Yes, Bangkok has horrendous traffic jams, but there is an alternative—travelling by boat along the city’s numerous canals
The old capital of Thailand, in the 18th century, was Ayutthaya. Unfortunately, it was invaded by the Burmese in 1767 and left in ruins. Soon after, in 1768, Thonburi—on the other side of the Chao Phraya River from modern-day Bangkok—was named as the Thai capital by King Taksin the Great, the ruler of Siam at the time. It remained the capital until 1782, when a coup was mounted against Taksin by Phutthayotfa Chulalok (who later became King Rama I). This new ruler decided to move his palace over to the other side of the river, and Bangkok became the new capital in 1782.
Present day Bangkok (which incorporates Thonburi, among other outlying districts) has grown into a megacity of 10 to 12 million that’s bisected by one of the longest rivers in Thailand—the aforementioned Chao Phraya—which is approximately 370 km long and empties into the Gulf of Thailand. Although it doesn’t really compare with the giant waterways of Asia such as the Yangtze or the Mekong, it has been the lifeblood of Bangkok since the founding of the city, and is known locally as ‘The River of Kings’.
The first khlongs (canals) in Bangkok were built in the Rattanakosin district in the late 18th century, and over the next 120 years or so, until the dawn of the 20th century, so many canals were built in Bangkok that visiting foreigners named it as ‘The Venice of the East’. The khlongs were used for transportation of goods and people, and also for irrigation of the rice paddies in the central region—Thailand’s ‘rice bowl’. After 1900, fewer and fewer canals were built, as roads became the priority for a rapidly expanding Bangkok. Some of the canals started to be filled in, or built over. But Bangkok still retains loads of canals to explore.
On the busy central business district (CBD) Eastern side of the river lies a very important—although somewhat smelly—canal for people who live and work in the city. This is Khlong Saen Saep, which stretches for 18 km through some of the most built-up parts of Bangkok. It is dotted with piers every kilometre or less, and you can pick up a water bus which will take you quickly through the city’s traffic congestion. There are some great sights and places to visit along the route, from the Democracy Monument and Golden Mount landmarks close to the Chao Phraya, where you start your trip, to the Jim Thompson House near Siam Square, or the Pratunam market and shopping area.
Pratunam, incidentally, is where you have to change boats to extend your journey along this particular canal. You can then continue to float your way through the busy city, passing through Wattana and Huai Khwang districts—parallel to Petchburi Road—before heading to Ramkhamhaeng, laughing to yourself at the thought of everyone stuck in gridlocks on the streets above you. Make sure to stop off at the piers of some temples on this leg of the journey. A few good ones to look out for are Wat Mai Chong Lom, Wat Thepleela, or Wat Sriboonreung, near the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) at the end of the line.
The Khlong Saen Saep boat service has been in operation since 1990, and 100 boats of 40-50 seats each ply the waterway every 20 minutes, from 5:30am to 8pm (7pm on weekends). The fares—collected from the passengers by the conductors walking cat-like around the edges of the speeding boat—are about 10 to 20 baht, depending on distance travelled. Your fellow passengers will be vendors on their way to work the streets, suited businessmen, children on their way to school, monks in their orange robes, and the occasional adventurous tourist. Passing by the wooden houses built on stilts, hiding between golden-roofed temples and high-rise condos, office blocks, or shopping malls shows visitors another side of the city—without having to suffer Bangkok’s infamous traffic jams.
Entire communities live alongside the khlongs, with many of the families having occupied the same wooden house for several generations. Disembarking at the Nana Nua Pier, between Sukhumvit Sois 1 and 3, I met Khun Lek and her husband Somsak, both of whom have been residents within this close-knit community for more than 40 years.
“I raised my son and daughters in this house, but now they’re all gone. They want to live in a more up-to-date place, somewhere with modern conveniences, and with a Wi-Fi connection,” explains Khun Lek. The residents of this community are self-effacing and polite, and although so obviously poor—albeit with nice TVs in some homes—several people sitting on rickety porches outside their home beckoned me inside to sit and eat with them. They may not have much, but what they have they are willing to share with a stranger.
Some of the enterprising people in this little community have bought hand-carts which they wheel down to the street to sell delicious noodle dishes to the staff and visitors of the nearby Bumrungrad Hospital, one of the city’s most expensive private health care facilities. I struck up a conversation with one of the doctors on his lunch break, and he told me that he prefers the authentic food they serve from these carts to the bland offerings of McDonald’s or KFC (both have branches within the hospital complex). The doctor also surprised me by letting me in on a secret; most of the highly-trained and well-paid doctors that work in Thailand’s private sector donate one or two days of their week to work in the government hospitals, that give free treatment to those in need.
I also discovered that when Bumrungrad Hospital was being constructed, many people in the surrounding community were worried that the khlong they lived alongside would be polluted by waste from the hospital, and that their health might suffer. But the hospital built its own waste treatment plant and now the waters of the canal near the hospital are even cleaner than they were before. A good example of how rich and poor—or the old and the new—are able to live together in harmony, with benefits to both.
The exploration of the waterways of Bangkok is not complete, however, without moving over to the Thonburi side on the Western bank. A trip on a reua hang yao (long-tailed boat) will power you through mazes of canals quite different to those on the Eastern side. And they smell more pleasant too!
From the Taksin Bridge (Saphan Taksin BTS stop), jump on an express boat going up the Chao Phraya to Tha Chang Pier (N9). Along the way you’ll pass the Santa Cruz Church, built by the Portuguese community in 1770. It sits amongst old houses on the river banks and newer buildings further inland, and the reddish dome of this old Catholic church is a classic river landmark. At Tha Chang you’ll see several stalls set up offering Bangkok Noi (Little Bangkok) canal tours, and they are a great way to find out about khlongside conviviality. Hiring a long-tailed boat for a couple of hours should cost about B1,000 per hour, and five or six people can easily fit.
Once you enter Bangkok Noi and its surroundings it will not be long before you see a fisherman hauling in his fishing nets. Meanwhile, the wooden teak houses you’ll pass on the banks of these khlongs are some of the oldest in Bangkok. As you motor along you’ll see other long-tail boats moored on the banks of the canal, piled high with fruit, vegetables, and sweets for sale, and some even cooking hot food in a charcoal-fired clay brazier. The canal-side dwellers here have everything brought to them on their doorstep—including their mail—and they rarely even need to make a trip to the market.
After only 20 or 30 minutes of travelling along Bangkok Noi and its offshoots, the hectic city has been left behind. Instead you find yourself amongst orchards with reed and lily-covered wharves, and kids jumping into the water, happily splashing about. There are also many small to medium-size temples, most with their own piers, and you really should ask your driver to stop, and take a few of them in (Wat Sisudaram, Wat Nairong, and Wat Phawana Phirataram are recommended). They’re not at all touristy, and you will have some great photos to show for your efforts.
Here one really gets a sense of what life must have been like in Bangkok 50 plus years ago. And for some, it’s a life that still continues to this day.
By Robin Westley Martin