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Low-lying Bangkok, humid and thick in its swampy surrounds, has been carved, drained, protected and irrigated by canals since the 18th Century. Though Bangkok’s usual icons are tuk-tuks and traffic, its waterways are the true symbols of a city that was known as the “Venice of the East” during much of the 19th Century.  

Today, many of the khlongs (canals) have been filled in and paved over to make room for roads, but a massive network of waterways still criss-crosses the city. Each day, thousands of commuters travel by motorized boat on the canals and on the Chao Praya River, which runs through the centre of the city.

Exploring Bangkok’s khlongs is a great way to get into the thick of this steamy city. Though they are often smelly and polluted, the true blood vessels of the city serve as living cultural and historical relics. And with ocean levels rising and Bangkok’s foundation sinking an average of three inches per year, the canals will no doubt play an important role in the city’s future.

The origins of the canals
Many of Thailand’s cities and towns were traditionally protected by moats, and Bangkok’s first waterways were dug for this purpose. In 1782, King Rama I created Rattanakosin Island, home of the Grand Palace and the original centre of Bangkok (which was established that year when the capital was moved from Ayuthaya), by administering the digging of a wide moat and linking it with the Chao Praya River. By 1850, second and third parallel canals had been dug, the city had grown and irrigation, drainage and transport became the canal’s primary use.

Throughout the 19th Century, the system of canals was expanded, horseshoe bends in the Chao Praya were cut off to shorten travel times and boat became Bangkok’s main form of transport. The canal and river network stretched hundreds of kilometres and was the lifeblood of the city. It connected houses, public spaces and temples, served as transport corridors for commercial goods and there were more floating than land-based markets. 

European influence in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries slowly shifted Bangkok to a road-based transport system. Diplomats and merchants requested roads for horses and carriages, new construction materials like cement and cast iron became readily available, and as Bangkok’s population grew, expansion became centred on roads.

Visiting the canals
Though the glory days for Bangkok’s canals are, for now, in the past, the city is still highly dependent on its waterways.

Three of the most central and historically significant  places to explore the canals are Khlong Saen Saeb, a canal in the centre of the city, Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem, one of the original canals around the Grand Palace, and Thonburi, a neighbourhood on the west side of the Chao Praya. All are close enough together to explore in one day and excellently illustrate the canals’ uses in their varying historical forms. Begin in the present, at Khlong Saen Saeb, move to the origins at Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem and then experience the khlongs in a blur of past and present on a tour of Thonburi’s narrow waterways.

Start your day in Bangkok’s bustling heart. About 18km of the lengthy Khlong Saen Saeb are serviced by public motorboat as it slices through the centre of the city, making it convenient for shopping and sightseeing. For a peep into everyday Bangkok life, catch a boat during morning rush hour when smartly-dressed commuters jump off and on the regularly-stopping boats as easily as though they were on a bus. Travel on this canal for designer (and knockoff) shopping at Siam Square and visit the Jim Thompson House, the beautiful teak museum home of an American silk trader, and other central Bangkok sites such as the Bo Bae wholesale clothing market or the hip Thonglor neighbourhood, full of boutiques and cafes. A walking path lines the canal where it is serviced by public transport and a stroll along it brings occasional delights like bougainvillea spilling down concrete walls or an old teak house among the modern office buildings.

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