok’s surviving klong are more often than not a faster means of travel than the dozens of major streets constructed on top of paved-over waterways.
Progress has its price, and in Bangkok’s case, the price seems to be a universal yearning for the past.
“Things were better in Bangkok 80 years ago,” laments Eakchai Chiangasajar, the 92-year-old patriarch of the family that operates the Chiang Hun Moon funeral home. Eakchai’s father built the establishment atop stilts and pilings on a busy canal called Klong Bang Saikai about the time that Anna Leonowens, back in England, was writing the memoirs that many years later would become “The King and I” and make a career for a bald Yul Brynner. (It also made the actor persona non grata in Thailand, which takes vociferous exception to the musical’s fallacious premise–that a properly civilized English lady singlehandedly modernized a despotic and uncivilized King Mongkut).
Just as it did more than 100 years ago, Klong Bang Saikai twists its way northwest from the Chao Phraya River through an area called Thonburi, which is still rich in green forests of takian trees, ferns, wild orchids and bamboo. It passes by ancient Thai wats (temples), ramshackle houses and the Chiang Hun Moon funeral home, where Eakchai spends most afternoons sitting on a faded green velvet chaise longue that looks as though it might have been left behind by Anna Leonowens.
In the old days, according to Eakchai, Klong Bang Saikai was quieter, the water cleaner, and business better.
“Seems like more people died more often back then,” he says. “Look at me, 92 and I’m still alive. People like me will drive people like me out of business.” Eakchai’s chest convulses with laughter at this quip. Family members, including Eakchai’s 68-year-old son Chanchai, who is taking a tea break, emit a chorus of supporting laughter.
Business has been good this week, confides Eakchai, his withered, teak-like hands opening the books to reveal the weekly receipts.
“Ahhh, let’s see,” he says, adjusting his old gold wire bifocals on a nose still flat and deformed from youthful days as a Thai boxer. “Four coffins at 4,000 baht ($148) each. Three cremations, transportation of the deceased. Yes, yes, a very good week. And I still have one more cremation to do.”
Indeed, even as Eakchai speaks, a Hang Yao (long-tailed boat) carrying the body of an old woman pulls up to the funeral home. Gently, the body, wrapped tightly in white muslin, is lifted from the bobbing boat and onto the open-air wooden planking of the funeral home. Nearby, two rows of ceramic funeral urns stand like silent pot-bellied soldiers behind a parapet of wood planks. The whine of a saw slices through the thick afternoon heat as the wood for one more coffin is cut.
“We used to do it by hand saw,” says Eakchai, watching as the woman’s body is carried to a small room in the back. After the door is closed, he continues his thought: “Today we use the power saw. We are getting modern, eh?”
Still, electricity and outboard motors seem to be the only incursions the 20th Century has made into the languid world of Bangkok’s remaining klong.
They continue to be rivers of life for perhaps a third of Bangkok’s six million residents. Everything from medicine to magazines, from noodles to narcotics, from sarongs to sex is sold from the tiny wooden boats that ply the klong, which ultimately spill into the Chao Phraya River.
The 190-mile-long Chao Phraya, swift of current and glutted with barges heavily loaded with rice and sand, is both the Nile and the Mississippi of Thailand. It is a river shrouded in ancient folklore and legend and at the same time is an integral part of this nation’s future. On its back ride the country’s abundant rice harvests, its teak logs, its textiles, and tin.
Warehouses situated strategically between the mouths of klong along the Chao Phraya are the repositories of Bangkok’s agricultural and mineral wealth. Here amber-skinned Thai men turned chalk-white from carrying 100-pound sacks of flour down planks from grain barges, look from a distance like ghosts in a procession.
A few hundred yards farther down the river at the mouth of Klong Bang Saikai, two dozen sweat-drenched men unloading rolls of canvas shout the Thai equivalent of “lights, camera, action” as they notice a photographer aiming his camera in their direction.
“Life is good but hard on the klong,” says a 48-year-old waterborne butcher named Wanchai as he chops up two kilograms of pork for a customer, his tiny boat bobbing in the wake of a speeding Hang Yao that has just roared past.
