Self-guided Khlong Tour

When you get to a new place, get lost. Wander in space, wander in time. I adhere to the words of Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost and often find myself in the moment in a new city.

I finally had some free time at the American Arts Incubator program and set out the other day to the Thonburi district to see one of the temples. Here, I would have been amongst tourists snapping digital photos. Instead, I got distracted myself on a self-guided Khlong Tour.

 The khlongs are the canals in Bangkok, a city which used to be called the Venice of the East. Centuries ago, they were used for transportation, irrigation and flood relief. But, this was before concrete and pavement redefined the city.

Floods are now a huge problem as the rainwater has little place to go except into storm drains which quickly overflow. The stormwater drains often ends up into the khlongs.

 

The khlongs do have mechanisms to contain the water, which appear to be mini-dams that can be raised to open into the Chao Phraya. This stormwater, which is not clean water at all then flows out to the sea.

The khlongs are mostly stagnant and filled with garbage. Of course, they could be beautiful waterways and a source of community pride. Garbage cleanup would help, but ultimately a better drainage system would be needed.

Water needs to flow to be healthy. I’m not at all trained in civil engineering projects, but this seems pretty basic. We control the water and confine it and its health suffers.

Strangely, there is still a lot of fish in these mucky waters, which I believe is mostly catfish. And where there is edible fish, people will try to catch them, despite the health risks.

I saw many little things. Here are “soi dogs” (not those kinds!), but since Soi is the Thai word for street, these are street dogs or strays. They are skinny, though not malnourished. Mostly, they seem to want love. Don’t we all?

The narrow khlongs had small bridges to various houses. They were just…there, a neglected feature of this urban space. No tourists were in sight.

What was most certainly a lost cat sign.

And a hole in a corrugated steel fence with an offering in it.

Street art, like in every city.

 Why would a tourist come here when the temple was prettier? Still, I made the right choice. I noticed more in my walk than I would have in a temple. At tourist sites, you are supposed to look at certain things but when you wander through the landscape, your gaze is free.

 

Very hot, very cold

I arrived in Bangkok a couple days ago. Here, you cannot escape the physical effects of the place. It is humid and muggy outside and then you go inside, you get blasted by the air conditioning. Your sweat soon dries and you become very cold.

This is the dialogue I quickly experienced: manmade vs nature. Traffic is omnipresent and there are AC-cooled shopping malls everywhere. However, nature looms large with adverse weather, flooding and the Chao Phraya river itself.

On my first day, as I wandered, I also wondered. How many people actually have a relationship with the river that runs through Bangkok? How often do they think about the lifeblood of the river, which provides drinking water, transportation and, in the past, food?

  

The next morning, we visited visited the Huay Kwang community. This group of people have lived on the banks of the Chao Phraya for many decades and are low-income, often forgotten by the business and shopping districts. When it rains, the sewer infrastructure backs up and floods the river. Like many cities, the pavement and cement prevents water from flowing naturally into the ground.

This community is one of the most affected and they are currently developing a master plan to relocate their homes to higher shores. It isn’t easy. After all, no one wants to lose their home. The master plan also details widening the canal, dredging it and establishing a transportation lane for tourism and commerce.

I listened to the community leaders and their hopes for the workshop. I made several points, but one of the most important ones was to set expectations for what I can really do here. I’m only here for a month. So let’s think about sustainable projects and how we can make public art with water data.

And I also met my assistant, Ekarat, who is super-helpful and will be assisting me throughout the project. Without him, I can’t imagine how to make this project a success.

Yesterday, we spent an entire day procuring items. The best find were these small containers, which are often used for hot sauces, which we will use for water samples on the Chao Phraya. And they were a bargain at 10 Baht each!