There’s this place, there’s actually at the most recent count 1,682 of them. You can see them, smell them and hear about them throughout Thailand. They are a means of transportation, floating markets and sewage disposal. They may appeal to you, interest you or make your stomach turn. They are a part of Thailand’s history, their economy, their life, their tourism. You can take a ride any time of day to see what they look and feel like, see what is along them and in them.
They are Thailand’s khlongs. On most of the khlongs, especially the smaller ones, there are houses, communities, families and little convenience stores. You can travel on them by water and see them from there or access them by foot, where there are concrete footpaths with railings for walking, bicycle riding, a motorbike can even pass through. You can stop and walk into a little convenience store and buy water, or order and sit and eat a bowl of noodles under a covered area that someone has worked hard to create their home and business, on the house’s front steps.
I’ve come to know a few of the khlongs in my neighbourhood by being gifted ‘that friend’. She’s the kind of friend everyone needs. She’s honest, helpful, supportive and kind. She is the one that has a solution to a problem you didn’t even know you had. The one who knows someone, who knows someone who can fix this or that or take you to the place that no one knows about. Anytime I’d find myself in a space with her, at the pool, having a coffee, she’d ask me how things were going, we’d find a natural rhythm of conversation, full of ease and genuine nature.
I met this friend when I first arrived in Thailand, six years ago. One day, I found myself telling her how running in the Mu Baan at 5:30 in the morning was lovely, it was also getting boring, I was feeling like a hamster running around the wheel, same view, same steps, same feel, over and over even with a change in music genre. She asked me if I’d run along the khlong yet? The khlong, what is a khlong I answered? With that she was off, sharing the way to get there, why it was just outside our village down the street. She informed me of the other’s she knew who ran it in the village and how it was an experience in itself to see the community, built around the paved, uneven, at times unsteady paths.
My first few jogs along the khlong were with a friend who ran there most mornings, she was faster than I, realising that quite quickly, I decided to learn her routes and ended up going out on my own because as runner’s code goes, if you hold someone back and can’t keep up, it might not be a match, no hard feelings.
Over the last 6 years (with some breaks for a pregnancy and newborn baby phase) I have found myself on the paved, uneven and busy walkways that lean up against the khlong. I duck under bridges, slide left or right to dodge a motorbike, slow down for a family walking to work or school and politely say ‘hello’ in Thai as my signal to let them know I am there and may I pass them, ever so politely. I have jumped over snakes and rooster poo. All too often I’ve just missed kicking a cute little duck or two that jumps out in front of me.
I enter the khlong and it feels alive, even on the days when everyone is still asleep. With sounds of boats and bikes, I wake a monitor lizard who then slithers scared, down off the wall and into the water. I watch fishing poles cast into the dirty water to serve as breakfast. The community is warm and kind. They smile, throw up a peace sign or a thumbs up. They clap for us and say good job in Thai. Sometimes they laugh at the crazy farang lady running in such heat while they are sitting relaxing on their makeshift front porch.
There is a hussle on certain days during specific times. It is busier on the waterway, with all types of boats passing through, empty long tail boats, the trash collection boat, the grocery delivery boat, that stops and beeps and the locals come to the edge and he delivers their weekly order or sudden need. There is the boat packed with melting ice stopping off to deliver and load the pickup truck that waits to spend their morning on the busy roads delivering ice to local stores before it melts.
When Bangkok began talking about a lockdown I found myself running along the khlong one morning, thinking what this would mean for them. What would they be preparing for, how would a lockdown impact them. The one thing I knew those early days in March was they wouldn’t be out shopping for toilet paper and most likely not worrying if there were enough devices for their kids to learn online. But what would they be worried for?
I learned quickly. As COVID-19 was still undetermined in Thailand and cases were rising a bit. I took my last run on a Sunday afternoon along the khlong in March. The walkways were busier than usual, I was dodging more men fishing, and there were more babies in Daddy’s strong arms than I had ever seen. I suddenly realised it meant parents would be home, living in those small and cosy, tight and warm houses along the water because their work had sent them back, by no choice of theirs. They were now parenting, protecting and entertaining their families. A lot like the scene in our village as well, Dad’s playing basketball, Dad’s riding bikes and holding babies and toddler’s hands. It was the same, yet it wasn’t.
For months we stayed in our village, determined to follow the rules and show our son’s what that actually looked like. My mind wandered to the families on the khlong often, the families who lived, on our nicknamed “Breakfast Ally” where breakfast was sold and men sat out and drank coffee on a picnic table. To my widowed pal with well spoken English at the far end of the khlong, he was busy working to renovate his home when we last spoke (as I caught my breath), was he able to, did he have the materials coming to him from his friend’s who had boats?
When restrictions eased in Thailand Pete and I agreed it was potentially ok to head back out and run the streets of Bangkok and our beloved khlong. My first run was filled with emotion, I was alone, it was early. It had been such a long time since I had taken in the environment and smell that is not always refreshing yet invigorating somehow. As I ran, the focus less on pace and distance, more on checking in and looking at the houses and the community. It’s not as if I was able to see that everyone was still safe and happy, honestly it left me with more wonderment than before. As I continued on and saw the fishermen, the babies back in their Mama’s arms, telling me Dad was back at work that was all I needed to see.
A few weeks and runs later I ran into my pal at the far end of the khlong and my heart nearly jumped out of my chest and my belly bounced to the sky. He was there, talking to a man selling something from his boat. They were deep in conversation, I stood patiently and waited for them to finish. We greeted each other and he told me how happy he was because today was the first day in three months that his friend was able to come and sell his fruit along the khlong. He had been genuinely worried for his friend and unable to contact him during lockdown. After he finished the purchase they exchanged a heartfelt “see you soon.” Then it was my turn and my friend and I caught up over what the last three months had been like for him and his community over a delicious, just purchased, piece of Thai fruit called Longan. He told me that all of this was hard but losing his wife 10 years ago was harder and that he tried his very best every day to be positive and make her proud.
Before I left him and told him how thrilled I was to see him, we took a selfie because I honestly never want to forget that moment we shared. While I’ve been writing this article for weeks it suddenly helped me bring it to its closing paragraphs and utmost meaning, which was clearly the universe’s doing. A story of what the khlong has brought to me as a previously bored runner, to a girl living amongst culture and communities that offer richness and kindness at every bumpy, uneven and lively step.