Bangkok is often referred to as the ‘Venice of the East’ giving reference to the thousands of kilometres of tiny waterways that shoot off the main Chao Phraya River, inviting exploration by long-tail boat and evoking the romance of a bygone era.
The Chao Phraya River at 370km long from source to sea has always been a lifeline to the Thai people. Intersecting through Bangkok’s suburbs and crisscrossing the Chao Phraya River, the canals and klongs have served different purposes over the years. In the early 19th century many were dug to transport soldiers or goods. By the 1830s and the end of the wars with neighbouring countries and the rise of a new economy, the waterways opened up land for cultivation and transported produce from the farms to Bangkok and other provincial towns.
Today, taking a long tail boat and veering off into the canals takes you back in time and offers a look at how people in Bangkok used to live, work and worship. You’ll pass stilted homes, old wooden townhouses and somewhat dilapidated lean-tos still occupied today, pass under decorated bridges and catch a glimpse of communities going about their daily business.
Having stayed an independent province until it was merged into Bangkok in 1972, Thonburi is home to Bangluang, one of the most popular canal ways. A community that was once home to senior officials, it has been restored into a culture tourist area, which can be seen from the preserved architecture, temples and stores here.
In the area, you’ll find the Artists’ House, which was established in 2010 by Thai artist and conservationist Chumphon Akhpantanond. Accessible by land or boat, the Artist House includes a gallery, cafe and daily puppet show and invites artists, students and creative types to use the creative space to further develop their skills in a relaxed and traditional setting.
The restored teak house’s upper rooms are full of paintings and photos, while prints, drawings, sculptures, puppets and khon masks are displayed in the spacious ground floor. Visitors can purchase postcards or T-shirts, or give donations in exchange for paintings created by resident artists.
There are also several life-sized statues painted in white, red and black sitting next to the water here, endlessly staring at life passing by, mimicking perhaps the original occupants who may have once done the same.
The most popular attraction here is a traditional Thai puppetry group performing in their painted mask, telling stories and entertaining children and adults alike. There’s no admission charge for the show, but you are encouraged to put something in the donation box.
In other stilted houses along the waterway, you’ll find shops selling antiques, souvenirs, groceries and bags of fish food to feed the oversized catfish and carp that appear in the waters. There are barbershops and small local restaurants, as well as numerous bridges from which to take in the views down the canals.
Look out for the boat vendors selling sweet treats and pre-cooked meals and if you need a break, enjoy their offering with your feet dangling over the water. The most popular dish here seems to be paad si ew noodles followed by a sweet iced black tea.
A visit to Wat Kamphaeng, an Ayutthaya-period temple is well worth the time. There is always a monk on duty to offer a blessing, or engage in a conversation, and in the ancient rooms that surround the temple, you’ll find a collection of antique Buddha images, Chinese prayer sticks and handwritten paper fortunes.
Increasingly popular, Klong Bangluang is best visited on weekends to avoid the crowds, although do keep in mind that there are no puppet shows on Wednesdays. There is modest yet charming accommodation available at Bangluang House should you wish to stay over.
Exploring Bangkok by boat is a fascinating way to get a glimpse into the timeless charm of the city, as well as witness the role Bangkok’s many waterways have over the years while providing an escape to a quieter side of the vibrant capital.
Some information to guide your experience
The Bangkok watercourses are divided into three main sections, the main being the Chao Phraya River, the Klong Saen Saeb that cuts across Bangkok city from east to west and the Klongs of Thonburi, which are most popular with tourists.
If looking for a boat to cruise on the river, there are river taxis or Express Boats, long-tail boats, river crossing ferries, canal boats, and private hotel shuttle boats on the waters. As a guide, the Express Boat River Taxis with no flag is the local line, with the blue flag the tourist boat that stops at every pier, while the orange, blue and green lines only stop at the main piers and are more specifically for commuters.
The main Sathorn Central Pier is situated directly in front of the BTS Skytrain Station and provides a link from the river to the rest of the city. Alternately, you can go down to River City Bangkok, an upmarket shopping centre on the Chao Phraya River, and book a long tail boat from the Si Phraya Pier.
There are many companies offering river and canal tours which can be booked online, at one of the piers or through your accommodation establishment.