My return to Bangkok last year was a dream come true. When I first visited the Thai capital five years ago I fell in love, madly in love with this huge, chaotic and disorienting city and the return visit was just as great as I had hoped. I also love being on the water when I travel, and the main artery running through town, the Chao Phraya River, gave me many opportunities to not only enjoy time on a boat, but to see the city in a new light. After taking a river tour though, I felt a little concerned about being a crass Western voyeur in what has always been a city of extremes.
For years Bangkok was nicknamed the Venice of the East thanks to a complex system of canals or khlongs that crisscrossed the city. Most of those have been filled in to build roads, but many still exist and a long-tail boat ride exploring them is a popular tourist activity. Any hotel can organize these for you, but for the best deal just show up at one of the main piers and start negotiating. We hired ours at the Central Pier, paid 500 Baht ($17) for a one-hour private tour and frankly couldn’t wait to see Bangkok from a different point of view.
Staying in a nice hotel near high-end stores and Western restaurants, it’s easy to forget that most of Bangkok’s 8.2 million residents don’t enjoy these excesses. They live in states of poverty or at least very low income, and as a tourist it’s easy to accidentally ignore this aspect of the city. A khlong tour not only highlights poverty in the city, but also shows the stark differences between rich and poor.
I’ve always been amazed at how strangely divided Bangkok can feel at times. Next to a beautiful home can sit a shack, housing multiple generations of a family. Rich and poor are in closer proximity to each other than in any other city I’ve visited. It’s strange and unusual, but from a sociological point of view I couldn’t help but be fascinated.
The boat captain expertly veered of off the Chao Phraya into a small canal we must have passed dozens of times, but failed to notice. Suddenly the world of river taxis and camera wielding tourists disappeared and we were in a residential neighborhood. The homes were all next to the canal, but a neighborhood it definitely was. It actually reminded me of communities in Florida along the InterCoastal with homes more focused on the water than the land.
Driving along we passed temples of all size, modest homes, nice homes and literal shacks. It was a hodge podge of economic success and failure, of rich and poor. But I felt uncomfortable. There I was, a white 6’2” American with a gigantic camera taking photos of people washing their laundry. It didn’t feel right. I’ve written about this before but I still haven’t fully resolved how one should approach areas of poverty.
The boat ride continued, we passed men on boats selling drinks and snacks and before I knew it we had navigated through the labyrinthine khlong network back to the mighty Chao Phraya. I enjoyed my time seeing a different side of the city, but it was awkward and I felt like the ultimate interloper. I would still do it again though, and I recommend others do it as well but the question of poverty tourism still remains. I haven’t found a way to reconcile it, but I’m curious what you all think.
Is it ok to be a tourist in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the world?