A winding river journey through the khlongs and back-alley waters onboard the BuaKao boat.
Words by Charlie Lee
The main river is full of visual treasures and lasting experiences. A mighty river loaded with Asian history. While it’s beautiful to cruise the khlongs, cruising north on the main river to Nonthaburi, Koh Kret, Pathum Thani, south to Bang Krachao, Samut Prakan, Gulf of Thailand is a spellbinding trip, too. Close to the city, one can gain an eye-opening informative perspective of the Bangkok metropolis by cruising the curving river and khlongs. Exploring the Chao Phraya River and tangent waterways, opens the doors into a maze of amazing Thonburi khlongs, unfolding a rich traditional lifestyle, active natural wildlife, temples, monks, swimmers, flowers, vibrant colour and texture of Thai khlong life.
The choices of routes to follow are wide and varied. To pinpoint some of the engaging available content the following is a description of a typical khlong tour on the good ship BuaKao.
Travelling south from the Saphan Taksin bridge on the Chao Phraya River a water lock can be found beyond Wat Bukalo—an outstanding Buddhist temple rising high above the river plane. Approaching the water lock, if all is clear, we zoom through into the Chom Thong area. This is Khlong Dao Khanong, formerly the banks of which hosted a multitude of factories delivering goods for shipment by boat: salt, cement, fertiliser, fruit and other products were available. Most of this activity has now diminished, but many of the old factory buildings remain, with several still in use. The light industry continues in the Chom Thong/Dao Khanong area with motor transit access via Rama II rather than the khlong.
There are several 90-degree bends in this khlong, one of the first harbours is a small “barge community” consisting of old teak barges resting peacefully in the river mud serving as homes for several families. There is a lush patch of landside greenery leading up to this old barge community, active outdoor gatherings and cookouts are often seen as we turn this bend. We are given a glimpse into a bygone Thai authentic lifestyle, few such communities, however, have survived into 21st-century Bangkok.
Onward, we enjoy a peaceful cruise through quaint housing. Wildlife seen is fish, birds and monitor lizards. Formerly along the khlong banks of Chom Thong were many fruit orchards and salt warehouses. In the past two decades development of housing has taken a toll. In the section where the name changes to Khlong Bang Khun Thian, there is a temple complex Wat Bang Khun Thian Nai and Wat Bang Khun Thian Nok. These temples were founded about 300 years ago in 2246 Thai calendar date.
In former times, monks used boats to receive morning alms from landowners, orchard workers and traders. Some of the fruit orchards and traditional wooden houses remain, once part of a beautiful, productive waterway. This Wat area is rather large and includes a school. Recently a building has been added near the khlong bank. On top of this new building, just in recent weeks, a large monk statue has been built, a very large black monk dressed in a golden robe.
Luang Pu Thuat was born in 1582 (2125 BE) and died 1682 (2225 BE) in Ayer Kala, Lenggong, Perak, Malaysia. He is a revered monk who lived most of his life in Siam. He is said to have performed miracles. The khlongs are ever-changing but always mixed with a solid stamp of history and tradition.
In 1905, the Mahachai railway from Pak Khlong San to Mahachai crossed through Chom Thong forming a new method of transit for products and people. As more roads, cars and bridges came on the scene, the waterways began to lose importance. As the 20th-century developed a more modern Bangkok started to emerge. Chom Thong’s rural traditions took on changing forms, continuing actively into this century.
The Thai Buddhist temple as an entity, a spiritual and social community centre, has held much of the traditional ways, designs, architecture, and traditional lifestyle intact. Therein can be seen the heart of Siam.
After leaving the Wat Bang Khun Thian Nok section, BuaKao manoeuvres another 90-degrees, turning to the west, a snake wiggle and then a sharp obtuse turn to the north, gliding smoothly along Khlong Dan. This khlong gets its name from way back during the Ayutthaya period, Dan Phra Khanon Luang, which was a checkpoint for toll passage and security.
Look up! It’s the railway crossing for the Khlong San to Mahachai track, not very high and flapping with lots of loose metal sheets. Along Khlong Dan are three temples dating from the 1400s that fell under the direct influence of Prince Chetsadabodin in the early 1800s. When the Prince became King Rama III, he followed the renovations through to completion. They became known as Wat Nok Yang “unconventional temples” due to his heavy personal thumbprint leaving a non-traditional blend of Chinese and Thai designs and motifs.
