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