Khlong

By "Khlong" and River

In a walk through any Siamese street the traveller cannot fail to remark the total absence of any carriage or other wheeled vehicle of native design. There are conveyances of many descriptions borrowed from India, China, Japan, and Europe, but none whatever that can be pointed out as being designed by the Siamese themselves. Any enquiry as to the cause of this apparently strange lack of originality in a matter which so directly concerns the daily life of the community, is readily answered. Until a comparatively recent date there were practically no roads in the country, and even at the present time, the roads in any part of the kingdom outside Bangkok scarcely deserve the name. There are scarcely any means of communication between one village and another, and very often only defective communication between two parts of the same village, except by water. The water is the true home of the Siamese, and it is on this, their native element, that their real character and genius are best exhibited. It is true that, in the capital, they now ride ponies and bicycles, for a few roads suitable to such forms of exercise exist, but the boat, not the horse, the paddle, not the whip, are the property of the nation at large.

In earlier times, when they erected houses upon land, they chose as the most convenient sites for their dwellings, the banks of the rivers or the shores of the sea. When agricultural enterprise led to the formation of inland settlements, no roads were made to connect the new settlement with those already existing, but canals or "khlongs" were cut instead. The connections between rivers were made in a similar fashion; and for purposes of pleasure or business, religious processions or state ceremonies, a thousand different forms of boat were planned and constructed. The numberless canals that thread their way across the plains in every possible direction, have turned the lower portion of Siam into a veritable labyrinth of winding water-ways. The khlongs differ in age, appearance and size, as do the roads of more densely populated countries. The ancient highways of Europe here find their parallel in canals whose age and origin it would be difficult to determine, though none of them possess any history extending to periods that Western historians would call remote. Even as the municipalities and corporations of our land construct year by year new roads for the facilitation of traffic, so, for the same purpose new water-ways are being continually cut in the land of Siam. The broad deep khlongs with their double lines of house-boats, and their continual traffic of lumbering barges, cumbersome rafts, comfortable house-boats and tiny canoes, are the great streets of the cities, and the highways of the plains. The foul-smelling, silted-up water alleys, with their rotten disreputable houses, and their heaps of decaying refuse, are the slums and blind alleys; while the green lanes and country by-paths of more temperate lands are here represented by delightful little canals that twine their way through the thick jungle. The palms meet overhead and form a sheltering canopy; birds of many brilliant hues flit lazily from branch to branch, consoling themselves for their loss of song in the contemplation of their gorgeous plumage. There are lonely canals in comparatively unfrequented places, where only occasional travellers disturb the silence. Here the alligator stretches his long ungainly form in the grey and slimy mud; the monkeys chatter to one another amongst the branches of the trees upon the banks; and the squirrels gambol in the tree-tops up aloft, in conscious enjoyment of perfect freedom and everlasting sunshine.

RICE BOATS COMING DOWN THE MENAM.
RICE BOATS COMING DOWN THE MENAM.

The great river upon which Bangkok stands, flows almost directly from north to south, through mountain valleys and deep ravines, then tumbles, boils, and roars through a series of dangerous rapids until it reaches the wide and fertile plains, to whose inhabitants it means both life and wealth. In most European maps it is called the river Menam, but as "menam" itself means "river", the name as thus written possesses no meaning. Every river in the country is called "menam," the first syllable of the word meaning "mother", and the second one "water." The real name of the Bangkok river is "Menam Chow Phya", which may be freely rendered as the "River Duke", for "Chow Phya" is the highest title of nobility that can be held by anyone not of royal descent. Every traveller enters Siam by this river, and in passing from its mouth to the capital, he may easily observe many excellent examples of true Siamese life and customs. At the entrance there is a bar of sand and mud, which at low tide is visible in certain places, and which even at high tide is never covered by more than fifteen feet of water. As a consequence, no deeply laden vessels can enter the river, and they have to load or discharge the greater part of their cargo by means of small sailing vessels called "lighters", at an island in the gulf. There is only one narrow passage through the bar, and the unwary mariner frequently runs aground. It is said that when the Siamese Minister for Foreign Affairs was asked why no attempt was made to remove this bar, that thereby the river might be rendered more navigable, and commerce facilitated, he replied, "For the same reasons that you English don't relish the idea of a Channel Tunnel." Similar banks of mud or sand, or both, render unnavigable every river that flows through the country. They are decisive evidence of the way in which the whole of the gulf is being gradually filled up. The coast is everywhere shallow, and at low tide long stretches of mud may be seen at any point on the northern shores of the inlet. The whole of lower Siam is one vast alluvial deposit. In several places in the interior, borings for wells have passed through thick strata of sea-shells and other marine deposits, thus showing that in earlier days the northern limit of the gulf extended far north of the site of the present capital.

