Touring The River and Klongs of Bangkok
by Harold Stephens
Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International
The Chao Phraya is a magnificent river, one of the great rivers of Asia. It is not a long river, compared to the Mekong or the Ganges, and it's only navigable from the mouth up to Ayutthaya, some 130 kilometers, but what a 130 kilometers they are. No river anywhere has more action, and more drama, than the Chao Phraya, Thailand's River of Kings.
The excitement of any visit to Thailand is to take a cruise on the river, be it a fifteen-minute trip from the Sathorn Bridge Landing to Wat Arun or an evening dinner cruise to an overnight voyage up river. No river in the East offers more variety of choice than the River of Kings.
Boats of every description ply this mighty waterway--rice barges, ferries crossing from one side of the river to the other, government launches, long-tail skiffs speeding up and down river, naval vessels, speed express boats each 40 or more metres long, cruise boats from the larger hotels, house boats converted from rice barge and even tiny sampans sculling across the river. The river barges with cabins aft are homes of many river families. These you know by the potted plants along the railings. The barges carrying sand are loaded to the gunwales and they appear to be almost swamped. The tugs that pull them use the currents and incoming tides to their advantage.
The pulse beat of the river can best be felt at Samut Prakan, a bustling river-port town down at the mouth where the river is as wide as a lake. Seven kilometres south of the town, the river crosses a sandbar and flows into the Gulf of Thailand. Stand at the quay at Samut Prakan any morning of the week and watch fleets of fishing boats charge upriver to market, bringing their cargoes of more than 300 tonnes of fish every day to feed a hungry city 28 kilometres farther upriver. Watch the tramp steamers and rusted freighters anchored midstream, awaiting customs, and witness old sailing junks taking advantage of the current and winds and beating upriver side by side with smart cruise ships with passengers lining the rails, waiting for their first glimpse of the splendid Oriental capital, just as Joseph Conrad described it 90 years ago.
The Oriental Landing, sandwiched between the East Asiatic Company and the Oriental Hotel, was once the busiest public pier in Bangkok. Now it is Sathorn Bridge Landing that links with the Skytrain.
River traffic here differs from that at Sumat Prakan. Vying for positions at the landing is everything from long, slender express boats to snub-nosed cross-river ferries carrying throngs of school children and white-collar workers from one bank to the other. Here too well-kept and polished hotel launches with smart crews in nautical dress carry hotel guests to the River City Shopping Complex to the Skytrain. Nipping in and out of all the confusion appear long-tail boats with their helmsmen shouting out to potential passengers, hoping to lure them to use their services.
They call this section of the river that divides Bangkok into two cities the Golden League. Here we might see, aside from the vessels just mentioned, privately owned yachts along with teak rice barges that have been converted into luxury cruisers. Not to be forgotten are the many garish floating-restaurants.
There are three principal types of public-transportation boats that operate on the river. The most obvious are the noisy and fast moving long-tail boats (hang yao), with narrow beams and high-pointed bows. They zoom up and down the river, sending out high wakes. They carry passengers to the outlying canals. The long-tail service on Pratunam Canal from Pratunam Market to Democracy Monument is recommended.
The next are the shuttle boats (kham fak), flat-bottom boats with square bows that enable them to push right up to landing piers. They are slow and make short hauls across the river, useful for quick crossings to Thonburi and for visits to temples such as Wat Arun. The charge is usually one baht to cross the river.
Then comes the express boats (Rua duan). They are the long white boats flying different coloured flags that designate their destinations. Operated by the Chao Phraya Express Boat Company, these run daily 0600-1800 every 20 minutes from the Krung Thep Bridge in south Bangkok to Nonthaburi, a suburb 18 km north. The one-way journey includes a total of 36 stops (26 on the Bangkok side and 10 on the Thonburi side) and takes approximately 75 minutes. Fares are government-controlled. The Chao Phraya Express Boat is the best way to move between any locations on the river--especially useful between Banglampoo and the General Post Office. These open-air boats are fast, cheap, exciting, and offer a refreshing escape from the traffic congested streets of the city.
The Chao Phraya, much like in days past, offers every type of service. You can do your banking from a boat that passes up and down the river every day, or you can have a cup of Thai coffee served in the traditional style from a coffee boat. You can even go to school aboard a special river barge.
