While drinking my morning coffee and scrolling through Facebook yesterday, I came across a friend’s photos of Bangkok’s river and tears immediately began to prickle at the bridge of my nose. They blindsided me and I couldn’t stop them for almost an hour, not sobbing but brimming. My throat ached with my longing to be on a boat in the Chao Phraya with no destination in mind, simply succumbing to the pleasure of being a river flaneur,drifting on a current, seeing what I could see.

I grew up near a river, in a place so tiny that this was its only claim to fame. From the days of my first memories I was fascinated by its motion. Its currents and eddies led straight to a branch of the ocean, where stretches of sand held shells and seaweed, the only playground in town. 

Every summer our little “wide spot in the road” filled up with people from all over Alaska and beyond, drawn by the king salmon that made their way down the Anchor River to Cook Inlet. The glassed-in refrigerated display case in the grocery store held fish that were often bigger than I was, some weighing in at fifty pounds. Then the dead fish went off with the people from other places and the summer carnival came to an end.

When I first arrived in Bangkok the Chao Phraya seemed like a carefully guarded secret. It flowed through the entire city but was annoyingly difficult to find, unless you were one of the lucky few having tea at the Oriental Hotel. When I finally found my way to the dilapidated piers and on the deck of one of the many commuter boats that traveled for miles, I felt as though I’d been given the keys to the city.

The Chao Phraya was alive with traffic, all of it utilitarian. Barges, small and colorful cross-river ferries, the longtail boats that were the riverine equivalent to motorcycle taxis and traveled up the canals, and the large, clumsy tubs that went up to another province almost clogged the river in a water parade that I loved.

The last time I was in Bangkok, I stayed at one of the riverside hotels that didn’t exist when I first lived there. The Chao Phraya traffic now included “tourist boats” for sightseers with an abbreviated route that stopped near the Grand Palace, smaller boats made of teak, gracefully taking hotel guests to the upscale shopping areas, the dinner cruise boats that appeared after dark with their flashing lights and blaring karaoke-esque music. The piers were more substantial than before, offering coffee, souvenirs, and touts. The river, always a commercial lifeline, now is a major artery of tourism.

When I first came to Bangkok, there was a story in the Bangkok Post of how an overcrowded floating pier had sunk, carrying a number of commuters to their deaths. Later I was on one of the large commuter boats when a squall blew in from the western bank and every passenger, man, woman, child, and monk rushed to the eastern side of the boat. It listed in a menacing fashion and I got off at the next stop. These events have always made me well aware that once I was on the river, I was at its mercy. I’d lived in Thailand long enough to be positive that there weren’t enough life jackets aboard to go around and the ones that were available probably had holes in them. Since I never learned how to swim, once I got on a boat, I was doomed in any emergency.

But even with that in mind and with the pounding noise of the boat’s engine and the stabbing shriek of the boat boy’s whistle and the smell of the exhaust that filled the air on the rear deck, I would get on one of those boats in a Bangkok second if I were able to right now. And although I flirt with the idea of seeing other countries, I know damned well that my travel mantra will always be Thailand First. See you soon, Chao Phraya–I hope.