In the old days, most people lived along canals and rivers. This was their lifeline as it was a means of communication and commerce with other districts. Although times have changed, it is still worthwhile taking boat trips along Thailand’s waterways to get a glimpse of life in times gone by. In Bangkok you can rent a long-tailed boat for about $30 to explore the canals. But outside in the provinces there are plenty of opportunities to take boat trips for less than a $1. In Samut Prakan we have some good boat trips which are worth doing as a day trip from Bangkok.
Last weekend I caught a boat to Ban Sakhla which is an isolated community in Samut Prakan. When I first came to Thailand they had only just completed building a road to this town. Before that, the only access was by boat. When I first visited the town in about 1999, there was only a paved road half way and the rest of the way was a dirt track. I have driven there a dozen times over the years but this was the first time I had gone by boat. It is not an easy boat to catch. On my first attempt I found that the boat had been cancelled because the boatman had to attend a funeral.
It is basically a commuter boat for Sakhla people. It takes them to Paknam Market at 6.30 a.m. in the morning so that they can buy food and other supplies and then it returns at 11 a.m. I was advised that I should go to the Samut Prakan Pier at least half an hour early. As it is the same boatman every day he knows most of his passengers and will probably leave once everyone is there. It is not the kind of boat that attracts tourists. Even Thai ones. During my attempt the previous week to catch it, a local person at the market said that it would be easier if I went to Ban Sakhla by taxi. She didn’t seem to understand that the mode of transport going there was half the adventure.
There a number of piers at Paknam so you need to make sure that you go to the right one. Enter through Wiboonsri Market which is the normal entrance for people wanting to catch a ferry boat across the river to Phra Samut Chedi. Before you get to the ticket booth, make a sharp left turn and walk through the market a short distance looking for a turning on your right. Here you will find three piers. I caught the boat from the middle pier which has the sign for “Samut Prakan Pier”. It is a good idea though to ask someone about the boat for Sakhla. When I did someone shouted out that the farang wanted to go to Sakhla. After that there was no risk of me being left behind.
Like the week before, someone came up to me to ask why I didn’t go by taxi. Samut Prakan has two bridges and that is the easiest way to go there. Alternatively he said that I could catch the ferry boat across the river and from there a songtaew to Sakhla. I knew that would be easier but I just like doing boat trips. While I was waiting, more and more people turned up. Many of them were carrying heavy boxes and bags which were loaded onto the boat. It wasn’t really a big boat. Maybe enough room for about 30 people sitting cramped on rows of low seats. By this time the boat was more than half full with supplies and I was starting to wonder whether there would be any room for us. No-one was on the boat at this stage as we were waiting up on the pier.
With only ten minutes to go I decided to get on the boat. As it turned out, there was no need to worry as only six other people got on the boat. The rest were obviously waiting for another boat taking them elsewhere. It wasn’t the best of weather for a boat trip on a tidal river as there were dark clouds in the distance. The boat had a canopy protecting us from sun and rain. But the sides of the boat are low in the water and I guess there would be a risk of it being swamped if it rains very hard during the journey or a big container ship passes too closely. There were no lifejackets and so if you cannot swim you are basically putting your life in the hands of the boatman.
We left Samut Prakan Pier about five minutes early. He took us straight across to the other side of the river and then we followed the West bank towards the river mouth and the Gulf of Thailand. The Chao Phraya River here is quite wide. At places it is nearly a kilometer across. As it was low tide we didn’t see any of the really big container ships, but there were a number of smaller ships moored in the middle of the river. We also passed a number of fishing boats on their way home from a fishing expedition. There is always a lot of activity on this river with boats and people going all different directions. We passed one boat party coming back from scattering ashes at the river mouth. Paknam is a popular destination for doing this.
After about 15 minutes we reached Sappasamit Canal where we turned off the main river and headed towards Ban Sakhla. This canal was built back in 1939-41 by the Excise Department (hence the name of the canal) as a means of communication and commerce from the Chao Phraya River in Samut Prakan all the way to the Tha Chin River in Samut Songkhram. It is 30 kilometers long and about 112 meters wide. If you had your own boat, you could go to Bang Khun Thien which is the coastal community in Bangkok. I last went there about four years ago and so I guess it is time for a return visit. Apparently you can rent a boat to go there from Ban Sakhla which would be interesting. They have started building a road along the canal but it stops halfway. I am not sure when they are planning on finishing it. For us to go there we have to go the long way round by going into Bangkok first.
