What a great way to see Bangkok! Avoid the traffic and the heat and catch the cool breeze as you skip along the Chao Phraya River, which runs from north to south and flows into the Gulf of Thailand. Much of Bangkok’s history and many interesting sights lie along its banks. There’s also a fantastic express boat service, which allows you to jump on and off whenever you like. You just pay 15 baht for a ticket each time you jump on. Look out for the different colored flags on the boats which denote where they stop. In addition, there's an official tourist boat with unlimited travel for 150 baht.
START: Metro to Saphan Taksin. Walk down to Sathorn ferry pier immediately below the metro station. You are on the east bank of the river and want express boats heading north. Buy a day pass or just pay as you go when you get on the boat. Note: Saphan Taksin is located immediately south (or just under) the bridge marked Krung Thonburi Road.
1. Mandarin Oriental. The first stop on the east bank is the world-famous Oriental Hotel. The colonial building is mostly shaded by palm trees, but you might catch a glimpse of the rich and famous dining on the hotel’s riverfront terrace. On the opposite bank is the Royal Orchid Sheraton. Just after the Oriental, on your right, you pass the French and Portuguese embassies, the first foreign diplomatic residences in Thailand. As the river bends to the left you will see a six-story Chinese pagoda.
2. Wat Prayura Wongsawat. As you pass under the first bridge, immediately on your left you’ll see an impressive 60m-high white chedi. This temple has murals depicting the life of Buddha and its doors are decorated in mother-of-pearl. There’s also a large pond where hundreds of turtles and fish swim. You can feed them—they like papaya!
3. Santa Cruz Church. Just past the Memorial Bridge and opposite Pak Khlong flower market is the beige-and-pink Santa Cruz Church and convent with its octagonal dome on top. It was originally built in 1770 by Portuguese traders during the reign of King Taksin. The pre-sent church was constructed in 1910 and has a beautiful Italian-style ceiling. Church services are held on Sundays. It is open daily 5:30–8:30am & 6–8pm. Ferry: Rajinee pier.
4. Wichai Prasit Fort. This was built during the reign of Narai the Great (1656–1688) to protect the city from Burmese invaders. One hundred years later, after repulsing the Burmese, King Taksin built the Wang Derm Palace in the same compound when he chose Thonburi (the town west of the river) as his capital. Nowadays the Thai navy fires the cannon from the fort to celebrate special ceremonies. It is the naval banner you can see on the flagpole on top of the fort. Wang Derm Palace is open to the public, but the fort is not. Admission 50 baht. Daily 8:30am–5pm. Ferry: Rajinee pier.
5. Wat Arun. On the west bank, just north of the tall Wat Kanlayanamit temple, is my favorite temple in Thailand—the Temple of Dawn, known in Thai as Wat Arun. This Hindu-inspired Khmer stupa becomes very photogenic both at sunrise and at sunset when the stonework changes to a mauve or orange hue.
You can get off the express boat and walk around #2, 3, 4, and 5 by changing at Rajinee pier and taking a small cross-river boat to Wat Arun for just 3.5 baht. It’s an interesting walk south from Wat Arun, taking you through modest backstreets. You will first pass Wat Kanlayanamit with its 15m-high Buddha. Then, take the waterfront boardwalk towards Santa Cruz Church. Hidden from view from the river, there’s a small red Chinese temple called Wat Sanjaomaegua-nim. Built in the 18th century, it shares Buddhist, Tao-ist, and Confucianist influences. There are return boats to Rajinee from Wat Kanlayanamit pier.
6. The Grand Palace. Just north of Wat Arun is Bangkok’s oldest temple, Wat Po, across the river from Tha Tien ferry pier. The following pier on the east bank is Tha Chang, meaning “Elephant Pier,” in reference to the days when flotillas of teak logs would be carried from the river to ware-houses by the great tusked beasts. This is where to get off if you are visiting the Grand Palace. From the river you can get dazzling photographs of the golden spires, although much of the majesty is hidden behind a long white wall. On the west bank, you will see the imposing buildings of the Naval Harbour Department and the Quarter-master Department.
