Bangkok needs to discover its Seoul

Bangkok needs to discover its Seoul

Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt commented on the safety and service of the long-tail boat ride in Khlong Saen Saep on his Facebook fan page after taking a ride at the beginning of this month. One thing he mentioned was a little improvement, that each pier now has a life ring. But after hours (the boats operate from 5.30am to 8.30pm), he said that the life rings must be gathered otherwise children would use them to swim in the canal.

He said it was distressing to know that children swam in that (black) water. As you know, Khlong Saen Saep is polluted and the rancid smell can hurt your nose. While you walk along the canal, you may also see dead fish or frogs floating along with plastic bags and other garbage.

I cannot recall the last time I rode a long-tail boat down Khlong Saen Saep, but what I remember well until today is my rough experience when drops of that stinky water sprayed my face and white shirt when the boat was heading toward a pier and I happened to stretch my neck to see where I was.

It was my second ride and I told myself that I would not return to the Saen Saep boats again. So when the minister showed his interest in improving the service, I also wanted to ask him to consider working with related parties to improve the whole service package, including the quality of water.

This reminded me of a recent trip to Seoul, when I had the chance to visit Cheonggyecheon stream, a 5.84km-long waterway used as a drainage canal for most of the past 600 years.

I was told by a Seoul Tourism Organisation representative that the canal used to be very polluted and full of human waste and trash after migration at the end of the Korean War (1950-1953). The area around the stream became a slum and water could no longer be used for consumption as it could harm people's health.

The solution was to cover the stream with a concrete floor in 1958. About 20 years later, an elevated highway was built on top as the city geared toward modernisation. In the early 21st century, the area around Cheonggyecheon was known as the country's biggest commercial area with more than 100,000 shops and more than 6,000 buildings. It's a double-edged sword: when streets brought civilisation, they also led to problems such as traffic congestion, air and noise pollution.

As time passed by, the concept of urban development there gradually changed from having more concrete infrastructure to focus on sustainability. Seoul Metropolitan decided to bring life back to the dried up Cheonggyecheon and expand the green zone to city people while restoring its history.

In 2003, the expressway was removed and the concrete floor was demolished. It took about two years and a budget of $386 million (about 12 billion baht) to turn the stream, which is 4.6m below street level, into the fresh and clear Cheonggyecheon of today.

Along the canal, I could spot many people sitting along the banks. Some played guitars while many couples put their feet in the water. Some families brought their own food for picnics while their small kids enjoyed playing with water. You can't swim in Cheonggyecheon because it's only knee-deep, and security guards will blast their shrill whistles.

I decided to take my shoes off too and act like a local. I sat there along the bank, feet in the cold water, listening to the sound of birds and voice of insects. Although I could not spot anything swimming, Seoul Metropolitan says there are at least 14 species of fish along with 18 types of big and small birds and 41 families of insect.

Then I took a long walk along with many locals. Some jogged and even the disabled on wheelchairs made their way along the canal. In addition, there was a corner for showing local paintings and historical stories of South Korea along the walkway.

For individuals, it is truly a relaxing place in the heart of the city.

For the city, the stream helps improve air quality and reduce the heat of the area by at least 3%.

The project is a good example of urban management which can go hand in hand with environmental considerations. This needs not only money, but also vision from leaders.

Since Seoul can do it, why not Bangkok and our government?

I hope the promising minister, who seems to be very active and creative in finding solutions to every means of public transportation, can help improve the quality of the Saen Saep canal ride and the quality of the water.

Because it is sad to see the canal, which was dug in the reign of King Rama III almost 180 years ago and still serves as an efficient mode of transportation, so badly polluted.

Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

Karnjana Karnjanatawe

Travel writer

Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for Life section.

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