Bangkok — A guide to the Chao Phraya River

A spectrum of pink light dances its way through the skyline of downtown Bangkok as the buildings begin to illuminate in the early hours of the morning. The rising sun stirs the peace and tranquility of the river that runs through the heart of the city. The river is the slither of calm in the darkness of a city that never sleeps.

As dawn breaks the river springs into action and the hustle and bustle of daily life resumes the crazy reputation that its earned. The fleet of river express boats begin their hasty manoeuvres on and off the ferry piers, giving their passengers just enough time to take the turbulent metre long jump to safety. Shouts echo around at a million miles an hour as hundreds of ferries, water taxis and slow crawling heavy transport barges skilfully weave their way up and down the river in what can only be described as organised chaos.

The riverside is very the essence of Bangkok, encompassing all aspects of Thai culture, history, beauty and modern day way of life.

Navigating the River

The river is a great way to escape Bangkok’s notorious road traffic. The express boats run regularly up and down the river from 6am to 10pm, quickly getting you from north to south. These boats are easily distinguishable from their coloured flags displayed from the back of the boat. There are four lines and everything that you need to know, including ticket prices, routes and timetables can be found on the Chao Phraya Express website. For the main sites you’ll most likely only use the orange line.

The green express line (a green flag can be seen hanging out the back of the boat)

The cost of a ticket ranges from 10–32 baht per single journey, and you can buy these tickets at the ferry pier or on the ferry itself. Make sure that you’re ready to jump as the ferries dock. Hesitate for a split second and you’ll find yourself hurling across uncomfortably long distances.

Bangkok’s latest addition to help alleviate the traffic is the BTS Skytrain service. The network feeds the entire city and includes a line that takes you to Suvarnabhumi Airport. Getting around the city has never been easier.

Take the BTS to Saphan Taksin, from here the main ferry pier, Sathorn, is just a two minute walk. Hotels along the river will all run free ferry services to and from Sathorn Pier.

The sites of the river and how to get there

The river has served at the main artery of the country for millennia, allowing the transport of people and produce from the Gulf of Thailand as far north, with its secondary rivers, as Myanmar and Laos. It has a wealth of history on its banks that are also home to thousands of legends and most importantly people.

Undoubtedly there are hundreds of sites along the river including the iconic Grand Palace and Wat Arun. Using the network provided by the express boats is the easiest and most scenic way of seeing these. Throw yourself into the culture and become a real Thai for the day.

Wat Pho

Sathorn Pier — Central Pier

BTS Skytrain

All express boats pass through Sathorn Central Pier, and this is where you’ll find the connection to the BTS Skytrain. Use the BTS stop Saphan Taksin and walk 50m ahead from the stairs that exit the station to reach the pier.

Wat Yannawa

Wat Yannawa is an unusually designed temple also known as the boat temple. It was renovated by King Rama III to signify the trading and prosperity brought by the relationship between Thailand and the Chinese immigrants. The pagodas of the temple are blended into a design of an old Chinese junk boat.

Lebua State Tower

Lebua State Tower is hotel and home to the infamous Skybar, whose orange dome rocketed into fame after The Hangover Part II. The unroofed, open space of the 63rd floor undoubtedly emphasises the size of the city, with impressive almost 360 degree views of the 1500km² city.

The spectacular views are paid for with the hefty price of the food and drinks (and this is coming from someone that lives in Zone 1 of central London). A cocktail will cost you around the £18 mark and the beers are £12. The food however is worth the cost, the sushi platters are heavenly.

There is a strict dress code to enter the Skybar which can be found on their website.

Maggie Choos

Across the road from Lebua State Tower is my favourite bar in Bangkok, Maggie Choos. Imagine a Far East trading company meets the prohibition era. Sexy cocktails and fabulously chic hostesses, set in a dimly lit basement entertained by incredibly talented live jazz bands. You won’t be disappointed.

Si Phraya Pier (N3)

River City

A sophisticated shopping mall primarily dedicated to arts and crafts. A great place to pick up unique souvenirs and antiques. The mall is located about a 5–10 minute walk to the right of the pier.

