Meeting The People of Thailand a Boat boy on The River

Meeting The People of Thailand a Boat boy on The River

By Harold Stephens
Travel correspondent for Thai Airways International

 On the Chao Phraya River in Thailand a good boat boy is worth his keep. The river all the way from the mouth to Ayutthaya, the old capital some 120 kilometres upriver, is subject to tidal currents. Tugs towing barges depend upon the changing currents to aid them in their long journey upriver, and it's the boat boys who must attend the mooring lines. They call them tether boys. They run along the gunnels, barefoot, leaping from one barge to another. They work long hours, day and night, and they receive little pay.

A good tether boy is a valuable asset for his master.

Naret was one of those tether boys.  I first meet him when I anchored my schooner down at the mouth of the river, waiting clearance or else taking on supplies. He would paddle up in his little dugout and ask if he could be a help. I’d buy a few gallon of diesel from him to top off my tanks, not that I needed it but to make him happy. After a while I’d look for him, and if  he wasn’t on a job he’d come bounding over, filled with energy and good humour.

He was an orphan, and he often bragged to other kids that his father was from Texas. When he met foreigners and learned they were Americans he would ask, "My father is from Texas. Do you know him?" He even told them his father's name -- Joe. Naret's mother had been a Patpong bargirl who died in a hotel fire when Naret was eight or nine. It was a different hotel from the one where he lived with his mother. How much of this story is true it's hard to say, not about the hotel fire for everyone living in Bangkok at the time knew about the fire, but about Naret's father being from Texas. He could have been though, for the boy had fiery green eyes, not a common trait for Thai boys.
Naret found work on the docks and in time he became one of the best tether boys on the Chao Phraya. He was faster and better than any other kid on the river. He knew his job, and he didn't mind working long hours. He got along great with his boss, until one day when the manager of the Bangkok Bank called the boss aside.

"The boy hasn't been to school," the bank manager said. "You can't keep him working and not give him an education. That's the law."
"But he doesn't want to go to school," the owner of the Chao Phraya Barge Company replied. "He wants to keep working. He likes being a tether boy. He makes good money for a boy and he always has something to eat and a place to sleep. What else can an orphan boy want?"

It was true; Naret didn't want to go to school. He never liked school; reading and writing and working with figures wasn't for him. Besides, he didn't need to go to school. He was proud that he was the best tether boy on the river. He knew his job and he didn't mind working long hours for he was able to save some of his earnings. He didn't gamble and throw his money away as some of the other kids his own age did. For a fourteen-year old boy, he was pleased with the way things were going.

But then came that one day when his boss, who was quite busy, sent him to the bank to make a deposit. It was at the bank that they discovered Naret couldn't read or write. The next time Naret's boss went to the bank, the manager called him aside and spoke to him about Naret.
"But he's only a tether boy," the boss insisted. "He doesn't have to read or write, not for what he does. All he has to know what to do is tie up lines."

"That's not the point," the manager interrupted. "He's under your employ, and you are responsible for him. That's the law."

"What am I to do?" the boss asked.

"You had better send him to school," the manager warned.

The boss was a miserly man who thought only of profits and making money, but he was aware he couldn't disagree with the bank manager. The bank held the mortgages on his barges, and there was no need to argue with the manager over something so simple as the welfare of an orphan boat boy. The boss had to do something, and he did. Rather than pay for Naret's schooling, he fired him.

Distraught, Naret wondered what he would do now that he didn't have a job, nor a place to stay. It wouldn't be on the street in Klong Toey where many street urchins lived. Naret wouldn't let that happen. He could go to school and maybe his boss would hire him back. But that was out of the question. He didn't want to go to school and that was final. Nor would he leave the river. The river was all he knew; it was his blood, his life. He climbed aboard his own little sampan that he had salvaged and with the current coming in, he let the tide carry him slowly upriver. He was happy to be back on the river.

The current was running strong, and as he lay back in his sampan, his eyes followed the string of rice barges anchored in the river, waiting for the tide to change. Loaded barges never fought the river; they let the tide work for them. "They waste so much time," he thought. "All they do is wait for hours every day for the tide to change."
An idea came to him. "The tugs that pull the barges also waste time when they must tie up to the docks to refuel," he reasoned.  "What if I carry fuel to the tugs while they wait?" He decided he would give it a try.

For a few baht, Naret bought a couple of plastic containers and filled them with fuel. He added a little profit and sold the fuel to one tugboat captain who at first was reluctant to buy it. "You'll save time," Naret pleaded. The next time Naret saw the captain, he had more fuel, and the captain bought that. Soon Naret was selling fuel to tugboat captains all along the river. Before long, he bought a motor for his sampan, and after a few months he traded his small sampan for a larger one.

Soon all the river tugboat captains came to know Naret, and they admired him for his perseverance, and they all bought fuel from him. In five years, before he was 20, Naret had a flotilla of boats running fuel to tugs on the river. They readily accepted his services for he was not only efficient and reliable but his prices were reasonable. Naret was able to cut costs for he went directly to the refinery to purchase his fuel.
One day when Naret went to the bank to make a deposit, the manager called him to his office. "Aren't you the young man who was the tether boy a couple of years ago with the Chao Phraya Barge Company?"

Naret admitted he was that tether boy. He also became very worried. Maybe there was a law that stated if he couldn't read or write he couldn't bank his money either.

No, it wasn't that. The bank manager shook his hand. "It's so nice to see a young man succeed," he said, "but that's not why I wanted to see you." He bid Naret to be seated. "I notice you have a sizable deposit with us." Naret looked at him with puzzled eyes. "Do you ever think about investing it?" he continued.

"No," Naret replied.

"No, well maybe you should. That's what we do here at the bank, invest people's money. Perhaps stocks, securities, bonds? Your money is idle, not doing anything for you. You can double your money in a short time." He then gave Naret a brochure to read.

Naret later told me the story. He looked at the brochure, studied the picture on the front, and handed it back. "You forget," he said to the manager, "I can't read."

"You mean you didn't go to school? You didn't learn to read or write?"

"No," Naret replied. "I went into business for myself."

"Tai leaw," the manager said in astonishment, and threw up his hands. "You did this without being able to read or write? Unbelievable. Think, son, think what you could have done had you gone to school."

"Yes," Naret replied. "I do think about it often. If I had gone to school and could read and write, I'd be a tether boy on a rice barge."

The story is a little different about Taxi drivers in Bangkok. I’ll tell you about one of them later.


Q, Dear ROH. I am very interested in your Fly-drive programme. I see that there are many different types. Would it be possible to rent a car in Bangkok and drive all the way thought Malaysia to Singapore? Thanks you. Jane Samson, Seattle, WA,

A Dear Jane, I am sorry but that is impossible. Rental vehicles are licensed only for Thailand. It is possible however to drive to Hai Jai, drop your rental car off there, and catch a shuttle bus to Penang and rent a car there to drive to Johore across from Singapore. Singapore these days has some tough restriction on vehicles entering the country. Rental cars cannot enter but once you are in Singapore you can ran a car there. You can leave your car in Johore and get a bus across the causeway into Singapore. It is a bit more complicated but it is possible.  Good travelling. —HS

Harold Stephens
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (

Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.

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