Friday, December 01, 2006

Bangkok 3 - Canals


Canals are perhaps the most degraded aspect of historic Bangkok, increasingly walled in and covered over by new forms of infrastructure. The city was founded on the khlong (canal) system and is even today called the “Venice of the East,” but considering its relationship to the surrounding polder agriculture, a more fair comparison would be to an unplanned version of Holland. At the fringes of the city, the morphology of rural canal land ownership is still evident, but the closer to the center and the more agglomerated the urbanization, the less obvious this history. Canals aren’t very useful to most flows of goods in modern Bangkok and the putrid miasma that surrounds them hardly makes them an amenity. At this point they are more used as convenient dumping grounds for waste; while the government has recently attempted to enforce waste water treatment, most homes and businesses still dump directly into the khlongs.

The stench of the water is less distressing, however, than the larger environmental issues at stake. As the city built up over marshland, the canals provided an important runoff system for the heavy monsoon rains and replenishment for the fresh water aquifers. Fewer canals combined with less permeable surface area leads to heavy flooding that doesn’t infiltrate back into the ground. Today the city sinks at a rate of two to three inches per year due to the depletion of the aquifer. Anything built on deep pilings hovers in place while the ground slips away; ad hoc steps and ramps negotiate the difference. The government recently announced that Bangkok will be threatened by tidal flooding within 15 years unless a complex levy system similar to Holland’s is built. In the meantime, a more or less permanent arrangement of wooden planks and sandbags allow access to waterfront activities.

The original site for Bangkok was created when the existing minor canals were connected and fortified to provide a protective barrier around the new royal city in 1782. As the city grew, a third ring canal was added in the 1850’s to expand the city limits. In the second half of the 19th century, major transportation and irrigation projects were undertaken in response to the increasing international demand for sugarcane and other Thai natural resources. The canal era culminated in the 1890 Rangsit project, adding over 500,000 acres of cultivated land to the system of canals and irrigation. By 1900, however, road construction became the priority of the government. After the turn of the century, very few new canals were excavated, and none after 1915. Today, some dredging occurs on the few remaining communicating khlongs, but they are largely surviving on their own. Life has continued along the canals, but they have been supplanted as the infrastructure of choice. The emphasis on roads and transit infrastructure has allowed the canals to remain in unimproved stasis. In many cases, however, modern infrastructure trumps the canals, and they are filled in for road widening or transit improvements. In this sense they are like the old boulevards of Europe, the most likely places to put a new road without upsetting the populace.

There is a range of canal sizes depending on the need, from 70 feet wide for barges to just a few feet for slender personal boats. In most cases, houses are built on stilts out over the water, with a family pavilion that marks the interface with traffic. This pavilion is something like a water porch, with built-in seating and tables for lounging and watching the world float by. The raised houses often have partially usable space below for cooking and toilets, abandoned during flooding and reclaimed in the dry season. The house itself tends to fall into two categories: the thin, steep-roofed Ayutthaya style, and the low, wide, shallow-roofed vernacular. Often it is a combination of the two, assembled over time, compound style. Rarely is there more than one story of living space, typically an open arrangement with mutable screens and walls. They are traditionally wood, but with the scarcity of teak today are increasingly made of concrete or composite materials. With the canals acting as a lifeline, the housing is packed in tightly along the waterfront; rarely is there a break in the line of buildings. Of course, the houses can range from carefully restored antiques to slum shacks depending on the neighborhood. Roughly speaking, the closer to the heart of the city, the poorer the housing stock along the canals. Outside the city, antique teakwood houses are a sign of status, while in the center shanties occupy most of the frontage. In the fringes, the canals can handle the usage and renew themselves, but inside the city they stagnate into cesspools. Depending on their proximity to downtown, they are either desirable addresses or places to avoid.

In spite of their neglect, the image of the khlong is still strong in the myth of the city. Every tourist book outlines visits to the intact canals, mostly located on the less developed left bank in Thonburi. These tours are popular and expensive, tapping into the desire to see the living museum of historic existence. As one tourist service puts it: "Bangkok is changing fast, but if you want a close up perspective of traditional Thai life then spend some time exploring the city’s charming waterways…en route you’ll discover the remnants of an old way of life, one that leaves the modern face of Bangkok behind." (

One of the key driving concepts in tourism, of course, is the idea of a journey to explore the authentic. This drive toward authenticity, as indicated in the descriptions of the canal tours, brings up an interesting perception vis-à-vis city form. The canal might represent the authenticity that people are willing to spend their money in search of, but is also an inefficient method of building a modern city. This dilemma can best be understood in contrasting the canal with the road; each represents competing forces of rural and urban, respectively. The road is fast, modern, progress, growth, greed, and superficiality. The canal is slow, historic, regressive, moderation, and authenticity. Each is vilified or praised depending on the context; each is an obstacle or an amenity depending on the situation.