The Venice of Asia
I could have been in Venice! I spent a weekend in Bangkok and was surprised to find that it is a city of canals and waterways. Our hotel stood on the Chao Phraya River which acts as a busy transportation route shuttling, people and goods from place to place in Bangkok. Saturday morning I hooked up with a tour group led by a lovely young woman named Charupha. Together we boarded a boat which took us up and down the canals that criss cross the city. Thousands of people make their homes along these waterways. Boats take the children to school, bring in groceries, provide ambulance service, deliver fruits and vegetables and ferry people to their jobs. There is a floating bank which brings financial services to the door of canal residents. We even passed an ice-cream boat peddling its sweet treats to kids who shouted a welcome from the porches of their canal homes. We stopped at a floating market, where vendors in boats sell the most interesting things to eat. Each one had little trays of food you could taste. I tried some fermented radish, palm sugar, tamarind fruit, sun dried mango, a pastry made with green flour, banana chips dipped in honey, little meringue shells with spicy shrimp inside and mashed coconut wrapped in banana leaves. The women who were the proprietors of these boat based businesses wore friendly smiles and seemed eager to have us sample their wares.
Our boat driver was an expert, inching his way through the busy traffic in the floating market. My heart beat a little faster as I watched him dodge other taxis on the narrow canal and dart around the tugs and huge transports in the river. I was fascinated by our boat driver’s legs and arms which were literally covered with tattoos. There was not a bare piece of skin. Charupha told me that the tattoos had been made by Buddhist monks and protected the man from evil spirits. At the floating market I saw an elderly woman doing her part to chase away evil as well. She was selling live eels. Charupha said if people go to a fortune teller at the Buddhist temple and receive bad news they buy an eel. Releasing the eel back into the river and thus ‘saving its life’ is a good deed which just may counter the evil that the fortune teller has predicted is coming their way. As we drove along we passed many teak temples and dozens of Buddhist shrines built along the canal. They were decorated with flowers and fruit left by prayerful petitioners
The citizens of Bangkok don’t just live, travel, worship and conduct business on the canals however. The waters are a place to find food as well. The canals are alive with catfish. Anglers perched on the front porches of their homes were busy catching the tasty fellows for supper. Charupha gave us a loaf of bread and we threw crumbs into the canal. Catfish swarmed to the surface to devour them. We could see their eyes and teeth as they jumped up to eat. The river was also a place to have fun. Kids were swimming in the water and playing catch with plastic balls. Just across from the floating market a thick, knotted rope was tied to the truss of a bridge and little boys were swinging on it and then jumping into the river.
I did a little research when I came home and found out that indeed Bangkok is known as the Venice of Asia. The canals of Bangkok were an unexpected and interesting delight.