7. Wat Rakhang. Some-times called the Bell Temple for its collection of brass bells, this 18th-century wat houses an interesting teak library (where the ashes of King Rama I are interred) and murals depicting the Thai epic, “The Ramakien.”
Ready for a Detour?
Running off to the west is Klong Bangkok Noi, the “Small Bangkok Canal.” This canal can be navigated as a detour of your Old City or Chao Phraya tour by renting a longtail boat (approximate-ly 800 baht per hour—beware of attempts to grossly overcharge). It’s a worthwhile trip. The canal winds its way in a 16km horseshoe around “Small Bangkok” and comes out again at Nonthaburi (). You’ll pass several fine Thai houses, some squalid suburban homes on stilts and lots of temples. It’s a wonderful opportunity to witness firsthand the real lifestyles of average Bangkokians. You can rent longboats at Phra Arthit pier and sometimes at Tha Chang pier.
8. Thammasat University. On the east bank of the river lies the historical area of Rattanakosin. There are several sights, but you need a separate day to take them in. If you were to jump off at Tha Chang pier, you could visit the National Gallery, the Bangkok National Museum , followed by Thammasat University, where many of the nation’s elite were educated and which was the hub of political dissent in 1973 and 1976 when the army shot dead many students and protesters. The University is at 2 Prachan Rd. Ferry: Tha Chang pier or change at Wang Lang pier.
9. Museum of Forensic Science. For those who enjoy looking at items from the darker side of science. Not a necessary stop, but some might enjoy it and it is free. Ferry: Wang Lang pier.
10. Royal Barges Museum. A chance to see Thailand’s famous historical royal barges. Used in royal ceremonies since the 18th century, the 50m-long royal longtail boats have been housed here under the care of the Royal Navy since 1932.
11. Phra Sumen Fort. One of the two remaining forts still standing in Bangkok, Phra Sumen was built in 1783 by King Rama I to protect the Old City. From the river you can see the battlements and cannons and an observation tower. The fort was established at the confluence of the river and Banglamphu Canal, which carves an arc around the Old City, exiting further south at Memorial Bridge. With the river to the west, this canal effectively makes Rattanakosin an island. Again, this is a stop only for those deeply interested in this subject matter. It's open daily 8am–8pm. Ferry: Phra Arthit pier.
12. Suan Santichai Prakarn. This is a pleasant park to stretch your legs or relax and have a picnic. There are plenty of vendors around selling snacks and soft drinks. Ferry: Phra Arthit pier.
13. Nonthaburi. Next you go under the impressive Rama VIII Bridge (which looks like a giant golden harp lying on its side) and start heading northeast. You’ll pass the Church of Holy Conception and St Francis Xavier Church, both further testaments to the prominent role of missionaries in 18th- and 19th-century Thailand. You’ll notice that the river widens and becomes more industrial. You’ll pass a jetty where old barges are moored, the Singha beer factory, and the Bang Kwang Chinese temple just before you pull into Nonthaburi Pier. Now you have to decide whether to carry on to #14 and 15 or call it a day. You can get taxis back to town from Nonthaburi Pier or just take another express boat heading south. Ferry: Nonthaburi pier.
14. Bang Kwang Prison. The notorious “Bangkok Hilton” hosts hundreds of foreign in-mates, usually incarcerated for drug offences. Read Australian prisoner Warren Fellows’s “The Damage Done” for a chilling insight into prison life here. It is not uncommon for tourists to visit their compatriots and take them some food, toiletries, and magazines. 1 Nonthaburi Rd. tel. 02 525 0484. Mon–Fri 9:30–11:30am & 1:30–2:30pm. Ferry: Nonthaburi pier.
15. Ko Kret. This enchanting little island on the river is home to hundreds of Monan ethnic group indigenous to Myanmar. Some islanders grow lychees and durian in large orchards on the southern part of Ko Kret. However, the most interesting and distinctive occupation of the Mon islanders is pottery-making. Perhaps 20 to 25 families maintain small factories where they sculpt red clay and fire earthenware in kilns, producing flowerpots, mortars, and larger water urns. The finished products have a red-black glaze; visitors are welcome to watch the potters and buy souvenirs. You can hire a bicycle here and ride around the island.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.