Having crossed the bar, the general character of the river becomes at once apparent. The appearances presented are characteristic of all the rivers in this part of the world. On either bank the thick jungle comes down to the water's edge, forming a dense green mass of lowly attap or stately palm, interlaced with lianes and gigantic creepers, full of thorny bushes and different species of the cactus family, with the lordly palm towering high above the living undergrowth, demanding and obtaining instant admiration from every beholder, and majestically waving his verdant crown in condescending acknowledgment of the homage paid to his unquestioned sovereignty by the myriad forms of vegetable life that cluster round his feet. In the centre of the river lies a little island, on which stands Prachadee Glang Nam—"The Shrine in the Middle of the Waters." It is a snow-white spire-crowned edifice, round whose base are a number of small quaint structures, the whole forming a conspicuous and typical example of the ecclesiastical architecture of Siam. A broad band of scarlet cloth wrapped round the spire, about half-way between the summit and the base, by some devout member of the Buddhist faith, serves a double purpose in increasing the pictorial aspect of the scene, and at the same time in indicating that the teachings of the wise and noble Gautama, in whose honour the building was erected, have here retained some of their power over the lives of the inhabitants. The King of Siam is the last of the various independent sovereigns who have professed their belief in the words of the great teacher whose outward symbol of humility was the beggar's yellow robe. The neighbouring countries of Annam, Cochin-China, Cambodia and Burmah, now owe allegiance to a foreign government, and their sovereigns, who once bent the knee before the altars of Buddhism are dead or deposed. The only remaining independent Buddhist monarch is H. M. King Chulalongkorn, and here in the centre of the great highway of his country, at the very gate of his kingdom, stands this fair white temple to the honour of the ancient sage.

A LIGHTER.
A LIGHTER.

