Rivers (mae nam) and canals (klongs) were the main pathways for trade and travel in Bangkok and most of the country for centuries. The Thai way of life is serene by the banks of the Chao Phrya, which is dotted with beautiful architecture and temples.
When Bangkok became the Kingdom’s Capital in 1782 (which marks the beginning of the Rattanakosin era), canals crosscut and converged at various points across the city. Thus, the main reason why early Western merchants and diplomats dubbed Bangkok the “Venice of the East.”
Early Bangkok residents lived life by the banks of the Chao Phraya River or close to it as Chao Phrya literally means ‘Great King.’ Today, many foreigners opt to stay in apartments and hotels along the river, because of its calming force and interesting views. Touring the waterways will give you a glimpse of the city’s glorious past, especially if you take a peak at the Royal Barge Museum – where you can imagine how wonderful a royal entourage of more than 70 barges down the river would look like. While Bangkok may be fast-flying towards technological development, the genuine charm of the waterways seem to provide an unruffled source of temperance. Perhaps the nature of the river is best reflected by the famous Thai smile and hospitable disposition.
Many boat services along the Chao Phrya connect various ports in Bangkok with northern provinces as well. River cruises are ample, with some of the best offering sumptuous lunches – look out for some of the more traditional barges such as those operated by the Peninsula and Shangri-La. Canal tours are also widely available around the busy pier of Ta Chang.
Once you’re in a long-tail boat (kind of like a Thai style racing boat for passengers that is popular for touring) or a classic, gracefully moving barge, you will witness magnificent temples and other historic buildings of interest. You will see the Royal Thai Navy Dockyard, the Thai Maritime Navigation Company, the Old Customs House, Wat Prayunrawong temple, Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), the Grand Palace, Wat Rakhang Kositaram, and the Royal Boat House.
If you have got more time, a visit to the river island of Koh Kret is also a good choice. A shuttle boat leaves Wat Sanam Nua temple, which is a brisk walk from the Pak Kret Pier and runs from 6 am to 9 pm. Basically, within the island, a community of traditional potters lives and peddle their wares for over a century. Descendants of Mon ancestry, their forefathers who arrived in Bangkok from Burma. Spending their lives perfecting the art of terracotta ceramics, tourists are very welcome to purchase their products.
However, try to stay off the river during the evening rush hour as the waterways remain a popular method of travel for much of the city’s population, a clever way to avoid the infamous Bangkok traffic.