A Morning Commute on the Chao Phraya Mother Water
The alarm sounds, and I am off my bed and through the always-open balcony door. I watch for Eos calling out the dawn; drawing the towers of Krung Thep in the disappearing gloom. Below, the Chao Phraya Mei Nam—Chao Phraya Mother Water—is loud with the throb of diesels. Bobbing lights on the river show a barge being pulled to the sea. The tide has turned, and no good tug captain wastes fuel and pulls against it. I breathe in the warm, thick, tropic air. Venus has set.
A joint, fired, officially begins the day. Then a cold shower (who needs hot water when it is always 30 degrees centigrade?), pressed shirt, trousers, tie and shined shoes–all of which are absolutely required for the job–and move. Down the elevator, wave at security and begin to walk the 300 metres to the ferry dock on the river bank. Up the alley, past the weekend cock fight ring; quiet now, not a single announcement of the sun.
On the main street, the plant shops are already opening in the quick morning sunrise. Past Mahidol University, Medical (no Thai word ends with the L sound. This is replaced by N) is a path, running though a green park nestled under the bridge that spans the river. The park is alive. Mothers and children are cleaning up the pavement, rolling blankets. Others are cooking and some of the kids in their uniforms run off to catch a bus to school. Two women, in tightly wrapped sarongs, are bathing at the edge of the river. The men are sitting smoking cigarettes, drinking beer or the local hootch, loa koa (both words rhyme with 'cow'), telling the women what to do and being ignored.
I head up and over the outflow pipe of the sewage pumping station that runs along the klong (canal). At out tide, the waste of millions flows through its 3 metre circumference and runs downriver to the sea. The shit of the city feeds the eventual seafood platters. There is an overpowering stench, wafting from far up stream.
The floating ferry dock rises and settles, squeaking, with the rhythm of the waves. The ferry plows through the brown water with a roar that accompanies the whistles of the rope guy guiding the boat to shore. The engines are cut to full stop and the ferry crunches against the dock’s tires. The ferry is roped for an instant, allowing an exchange of close to one hundred passengers. The whistle blows, the diesel cranks up and we are off.
The total distance to work, as a parrot flies, is about 12.5 kilometres door to door. During the morning or afternoon Bangkok rush, the trip would take more than two hours by bus. I am fined for showing up to work a minute past 7:30 am. Besides, who wants to travel in the noise and fumes of the streets? On the river there are no traffic jams, and the Orange Flag ferry takes twenty minutes. The boat may have to detour up or downstream to avoid the tugs with laundry strung up to dry, but the ferries don’t get stuck. On the river, there is a breeze. I never go inside the cabin, even though the rope guy and conductor are always shouting for everyone to do so. I like to stay on the stern of the boat, outside, where you can see the city passing beyond the concrete river banks and watch the sun continue to rise.
The majority of the river loads we travel past are rice or sand. Rice from upcountry to feed the city; sand dredged out of the river and sent to the concrete factories to push the city closer to the sky. That same concrete has tamed the mighty Chao Phraya. From the sea to I-don't-know-where upstream, the river is encased in two walls to prevent flooding. But every Loi Kratong, the festival marking the royal assent to the end of the rainy season, the banks are topped. The river runs through the streets creating havoc and death. The brown water is deep and very fast. As the ferry cuts its way south, kids of indeterminate age are jumping off large concrete pylons and swimming. Another day in paradise.
The ferry is jammed. It is always jammed. One side of the boat is reserved for the monks, who travel for free on the ferries and buses. The captains, conductors and the rope boys earn some eternal merit from having the monks on board. I always have to tell white women to stay back from that area, and from the monks themselves. A monk would have to cleanse himself for two weeks to atone for the touch of any female.
I hear the conductor shaking her little cash tube. “Sathorn Road,” I tell her, handing her exact change. This was the first actual street in Bangkok. Sathorn means, roughly, embassy, and this is where Europeans were first allowed to live in the Kingdom. They put in a road so that they could ride up and down in their horse-drawn carriages on a Sunday afternoon. Before that, Bangkok was the Venice of the East. All transport was by boat, and the marshes that people lived on were never, of course, flooded.
We pass the Royal Navy Yards (alma mater of the Crown Prince), abandoned warehouses, sparkling new high rises, crematoriums. We also pass the shells of buildings, almost finished, that remain glassless from the economic crash of 1997. Who will buy these empty hulks? The banks don't want them. It seems that no one does.
With a whistle the ferry arrives at the dock designated #1, and I jump off with the rope guy, much to his chagrin. The game is to get off the boat before him, a bit of danger in the morning to wake me up. I do not panic about the time. In fact, it is best if I forget about time completely. I drift with the traffic noise, disappearing into a musical progression that I can only hope to remember after a day with Kindergarten 3.