Boats of many shapes and sizes cross and re-cross the path of the steamer as it makes its way along the winding course, but not until the vessel is anchored amid stream is it possible to fully appreciate the unique appearance of the scene. Along each bank are the floating houses made of teak and plaited bamboo, and thatched with the long spear-like leaves of the attap palm. Their gabled ends, best understood from the illustrations, are of a form peculiar to this land alone, and are repeated monotonously on every dwelling. The houses stand upon pontoons, or else upon rafts which are made of numerous stems of the bamboo tree or the areca-palm, tightly bound together in bundles. Each bundle is more or less free from the others, so that as the floating foundation gradually rots away, the raft can easily be removed and then replaced piece by piece without disturbing the equilibrium of the dwelling itself. The rafts are loosely moored to several stakes driven deep in the bed of the river, and rise and fall with the tide. The house is closed in front by a number of planks of wood, which are removed in the day-time for the admittance of light and air. It bears in front a little platform or verandah, often railed in to prevent the younger members of the family from falling into the swiftly flowing stream beneath. This uncovered platform serves many purposes. It is here in the early morning, and again in the evening, that the family may most often be seen enjoying the luxury of a bath. Men, women, and children come to the edge of the platform, take up water from the river with brass basins or wooden buckets, and then pour it over head and shoulders, thus drenching both themselves and clothes at the same time. Here, too, the dealers display their wares—the giant fruit of the durien plant, which is described by Alfred Russell Wallace as being a combination of strawberries and cream, nectar and ambrosia, ripe pears and ice cream, but which to the uninitiated suggests more truthfully the presence of exceedingly defective sanitation; the mangosteen, a pearl amongst fruits, delightful to eat and to behold, a snow-ball in a casket of crimson; mangoes; fresh green cocoa-nuts filled with delicious, refreshing milk; bananas of countless varieties; sugar-cane ready skinned and cut in small pieces for the youngsters, who think it the sweetest of sweetmeats; young bamboo stems, rivalling asparagus when properly cooked; cheap tin and trumpery from Birmingham, Manchester, or Germany; silks from China and Bombay; occasionally buffalo-horns; tiger-skins; black monkeys with white beards; green parrots; lamp-oil, and joss sticks; and a host of small and inexpensive articles (being the produce of many countries of the globe) that are likely to find ready purchasers amongst a people of simple tastes and small means. Very often in the evening when the sun is getting low, the family take their evening meal out of doors on the same verandah. When the meal is over they still squat upon the floor, smoking huge cigarettes of rank tobacco wrapped in the leaf of the banana, and exchanging occasional words or greetings with some friend or acquaintance passing homewards in his boat. These floating structures are comparatively clean, cool, and comfortable, and possess one great advantage over a fixed dwelling upon land, in the fact that, provided the house is the property of the tenant, he may remove to a new locality without any of the inconvenience of an ordinary removal, by the simple process of shifting at the same time both his habitation and all that it contains. It is an amusing and not uncommon sight to see a father and his family, aided by a few muscular friends or relatives, tugging away at ponderous shovel-shaped oars, fastened fore and aft, as they pilot their house through a crowd of smaller craft on their way to settle in some more desirable or convenient locality.

SIAMESE CANOES.
SIAMESE CANOES.

Behind the floating houses, either situated on the banks or overhanging the water, are houses built on piles. They are raised sufficiently high to escape the floods that come with the rainy season. Their general construction is the same as that of the floating dwellings, but as their inhabitants throw most of their rubbish into the space between the ground and floor instead of into the river, they are by no means such healthy habitations as those that float in the river below.

In the river are moored the coasting steamers that carry the rice of Siam to Singapore or Hong-kong, that transport lean cattle to the Malay States and Archipelago, and bring back goods of European or Asiatic manufacture, as well as thousands of Chinese coolies for the labour market. There are great Norwegian sailing vessels taking in teak, and tank steamers discharging kerosine oil.

Chinese junks and "lighters" pass slowly by with heavy, yellow, mat-like sails, bearing cargo to the island in the gulf, where it will be transferred to the larger steamers. On the prow of every junk is painted a big wide-open eye, whose powerful optical properties are supposed to aid the vessel in steering a safe and speedy course. Says the Chinese maritime philosopher, "No have got eye; how can see?" There are no Siamese junks or steamers, for the trade of the country is in the hand of foreigners, who, for commercial purposes, use either the steamers that owe their design and construction to modern invention, or else the huge unwieldy junks that the conservative Chinese crews would be exceedingly loth to relinquish.

The teak that is exported, is sent down to the capital from the northern forests in the Shan uplands around Chiengmai, bound together in cumbersome rafts. After passing through the perilous rapids of the Meping, they are stopped at the Customs station at Raheng, and duties are there levied upon them. They are then allowed to drift with the current and are steered with a number of perforated, rudder-like oars fastened at both ends of the raft. In the centre there is always a little temporary hut rudely fashioned out of a few branches and leaves. Some member of the crew will generally be found taking a comfortable nap therein.

CHINESE TRADING JUNK.
CHINESE TRADING JUNK.

