Monday, 4 February 2008

Khlong Saen Saeb

Crash.. As we pull in at speed, the wooden hull slams against the pier. Two helmeted crew members jump ashore, ropes in hand. There waiting silently, stoically on land, is an adorable Thai girl in an unfeasibly short skirt and 3” high heels. “Oh dear,.. the misfortunate," I think to myself as the boat beneath heaves and splutters, noxious diesel fumes permeating the air, my brain. “How will she get on while maintaining an ounce of decorum, her dignity?"

Her reply? She hops assertively off the landing stage, plants a foot on the gunwale, grabs the rope and swings down and into the hull next to me – all in a matter of seconds and with the casual aplomb, not to mention sex appeal, of an Asian Lara Croft. I'm left surprised and smitten. But for this 9-to-5 office worker meets dressed-to-kill stuntwoman it’s par for the course, all in a day’s getting to work.

I'm on Khlong Saen Saep, a line of dirty brown water that weaves its way through the city. Why did it take me so long? It’s fowl, ugly, smelly and dangerous, but also fast, cheap, quick, exhilarating and awesome. Think public transport meets extreme sports - Venice on Popeye’s favourite spinach. The boats surge along at speed, stopping off at piers bisecting Bo Bae market, Pratunam, Childom, Asok, Nana and Thonglor, among other areas. It begins by Pan Faa bridge, in the Old City, and ends out in Bangna, and the journey from one to the other costs only 20 baht.

It must be so cheap because its a deathtrap. Fall in and you’ll be submerged in what resembles Willy Wonka’s scrumptious chocolate lake but is, actually, a poisonous toxic sludge (one hapless Thai pop star did and subsequently died of a fungal brain infection). Stick your head up to catch a breeze and you’ll be decapitated by one of Bangkok’s many low-slung bridges, only for your bloated torso to resurface days later in the Chao Phraya, tangled poetically amidst clutches of water hyacinth. But it’s the deckhands who really do dance with death - they walk the rim of the boat, one hand hanging on for dear life, the other rummaging for small change as they collect fairs.

Hailing from the UK, a country where every danger is systematically scrubbed out of existence by dour Health and Safety bureaucrats, thus rendering modern life banal, and ultimately futile, I think this is brilliant. You’re overwhelmingly alive, Khlong San Saeb screams, because one slip means you won’t be. It’s like a faulty fairground ride that’s been adapted to transport the clinically insane. And that’s precisely why I love it.

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