Khlong Saen Saep, under Witthayu Road. image by author.

Snaking through Bangkok’s concrete tonnage are khlong, natural canals that feed into the Chao Phraya river. Many have been filled in to build roads, but there are still plenty within the city boundaries. They’re crucial for understanding Bangkok’s massive and sometimes inequitable 20th century spatial transformations.

Khlong Saen Saep, pictured above and below, is used mainly by commuters; longtail boats packed with people on their way to or from work pass by every couple minutes. The city operates the main line, although there are also private charters available. Khlong Saen Saep is the only canal commuter line in the city with 24-hour service. The only statistic I know of has 90,000 people a day passing through Saen Saep alone.

Other bodies of water, as well as the Chao Phraya river itself, serve many other vital purposes for Bangkokians (especially poorer ones), including washing clothes, bathing, and swimming.

The picture above gives some sense of the state of the khlong, as well as of the areas nearby. Long neglected by the city, Bangkok’s water canals have become icons of filth. Houses are not maintained, motor boats leak chemicals into the water, and piles of garbage accumulate on the banks. Once khlong became old-fashioned in the mid-20th century, once they stopped serving the everyday needs of the city’s elite and middle-class (other than as roads), what incentive was there to keep them clean? Without alternatives for water access, poorer residents thus became victims of a change in development that privileged transportation above all other potential uses of space.

This is what the khlong sound like:

The piece begins with water lapping at the rocks under the bridge, intensified as a boat pulls up. The sounds of rumbling and revving throughout are cars and trucks driving directly above. These cause very low echoes off of the concrete cove under the foot of the bridge, where someone had set up a prayer shrine. As the water reaches the rocks, and returns to the main stream, more splashes and flows are audible. The recording ends with a woman, clearly in a hurry, hopping off the boat and running in sandals along the path toward the street.

This picture shows the cove (the path and shrine are to the left of the rocks). The two seated figures are ticket sellers for the boat line. Riders board at the bottom of the steps to the right.

Saep Saen Khlong, under Witthayu Road. Image by author.

Ross King and Cuttaleeya Noparatnaraporn published an article in 2007 about Khlong as symbolic of a bygone Bangkok – one where interactions between neighbors were fluid, rather than segmented and atomized as they are today under capitalism. Through the canals as they used to be used, King and Cuttaleeya argue, people were joined together by the material they shared in a single channel. This is no longer the case. From the abstract to their paper: “The modernization of Thailand has seen an aquatic everyday world replaced by a terrestrial one, and a loose occupancy of land supplanted by Western notions of rigid ownership and title deeds. While the aquatic past passes into memory (to pose some threat, however, to the interests of Thai elites), a Thai episteme based in images and surfaces transforms that memory to less threatening nostalgia and ritual; and the previous fluidity of space likewise “survives” in surfaces.” For those who have read some sound studies work, you’ll recognize similar tropes of anti-modernity/anti-visualism/anti-segmentation used in the author’s discussion of water as we so often find with sound.

The notion of a lost fluidity might on a certain level be a tad nostalgic and rose-colored (might – I’m honestly not sure), but it’s certainly apt to mention given modern-day anxieties about Thais’ inability to unite under a single national banner. What sources of atomization might be at the root of these divisions? Certainly, the way we regard and utilize space is one such source.

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