Khlong kayaker brings Bangkok’s canal culture to life

During the 2011 floods, Rattasapa “Kiad” Mahachon volunteered by distributing life-saving relief by kayak. This piqued his curiosity for the waterways of Thailand. Last year, Kiad took to paddling for good, noting his trips on the water via Pa Pi pie (“Let’s paddle”) and organizes outings for kayaking enthusiasts.

We spoke to Kiad about his passion for boating and the almost forgotten past of the Thai canals.

Why did you create Pa Pi Pie?

I have been keen on paddling since I was 20, but never took it seriously until the year of the Bangkok floods. In 2011, my friends and I joined a rescue team to deliver food. As the water was too high for anyone to drive, we had to paddle through town to reach those affected by the flooding. “Who would have imagined you could do that in Bangkok?” That’s what I thought at the time.

Since then, I have always been looking for opportunities to spend my time on my paddle. The more I am on these channels, the clearer things that previously escaped me have become. There are so many unique communities around them, and their lives revolve around water.

Photo: Tart Pa Pi

What do you normally notice when you take these trips?

It offers a perspective that you don’t usually experience when traveling by car. Of course, when you look at the great temples near the river from a distance, you can get a glimpse of their beauty. But when you paddle the canals you notice something different. Water pollution, for example, is nothing new, but when you’re actually an inch away, it’s very obvious. Some routes also have their own stories, which can even date back to before the reign of Rama I. It is fascinating to learn about our history and culture just by passing through these communities. It allows you to see the transitions from water-based communities to our new urban lives.

Photo: Tart Pa Pi

Why do you think we neglect canal transport these days?

It is simply because we have changed our main modes of transportation. Back then, we had a saying that Bangkok was the “Venice of the East” as people traveled mainly by boat and did most of their business on the water. Our lives may have changed, but I don’t think the channels are less relevant in today’s society. Canals and rivers flow almost everywhere. If we could use what we have, we would all benefit. Waterway projects, when given adequate government support, could be used for recreational tourism purposes.

Photo: Tart Pa Pi

What should Bangkok do to raise awareness about pollution and water conservation?

We have lost our connection to the culture of water. We should find a way to reconnect with them. There have been several attempts to restore and clean up the canals in Bangkok, but the projects generally experience low participation. I remember the reaction of people when they heard that I had gone paddling on Khlong Saen Saeb. They look baffled and confused why I decided to do it. But someone has to show them that people can actually paddle these channels.

Photo: Tart Pa Pi

Do you think the government is stepping up?

The government has paid more attention to canals lately. But I think they can do more, like launching a pilot study that goes beyond the physical beauty of these canals, invest more effort in attracting young people and promoting participatory events. When we talk about canals, people have this image of floating markets. I don’t think we could move all the physical markets to water, but if we could create something on that scale it would surely attract more people.

Any suggestions for those who want to start paddling?

Paddling, in a sense, can be safer than riding a bike on the road. You don’t have to worry about cars or bumpy surfaces like you do when you’re on land. But I suggest you should find an instructor to show you the ropes. The Tha Chin and Nakhon Chaisri rivers are easy starting points, as they are rarely crossed by motor boats.

This story originally appeared in BK.

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