“Sometimes,” Wanchai continues, wrapping the meat with a sheet of newspaper and securing it with a rubber band, “I can’t make enough money to feed my family. And then I think I would be better off taking a city job away from the klong. But then I think about all the noise and traffic and people I would have to face, and I think I am better off on the klong.”
Like most of Klong Bang Saikai’s floating merchants, Wanchai normally clears between 600 and 700 baht ($17-$20) for a 12-hour day on the water. In a nation with a mandated minimum daily wage of 300 baht, that is twice the national average and is considered a good living by Thai standards.
Another Hang Yao roars past Wanchai’s small wooden canoe, sending it crashing against the wooden pilings of the stilt house of his customer. Nearby, two onyx-black water buffalo snort and trample through the elephant grass as the churned water laps at the shore.
Out in the middle of the klong, caught in the Hang Yao’s wake, a small dugout canoe piloted by a woman named Boonsom pitches precariously in the turbulent blackish water.
Boonsom, who is wearing a conical “kanp” hat, struggles to control her boat and angrily spits a few choice Thai epithets at the Hang Yao’s spewing rooster tail. Aboard her 15-foot-long boat are mangoes and sticky rice, peanuts, coconut milk, papaya, bananas, noodles, and ducks.
Her face, despite the protection afforded by the bamboo hat, is dark and creased by the tropical sun. Her 33-year-old hands appear little different from Eakchai’s as she clutches a machete and deftly splits the tops off two coconuts. The 40 baht (about 85-cents) she receives for the two coconuts represent less than one-tenth of what she normally earns during a 10-to-14-hour day on the klong.
“I will never get rich on the klong,” says Boonsom. “But my life is good. I have a good husband and five healthy children. I have a good house. I am happy.”
Upstream the shrieks of children penetrate the sticky afternoon air as they jump naked into the inky waters of the klong from the porch of their house. Though the klong are used for bathing and washing, their putrid waters are not used for drinking. Water for drinking and cooking is brought by boat or collected during Bangkok’s frequent showers in huge toum (ceramic water jars) set on porches and stairways.
Houses along Klong Bang Saikai and other Bangkok canals are usually simple wooden structures with roofs of corrugated metal covered with palm leaves. Almost every house is equipped with diamond-shaped fishing nets attached to long counterweighted poles suspended above the water. Despite the pollution, the klong remain rich in a variety of fish, which, along with rice, is the staple of the Thai diet.
Unlike many areas of modern Bangkok to the east, Thonburi and its klong seem resistant to change. Except for an occasional motorboat screaming by on the black waters or a silent TV antenna poking out of a palm- thatched roof, these tiny waterways must look–and sound–the way they did to Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut’s children whom she was hired to teach.
Coconut trees lean precariously over the edge of the water, as do nipa palms and flaming bougainvillea. In the mangrove flats, pillars of blue smoke still waft skyward as wood is turned into charcoal. Half-naked children stomp through the mud in search of crabs in the soft light of a fading carrot- colored sun.
“I could have left the klong many years ago,” says Eakchai, sucking on an ancient long-stemmed pipe and squinting into the receding sun. “But no matter where I went, I knew I would miss this place. So I stayed. And I made my decision to die here, on the water, in the house of my father where I was born.”
Across the Chao Phraya, a police siren wails, and the cacophony of automobile traffic can be heard as dusk settles into the crevices of the day.
On Klong Bang Saikai, amid the squealing of children still splashing in the dark water, the resonant ringing of temple gongs and the cries of waterborne merchants trying to sell off the day’s remaining stock, the body of the old woman, who died of dengue fever (a virulent tropical disease), is laid out in a freshly made coffin and covered with orchids.
Small boats carrying her sons, daughters and grandchildren dock at the foot of the Chiang Hun Moon funeral home, and just as he has done for some 75 years of his life, Eakchai greets each one as they step up onto the wooden floor.
“On the klong you are born, you are married, and you die,” he says. “It is Buddha’s way, the way of the river.”