Water Transport in Thailand

Thailand - Scott #2146a (2004)
Thailand – Scott #2146a (2004)

Thailand has a huge variety of watercraft with boats of all sizes, shapes and colors navigating the Kingdom’s many internal waterways, coastlines, and surrounding seas. As of 2011, there were 2,485 miles (3,999 km) of principal waterways, of which 2300 miles (3,701 km) had navigable depths of 0.9 m or more throughout the year. There are numerous minor waterways navigable by shallow-draft native craft, such as long-tailed boats. In Bangkok, the Chao Phraya River is a major transportation artery, with ferries, water taxis, rice barges, and long-tailed boats. There are local, semi-express, and express lines for commuters, though the winding river means trips can be much farther than by bus. There is also the Khlong Saen Saeb boat service, which provides fast, inexpensive transport in central Bangkok.

Ferry service between hundreds of islands in the Andaman Sea or the Gulf of Thailand and the mainland is available, as well as across navigable rivers, such as Chao Phraya and Mae Khong (Mekong). The vast majority of local boats one sees in Thailand are hand-crafted from wood, often teak, but an increasing amount of the tourist boats plying the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok are fiberglass monstrosities. As of 2010, Thailand’s merchant marine fleet consisted of 363 ships (1,000 GRT or over) totaling 1,834,809 GRT/2,949,558 tonnes deadweight (DWT). By type this included 31 bulk carrier, 99 cargo ships, 28 chemical tankers, 18 container ships, 36 liquified gas vessels, 1 passenger ship, 10 passenger/cargo ships, 114 petroleum tankers, 24 refrigerated cargo ships, 1 roll-on/roll-off, 1 other passenger vessel.

It is the smaller craft that Thailand Post chose to philatelicly honor with a four stamps and a souvenir sheet on September 1, 2004, portraying boats on the Chao Phraya in Bangkok (Scott #2413-2416 and #2416a). Other than two sets portraying vessels of the Royal Thai Navy and a 2017 set of four featuring the Long Boat Races, I cannot think offhand of any additional Thai stamps directly honoring the ation’s varied watercraft. Personally, I would love to see a set of stamps picturing the colorful fishing boats (เรือกอและ — kolae) common in southern Thailand where I live.

Map showing the rivers in Thailand and selected ferry routes.
Map showing rivers and selected ferry routes in Thailand.
Map of Chao Phraya River ferries and water-taxi routes in Bangkok, Thailand
Map of Chao Phraya River ferries and water-taxi routes in Bangkok, Thailand.

The Chao Phraya (แม่น้ำเจ้าพระยา — Maenam Chao Phraya) is the major river in Thailand, with its low alluvial plain forming the center of Thailand. It begins at the confluence of the Ping and Nan rivers at Nakhon Sawan (also called Pak Nam Pho) in Nakhon Sawan Province. After this it flows south for 231 miles (372 kilometers) from the central plains to Bangkok and the Gulf of Thailand. In Chai Nat, the river then splits into the main course and the Tha Chin River, which then flows parallel to the main river and exits in the Gulf of Thailand about 22 miles (35 km) west of Bangkok in Samut Sakhon. In the low alluvial plain which begins below the Chainat Dam, there are many small canals (khlong) which split off from the main river. The khlongs are used for the irrigation of the region’s rice paddies. The rough coordinates of the river are 13 N, 100 E. This area has a wet monsoon climate, with over 55 inches (1,400 millimeters) of rainfall per year. Temperatures range from 75 to 91 °F (24 to 33 °C) in Bangkok.

On many old European maps, the river is named Menam or Mae Nam (แม่น้ำ), Thai for “river”. James McCarthy, F.R.G.S., who served as Director-General of the Siamese Government Surveys prior to establishment of the Royal Survey Department, wrote in his account, “Me Nam is a generic term, me signifying “mother” and Nam “water,” and the epithet Chao P’ia signifies that it is the chief river in the kingdom of Siam.” H. Warington Smyth, who served as Director of the Department of Mines in Siam from 1891 to 1896, refers to it in his book first published in 1898 as “the Me Nam Chao Phraya”. In the English-language media in Thailand, the name Chao Phraya River is often translated as river of kings.

