Special Report

Bangkok floats plan to revive Venice of the East

City embarks on another attempt to turn its canal system from pungent to picturesque

Rush hour may be brutal on Bangkok's streets, but there is another way to get to work.  It requires you to hop from a small pier into a packed wood-hulled boat - and sometimes hold your breath.

The low-lying capital is crisscrossed by a network of canals that once sustained rice fields and transported people. These days, many are dumpsites too polluted to even support most marine life.

Attempts to restore this aspect of Bangkok to its reputation as the Venice of the East have come in fits and starts. The latest round, ordered by the military government, requires up to 50,000 squatters living above some 200km of canals to be relocated. This will allow the waterways to be cleaned and dredged to control floods, as well as accommodate commuter boats.

City administrators will connect households to central wastewater processing plants so that the run-offs from kitchen sinks need not drain directly into the canals.

"We are not like the mafia," Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) deputy governor Amorn Kitchawengkul says while poring over a wall map of the city veined with renderings of canals. "We try to move the people to a good community and good environment."

His comments fill long-time residents with both optimism and dread.

 

On the northern edge of the city, one section along Lat Phrao canal is strewn with rubble from demolished homes as workmen lay concrete blocks for new dwellings further inland. The new houses, which cost 100,000 baht (S$3,850) to 400,000 baht each, will be funded through a collective bank loan taken out by the community, says its leader Auoychai Sudprasert.

"It took three months to persuade my neighbours to move," he says. "I told them: If you don't move, the courts will make you move anyway."

According to Mr Amorn, Lat Phrao canal is so polluted that the amount of dissolved oxygen in its water - on a scale of one to 10 - is less than one. But experts say that has more to do with city planning than squatters.

According to the BMA, only about 45 per cent of the wastewater in Bangkok is treated. The rest discharges from sinks and other sources directly into drains and canals.

Adding to the liquid slop is the overflow from septic tanks that few homeowners bother to maintain properly.  "Only if they cannot flush the toilet will they call in a truck to empty the tank," laments Mr Amorn, an environmental engineer.

Ms Mongkol Kongsri is wise to the filth lurking beneath her wooden house perched on one side of the Song canal. The 60-year-old shopkeeper spies her neighbours fishing for tilapia beneath the water hyacinth bloom, but she confides: "I won't eat them. I will travel to the market to buy my fish."

Currently, the only private commuter boat service in Bangkok's canals runs along Saen Saeb, a strategic East-West waterway which passes by the central shopping district, the back of a palace as well as several institutions. It ferries some 60,000 people a day. 

In April, the BMA began operating a service that connects commuters to the westernmost skytrain station in Bangkok. It uses fibreglass boats with closed circuit cameras, space for wheelchairs and Wi-Fi. Rides are free for now, and some 3,000 people use it every day.

With the fading role of canals in transport, these waterways are now rimmed by backyards rather than front gates. Yet the khlong - as they are called in Thai - continue to evoke a strong sense of nostalgia.

"Thai people's lives used to be closely tied to the khlong," Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha reminisced last year. He made city administrators erect a temporary floating market next to his office at Government House.

A more authentic experience awaits visitors in the capital's western district of Thonburi. There, playful egrets bathe at sundown while vendors peddle vegetables from slim wooden boats. Warrens of narrow streets inevitably lead to a bridge or bank.

Ms Taksina Charanya, who is due to be relocated from her canal home in northern Bangkok, hopes the rehabilitation project will recreate this pastoral idyll in her neighbourhood.

"I hope we can have a cycling path," she declares. "And a small floating market. People would be able to earn a living on their boats without going into town and paying high rents for shop space."

 They will also get a respite from Bangkok's gridlocked streets. Ms Jongjit Pungwattananukul, 51, now rides the BMA boat service home every evening to avoid the traffic jams, but says she will weigh her options as soon as the BMA begins charging for this service. "If I take a bus and motorcycle taxi home, it will cost me only 25 baht," she says.

For the average Bangkok resident, it seems, the attachment to canals lasts only as far as their baht can stretch.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Bangkok floats plan to revive Venice of the East'. Print Edition | Subscribe