The glorious days of Bangkok as the "Venice of the East" will start to stir in the hearts of city residents under plans to modernise and use more water transport in the capital.
Passenger boats cruise along Khlong Saen Sap near Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok’s Watthana district. Saen Sap is one of the khlongs that will be improved under City Hall’s plan to modernise water transport in Bangkok. PATIPAT JANTHONG.
Despite few canals remaining, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) will move ahead with promoting water transport as a primary means of transportation, just like the old days.
Bangkok earned the sobriquet "Venice of the East" because it once was criss-crossed with a network of canals that served commuters and traders and delighted visitors.
However, many of the canals, or khlongs, were filled in and paved over under the pressures of urbanisation.
Bangkok began to transform into a modern metropolis.
In a gentrifying city, vast numbers of cars were imported and new roads were built, changing Bangkok from a "city of canals" to a "city of roads", complete with traffic congestion.
Some of the effects of this could be seen during last year's flood crisis when water could not drain quickly.
That left the BMA's Traffic and Transportation Department with no choice but to float the idea of restoring waterways and promoting them as important transport routes. The charms of canal-side communities will also be revived.
The department recently launched a PR campaign on canal development among the communities.
Orawit Hemajutha, deputy director of the department who is responsible for the project, said cooperation from canal communities is needed to restore waterways.
The department has held a public forum on the project in five districts with canal communities which will take part in a pilot project, Mr Orawit said.
The five communities are Ridwanun Islam Mosque on Soi Lat Phrao 130 in Bang Kapi district, Surao Thangkwai School on Soi On Nut 59 in Prawet district, Wat Pak Bor Foundation School on Soi On Nut 35 in Suan Luang district, Assalam Mosque on Soi Serithai 24 in Bung Kum district and Kamalun Islam Mosque on Soi Pracharuamjai 47 in Klong Sam Wa district.
During the public forums, experts in history, social studies and culture from various universities and local scholars were invited to give their views on water transport improvements.
Mr Orawit said the five communities chosen to join the pilot project live next to the three main canals - Khlong Saen Saeb, Khlong Prawet Burirom and Khlong Bang Kapi.
Each community joining the project was given funds to spend at their discretion to improve water transport, he said.
Under the long-term development plan, the BMA will progressively expand water transport routes to cover 28 main canals in accordance with the Bangkok development plan for 2032.
Fourteen more commuter piers will be added in Min Buri district next month while waterways along Khlong Phasi Charoen, Khlong Chak Phra, Khlong Bangkok Noi and Khlong Bangkok Yai will be promoted as tourism routes.
Boat services at Khlong Lat Phrao were recently scrapped because of cluttered water lanes caused by encroachment.
The city administration has tried to negotiate with encroaching households and to restore the canal and its piers, but failed, Mr Orawit said.
However, the city administration has not given up its efforts to restore Khlong Lat Phrao.
"To efficiently develop water transport, it is necessary to have boat routes, piers and safe passenger boats.
"Water quality and landscaping along the routes must also be improved to draw more people to the boats," he said.
Piyanart Bunnag, of Chulalongkorn University's faculty of arts, said the canals were Bangkok's main form of transport in the old days.
In the past 30 years, canals have been replaced with roads. People abandoned water transport for the roads, she said.
The canals then started to become dumping sites for garbage and waste.
Ms Piyanart welcomed City Hall's move to revisit the Venice of the East legacy.
She suggested tourism promotion be factored into the development plan. The city administration should instil a sense of waterway conservation in canal-side residents.
But the way of life of residents and the social history of the communities must be taken into consideration before any development project is carried out, she cautioned.
Wasan Meewong, BMA spokesman and adviser to the Bangkok governor, said there must be an adequate network of mass transit options that gives commuters convenience and expands their choices.
That will encourage people to leave their cars at home.
The government and the BMA must jointly push for the development of mass transit systems.
Water transport will provide an alternative to increasing road traffic in the vehicle-clogged capital, he said.
Boat services along Khlong Saen Saeb from Wat Sri Bunruang to Phan Fa Bridge, covering a distance of 18 kilometres, are particularly popular with commuters, Mr Wasan said.
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- Writer: Supoj Wancharoen