The lower Chao Phraya underwent several man-made modifications during the Ayutthaya period. Several shortcut canals were constructed to bypass large loops in the river, shortening the trip from the capital city to the sea. The course of the river has since changed to follow many of these canals. In Bangkok, the Chao Phraya is a major transportation artery for a network of river buses, cross-river ferries, and water taxis. More than 15 boat lines operate on the rivers and canals of the city, including commuter lines.

Origin of the Chao Phraya River, Nakhon Sawan, Thailand, with several small boats visible on the nearer shoreline. Photo taken in June 2003.
Origin of the Chao Phraya River, Nakhon Sawan, Thailand, with small boats visible along the shoreline. Photo taken in June 2003.

The principal tributaries of the Chao Phraya River are the Pa Sak River, the Sakae Krang River, the Nan River (along with its principal confluent the Yom River), the Ping River (with its principal confluent, the Wang River), and the Tha Chin River. Each of these tributaries (and the Chao Phraya itself) is augmented by minor tributaries referred to as khwae. All of the tributaries, including the lesser khwae, form an extensive tree-like pattern, with branches flowing through nearly every province in central and northern Thailand. None of the tributaries of the Chao Phraya extend beyond the nation’s borders. The Nan and the Yom River flow nearly parallel from Phitsanulok to Chumsaeng in the north of Nakhon Sawan Province. The Wang River enters the Ping River near Sam Ngao district in Tak Province.

Approaching Thai Immigration checkpoint by long-tailed boat following a visit to Kawthaung, Myanmar, on American Independence Day. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on July 4, 2006.
Approaching Thai Immigration checkpoint by long-tailed boat following a visit to Kawthaung, Myanmar, on American Independence Day. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on July 4, 2006.
Long-tailed boats in Chalong Bay on the southern coast of Phuket Island, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on July 20, 2006.
Long-tailed boats in Chalong Bay on the southern coast of Phuket Island, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on July 20, 2006.

The long-tail boat, (เรือหางยาว — ruea hang yao) uses a common automotive engine as a readily available and maintainable powerplant, said to have been first used by Sanong Thitapura in 1933. . A craft designed to carry passengers on a river may include a lightweight long canoe hull, up to 95 feet (30 meters) long, and a canopy. There is much variation among these boats, some have evolved from traditional craft types, while others have a more improvised look — the sole defining characteristic is a secondhand car or truck engine.

This engine is invariably mounted on an inboard turret-like pole which can rotate through 180 degrees, allowing steering by thrust vectoring. The propeller is mounted directly on the driveshaft with no additional gearing or transmission. Usually the engine also swivels up and down to provide a “neutral gear” where the propeller does not contact the water. The driveshaft must be extended by several feet of metal rod to properly position the propeller, giving the boat its name and distinct appearance. Advantages to the inboard engine with a long driveshaft include keeping the engine relatively dry. Following the basic design pattern allows a variety of engines to be attached to a variety of different kinds of hulls. This flexibility simplifies construction and maintenance while sacrificing the efficiency and comfort that might be expected of a typical mass-produced product.

Engine cooling is provided by a metal pipe underneath the rear running board which is used as a rudimentary heat-exchanger. This is then coupled to the engine using rubber or plastic hoses. Clean water is then used as the coolant. Control is achieved by moving the engine with a lever attached to the inboard side. Ignition and throttle controls provide simple means to control the craft. Larger boats may include more than one “tail,” with several operators piloting in tandem.

Long-tail boats are now often used to transport tourists. There are also competitions involving long-tail boats in some provinces of Thailand.

Thai fishing boat off Cape Panwa in southeastern Phuket Island, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on August 24, 2006.
Thai fishing boat off Cape Panwa in southeastern Phuket Island, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on August 24, 2006.
Thai fishing boats moored at Ranong, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on July 4, 2006.
Thai fishing boats moored at Ranong, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on July 4, 2006.

