Rivers and boats are something that are so close with the lives of most communities in Bangkok and Thailand, even until today. The Chao Praya river with all its’ history and culture, the legendary river still crowded everyday from early mornings to late nights, filled with local boats cutting through the city. With its’ large width, this river is like a highway with boats as its’ buses. On the river side, boat stops (stations) give facilities to the people to ride and get off the boats to places they want to go. The passengers are from various backgrounds, from school students, merchants, employees, tourists from various countries (of course) and many more. This is an integrated mass transportation system, like BTS or Bangkok MRT. A scenery that is ‘very Thailand’.
During my stay in Bangkok, I used boats several times as my mode of transportation to visit several research locations. At the same time I recorded sounds of these local boats as a part of my research. There were several kinds of boats, from traditional boats, more modern designed boats like express boats, to luxurious boats for tourist purposes. Among these boats, traditional boats had always been my favorite. I felt like the shape and pattern of the boats blend well with the ripples and waves of the brownish water of Chao Praya river. These boats were made of wood and painted with bright colorful colors and so ornamental, it reminded me of the art of slebor becak (unconventional rickshaw) in Java which now had dwindle down in numbers, cast aside by a more modern mode of transportation like online ojek (motorcycle taxi). The boats had slim shape and stretches to the front tip with conical shape, while the boats’ engine and captain was on the back of the boat. At the tip or nose of these boats there are usually colorful flower ornaments as a symbol of their religious beliefs. Inside the boat, there was a small canopy with an oval shape made to protect the passengers from the hot Bangkok sun.
For me, the one thing that caught my attention while recording the sounds of the boats in Chao Praya was the sound of the engines. The sound of these boat engines always echoed the surrounding environment up to tens and hundreds of meters because of its loud rumbling noise. I then imagined that in the past, a time when these boat engines weren’t invented yet and had not yet been a part of the river transportation life here. If we look at the archive of old photos of Chao Praya river, for example through the photos by Robert Lenz a German photographer who captured the life around this river in 1890, you could see that the traditional boats used paddles and long poles as the mechanical power to move the boat.
Without any sound recording data, I could only imagined how quiet the soundscape must have been like around Chao Praya river at that time without the presence of any engines, or maybe there were some other noises that at the past that were there and now had changed. Today, the rumbling of boat engines in different sizes had become part of the sound reality that couldn’t be separated from the transportation culture in the Chao Praya river. To my observation, there weren’t anymore captains who used paddles or long poles to move their boats.
Furthermore, the sounds at the piers or boat stops were so unique, like the sound of port steel creaking up and down because of the waves in the river, the sound of people getting in and off the boat, the sound of the crew calling out the passengers or gave announcements, and also the sound of boat conductors who gave codes using whistles to ease the parking coordinations with the captains at the pier.
I got this sound recording during my boat trip from Saphan Taksin pier to Wat Arun which was very famous as one the tourist destination in Bangkok. If you observe and listen, the presence of engines has made ship movements much faster and as a consequence the friction and impact with the waves becomes harder. You can hear the sound of impact between the waves of the Chao Praya river with the wooden body of the boat several times, along with the thumping sound from the boat engines’ gas. There are wooden squeaking and crackling sound from the boat as well as water splashing on the right and left side of the boat, eventhough I put the microphone a little to the left of the boat. Another interesting thing is, the engine’s position would follow the direction of the steer so the sound coordinates would move around if you capture it with stereo microphone.
Photo by Gata Mahardhika