Despite being on a tourist boat, a trip through the backwater canals of Bangkok gave an insightful glimpse into another type of Thai lifestyle. Just as the well-heeled in Bangkok frequent expansive shopping malls, trendy restaurants and tote the latest in mobile technology, there is another part of the population that lives a much simpler way of life. They can be found fishing on concrete walls, toting a bucket of water from the river or playing a game of chess with a rowdy group of friends. They are the Thais that live on the canals, often with no walls, sloping floors and laundry occupying every conceivable space.
A trip on a longtail boat _ a popular vessel in Thailand that has a long rudder and sounds like a chainsaw _ takes you down the Chao Phraya river and through the canals that give Bangkok it’s nickname “The Venice of the East.” But there are no gondolas or romantic Italian architecture. It is rustic, run-down and the embodiment of everything a Westerner would consider poor. You can see the stains where the water rises to in monsoon season, when all of these people have to leave their soon-to-be-flooded homes. Yet, everyone on the canal waves at you and smiles, such a quintessentially Thai thing to do.
This boat tour also included a trip to the Wat Arun temple, an impressive structure which is adorned with broken ceramic pieces from Chinese merchant ships. It is a complex on the other side of the Chao Phraya river, where there Buddhist monks walk the grounds as they live and worship there. The size is not so grand when you’re standing at ground level, but as you climb the stairs you realize just how high this temple rises.
Preparing yourself for the trip back down takes a bit of time. It’s taking that first step _ backwards, because otherwise you’ll fly headfirst down the stairs _ that is the trickiest. It requires a bit of white-knuckling the railing and if you’re wearing a short dress, using your other hand to keep from flashing the crowd below.
(Insiders tip: Don’t wear a short dress. No matter what you do, the wind will carry your dress up to your waist and you will show everyone your undies. Some are pleased by this, but it inevitably means a rushed trip back to the boat to avoid further humiliation.)