The aforementioned kolae are small coastal boats between 32 and 41 feet (10 and 12.5 meters) long with the bow and the stern being higher than the hull with a combination of Malay, Javanese, and Thai style designs such as a running scroll design. These may include lotus, serpents, magic monkeys, and heads of birds in literature like Burong Si-ngo or Singhapaksi (a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a bird holding a fish with its beak) at the bow. The creature has sharp fangs and claws, is powerful and is a good diver. Therefore, it has been a favorite of kolae fishermen since ancient times. The art on the boat is like an “artistic masterpiece on waves” and is considered art of life as the kolae boat not only shows off the greatness of its design, but is also the primary instrument used by fishermen to make a living. It is said that a Bang Nara villager without a kolae fishing boat is like a person without clothes.

Thailand - Scott #2143 (2004)
Thailand – Scott #2143 (2004)
Thai junk in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand.
Thai junk in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand.
Thai junk sailing past the Phi Phi Islands in southern Thailand.
Thai junk sailing past the Phi Phi Islands in southern Thailand.

Scott #2143 portrays a Thai junk-rigged sailing boat (เรือสำเภาไทย —ruea sampao thai). A key difference from the junks of China is the use of Thai wood, principally teak, rather than the soft woods such as pine favored by Chinese boat-builders. The Thai junks were usually used to transport cargo and featured on-deck structures primarily at the high long stern. The trade route to China and Japan often operated with a Chinese crew under the command of a Thai officer who looked after the king’s property. Today, most junks in Thai waters are used for tourism and at least one conducts diving trips to the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea off Thailand’s west coast. For much more about the junk rig vessels, please see the previous ASAD article on the subject.

Thailand - Scott #2144 (2004)
Thailand – Scott #2144 (2004)

There are many varieties of the sampan (เรือสำปั้น — ruea sampan) used in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, depicted on Scott #2144. Some sampans include a small shelter on board, and may be used as a permanent habitation on inland waters. Sampans are generally used for transportation in coastal areas or rivers, and are often used as traditional fishing boats. It is unusual for a sampan to sail far from land as they do not have the means to survive rough weather. In Thailand, the stern is usually higher than the bow.

The word “sampan” comes from the original Cantonese term for the boats, 三板 (sam pan), literally meaning “three planks”. The name referred to the hull design, which consists of a flat bottom (made from one plank) joined to two sides (the other two planks). The design closely resembles Western hard chine boats like the scow or punt. Sampans may be propelled by poles, oars (particularly a single, long sculling oar called a yuloh) or may be fitted with outboard motors. A small, single-rowed craft called ruea sampan pieu is used by monks to receive food offerings in the morning.

Sampans are principally used as market boats in Thailand, especially various floating markets. Gardeners bring their produce to the market in these boats and sell directly from them. It is a plank-built boat of sampan construction, with wide planks laid on deep frames. An important function of the frames is to support the tall washstrakes. Boats like this are often built of teak. Originating in times and places where water transport played an important role in daily life, most floating markets operating today mainly serve as tourist attractions, such as Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Ratchaburi, Thailand.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market about 62 miles (100 kilometers) southwest of Bangkok, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 10, 2006.
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market about 62 miles (100 kilometers) southwest of Bangkok, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 10, 2006.
Vendors selling fruit from sampans at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 10, 2006.
Vendors selling fruit from sampans at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 10, 2006.

