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The Changing Face of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River

A view from the Chao Phraya

Can Bangkok Progress Without Compromising Character?

It’s hard to miss the curl of the Chao Phraya river as your plane descends into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. The Chao Phraya cuts through the city, winding past the historic districts of Dusit and Bangrak and dividing Bangkok proper from the neighboring province of Samut Prakan.
Unlike many modern cities, water is a central part of Bangkok’s identity, and the Chao Phraya, above all of the other canals and waterways, is its lifeblood. For much of Bangkok’s  relatively young history, the city was known as the Venice of the East precisely because of the network of canals and waterways that snake off of the Chao Phraya river. Today many of them have been filled in or paved over in order to facilitate new construction projects. But the Chao Phraya remains a symbol of Bangkok’s past.
I found myself out on the Chao Phraya river for the first time in February of 2016, on one of the clunky public water taxis that ferry you from any of the city’s piers for a nominal fee of 13 baht (around .39 US cents). Despite the loudness of the motor, the rickety piers, the silty gray water of the river, there is something oddly satisfying about seeing Bangkok from the river. There, you may pass many of the city’s historic monuments. The golden tipped roofs of the Grand Palace can be seen on one shore, the brilliant white spire of Wat Arun (the temple of dawn) on the other. Inevitably, you will also see the hodgepodge of wooden stilt houses that rise out of the water and line the banks. And you will see those who live in these houses, hanging laundry, cooking, lounging. To take a ride on Bangkok’s river is to see another side of life in the Thai capital.
As of July 2017 this has all begun to change. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has grand plans for the Chao Phraya, including the construction of a promenade that will be built out into the river and will result in the eviction of countless waterside communities and the demolition of over 269 homes*. The first phase of the project has already begun, families who have lived on the river for decades and whose homes are important historical artifacts from Bangkok’s aquatic past have been offered compensation in return for vacating the waterfront and tearing down their dwellings. The Bangkok based organization “Friends of the River,” a group that is dedicated to preserving the Chao Phraya and it’s central role in Bangkok’s rich history, says that the first phase of the project will run for 7km on both sides of the river and will be 19.5m wide on each side. Not only will the project result in the destruction of waterside communities (33 in Phase I alone) but it will also narrow the river significantly, causing disturbances for barges and other commercial boats and impacting the waterway’s already overburdened ecosystem.
Friends of the River also stresses that no study was done concerning the feasibility of the project or possible economic benefits. Policy analysis has been all but non-existent. And no alternative development options were even explored. Additionally, the single survey that was done by the BMA did not take into account all of those that would be affected by the project.
Unlike waterways in other cities which often house sewage processing plants or warehouses, some of Bangkok’s most important cultural landmarks can be seen best from the middle of the Chao Phraya. Many of the city’s Wats (temples) and structures like the Grand Palace are all adjacent to the Chao Phraya, perhaps an indication of how central the river was in the early years of Bangkok’s history. “Bangkok had become a modern city, with streets and pavements and electric light. Yet the river remained the center of its life,” writes Alec Waugh in Bangkok: The Story of a City.
But the BMA’s plans for developing the Chao Phraya are also emblematic of a wider issue facing Bangkok: How to balance progress and modernization without destroying the city’s character and soul? The recent clearing of street food vendors from many of the city’s neighborhoods has come under intense scrutiny in recent months from locals and tourists alike. Many see the clearing of street food vendors and the Chao Phraya evictions as a way for the BMA to sweep ever-growing problems like poverty and skyrocketing wealth inequality under the rug.
Friends of the River prefaced their concern with the BMA’s plans for Bangkok by saying that they are not against modernization but rather proponents of modernization that is careful and well thought out. “You don’t just go around wiping things you don’t like out of existence,” one of the organization’s founders said to me via email. Another fear that many residents and tourists share is that Bangkok will become a modern and efficient metropolis like Singapore and in the process lose the character and soul that make the city so special to so many.
*these numbers are from phase I of the project only

Nyack’s Ben McCarthy is the lead guitarist in the alternative rock band Regret the Hour and the chief Thai culinary correspondent for Nyack News and Views.

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Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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