City Life: Bangkok: River bank floats along bringing flow of deposits

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WHILE MOST of Thailand's banks are nervously navigating the treacherous waters of Asia's biggest financial crisis, one small branch is still afloat and flourishing. Literally.

Six days a week a faded blue-and-white vessel plies the canals of the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, bearing baht to its waterside dwellers come rain or shine. The 30-foot boat belongs to the Government Savings Bank (GSB), which prides itself on being the "people's bank" and on bringing banking services to the remotest of communities.

The staff of this particular branch need more than a head for figures. On a rainy day the boat lurches alarmingly, causing even the manager, Danai Makplek, to turn a little green as he signs withdrawal slips on a seesawing surface. "If it gets really bad I go and sit on the roof and look into the distance," he says.

The engine makes a head-splitting roar and the stuffy cabin is cramped and cluttered but at least there's no fear of getting caught in one of Bangkok's notorious traffic jams. The 5,000 or so riverside customers are always in a good mood too - no need to worry about parking the car or standing in a queue when the bank stops at the bottom of the garden.

Mr Makplek loves the job. "I go to the customers instead of them coming to me and I get to meet them all. I feel a lot freer than in the office."

Customers indicate they would like a visit by sticking a bank-issue blue flag on a pole outside their wooden houses, which stand above the river on stilts. As the boat approaches, they saunter barefoot to the end of their jetties or wade through the ankle-deep murky brown water sloshing over their front steps. A bank clerk then extends a long bamboo pole towards them with a red plastic sieve on the end, into which they drop their savings and bank book.

Anyone over the age of six can open an account with the GSB with as little as one baht - less than half a pence. Many of the students, housewives, farmers and monks who live along the river have less than a pound in their accounts; the wealthiest has up to pounds 16,000. Some dispense with the flag, paddling up to the side of the bank in a small wooden boat and handing their earnings over the side.

Being a state-run bank, the GSB has not done badly during the recession, with customers regarding it as a safer option to commercial banks. In 1997, when the crisis kicked in, it managed to mobilise more savings than the previous year. Last year it decided to attract even more customers by opening a branch in a school. The experiment was a huge success, with a thousand students depositing almost pounds 3,000 between them in the first two weeks.

The river bank has been serving its customers for 45 years. On this particular day, when the abbot of one of the many temples dotted along the canals requests a visit, all the bank's staff members, minus the captain, disembark and make their way to his house. Shedding our shoes outside the door, we enter a gloomy room piled high with dusty books and Buddha images. As we kneel on the floor and bow, he explains that he wishes to withdraw pounds 3,300 from the temple's account for renovations. But he has mislaid his savings book. Could the bank stop again tomorrow?

After more kneeling and bowing, we file out reverently, relieved to know that at least some of Bangkok's citizens still have money to play with.