From 1866 to 1868, by order of King Rama IV, the 20-mile (32-km)-long Damnoen Saduak Canal was constructed to connect the Mae Klong and Tha Chin rivers. Many floating markets arose from the canal, and about 200 ancillary canals were dug by villagers. The main floating market was called Lad Plee market (ลัดพลี) which adjoined a Buddhist temple and remained active until 1967, when the development of roads replaced the need for water transportation. This pattern was seen with other old floating markets which disappeared by the mid-twentieth century due to the development of modern land infrastructure. In 1971, the Tourism Organization of Thailand (now Tourism Authority of Thailand) made the Lad Plee market a tourist attraction for foreigners. The market had boat vendors and shops on the canal banks. In 1981, a new road was built to Ton Khem canal, and private entrepreneurs established the modern Damnoen Saduak Floating Market along this canal.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market consists of a maze of narrow khlongs (canals), and can be navigated by boat. Female traders, often wearing traditional mo hom apparel (blue farmers’ shirts) with wide-brimmed straw hats (ngob) use sampans to sell their wares, often produce that comes directly from farms. These boats are often full of vegetables and colorful fruits that are photogenic, and these images are used for tourism promotion. The market is often the busiest in the morning around 7 am to 9 am, and is active until noon.

The floating market comprises three smaller markets: Ton Khem, Hia Kui, and Khun Phitak. Ton Khem is the largest market and is on Khlong Damnoen Saduak. Hia Kui is parallel to Khlong Damnoen Saduak and has souvenir shops on the canals banks to sell goods to larger tour groups. Khun Phitak is about 1.2 miles (2 km) south of Hia Kui and is the smallest and least crowded market.

Just about everything you can find in a regular land-based village market in Thailand, you can find at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market at higher prices but better ambiance. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 10, 2006.
Just about everything you can find in a regular land-based village market in Thailand, you can find at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market at higher prices but better ambiance. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 10, 2006.
Crowded klong in the main portion of the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 10, 2006.
Crowded klong in the main portion of the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 10, 2006.

The floating market is crowded with tourists and is considered a tourist trap.’ As such, the wares tend to be overpriced. Bargaining is a common practice, although usually the prices of souvenirs and food are generally fixed within a few Thai baht. Canoe cooks can be found preparing and selling boat noodles. The floating market also has been noted to lack cultural authenticity, although it remains a popular destination for both foreign and domestic tourists.

The Damnoen Saduak market has been featured in several films. A canal chase scene in The Man with the Golden Gun with Roger Moore as James Bond was filmed at the market, and the 2008 film Bangkok Dangerous starring Nicolas Cage includes a scene that takes place at the market.

The long overhanging square bow on sampans allows for easy boarding and loading/unloading over the bow onto a wharf or other walkway, and the metal strips would protect it, especially if that walkway were of stone or concrete. Given the crowded conditions in the floating markets, over-the-bow loading is a more efficient use of limited wharf space than tying up along the sides. The boat is steered by an underhung transom rudder of elegant shape.

Thailand - Scott #2145 (2004)
Thailand – Scott #2145 (2004)

Scott #2145 features a rice barge with canopy (เรือกระแชง — reua krachaeng) which are quite heavily used in Bangkok these days as tourist shuttles and sightseeing boats albeit in much larger sizes than depicted on the stamp. Rua krachaeng are watermelon-shaped boats built from teak wood with a canopy. The word krachaeng means the canopy that covers almost the entire length of the boat. Currently, more than 80% of boats on the Chao Phraya are of this type. These deep-hulled hardwood vessels were once the primary mode of transport on the river, particularly during the latter part of Thailand’s Thonburi period in the mid-18th century, when King Taksin encouraged trade with China and neighboring countries.

In the olden days krachaeng boats were made of bamboo leaves, pandan palm leaves or toei (a water plant) leaves. The leaves were sewn by using a needle to form a sheet. The sheets were sewn together to form the canopy. Subsequently, krachaeng made of such materials became expensive, Today, most are made from galvanized iron sheets and canopies made of natural materials have become extremely rare.

Modern krachaeng boat for tourists on the Chao Phraya near Ayutthaya, Thailand. Photo taken on December 22, 2007.
Modern krachaeng boat for tourists on the Chao Phraya near Ayutthaya, Thailand. Photo taken on December 22, 2007.
Elaborately-carved kraachaeng-type boat used to shuttle hotel guests on the Chao Phraya in Bangkok. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on November 18, 2007.
Elaborately-carved kraachaeng-type boat used to shuttle hotel guests on the Chao Phraya in Bangkok. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on November 18, 2007.

