It’s early Saturday morning and the boat is packed. Children bounce on parents’ laps, standing passengers cling to ropes strung from the roof, and startled tourists drink in the local experience. Commuters line the benches, their faces expressionless. The khlong boat pulls away from the pier while those on the outermost benches duck hurriedly beneath a plastic curtain to repel the smelly water.
Life is different on the river. While Bangkok is known for its hedonistic lifestyle and luxury establishments, there still exist simple waterway communities that line the banks of local canals, familiarly known as khlong. This dichotomy is vastly apparent from the seat of Bangkok’s colourful khlong boats, as the corrugated iron structures speeding past are overshadowed by luxury condominiums and consumerist complexes.
Once touted as the “Venice of the East,” Bangkok’s waterways have played a pivotal role in the city’s past. While many of the khlong have been filled in to make way for cars, traditionally transportation was easiest by boat. The network of khlong increased as the city grew, expanding from the original canal built as a moat around Rattanakosin Island to protect the royal capital. Not only were Bangkok’s waterways essential for everyday transportation, but the Chao Phraya also facilitated some of the earliest connections between Thailand and the rest of the world. The beautiful Venetian facade of the East Asiatic Company built in 1884 still stands on the banks of the Chao Phraya as a testament to Thailand’s trading history with Europe.
While Bangkok has grown up and the city is now home to glittering modern high-rises, the Chao Phraya River is considered the cultural heart of the city. An iconic symbol of Bangkok, its banks have inevitably fallen prey to real estate moguls. Yet tradition still exists in art spaces celebrating local talent, modern restaurants serving old recipes, and local community markets. These are dotted along the water, often metres away from new shopping malls and boutique hotels.
CHOMP The Comfort Cafe, nestled on the corner of Samsen Soi 1, straddles this divide between old and new and is a hub of local creative energy. Set in a carefully renovated teak house, owner Gili Back tried to preserve as much of the original structure as possible. CHOMP offers comforting food downstairs while the second floor is a space for community gatherings, art exhibitions, film screenings, and more. A powerhouse in the local community, Gili has made CHOMP a welcoming space for modern thinkers in a traditional setting.
This juxtaposition epitomises Bangkok life, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the old quarters of Rattanakosin. An attraction steeped in faith is found in the Amulet Market near Thammasat University. Simple stalls are laid out on the pavement for passersby while more elaborate sellers showcase depictions of Buddha beneath glass cabinets. An addition to the amulet market can be found next door at the newly opened Tha Maharaj. The air-conditioned market is found on the second floor, yet remains lifeless. Young students prefer the shiny new cafes that line the ground floor. Starbucks makes its presence known with long queues while sellers in the adjacent amulet market drink cha yen from plastic bags.
Rattanakosin, with its gilded temples and Grand Palace, is revered. Buildings cannot be built higher than four stories and new developments are limited. Yet it has a commercial past. Warehouses along the waterfront where Chinese merchants sold wholesale goods remain. While some still function, others have been transformed. It’s here that Sala Rattanakosin is located. A boutique hotel and restaurant, Sala is situated on the water’s edge, where guests are treated to a 24-hour panorama of Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. Best viewed at sunset, Sala’s sky bar is popular as the clouds turn pink and the sun disappears.
When it comes to food, Bangkok is awash with options from street food to high-end, Michelin-inspired dining. Wanting to return to Bangkok’s beginnings, Bo.lan’s sister restaurant, Err, has found its home by the River of Kings. Serving up Thai street food using produce from local farmers, Err offers urban rustic dishes to the local community. The concept of bringing simple, rural Thai food to modern city living hints at the complexity of nostalgia, begging the question—is simplicity what people crave from tradition? As Bangkok becomes increasingly modern, yearning for the simple practices of the old days is becoming prevalent.
Historically, traditional practices were centred on community. Markets flourished as stalls were passed down through generations, creating a tight-knit community. These types of community markets still exist in Bangkok. Pak Khlong Talad is Bangkok’s much loved fresh market. Colourful blooms line Chak Phet Road and a big marketplace houses hundreds of self-taught florists. In stark contrast, Yodpiman River Walk is a new shopping mall built directly on the river behind the market. It offers a “high-end” alternative, with international brands such as Starbucks and KFC alongside elite local labels. These two worlds could not be more different—Yodpiman with its international flavour, and the local Pak Khlong Talad community with its decades of blue-collar breadwinning.
With “return to community” experiences gaining traction, Bangkok’s art scene has flourished. From riverside compound to minimalist collective hub, The Jam Factory has transformed an old complex into a modern space. With a bookshop café, art gallery, creative offices, and chic dining, the concept has become a hangout for the educated art crowd. Another art space can be found in the Soy Sauce Factory, a self-proclaimed “white canvas for all forms of artistic expression.” This artsy hub regularly holds creative events for well-heeled collectors and art enthusiasts, including a recent workshop discussing the burgeoning art district along Charoenkrung Road, a place with a long history.
Charoenkrung was arguably the first road built in Bangkok. Running parallel to the river from the Grand Palace to Rama III Bridge in the south, Charoenkrung is home to an array of traditional communities and new establishments. It runs through Khlong Thom Market; parts are considered Chinatown; and it’s home to the State Tower, with the famous sky bar Lebua, as well as riverside complex Asiatique. Accessed also by ferry from Saphan Taksin, Asiatique provides a fun, casual place for dinner on the water.
While the river holds hidden historical gems, it also boasts Bangkok’s top hotels along its banks. Steeped in history, the Mandarin Oriental is consistently named the number one hotel in Bangkok. Originally built in 1876, guests have included W. Somerset Maugham, Princess Diana, and Elizabeth Taylor among others. Equally luxurious, The Peninsula is located at the end of Charoennakorn Road and, due to its design, each of the 370 rooms has a view of the river.
With its array of community markets, glitzy hotels, and traditional shophouses, the Chao Praya remains central to Bangkok. Those that live and work along its banks have seen it transform from transportation necessity to national icon and witnessed the modern developments this has brought. However, locals also know that, scattered along the river, simplicity and tradition can be found in authentic street food, local art exhibitions, or the act of buying produce from the fresh market. It’s both the luxury complexes and local offerings that make a journey along the Chao Phraya so unique. So hop on board and start exploring!