The history of Thailand evolves around the river. To travel upriver from Bangkok to Ayutthaya is to not only to move forward over leagues of water but also to travel back through passages of time. And the best way to re-live the history, to feel the very soul of Thailand, is to take an over night river trip to Ayutthaya aboard a converted rice barge. Some barges are luxury river cruisers with private cabins and meals prepared by honoured chefs.
That is the Chao Phraya River in brief. Unlike other rivers, the Chao Phraya, the River of Kings, bares it soul to the voyager and doesn't hide jealously behind closed gates.
Rivers and canals, referred to as mae nam and klong in Thai, have always been vital forms of communication. When the capital of Thailand was moved to Bangkok in 1782 (the beginning of the Rattanakosin period), the capital was laced with canals, so Bangkok was sometimes called the "VENICE OF THE EAST" by European visitors.
Nowadays, even though Bangkok has become a modern city, the Chao Phraya River as well as the canals are still charming for whoever wishes to seek the peaceful atmosphere amidst bustling Bangkok.
Trips along the Chao Phraya River
On both sides of the Chao Phraya River, a tourist can see many magnificent temples and buildings of various architectural designs, including the First Presbyterian Church, the Royal Thai Navy Dockyard, the Thai Maritime Navigation Company, the Old Customs House, Wat Prayunrawong, Wat Arun, the Grand Palace, Wat Rakhang Kositaram, and the Royal Boat House.
Boat services on the Chao Phraya River which connect Bangkok with the northern neighbouring province of Nonthaburi are operated by two companies : Laem Thong Co. Ltd., and Chao Phraya Express Boat Co. Ltd.
Along Klong Bangkok Noi - Klong Bang Yai
A boat service is operated during 6.30 a.m.-6.00 p.m. The boats depart from Tha Chang every half an hour, after 11.00 a.m. they would leave the pier when there are enough passengers. The boat fare is 30 baht per person. It takes 50 minutes to Bang Yai, a district in Nonthaburi.
Attractions along Khlong Bangkok Noi are: The Royal Barge National Museum, Wat Suwannaram and many ancient temples constructed in the Ayutthaya style.
Along Klong Bang Lamphu - Klong Phadung Krung Kasem,
chartered boats run between Pom Phra Sumen ( on Phra Athit Road) and the Hua Lamphong Railway Station during 6.30 a.m.-3.00 p.m., leaving the pier every 20 minutes. It takes 15 minutes to complete the route. The fare is 6 baht. Sights along the route are Bang Lamphu, Golden Mount, and Bo Be Clothes Market.
Along Klong Dao Khanong - Klong Bangkok Yai - Klong Bang Chuak Nang - Klong Mon - Klong Chak Phra - Klong Bangkok Noi
Visitors willing to take a private trip along this route are able to rent a boat from Tha Chang at the rate of approximately 500 baht per hour.
Along Klong Bang Yai - Klong Om - Nonthaburi
Mit Chao Phraya Express Boat operates another boat trip on Saturdays and Sundays during 9.00 a.m.-15.30 p.m. through Khlong Bangkok Noi, Bang Kruai, Khlong Om, and stops for sightseeing at Ko Kret. The trip costs 200 baht/person.
For more information, call: (66-2)225-6179, 623-6169
Another interesting tour is to Ko Kret, a small island in the Chao Phraya River. The island's Pottery Village is located along the pathway around the island; it is the oldest and biggest source of earthenware in Nonthaburi province. There are some huts where visitors are able to see through the pottery making process. Besides, there are many other interesting ancient monasteries most of which were constructed in the Mon and the Ayutthaya styles.
Visitors can use a shuttle boat at Wat Sanam Nua pier, which is located within a short walking distance from Pak Kret Pier to cross the river to this island during 6.00 a.m.-9.00 p.m. The fare is only 2 baht. Returning to Pak Kret, visitors are able to catch a small long-tail boat at any pier around the island for 6-10 baht.
Along the Chao Phraya River to Ayutthaya
Every Sunday, the Chao Phraya Express Boats set a one way or round trip from Bangkok to Bang-Pa-In Summer Palace - Bangsai Thai Folk Arts & Crafts Centre - Wat Pailom in Nonthaburi. Depart from Maharaj Pier at 8.00 am, arrive at 5.30 pm.
For a description of the river in past days read my book For the Love of Siam.
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.