Experience Thailand’s age-old way of life as it persist in a still natural, calm, and genuinely generous manner guided by a knowledgeable insider: the ‘klong guru’
By Percy Roxas
Bangkok’s maze of canals have fascinated almost every visitor to the city, and experiencing them one way or another has become an integral part of holidaying here. It is a bit difficult to get the exact length of these crisscrossing canals but one thing is sure: unless you dedicate your life everyday to exploring each and every nook and cranny of them, you will never be able to discover them all during a short holiday. I’ve been living in the city for 20 years now and go around the city a lot, and I thought I have seen all there is to see and know all there is to know about these klongs (canals). I was wrong.
There are still so many pockets of attractions that I have failed to explore, such as in this intricate system of klongs on the Thonburi side, which I thought – again rather wrongly – were just another face of Bangkok’s riverine culture. Thanks to Anantara Bangkok Riverside Resort & Spa’s new “klong guru” program, I was able to experience again a side of Bangkok that seems light years away from this cosmopolitan city of cacophony, gleaming skycrapers, glittering lights, and reputedly seedy nights. It was an experience made more fun by the klong guru – who feeds you up throughout the entire tour with local knowledge that only an insider could provide. The klong guru trip easily confirms that googling is not enough to learn about things.
Our “Klong Guru Tour” started at 11 a.m. at the Anantara Bangkok’s pier. Anantara Bangkok Riverside Resort & Spa is situated along the banks of the Chao Phraya River, the lifeline of the city for centuries. Guided by our klong guru, Visanu Kidkarn – who is actually an assistant chief concierge, we step aboard a traditional longtail boat owned by the resort itself en route to a klong tour that would take us four hours to complete. The “Klong Guru Tour” can be experienced every Saturday and Sunday starting at 11 a.m. Price is Bt 2,000 net per person, by the way.
Korat-born Visanu (Pete) — who moved to Bangkok for work and now calls the city home — was said to have spent the first 10 years of his life living around these traditionals. Over time, Pete became more and more familiar with the most interesting klongs and otehr places of cultural significance in the city, appreciating the meeting of two different worlds. Based on his personal experience, he created a special tour for his friends, and so when Anantara Bangkok Riverside Resort & Spa decided to launch a special klong boat tour for guests, he was a shoo-in for the position of “klong guru.”
Pete has been with the luxury five-star resort for 15 years as concierge and when the klong guru concept was implemented, he volunteered. Pete obviously enjoys sharing the wealth of klong knowledge with his guests but even on a personal level, he says, he enjoys being in the klongs as well.
From the resort’s pier, we went branching off into the heart of the city’s klong labyrinth. To be honest, we didn’t expect much as we’ve done the klongs probably a hundred times; on our own, as a guest of another hotel, or as a host to our own guests. But we have to admit that we haven’t seen this area of Bangkok yet – not by the klong anyway. And admittedly they weren’t the route usually taken by mainstream klong tour operators.
It started rather ho-hum, as my Thai assistant – familiar as he is to these things — says. The view wasn’t that exceptional at the outset of the tour, with the backside of the riverside residences, dilapidated stilt houses, occasional sightings of animals: a small alligator and birds; and local people getting about their usual daily chores. The water on some parts of the canal is even a bit murky.
But as you get deeper and deeper into the klongs, you begin to understand why the organizers say the excursion has been “designed to showcase the city’s hidden cultural gems, and reveals unique glimpses of timeless local life and traditional wooden canal homes that jut out over the water.”
What made the tour especially fun is enjoying first-hand experience of unadulterated, genuine Thai hospitality – starting with the klong guru, of course. Pete begins by telling us a bit about the role the rivers and canals play in traditional Thai life, and explains whatever he thinks would be interesting to us, such as floating plants, and glittering temples built during the Ayutthaya era. But these bits of wiki-knowledge pales in comparison with how he treats us: like VIPS. Just a few minutes after we entered the first klong curve, here is Peter stopping by something like a riverside convenience store to buy cold water and soft drinks. Then, in something like a few minutes again, we stopped by what looks like a small riverside eatery to buy us some coconut juice.
The coconut juice we enjoyed as we plod along, until we reached the first “important” stop: a unique temple that King Rama 2 used to visit. Built with a unique Sino-Thai flair, the temple is an example of how Thais use foreign influences to expand and improve their way of doing things. We were supposed to also see the Reclining Buddha at the back of the temple, but it was closed at the time.
Our boat continued its canal encounters, enjoying the smiles and waves of locals who live by the river, getting amused by some colorful artistic displays in individual homes, and enjoying more glittering temples and Thai buildings. Soon, we stopped for what is probably the second “important” activity: joining in the Thai custom of feeding fish for luck.
Eventually we reached “The Artist’s House” – an intriguing wooden home-cum-gallery-art school-theater that is just one of the many shophouse-looking edifices connected by a wooden pathway that extends to the closest road and bridge. The house, our guru told us later, was more than 100-years-old and this was proven by an age-old chedi that still stands in the middle of the house. We were supposed to see a traditional Thai puppet show on this house, but unfortunately, there was no show that day – it was a Thursday. Even so, we enjoyed browsing over the collection of puppetry images, masks, costumes, books and many other relics of an age gone by.
We were also supposed to enjoy lunch here: with one of Thailand’s signature street dishes, the noodle specialty “Pad Thai” but again, no one’s doing it that day. But in fact, we weren’t thinking of lunch as yet busy as our eyes and mind are observing touches of local life that seems untouched by the Bangkok we knew. A gentle stroll on foot this time, revealed that many of the shophouses have been converted into stores, shops for handicrafts and local arts, obviously to cater to visiting tourists. But most remain as they are, with the people seemingly oblivious to the peeking visitors, doing their own thing: sleeping on the floor, eating their noodles, and both sides of the river people just “watching the wheels” of life slowly go by, so to speak.
We walked until the end of the pathway and crossed a small bridge that cuts through the klong, taking our lunch – was it chai kuap? – a humble but delicious dish at the first shop by the footbridge while enjoying the growing klong traffic. There were longtail boats coming from boat sides!
And then it was time to return to ‘The Artist’s House’ to browse a collection of paintings on the second floor, the locally inspired drawings on the ground floor and enjoy local brewed coffee. Our guru says visitors here are usually invited to try their hand creating something here such as carving, creating an artistic paper print, or painting a traditional Thai mask.
After the short coffee break – Pete phoned our longtail boat driver to pick us up, and he was there in a huff (where do they park the boats anyway?). Returning to the resort, the final leg of tour rejoins the Chao Phraya River, passing by iconic landmarks such as the Grand Palace and Temple of Dawn – and straight to the resort against Chao Phraya’s choppy waves.
“Whenever I feel the stress of the hectic city pace, “our klong guru tells us before we reached the resort pier to disembark, “I seek relaxation and a taste of cultural authenticity. I hop on a longtail boat and traverse the klongs, which have always felt like home to me. When I enter a klong, I feel as though I have entered another portal, a completely different realm, where Thailand’s age-old way of life persists in its natural, simple, calm and warmly generous manner. I hope my guests feel the same way too.”