A day spent exploring the Chao Praya provides an insight into Bangkok’s past as well as an introduction to one of the capital’s most vibrant, intriguing stretches.
Our longtail boat turns left from the Chao Praya River into Khlong Mon, the canal that runs through the heart of Bangkok’s Mon, or Myanmarese, community. The breeze on the water cuts through the afternoon humidity as we leave the heavier traffic of the river behind. There’s the occasional new building along the banks but, mostly, the wooden, stilted houses comfortably pre-date most of Bangkok.
The longtail boats, easily identified by their rainbow-coloured canvas tops, are a familiar sight on Bangkok’s waterways. The Thai name is rue-hang-yao but, as my guide, Kob, from Smiling Albino Tours tells me, they’re also known as ‘James Bond boats’ because the character appeared in one in The Man With The Golden Gun.
But there are other, smaller crafts on the waterways as well. Hugging the left bank of the canal, an older Thai guy, greying but fit and sinewy from the demands of his job, paddles a small canoe while standing, reaching down occasionally to fetch a package from near his feet.
“That’s the postman,” Kob says. “Everything comes by the water here – food, garbage collection, mail.”
Earlier, after meeting at Sathorn pier, we take a crowded boat to Pak Khlong Talat, the flower market. When travelling along the Chao Praya, there is the choice between the boats with blue flags – an all-day pass costs B100 but these boats don’t stop at the smaller piers – and those with orange flags – B17 per trip and, as a Kob explains, “a little more local and exotic”.
The streets surrounding the flower market’s main building are already packed by mid-morning – vendors are still trying to shift their stock from the previous day to make room for fresh deliveries in the afternoon. The piles of bright orange marigold and jasmine form a fragrant wallpaper for the tented stalls, some staff working expertly to thread flowers on to garlands, others arranging and packing up bridal wreaths. Along the narrow walkways that snake into the hub of the market, shoppers periodically scatter to avoid the ‘trolley mafia’, workers that go rattling up and down, pushing barrows stacked high with bundles of enormous pandam leaves.
It’s not just flowers on sale here – out the back, there are vast stores of fruit and vegetables, much of it brought to Bangkok from the Royal Projects in the north of Thailand. Beside mountains of chilli, several buckets are set up in a horsehoe formation, each containing a different kind of basil. Opposite, staff work their way through piles of fresh ginger, using hefty machetes to slice it with machine-like precision.
Nearby, though, there’s a different kind of ginger. Kob explains it is known as krachay dam, or ‘black finger ginger’ – the name is self-explanatory given its gnarled, misshapen bulbs. It is, apparently, a renowned Thai aphrodisiac, popular with the hill tribes in the northern provinces.
“One serve of this in their whiskey every day – that’s why they have so many children,” Kob says. “And it also helps with their back pain.”
Leaving the flower market, we board a smaller ferry – it’s really more like a repurposed tin freight boat – and cross to the other side of the river, the Thonburi side, the site of the Thai capital from 1768-82, before King Rama I resettled in Bangkok. Thonburi remained an independent city all the way up until 1971 and retains that distinct sense of identity.
The Portuguese, for example, were given a tract of land alongside the river and this community remains today, a labyrinth of crisscrossing paths that houses a mixture of temples – Muslim, Catholic and Buddhist all within walking distance of each other – and backyard bakeries preparing an assortment of traditional Thai desserts, or khanom.
We pause outside one house, where, Kob explains, the man who wrote the first Thai-English dictionary once lived. He didn’t write it while living there, though. Instead, he was a revolutionary who, during the upheavals of the early 20th century, was thrown into jail – he wrote the dictionary from his cell.
On Klong Mon, our longtail boat eventually comes to rest at the Artist’s House, a pleasantly shady double-storey teakwood hut known for its traditional Thai puppetry. It’s part giftshop – there are racks of books and postcards, with a compact art gallery upstairs – but, in one corner, an imposing stone pyramid, once part of a temple, serves as reminder of all that came before.
Almost as old is the story told by the puppeteers – the story of Hanuman, the white monkey-warrior god, one of many characters in the Ramayana, a Hindu epic. Hanuman, of course, had many adventures but today we relive his meeting with Suphan Mucha, the mermaid. Charged with rescuing the queen from the clutches of Ravana, the all-powerful demon king, Hanuman begins building a bridge between the two realms. Unknown to him, though, Suphan Mucha has been deployed by Ravana to steal the rocks away from the foundations of the bridge so it can never be completed. Eventually, Hanuman becomes suspicious and goes to investigate, whereupon he meets Suphan Mucha, falls in love and eventually fathers a child, called Mucha Nu, who, naturally, is part monkey and part fish.
Despite the expert skills of the puppeteers, working in teams of three – each manipulating one exquisitely decorated puppet – it’s not particularly clear what’s going on. Suffice to say, there is quite a bit of Hanuman swimming around in the imaginary water, lustily chasing after the mermaid. At the end of it all, Hanuman and Suphan Mucha happily pose for photographs.
On the way back down Khlong Mon, heading toward the Chao Praya, we come across an old lady, also in her canoe. We pull up alongside her – she’s selling trinkets and flowery garlands. Good for tourists but nothing out of the ordinary. Sensing a lack of interest, though, she reaches into the central compartment of her canoe and pulls out a couple of perfectly chilled Singhas.
Indeed, life here relies on the water to provide – food, garbage collection, mail. Beer too, apparently.
Since 1999, Smiling Albino has been crafting travel experiences in Southeast Asia and Nepal, and is launching innovative new trips in summer 2013. Trips combine multiple activities, charming venues, the finest regional cuisine and passionate hosts. Call 02-718-9560 or check out smilingalbino.com.
TOP RIVERSIDE SPOTS
Best place for a drink: Viva and Aviv
They take their cocktails seriously at Viva and Aviv (23 Thanon Yota Rd, end of Soi Charoen Krung 24; 02-639-6305; vivaaviv.com), offering a rang of snappy tipples, including the Alfred Who? (B250), a blend of Appleton aged rum with a compote of rhubarb and lemon.
Best place to shop: Asiatique
At night, you can easily spot Asiatique’s glowing ferris wheel, like a north star guiding you to this hip cluster of boutique shops and riverside bars and restaurants housed in refurbished wharfs (2194 Charoenkrung Rd; 02-108-4488; thaiasiatique.com).
Best place for a spa treatment: The Peninsula
Bangkok brims with luxurious spa treatments but The Peninsula (333 Charoennakorn Rd; 02-626-1946; peninsula.com/Bangkok) is elevated by its gorgeous setting and refined technique. An inspired choice if you’re planning a special occasion.