Mixed Feelings Exploring the Khlongs of Bangkok

Boat Bangkok Thailand

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?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

15 thoughts on “Mixed Feelings Exploring the Khlongs of Bangkok”

  1. Matt, I had a similar crisis of conscience traveling in Uganda. I was travelling with a doctor/professor who has been working in developing countries for over thirty years, and when I expressed my feelings to him, he pointed out that my reaction was essentially self-centered, and didn’t allow space for pride and dignity of the subject. We were instructed to always ask if it was ok to take someone’s picture. If permission is granted, to then capture an image and leave, passing judgement on their circumstances because their circumstances seem pitiable to the viewer, does suggest insult. As my friend pointed out in my situation–where I had asked to photograph a rude cooking area, was given permission and included two happy- looking cooks–my residual guilt that their situation was not as “good” as my own kitchen stripped them of the pride they obviously felt in their own circumstance, and was completely self-generated. I think it is an interesting, and difficult, question.

  2. You seem to be a very respectful person/ traveller. Most people you take pictures of, for sure can feel it and besides you are actually helping by showing the rest of the world their way of living. Thanks for being so sensitive and have social conciousness. Keep doing your job as well as up to now.

  3. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with touring poor neighbourhoods, but it really depends on how you treat it. It seems that visiting for some tourists becomes nothing more than a photo op, a chance to prove to friends and family how cultured and adventurous you’ve become. When far too much emphasis is placed on contrasting this poverty with our own lives back home, there is a danger of typecasting these people within their circumstances and further exacerbating problems. Such a trip should instead be treated as a way to connect with the world and to appreciate the diversity of its people. We should also not automatically assume that our culture, despite its perceived advantages, is desired by everyone. More than anything, I think this sense of cultural superiority exhibited by some travellers while in these areas is most dangerous of all.

    1. Too true Ryan and ultimately I think it’s important for tourists to see these areas, especially if they provoke a change in one’s worldview.

  4. I’ve lived and worked in Bangkok for years, I highly doubt anyone cared that you took their picture along the canals. I wouldn’t worry about it. I’ve also worked in downtown San Francisco, California for years, another city with areas where the poor live in proximity to the wealthy.

  5. I went on a similar boat ride and it was by far one of my favourite experiences in Bangkok. Yes the differences are striking, but I don’t think it’s offensive to take photographs as long as you keep your sensitivity to the matter (it’s not like you are showing off, and believe me, I have seen tourists blatantly show how much more they have than the local cultures, in many occasions).

    I think everyone needs to be exposed to these contrasts, and although many people will miss the point altogether, i think the majority of travelers will have a tiny realization that life is so uneven, and maybe appreciate more what they have, and the opportunity to even be able to travel to these places, when most people int he world will never be able to leave their home countries for a variety of reasons!

    What I did find kind of funny is how there were some wood houses that were barely standing, about to crumble to pieces into the river… yet, they all had TV antennas. Talk about priorities!

  6. I guess it depends upon how you behave – I find many times Thai people tend to be welcoming to strangers of whatever economic background, and if you can bring them some kind of business (buy something from the old lady who runs a “mini store” in front of her house, etc) then they sure are happy to see you. The be right next to each other of luxurious mansions and shacks is a funny feature in Bangkok, but I think it’s actually better than what happens in many other countries, where you have areas for rich people, areas for middle class and areas for the really poor (which turn into slums filled with crime and low prospects for those who are there to improve their situation). Bangkok sure has some areas where predominantly wealthy people live and some “slums” but not as bad as many other places where you have this kind of rich/poor divide :-)

  7. I enjoyed reading your post and its beautiful pictures. I have been there and could relate to your story.

  8. Superb post, we’re heading there in February and we can’t wait to get into the city! We’ve actually been there twice already, but never had time to visit it properly so we’ll be doing that next time! Thanks for the tips!

  9. My view of poverty has changed dramatically in the 7 years I’ve lived in Cambodia. It started when I got involved with a small NGO dedicated to helping the residents of the Sihanoukville dumpsite. At first, my heart went out to them, but in a sort of condescending way. Fortunately, I was just an observer. The Cambodian man who started the NGO dealt with the dumpsite residents as equals and after I got to know them, I did, too. They had a village structure, with a woman in the role of “chief”, work routines and flower boxes outside their homes. They were happy to let the children stay in a house in a nearby village and go to school, but wouldn’t abide being separated from them. They weren’t at all interested in leaving the dumpsite – it was their source of income and if they left, someone would claim their turf and they would end up reliant on NGOs – something they didn’t want to happen. I had the brilliant idea of starting a paper project so they could make a living making handmade paper. Problem was, they could make just as much money doing what they already did – collecting recyclables and selling them to a company that picked them up once a week. In the end, I realized I was in over my head and was glad to hand it over to a guy who had a simpler plan: just set up the house, hire a cook and supervisor, buy school uniforms and pay for school supplies and medical treatment.

    1. You learnt one of the main proncipals of community development respect those you work with and remember they have the local knowledge and often just need guidance to reach their goal. For most living in poverty they want their children to have a better life and will donehat it takes to make this happen- education is normally the key

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