First, among the three temples, we see Wat Ratcha Orasaram Ratchaworawihan structured on the west bank of the khlong. Name origin—“temple of the son of a king”. Second is Wat Nang Nong Worawihan resting on the east bank, and third is Wat Nang Ratchaworwihan perched on the west bank. These temples feature a mix of cultural aspects from Siam and local community history.
Cruising along Khlong Dan, we reach Wat Mai Yai Nui sitting on the east bank and just opposite of where the famous Snake Farm resided for several decades. A good many of the passing boats loaded with curious tourists would stop here for a look at the snake collection, as well as crocodiles, birds, various animals and a performing snake handler.
As a prime example of the changing elements of the Thonburi khlongs the Snake Farm site, a beautiful large piece of property set in a slight bend, is now the home of a significant condominium. This area used to seem like a faraway jungle outpost, due to the BTS Wutthakat Station being located almost immediately adjacent to the Snake Farm. As with many regions though, jungles eventually becomes metropolises, something I have witnessed all too much.
A walk around Wat Mai Yai Nui, encompassed by a school, offers some beautiful scenes inside the temple and around the grounds. This Wutthakat area also bears the name Talat Phlu, “phlu” the Thai name for betel nut. Formerly there were large orchards of betel nut trees here, offering very productive crops.
Cruising on northward, within just a few minutes we arrive in a beautiful, fun, classic, exciting area packed with temples, a great arching bridge. It’s time to make merit by feeding the fish of Wat Nakprok. Load up on fish food, enjoy the fun fish frenzy while the BuaKao rests at the small dock. Within sight is Wat Nakprok (1748), Wat Paknam (the 1500s) on the western bank and Wat Khun Chan on the eastern bank.
Take a walk over the bridge to Wat Khun Chan which consists of several outstanding structures with the enormous central Buddha resting on the back of three elephants. A great area to explore, meet a few monks and reflect on life’s wonders. While Wat Khun Chan is rather astounding in its colour and imagination so is Wat Pak Nam with its enormous chedi, extensive grounds, and amulet collection, to mention a few attributes. The chedi inside and out is impressive. In the evening hours, it sometimes lights up like a significant disco attraction. Thai temples are highly respectful of Buddhism and revere spirituality. Additionally, the temples are places of mind-expanding activities and mirth.
Immediately past Wat Khun Chan and at the corner of Wat Pak Nam is a small but very noticeable coffin factory, which always gives one pause for thought. It’s well stocked, standing in ready to service the three temples nearby. The BuaKao turns 90-degrees to the west and gently glides into a northern pattern of travel, and we find ourselves in Khlong Bang Luang within an arm’s reach from the boat to Baan Silipan, known in English as the Artist’s House.
Baan Silipan sits in the centre of a collection of khlong side houses adjoined by contiguous wooden sidewalks, with a temple sitting on either end of a 500-metre stretch covering the community. The houses are old and rickety works of art in themselves, and here you’ll discover various art shops, massage parlours, food shops and puppet shows, in what is a mostly ancient Thai community and a popular gathering point to make merit feeding the fish. The south end has a great tree house perched above the khlong and active temple area—a lot of local Thai food specialities in an open-air atmosphere.
Another pleasant cruise of only 2 kilometres leads us to a sharp eastward turn into Khlong Mon, by far the smallest of the significant Thonburi khlongs feeding into the Chao Phraya. A beautiful ride with three 90-degree turns along the way, and the BuaKao slips through the “patunam” Khlong Mon Watergate, and into the main river with the Thai Navy HQ building on the right and Thai Navy colonial style party house on the left. As we pivot south (right-hand direction) the Grand Palace is on the east bank, the fort at Khlong Bangkok Yai is on the west bank, and Wat Arun comes into sight to the right.
An insightful fun tour of Thonburi has been accomplished with a 20-minute ride ahead to return to our starting point of Saphan Taksin. The trip’s boating time without stops is about three hours.
With historical Wats, culture, communities and glimpses into the heart of Siam, there is real fun to be had exploring the khlongs and the immediate surroundings of khlong life. Jump on board BuaKhao and let us show you. BuaKhao is a teakwood Thai 80-year-old workboat, she knows the river and khlongs very well. We’re happy to have you aboard.