Standing amid Bangkok’s streetscape of tower blocks, flyovers and long arrow-straight roads dense with traffic, it takes a prodigious feat of imagination to convince yourself that this place was once known as the Venice of the East. But take to the Chao Phraya River and the labyrinth of canals that spreads from its western banks and you understand why early western visitors thought of La Serenissima.
Take the Skytrain to Saphan Taksin and walk to the ferry landing beside the river, which is wide, muddy and slow moving as it meanders towards the Gulf of Thailand. There are ferries pulling in constantly, the shrill whistle of the conductors helping the captain manoeuvre. Longtails roar down the middle of the river as if in some impromptu grand prix, great spumes of water rising from their propellors. Huge barges strung together like necklaces and pulled by powerful little tugs move slowly downstream. Hotel boats cut to and fro. Tangles of emerald green water hyacinths drift by.
Do you take a local ferry and head upstream to discover Bangkok’s cultural heart? Do you hire a longtail boat - a narrow wooden missile powered by a thundering car engine - and ask the driver to take you on an exploration of across-the-river Thonburi? Do you buy a ticket for the jump-on jump-off tourist boat that takes you to the city’s main attractions? Do you join a dinner cruise, with options ranging from a stately converted rice barge to a thumping water-borne disco boat? Do you do all of these things?
Travel like a local on the Chao Phraya Express Boat
First, climb on a standard Chao Phraya Express Boat heading north, which you will share with people going to and from work, monks and novices, and other travellers. Buy a ticket from the conductor - the set price is about 50 cents - and grab a seat if you can as you set off upstream. This is simply the best way to get to the Grand Palace or neighbouring Wat Pho, home of the 46m gold reclining Buddha.
Go to Tha Chang pier, stop No.9, and it’s a five-minute walk through small market to the Grand Palace, Bangkok’s prime attraction. From there you can easily walk to Wat Pho, also famous for its traditional massage school, or if you intend to head there directly, get off the ferry at stop 8, Tha Thien. Here you can also take a cross-river ferry - this will set you back about 10 cents - to Wat Arun, the porcelain-encrusted Temple of the Dawn. The Chao Phraya Tourist Boat will also take you to all the main ferry piers, with an all-day ticket costing about $6.
Ferries stop shortly after sunset, but the river traffic continues with dinner and party boats cruising to see the city light up. Manohra Cruises uses a converted rice barge and serves a fine five-course meal.
Explore on a private longtail
Just across the river is Bangkok Noi canal, which is where your longtail exploration of the city’s less developed western side can begin, having tested your bargaining skills with the boatman to negotiate the best price. Around $20 an hour is a rough guide. Almost at the entrance to the canal - or khlong - is the Royal Barges Museum, home to the elaborate decorated boats used in royal processions along the river.
Ask the driver to explore Khlong Mon and Khlong Bangkok Yai as well as Bangkok Noi, and disappear into a maze of narrow waterways, passing tumbledown teak houses, dilapidated shacks, temples, mansions, floating markets, workshops, restaurants and small farms. Everything is on a tiny scale compared to the Bangkok-on-steroids of the other bank of the river. And plead to see Baan Silapin, the Artist’s House, which is a cafe-cum-museum in a 200-year-old house that presents traditional Thai puppetry as well as classical dance lessons to local children. It is a magical place.
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Explore further upstream
On Sunday a ferry runs to Koh Kret, a small island in the middle of the river north of the city that Bangkok people visit to take a rural break. A walk around the island takes a couple of hours, beginning and ending at the bustling market that takes over the northern section of the one road on weekends. And Mekhala journeys overnight to the former royal capital Ayutthaya.
Finally, ride on Khlong Saen Saep, which runs parallel to bustling Sukhumvit Road. Begin at the glorious Golden Mount Temple and travel on a commuter longtail with the locals, climbing awkwardly into the boat, apologising for treading on toes and then keeping your mouth firmly shut - the khlong is not pristinely clean. This is a fine way to reach Jim Thompson House, dedicated to the reinventor of the Thai silk industry, and a fine way to say you’ve really seen Bangkok.