Meeting the River

30 Aug

A Leaf in the Klongs of Bangkok

The Chao Praya is not the Mekong, but its waters have been fuel to one of Southeast Asia’s most powerful kingdoms for centuries, and today I sit on its urban banks. Though I had crossed the Chao Praya many times over the course of a year in 1998, my first deep memory of this river and its power was in April of 1999. My father stood on a balcony, over twenty floors above the streets, looking down on Bangkok’s great waterway. He stood there first for minutes, but then what seemed like hours. For me, the river had been a convenience, a way to move around the traffic of Bangkok; the novelty of traveling over water had not worn off, but my fascination had. My father, all of 57 years at the time, was wholly moved by the sheer number of vessels that floated, wove, swerved, and otherwise charted their way through their own potential logjam.

At first I shrugged off his fascination. After all, I had been living a life on the canals and waterways of Thailand’s coastal plains for a year. Water was just a part of things, a given, without which the culture, agriculture, and commerce of Thailand would be entirely different. In fact, without waterways like the Chao Praya and the canal systems people developed around it, Thailand would not have been the top Asian exporter of rice in 1998, nor would the kingdoms of Ayudaya and Sukhothai, or the modern Thai kingdom based in Bangkok, have been a force powerful enough to keep Khmer, Burman, and later colonial powers ultimately at bay for over eight centuries (with a slight anomaly concerning Burma).

The formula is simple: Rivers equal sustenance, sustenance makes vitality, and vitality supports civilization. But what is not so simple is the way we forget our rivers. While living in Thailand in 1998, the Mae Klong River (just west of the Chao Praya basin) fed me my mangoes, my rice, my fish, my soul. I sat above the river in evenings when the air cooled just enough for me to clear my mind. The breeze breathed space, and my heart opened. A temple across the river sat still, silent, soft in the evening light. The occasional bell would sound, or a boat would pass. My memories of the river still sit more deeply than any memories I have of roads or traffic. Yet I spent more time on roads than on the river that year; and I would pose that we spend more time moving from place to place on the great new infrastructure of our times – roads – than our world’s great riparian arteries.

Hence, caught in the movement of Bangkok’s burgeoning street life, I shrugged away my father’s fascination with the Chao Praya and its chaotic flow of vessels. That is, until he spoke. “This is unbelievable.” And it was. My father and mother had traveled across the Pacific to see me living my last year as a teenager in Thailand, and it was unbelievable. After waiting long months away from my family, I finally met my father where he met the river.

In two weeks, we will be at the headwaters of the Mekong, a river so vastly long that people at its Tibetan origin endure some of our populated world’s coldest winters, while at its Vietnamese exit the weather undulates a few degrees from monsoon season to “cool season” to hot season. Many rivers carry this story, though perhaps without the extremes. The Chao Praya moves water, minerals, and waste from Thailand’s cool northern highlands into the heavy heat of Thailand’s central plains. The Mississippi moves crisp Minnesotan waters through a heartland of rice and cotton into a swampy and warm delta at the Gulf of Mexico. It is special to see a river move from its icy, swift origins to its slow and soupy meander. It is special to see a river in its chaos and in its flow. As my father helped me remember, it is special to see a river at all.

– Max Woodfin, Bangkok

6 Responses to “Meeting the River”

  1. Kristin August 30, 2011 at 1:46 pm #

    “This is unbelievable” those three words came off the page in his voice. Took my breath away…

  2. E. M. E. Rapp August 31, 2011 at 3:06 am #

    I do remember his wonder as we looked at the Chao Praya and the incredible amount and variety of river traffic. We had never seen anything like it before, even in the busy N.Y.C. waterways. It truly is a “working” river.

  3. Jonathan August 31, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    Great essay Max! Touching as well. Keep writing!

  4. Dianne Johnson August 31, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

    Max, What a wonderful visual and well written “story”. I thank you for writing it and to your mom for sharing it with me. Your life has always added something to mine just by the shear number of experiences you have had in your travels. Awesome and a great tribute to the memories that your Dad created in all our lives.

    Dianne J

  5. Erika September 1, 2011 at 7:04 pm #


  6. Max Woodfin September 18, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

    Max, this is beautiful. And it captures the essence of your father, my brother. He was delightfully curious. He would become fascinated by people and places that seemed quite ordinary to me, until I paused to look at them through his eyes.

    Uncle Max Woodfin

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