Wat Traimit Withayaram

A smaller and often overlooked temple that sits at the gateway to Bangkok’s Chinatown. The temple houses the largest gold Buddha image in the world. The statue is 3m tall but weighs 5.5 tonnes, made entirely of solid gold. It was originally created in the ancient capital of Sukhothai, located in Northern Thailand and estimated to be 800 years old. The demise of Sukhothai came with the rise of the next old capital, Ayutthaya, where the statue was moved. Ayutthaya was captured and destroyed by Burmese invaders in the 1700s, and the Thais covered the statue in plaster to hide its value, where it sat overlooked for centuries. Only in 1950, 20 years after it has been transported to Wat Traimit Withayaram did they remove the plaster and realise its true identity.

The temple is about a 20 minute walk from the pier or a quick ride in a tuk tuk. When you leave the pier walk straight and then turn left onto the second main road, Charoen Krung Road. From here walk straight until the first big roundabout which has a large Chinese gate sat in the centre. The temple sits just to the right of the roundabout, you can’t miss it.

Holy Rosary Church

This neo-gothic style church was originally built in 1768 on the banks of the river. It is one of the oldest places of Christian worship in Thailand. Turn right from the pier and walk about 200m down the main road. The church is easily distinguishable by its tall spire.

Rajchawongse Pier (N5)

Chinatown (Yaowaraj)

The Chinese settlement in Bangkok moved to the present day Chinatown in the late 1700s. The old notorious streets of opium dens, pawnshops, brothels and gambling joints are now filled with bright and colourful lighted shops selling everything from ancient traditional medicine to delicious street food. This area is best experienced at night.

Memorial Bridge (N6)

Little India (Phahurat)

Just a short walk from the pier or five minutes from Chinatown, this area is home to the largest Indian community in Bangkok. The market, Phahurat, is small and is open everyday 0930–1600 except for Mondays. If you have spare time it is worth seeing the Sri Guru Singh Sabah Temple, which is the second largest Sikh temple outside of India. The food is the main reason that attracts tourists to Little India, except to pay 100 baht for a meal in one of the delicious authentic curry houses.

Tha Tien Pier (N8)

Wat Arun, The Temple of Dawn

Bangkok’s most iconic temple was completed circa 1750. The main prang, reaching a height of just over 70 metres tall, and the four surrounding smaller prangs are decorated with porcelain and seashells which glisten in the sunlight, giving Wat Arun its nickname of the Temple of Dawn. You can climb the steep steps of the main prang to get some incredible views of the winding Chao Phraya river.

Entry into Wat Arun is 100 Baht, and it is best to visit the temple in the morning before the heat gets too stifling and the hordes of tourist arrive. Wat Arun is on the west side of the river, and Tha Tien Pier is on the east, so you’ll need to jump on a shuttle ferry to take you across. These run from 5am til 11pm and costs 3 Baht. For the best view of Wat Arun stay on the east side of the river at sunset, and watch the temple majestically come to life during golden hour.

The temple is still an active place of worship for Buddhist monks, so ensure that you dress appropriately, covering your shoulders and knees.

Wat Pho — The Temple of the Reclining Buddha

This 16th century temple is one of the largest temple complexes in Thailand and is by far my favourite. Less hectic than its neighbouring Grand Palace, the slightly fewer tourists contribute to the zen atmosphere created by the surrounding thousands of Buddha images and intricate, ornate decoration.

It is home to the famous 46 metre long reclining Buddha which represents the entry of Buddha into Nirvana, and decorated exquisitely with mother of pearl and glass mosaics.

The temple complex includes 91 small chedis and four great chedis amongst the gardens and traditional pavilions.

Wat Pho is also passionate about education, it was the first public university in Thailand which specialised in religion, science and literature. It teaches Buddhism, traditional Thai medicine and is also the leading school in Thailand and birthplace of Thai massage, which is now open to the public. I recommend visiting Wat Pho as the last stop on your tour of the day and finishing in style with a traditional massage. The massages finish at 6pm, I’d advise booking onto the register as soon as you get to the site and then use the waiting time to explore the complex.

Entrance into Wat Pho costs 100 Baht and it is not essential but I’d recommend a guide which costs roughly 200 Baht per person. To get here walk straight ahead from the pier, or walk south for about 10 minutes from the Grand Palace.

Pal Khlong Talat — The Flower Market

This 24/7 hugely photogenic wholesale market sells every type of exotic and rare flower, coming in every shade of every colour. The flowers sold here are grown all over Thailand. Most flowers that you will find in Bangkok throughout shops, hotels and restaurants will most likely have come from Pak Khlong Talat. Even the flower garlands that you will see being sold at the traffic lights will have started life here. The market is also a great place to find delicious street food, most of the ingredients also found in the market. The market is a kilometre away turning to the right once you’ve left the pier.