Fiery little steam-launches tear across the river, whistling, shrieking, rushing like so many water fiends, half swamping or upsetting many of the smaller boats in their swell. Tiny mites of children paddle freely and easily along in tiny cockle-shell canoes, without any signs of fear or hesitation. They easily avoid the big "fire-boat," and guide their craft into the swell in order that they may enjoy the fun of riding upon the miniature waves. The most common form of boat to be seen on the river is the native gondola, or "rua-chang". It is used for purposes of business or pleasure, but it is rapidly losing its popularity as a ferry boat owing to the introduction of the more rapid little steam-launches. Both sexes are employed as gondoliers. They stand to their work with one foot upon the edge of the boat. Their oars are fastened loosely to a small piece of wood near one end, and the boat is propelled with long graceful sweeps of the oar, by a method that no European has ever yet been able to acquire. They turn about with amazing rapidity, or preserve a straight course from point to point, with but little apparent effort on the part of the boatman, and with no seeming variation in the movement of the oar. As a matter of fact, the whole work of steering or of turning is done by a peculiar twist given to the oar at the end of the stroke, but so deftly is the motion made that in the smaller boats it is practically invisible. The ease and gracefulness with which the Siamese gondolas skim across the waters, is in pleasing contrast to the ugly jerky motion of the boats that serve the same purpose in the rivers and harbours of China, and represents a degree of skill on the part of the oarsmen, probably unattained by any other boatmen in the world. Long "dug-outs", mere hollowed-out trunks of trees, sunk to the water's edge with a heavy freight of rice, fruit or vegetables, are paddled along by two men, one at each end. They squat on their haunches on flat projecting ends whose superficial area is about eighteen square inches. In the early morning, the priests paddle themselves from house to house in long narrow canoes, with their alms-bowls deposited on the floor in front of them, for when they put on the yellow robe, they do not put off their aquatic attainments.

Moored in every available inch of space are the house-boats in which thousands of the inhabitants spend the whole of their lives. They are born in the boat, are reared aboard, and are only taken permanently ashore when life is ended. Generally speaking, these house-boats are wide in the beam, and possess a deck whose planks are removable in order that cargo, clothes, and provisions may be stored underneath. In the centre is the house, consisting of the deck for a floor, and an elliptical plaited rattan shell for walls and roof. A small sliding framework of light wood or matting projects from one end of the house to the stern end of the boat, and bears a number of removable curtain-like frames around the sides, so that the steersman is well protected from wind and rain. In these boats a whole family may be gathered together, from grandfather to grandchild. There is but little room for exercise, and they sleep close together, side by side, like sardines in a box, yet they always seem happy and contented. Every home contains a small altar to Buddha, with a seated image of the saint himself placed thereon. This they delight to decorate with flowers and bundles of incense sticks placed in blue and white china vases. The poorest always manage to spare a few coppers on festive occasions to re-decorate and adorn their domestic idol. If there are any Chinese on board, their presence is indicated by a number of red prayer-papers bearing mystic symbols in black and gold, stuck here and there upon the roof and walls of the cabin.

Rice is brought from many places inland, in a boat of very similar appearance and construction, but in this case, there is practically no room for anyone but the crew, as the central house-like portion is filled to the roof with the valuable grain. Round the edge of the boat, through its entire length on both sides, runs a projecting ledge about a foot wide, along which the men walk when they find it necessary to pole their way through shallow water. The external appearance of the boat is materially improved by varnishing it with a common native compound that gives to the wood a bright reddish-brown hue. All such vessels are made in the country from woods found in the native forests, for the people are as clever in building boats as they are in propelling them. A great part of the amphibious population is not resident in the capital. The people live in the country where they till the fields that lie on the banks of the rivers or canals, in those places where the jungle has been cleared. There they anchor their homes until the time of harvest, when they gather in the fruits of their labour and then proceed leisurely south. On arriving at Bangkok, they dispose of their cargo, take a short holiday, visit their friends, see the sights of the city, and finally return to their fields, gardens, orchards again, taking with them quantities of kerosine oil, cheap prints, matches, and many small articles of domestic use.

