On the boats in Bangkok

To get to know the Thai cap­i­tal, head out and about on the Chao Phraya River

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - FIONA HARARI

WE are me­an­der­ing through Bangkok — a sur­pris­ingly slow jour­ney past fives­tar ho­tels and ram­shackle homes — when our driver, who has not yet ut­tered a word, stops out­side an or­na­mented tem­ple. He points at his watch, ges­tures that he will re­turn for us in 20 min­utes and mo­tors off.

We are not on a road, but happily afloat. For the past hour, he has guided us through the city’s ver­sion of back al­leys on a long­boat trip down the city’s canals, or klongs, and along the bustling Chao Phraya River.

As back­pack­ers 25 years ago, we splashed out on a three-star Bangkok ho­tel, shopped at street mar­kets and took tuk-tuks with dodgy en­gines down fume-laden al­leys. Now, with our im­proved fi­nances and bet­ter lug­gage, a stay at a five-star ho­tel in the mod­ern Siam dis­trict fails to be as al­lur­ing as we have hoped. The city’s ritzy shop­ping hub is burst­ing with mega-malls and in­ter­na­tional chain stores and we feel as though we could be in al­most any big Asian city. So we re­lo­cate a few kilo­me­tres away to an equally luxe ho­tel by the river. And then, it seems, we have tapped into the essence of Bangkok.

The Chao Phraya is not the French Riviera. It is brown, murky and teem­ing, in parts, with schools of cat­fish and dis­carded soft-drink bot­tles. But day and night, the river is burst­ing with ac­tiv­ity. Barges chug be­side sleek, neon-lit mo­tor­boats with large decks and long buf­fets are be­ing read­ied to wel­come din­ner-cruise guests. Long­boats race along be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing into the myr­iad klongs. Fer­ries cross the Chao Phraya past the mag­nif­i­cent Grand Palace, the in­tri­cate Tem­ple of Dawn and new high-rise of­fice blocks, skirt­ing the end­less pa­rade of pris­tine ho­tel boats fer­ry­ing their guests.

At the reg­u­lar ferry stops, of­fi­cials blow loud whis­tles to an­nounce the ar­rivals and de­par­tures. Fer­ries ap­pear to fol­low a timetable, but ev­ery­one else just seems to come and go, ty­ing up briefly be­fore they are off again and the next boat moves in. No horns are sounded; we see no sign of river rage.

Al­most every­where we ven­ture — on a long­boat tour, a tourist cruise or to a wa­ter­front restau­rant — the river is within sight, the ver­i­ta­ble life-force of this fre­netic city of eight mil­lion.

One evening, we line up with hun­dreds of vis­i­tors for a shut­tle boat ride to the new river­front night mar­ket, Asi­a­tique, a mas­sive Cal­i­for­nia-style out­door venue full of tiny stalls and large restau­rants. An­other night we dine at the wa­ter’s edge, sur­rounded by fairy lights.

The river is es­pe­cially pic­turesque af­ter dark, but even in the grit­ti­ness of a hu­mid Bangkok day it is no less al­lur­ing. Just be­fore we tie up on our long­boat tour, we watch the traf­fic jammed along a wide bridge and the Sky­train whoosh­ing past, with its pas­sen­gers in air-con­di­tioned com­fort, co­cooned high above the city’s con­ges­tion. But on and be­side the wa­ter, wrapped in the sounds and smells of the Thai cap­i­tal, life con­tin­ues at an even pace and as au­then­ti­cally as ever.

A cruise boat passes the Tem­ple of Dawn on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River

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