Krachaeng boats can carry many different types of cargo, be they rocks, soil, sand, firewood, paddy, rice, etc. If used for carrying paddy or rice, the vessel is simply called a “rice boat.” When loading cargo, especially paddy or rice, the krachaeng canopies would be moved to one side to ease the loading.  Occasionally, when there was nothing to carry, the canopies would be opened to sun the interior of the boat and to provide fresh air. The size of the krachaeng boat is decided in accordance with the maximum amount of paddy or rice it can load, such as 700 sacks, 1600 sacks, etc.

The ribs of krachaeng boats were made of wood and closely spaced fixed along the keel. The gunwales were made of the pieces of hard wood and fixed with a vopsewood bolt. On the deck, there is a firm shed with wooden partitions at the bow and stern. The boat can be powered by an engine for long journeys but for short journeys, a pole was usually used. There is also usually a small boat aboard for rowing to the shore.

Thailand - Scott #2146 (2004)
Thailand – Scott #2146 (2004)

The final of the four stamps is Scott #2146 which pictures a “packet boat”, although I could find no reference or images of one as it relates to Thai watercraft. Of course, stamp collectors know packet boats as medium-sized boats designed for domestic mail, passenger, and freight transportation in European countries and their colonies, including North American rivers and canals. Packet craft were used extensively in European coastal mail services since the 17th century, and gradually added cramped passenger accommodation. They were used extensively during the 18th and 19th centuries and featured regularly scheduled service. When such ships were put into use in the 18th century on the Atlantic Ocean between Great Britain and its colonies, the services were called the packet trade. Mail carried by mail steamers from the 19th century is sometimes known as paquebot mail and subject to various regulations by the governments involved as well as the Universal Postal Union’s (UPU) regulations stated at the UPU Vienna Conference of 1891.

The Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, looking north from the top floor of Sheraton Grande Hotel. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on November 18, 2017.
The Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, looking north from the top floor of Sheraton Grande Hotel. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on November 18, 2017.
Thai boats pulled onto the khlong (canal) bank in Saphan Hin, Phuket, Thailand. My home is at the base of the hills seen in the far right of this photo. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on August 24, 2006.
Thai boats pulled onto the khlong (canal) bank in Saphan Hin, Phuket, Thailand. My home is at the base of the hills seen in the far right of this photo. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on August 24, 2006.

One of the things I love about living on Phuket island in southern Thailand is the opportunity to see a huge variety of watercraft ranging from the traditional wooden long-tailed boats, sampans and colorful fishing boats on up to all manner of Royal Thai Navy and U.S. Navy ships (including the largest aircraft carriers), and an endless stream of merchant vessels including rusty garbage scows and the longest passenger liners. I enjoy going to the coastline (any coastline) or to the fishing port just to watch the boats go by. While I don’t visit Bangkok very often, when I do I make extensive use of the water-taxi system (much faster than any taxi or bus and the boat piers are often near a train or subway station).

I have yet to visit the Royal Thai Barge Museum in Thonburi, the Royal Thai Navy Museum in Sattahip (there are two tiny RTN museums here in Phuket), or the Thai Boat Museum in Ayutthaya. They are on my list.

Scott #2143-2146 and the souvenir sheet Scott #2146a were released on September 1, 2004, printed by Thai British Security Printing Public Company Limited in Thailand using the lithography process on granite paper, perforated 14½ x 14. All four stamps were denominated 3 baht except for the “Packet Boat” stamp which was the 15-baht international postcard rate. The souvenir sheet containing the four stamps originally sold for 29 baht. On April 21, 2015, this was reissued with an additional imprint of the “Pacific Explorer 2005” emblem in the margin (Scott #2146b). This last item sold for 30 baht.

Painting of a Thai riverside village with numerous krachaeng boats and sampans in the water.
Painting of a Thai riverside village with numerous krachaeng boats and sampans in the water.
Flag of Thailand, 1917-date

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