The water population is complete in itself, and is perfectly independent of its terrestrial neighbours in every way. It has not only its own houses and shops, its water omnibuses and hansoms, but even its floating restaurants and pedlars. The restaurant is contained in a fairly small canoe, but it is surprising what a quantity of cooking apparatus and what a varied assortment of food the chef  manages to carry. He passes from house to house, from boat to boat, boiling and cooking as he goes, and easily disposes of his curries and boiled rice.

"CAN I GIVE YOU A LIFT, REVEREND FATHERS?"
"CAN I GIVE YOU A LIFT, REVEREND FATHERS?"

The river has its own police, with duties corresponding to those of their brethren ashore, but they wear, instead of a battered helmet, a neat white or blue cap, on whose black ribbon is printed in gold letters the words that describe their particular functions. Both the water and the land policemen are called "polit", the word being a modification of our own word "police" according to a rule of pronunciation in the native language, according to which all final consonants of the nature of 's' are pronounced as 't'.

There is a water market, but unlike the land market which remains open all day, this one opens and closes before the sun has risen very high. Scores of boats are massed together in one compact crowd. Each boat is sunk to the gunwale with piles of fruit or fish. The occupants barter and bargain with the same incessant deafening noise of shouting, laughing, and swearing that is characteristic of all markets the world over. The women wear flat-topped hats made of leaves, which slope outwards from the crown, and are stuck on their heads by a circular frame-work of cane placed inside. Boats pass in and out of the crowd without accident or trouble, and though not an inch of water is to be seen from the edge of the throng, the market gardeners, fishermen and florists never lose any of their merchandise as they move in some mysterious fashion from one spot to another.

Even if a boat were upset, nothing more serious than the loss of its freight would be likely to occur. The owner would never be drowned. He would simply turn his vessel over again, climb over the side, and paddle off home. Yet many of these canoes are so light and small, and float in such a condition of unstable equilibrium, that no European could either get into one of them, or, if the boat were held until he were seated, take a couple of strokes in one without falling overboard. There is, however, only the remotest possibility of any native being drowned as the result of being capsized, for the whole nation may be described as a nation of swimmers. Whether in the water or on the water they are in perfect safety. Little children, long before they can walk, are thrown into the water by their mothers, who fasten under their arms a tin float that always keeps the head above water. The wee brown dots splash and splutter about in the lukewarm current of the river, involuntarily learning the correct action of the limbs in swimming, and gaining an acquaintance with this element that ever afterwards prevents any feeling of fear. In this way many children learn to swim almost as soon as, if not before, they can walk.

The boys early learn to paddle their own canoes, and they have invented a number of water games that are possible only among children educated in this fashion. Occasionally a party of them will get into a long narrow boat, and crowd together until the water is just on the point of entering. Then with a few gentle strokes with a paddle, they urge it forward, the water flowing in with every stroke. As soon as they feel it sinking beneath them, they roll out into the canal or river, turn the canoe up again, slowly but deftly climb in one by one, and then off once more to repeat the fun.

At certain seasons of the year boat races are held at the little island at the mouth of the river, on which stands the temple previously described. In these races no consideration is paid to "fouls." The object of each crew is to reach the winning-post first, and any crew is allowed to prevent its opponents attaining that desirable end, by any means they care to employ. The consequence is that the first part of the race resolves itself into a series of "ramming" manoeuvres. There is a fierce struggle between the rival crews who try to upset each other. The intensest excitement prevails amongst the spectators as two boats near each other, and they watch the manoeuvring with breathless interest until one of them is upset, when cheers break out in encouragement of the winners, who strain every nerve to reach the goal before their opponents can once more get aboard their craft and so continue the contest. Women as well as men take part in the sports, both sexes being equally skilful in any sport or amusement of an aquatic nature.

Soon after sunset the river clears considerably, for these water-folk rise and retire with the sun. They shut up the front of their houses, and then lie down to sleep through the long hot night as peacefully and securely in their floating cradles as any of those who live upon land.