Connoisseurs of Bangkok often say the city is best seen from the water. Lying back in a long-tailed boat, speeding along the mighty Chao Phraya river or drifting through the scenic canals; standing squeezed in a commuter ferry, or sitting comfortably in a tourist boat: the scene from sea level is simply different; quieter, gentler. On the water, visitors see the throbbing metropolis at its relaxed best. Children splashing in the canals. A heron on a branch. A sudden glimpse of a noble and historic facade across the broad brown expanse of the river. Golden temple spires. Skyscrapers aligned with the water.
Once known as the Venice of the East, Bangkok has been defined by the Chao Phraya and the canals that snake through the city since the eighteenth century. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, foreign visitors usually arrived in Bangkok by water, sailing up the Chao Praya (or the “Menam”, Thai for river) in ocean-going sailboats or steamers from the Gulf of Thailand.
Some of the first real canals, locally known as “klongs”, were dug as moats around the King’s Grand Palace, the royal establishment majestically set on a bend of the river. The first moat was followed by a second and a third; by the nineteenth century a cobweb of klongs linked various areas of the city and Bangkok had become a city of water transport.
These days those klongs snaking through the skyscraper heart of Bangkok are often polluted and the smell can be offensive. At the same time, many klongs have been filled in to make way for roads. Yet there is still a functioning public transport system on the remaining klongs, and Bangkok commuters routinely ignore noisome aromas and use the klong boats to navigate their way through the congested city.
On the far side of the river, in Thonburi, the site of the original capital, the buildings are generally much smaller, life is more leisurely, and the klongs are often used for fishing, washing and bathing. Small temples and fish-feeding spots and tiny cafes dot these narrow waterways, as well as often dilapidated wood homes, shrouded by rampaging greenery. These winding klongs are separated from the river proper by weirs, and only smaller vessels such as long-tailed boats venture into the labyrinth.
Powered by huge diesel engines and usually festooned with bright sprays of artificial flowers, these narrow long-tail boats (‘hang yao’) are the water taxis of the Chao Phraya. Visitors often hire a long-tail boat for an hour or two to tour of the klongs, or to visit an orchid farm, or a floating market on the weekend. Brisk haggling is required to keep the price reasonable, or various companies offer specific long-tail boat tours.
Long-tail boats also visit the Royal Barge museum, a large structure that houses several of the King’s richly carved ceremonial barges that are only very rarely brought out for a procession. Like much of the foreshore of the mighty Chao Phraya, this shelter is at the mercy of high water: at the end of the rainy season, particularly, it might easily be closed to visitors.
The broad Chao Phraya used is by all manner of watercraft, from a flotilla of tugs straining as they pull massive tarpaulin-covered barges through the water to the artfully sculpted hotel shuttle boats ferrying five-star passengers to and fro. Swan boats, those extremely narrow wooden vessels with a prow carved in the shape of a swan’s head slim bodies adorned and a stern tail, rowed by dozens of men, take to the river once a year for the swan boat races.
River lovers might also take to the water on refurbished century-old rice barges owned by various companies. These barges carry passengers from Bangkok upriver along the Chao Phraya river to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, or on slow dinner cruises through the city. Bulbous in shape, and often made of teak, the barges take some time to get anywhere, but sitting on the deck and gazing at the scenery is a pleasant way to see some of riverine Thailand.
Daily commuters on the river usually squeeze into the Express ferries (with orange flags) which charge a pittance and stop at all the piers. The tourist ferries (with blue flags), while still inexpensive, cost a little more, stop at fewer piers and feature a guide delivering a running commentary in Thai and English. More expensive still are the large private ferries. All three categories sail from Sathorn, the busy central pier adjacent to Saphan Taksin MTR station, within easy reach of downtown Bangkok.
When the sun sets, the Chao Phraya, once sailed by novelist Joseph Conrad and admired by becomes the thoroughfare for gaudily lit party boats. These big party cruisers have won some very mixed reviews but they can look spectacular gliding over the dark water.