Sappasamit Canal is virtually straight for much of the way to Ban Sakhla. Close to the Chao Phraya River there were many houses along the river banks. Some just tin shacks, some wooden houses on stilts and others virtually mansions. Many of them had their own private piers. There were also many fishing boats moored on both sides. We passed one boat which was offloading a large heap of cockles. We stopped a few times along the canal. Sometimes someone wanted to get off but usually the boatman offloaded boxes for people waiting on various piers. After about twenty minutes the number of houses started to dwindle and we were mainly seeing nipa palm trees.
By the time we reached Ban Sakhla there were only four of us left on the boat. The trip had taken us just over 40 minutes. It was a little cramped for my long legs but it had been a good trip. If you can, it is best to sit towards the back of the boat as there is less splash there and so easier to take pictures. Unfortunately I didn’t have much choice as the boat was so full with supplies. I hadn’t asked how much the trip would cost which is normally a dangerous thing to do in tourist areas. I gave the boatman a 50 baht note and he gave me 30 baht change. Obviously an honest man. He told me that there was no more boats that day and I would have to return by songtaew. I thanked him and said that wouldn’t be a problem.
Sakhla Village (ban sakhla), in Phra Samut Chedi District of Samut Prakan, dates back to the late Sukhothai period. Its original name was “Ban Sao Kla” which refers to the women of the area that bravely fought off the Burmese invaders. The local people were originally rice farmers but switched to salt farming about 40 years ago. The name if this sub-district is Na Klua which means “salt farms”. However, after the drop in price for salt, the local people decided to change to shrimp farming and general fishing. The sweetened stretched shrimp (kung yiat) from this area is a popular dessert. Other popular products from Sakhla include dried shrimp and shrimp paste. If you study a satellite image of this area you will notice that there is only one road into this isolated town. It is surrounded by shrimp farms and the only means of transportation is by boat.
The main vocal point of any visit to Ban Sakhla is the temple. The few tourists that come this way head towards the temple first to make merit. One unusual feature here is a leaning prang, a kind of local version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It is pretty nondescript and probably would have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for the fact that it is leaning. It is about 130 years old. Land subsidence has caused it to lean over the years. There is now a cement base which I presume has been put there to stop it toppling over. But, it is only a matter of time. The temple itself has also suffered from floods over the years. About five years ago they decided to raise the main chapel to several meters above ground level. During construction work for this they discovered some old Buddha images under the temple floor.
It is worth taking your time to explore the temple complex as there is plenty to see. Despite the threats from flooding, they have built shrines under the main chapel. These include some of the Buddha images that they found and also the sacred boundary stones from the old temple. Since my last visit, they have also now created wax models of famous monks which local people can pay respect to. Actually, these are not really made of wax as they would melt in the heat. They use fibre glass to make them and they are very realistic. I met two local kids here who asked me a dozen questions once they realized that I could speak Thai. They gave me a brief tour.
The temple also has an interesting museum containing many old artefacts found locally as well as many tools used for agriculture and aquaculture. Entrance is free and it is worth looking around though you won’t find any explanations in English. Next door there is a traditional Thai style wooden building on stilts. Inside there is another shrine. After walking around the temple I decided to explore down a path behind the main buildings. I didn’t know where it went but thought it was worth taking a look. There is a small community here. I followed the path for a while until it finally disappeared after about a kilometer at a shrimp farm. In fact most farming around here is shrimp farming and there are many large ponds.
Back at the temple, I crossed a bridge over the canal and went into the town to find something to eat. It is a fair sized community but it is the kind of place where everyone knows each other and out-of-towners stand out. Of course, being a white-faced foreigner my presence did cause a little stir. Though I didn’t understand at first why most people knew who I was already. I could hear them talking about me as I walked by. I then realized that the two boys had gone on ahead and warned the townspeople that there was a farang coming. I kept walking along the narrow pathway until I found a foodshop with something to eat.
It is really a good idea to find time to explore the narrow lanes of the town on both sides of the canal. They do stretch out far though you will find that some lanes have a dead end when it reaches a branch of the canal. There doesn’t seem to be too many bridges. If you are shy about all the attention you will get then maybe this isn’t the place for you. Everything you will do will be observed and notes will be taken for future gossip. However, the local people are very kind and it is easy to break the ice with them by giving a smile. Obviously it would also be good if you can buy food and drinks from the shops here so that you help the local economy.
I spent about an hour or so in the town. I have been here a number of times before so if you go for the first time then you might want to spend longer. Once I was finished I then had to work out how to get back home. But, it didn’t turn out to be too difficult. I just walked out of the town a short distance where there was a large blue songtaew waiting. This then took me to Phra Samut Chedi where I caught a ferryboat back to Paknam. The return trip was slightly cheaper at 8 baht for the songtaew and 3.5 baht for the ferry boat. However, there wasn’t much in it as far as the time it took for the journey. Although it would have been nice to have gone back by boat, it is good sometimes to have variety.
Trip date: August 2009