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Exploring the klongs of Ayutthaya

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Without canals, the history of Thailand would have been much different and Bangkok would not have been dubbed “Venice of the East.”

by Harold Stephens

05 ROBERT GATE BACKGROUND[1]We hear about the klongs, or canals, that make up the many waterways of Bangkok, but seldom is there mention of the klongs of Ayutthaya. Yet look at a map of Ayutthaya (not a map of the old city, but an up-to-date one) and the surrounding area as it is today. You’ll be surprised to discover that Ayutthaya looks like a gigantic cartwheel with dozens of small klongs radiating out from it, making the city an actual hub. There are so many klongs that it’s impossible to determine where the Chao Phraya River enters the city and where it departs.

No wonder the Burmese had a tough time taking Ayutthaya in 1767. History books don’t tell the story, but I would imagine that more soldiers in the invading army got lost in the maze of canals than reached the wall. But we know that the Burmese did reach the wall, and what resulted was that Ayutthaya was destroyed and fell into ruin.

But ruins are what interest travelers today. With eco-tourism the objective, exploring the klongs of Ayutthaya adds another dimension to travel. Several new tour companies now offer klong tours of the old capital.

Thais began digging klongs when their history first began, but it was during the Ayutthaya period when international trade increased that the need to shorten transport distances between the capital and the sea was recognized. Between 1522 and 1722, the monarchs dug six major klongs, many of which eventually not.

only shortened travel on the river but also became the main streams.

09 GATE MOST IMP[ORTANT ON THE KLONGSIn 1522, King Chairachathirat of Ayutthaya commanded that a series of new klongs be dug around the capital, not only to facilitate trade but also to serve as a perimeter of defense. There’s no doubt that klongs were once of vital importance to Ayutthaya. It was only after Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese that they began to decline, and the last blow came when King Taksin moved the capital downriver to Thonburi, across from present-day Bangkok.

Efforts have been made to dredge many Ayutthaya klongs, and they are beginning to see service once again. However, the difficulty of negotiating these klongs is due not to their shallowness but to the many small bridges and walkways that span the klongs. Some bridges are merely foot walks, but nevertheless, they are a hindrance to klong traffic. A different type of boat has to be used from those we see downriver around Thornburg and Bangkok.

Unlike the converted rice barges that operate on the river and on klongs below Ayutthaya, with their top-heavy decks high above water line, the klong boats of Ayutthaya are shallow draft with low superstructure. To successfully do canal tours, boats have to be able to slip beneath the bridges at high water.

10 BOAT STANDS PRIVATE HOMESAt the south end of the city, at the foot of the old wall and gate that have been refurbished, there are klong boats for hire. The site at this spot is one of the historical landmarks of Thailand. In my book “For the Love of Siam” I tell how it was here that trading boats from every nation in the world came upriver to unload their wares. I like to imagine, when I stand at the old gate and look down the Chao Phraya River, that one time in the center of the river, as many as 200 ships waited in line to unload. Ayutthaya was at one time the greatest cities of the world, greater even than Venice and Genoa, and it was here, where you rent your boat, that it all began.

The boats for hire are flat-bottom boats with a canopy above for protection from the sun or from sudden rain showers that may occur. A trip completely around the island of Ayutthaya will cost about THB 700 and will take about three or for hours. It’s a delightful trip, and you can make it as leisurely as you want, or if you wish, as rapidly as you want.

There are delightful little restaurants on the klongs, and at any one of these the boat will wait while you go ashore to dine. The other possibility is to pack your lunch and have a picnic aboard. This will make an interesting family adventure and outing.

Many of the klongs in Thailand, aside from serving as a means of transportation, became urban dwellings. By 1900, both sides of the Chao Phraya River and all the klongs were floating habitations, shelters resting on rafts of bamboo moored to the shores, occupied by two, three, and four families each.

Today the picture has changed. Boat families live aboard their barges, as they have done from one generation to another, but for others municipal law prohibits living aboard any vessel or raft on the river. Now along the banks of the klongs you can see some costly homes.

Without klongs, the history of old Siam and modern Thailand would have been much different, and Bangkok would not have been dubbed “Venice of the East.”