Tha Chang Pier (N9)

The Grand Palace

Spectacularly stunning, The Grand Palace is undoubtedly Thailand’s most famous landmark. The site is still a working complex, with the southern inner court reserved for royals and officials only, and is used annually for royal ceremonies. The rest of the royal complex now forms a museum, Bangkok’s largest attraction. You will find it hard not to be impressed by every single inch of this site.

Wat Phraw Kaew, which translates to Temple of the Emerald Buddha is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand and found in the centre of the outer court. The 15th century Buddha image is carved out of a single block of jade. Take some time to look at the breathtaking floor to ceiling mural paintings, depicting Thai legends, ancient cities and ancient battles.

The middle court of the complex is where you will find the stately buildings that are operational today. The buildings are a blend of traditional Thai and European architecture and you’ll find the King’s Guards here.

Entrance into the Grand Palace is 500 Baht. As you exit the Tha Chang Pier, walk straight ahead and when you reach the main road continue straight for about 500m to get to the main entrance, which is the only entrance permitted to tourists. There is a strict dress code to enter the site, men must wear long trousers, women must cover their knees and both must cover their shoulders. If you arrive without this you’ll be made to hire some questionable smelling clothes before entering.

Wang Lang Pier (N10)

The Royal Barge Museum

Bangkok was known as the Venice of the Far East. The canals, known as khlongs, to the unknown eye are a labyrinth throughout the city but actually allowed easy carriage of people and commerce. The monarchy used these canals and travelled on exquisite royal barges, some of which took up to 50 rowers. Westerners in the 1800s wrote about witnessing “immense processions of over 200 barges, rowing to the beat of intense drumbeats.”

The barges are a beautiful demonstration of Thai artisan and craftwork. They are made from a single piece of teak wood and intricately decorated with gold lacquer and precious jewels.

Eight of these can now be seen in the Royal Barge Museum, or if you’re lucky you’ll witness them rowing down the Chao Phraya River in the royal procession that has been taking place for 700 years.

Phra Athit Pier (N13)

Khao San Road

Khao San Road is a rite of passage for backpackers travelling through South East Asia. Awake 24 hours a day, the busy street, neon signs and easy going vibe attracts people from all corners of the globe who exchange tales and begin their next adventures. The notorious half a mile long street is filled with budget hostels, buckets of whisky, fire dancers, barbecues, bookshops, pharmacies, restaurants, massage parlours and even fried insect food stalls. The road does not just attract backpackers, it is also popular amongst the young local bohemian scene, and won’t need to walk far to find a Thai Rastafarian with their pop up hair braiding stall.

Khao San Road is also a great place to organise onward travel throughout South East Asia. Have a few drinks, mix with other travellers and decide on your next stop. Step into any booth and within minutes you’ll have transport (even for that day) to any of the islands, the rest of Thailand or any bordering countries. Avoiding air travel can be extremely cheap in South East Asia, a reason why it’s the epicentre of travelling on a shoestring. A VIP coach and boat transfer to Koh Tao from Bangkok for example will cost as little as 800 Baht.

Love or hate Khao San Road, it has a charismatic energy that will charm you, no matter what time of day it is. I have to admit — I really have a soft spot for this place.

Why stay on the river

Over the last three decades I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Bangkok more times than I can count. From six months old to 30 years old I’ve graced the city as a family, as a group with friends, a solo traveller and as a couple. I’ve experienced the city as a Thai and as a foreigner. I’ve explored most parts and all ranges of accommodation, including the five star Shangri-La and the one star D&D on the Khao San Road (complete with blood on the walls and a bathroom so small that you had to sit on the toilet to shower).

The view from the Skybar — Lebua State Tower

Bangkok can be daunting. With hundreds of areas to stay and sites spread all over the city how do you even choose a base? The riverside for many reasons is my most treasured area and a sanctuary that I will forever return to. Locationally it’s great as it’s easy to get around the city with the express ferries and skytrain. It is also home to most of the major sites. You are never further than a quick walk away from delicious street food or a fancy restaurant. If you wish to drown out the chaos of the city, this is one of the only places where you’ll be able to.

Originally published at mooreexploring.com on August 10, 2018.

Airline pilot and travel writer based in London.

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