Bangkok is one of my favourite destinations: she has energy, diversity, creature comforts and jagged edges. She embodies what one imagines of a major Asian metropolis: a juxtaposition of tradition and hedonism, of conservatism and liberal thought. None encapsulate this as best as the River of Kings.
The River of Kings
The great river that technically bisects Bangkok, the Menam Chao Phraya, or Chao Phraya River, or more poetically translated, the River of Kings (though I was informed the proper translation is ‘Lord’), lives up to her name.
Originating up in the Thai Highlands and draining a significant portion of Thailand, this river, like other great rivers, has seen her share of the great occasions of state: from coronations to entrances of state, from global trade to a global game of chess.
It is only appropriate that the best way to explore this River of Kings is by boat, and Bangkok has a large array of options for you to choose how you want to explore this city: from commuter ferries to tourist ferries, from fancy diner boats to fancy hotel rice barges.
Optimized Start Point
The main port of call for the start of any Bangkok river escapade would be Saphan Taksin Pier. This is an easily accessible spot, being a major stop on the Silom BTS line, numerous river ferries, dinner cruises and hotel boats. When at the Saphan Taksin BTS station, go down to the concourse and walk left to the Saphan Taksin Pier exit. There will be loads of counters selling river cruise tickets but those are not the ones we want.
Once you go down the stairs from the BTS station and on to the pier itself, you will encounter an array of covered areas, each dedicated to a different boat service. The first one you see on the right is meant for the hotel boats, the one in the middle is the ferry pier and the one on the left goes to Asiatique and a few major commercial/residential developments along the river.
The hotel boats are specific to their hotel destinations, the ferries have different flags denoting where they stop while the dedicated boats go to whichever destination those dedicated boats go to. All are marked clearly, and if in doubt, a steward will be on hand to announce the boats and destinations.
The Long-Looking Boats
I am pretty sure these long, seek speed-boat looking boats have a proper name but I just call them the long-looking boats. There are 2 types of boats: the Tourist Boat, which stop at the major tourist sites upriver towards the Grand Palace and beyond. The other is the commuter boats, with different flags indicating all-stops, limited stops or express.
While I have never taken the Tourist Boat, the commuter boats are well worth it. For less than BHT20, you get your on cruise. A conductor collects the fare on board, it can get super packed, with limited seating space, but that is the joy of the whole experience! Keep track of the stops though, as they do not make announcements, except for ‘Wat Arun!’ and ‘Grand Palace!’
Posh Night Market
The boat is also a convenient, and dare I say, more scenic way, to visit Asiatique: a sanitized version of the famous Chatuchak weekend market. While Chatuchak Market is only open on weekends, this spot is open daily from 6pm onwards.
Unlike Chatuchak, this place has a lot of open spaces, a posh promenade and air conditioned spaces in certain areas. Sure, it loses that sense of a ‘local experience’ but if you are in the middle of a super dense Asian metropolis under the sweltering heat, humidity and chaos, the thought of open spaces and cool breezes brings a calm to those uncomfortable with overly packed spaces.
If you want to have a shorter cruise, with one of the luxury hotels on the river as a destination, then hop the dedicated hotel boat. The Sheraton and Hilton have steamers, while the Peninsula and Mandarin Oriental have rice barges, each unique in their own way, and a stylish way to cruise down the river, even if it is for a short 5 minutes.
This option is perfect if you don’t want to head out too far, just want a taster of the experience and have a lazy afternoon at one of the hotel river terraces as a final destination.
Sights and Sounds
Regardless of which option you choose, the experience is unique in its own way: be it crowded yet with a glimpse of local life, or imagining you were on a state barge making an entrance to this capital of the Chakris.
The view of the city is undoubtedly best appreciated from the river, with the water framing either the skyscrapers or soaring spires of the temples and palaces that front the river. An entrance to Wat Arun is not right if not done on water, and seeing the golden tipped spires and pinnacles of the Grand Palace is magical when seen from a boat.
To make things even more interesting, urban rejuvenation efforts on the river give this place life, from the converted warehouses turned shops and restaurants of The Jam Factory (easily accessible from the Hilton, use the Hilton boat and walk along the river) to the really nice and tasty ‘Steve Cafe & Cuisine’ next to the Rama VIII bridge on the river, the Chao Praya puts Bangkok in another perspective, away from the mad traffic jams, endless motorcycles and riotous tuk-tuks.
Get there on the clearly identifiable dedicated Asiatique boat at the left of Saphan Taksin Pier
Opening hours: 0900 – 1645 daily
Schedules: Check with the hotels for their dedicated boat schedules, but most boats run at 15 minute intervals in the day time
Public Ferry Colour Codes: The Bangkok River Ferries have a colour code system as below. The fares are fixed regardless of destination
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.