Things to do on Chao Phraya River Bangkok include hopping on and hopping off the public ferries to see the Thai capital’s essential sights and explore off-the-beaten-track neighbourhoods, taking a canal tour by longtail boat along the lesser-visited khlongs, and savouring traditional food on a secret river island.
One of the first things we ever did on our first visit to Thailand almost 20 years ago was to ride the public ferries along Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, stopping off along the way to explore Chinatown, Little India and the Flower Market, to visit sprawling Wat Pho, the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and to browse the dimly lit Amulet Market and the fascinating little shops that used to be dotted around that neighbourhood.
On subsequent trips to Bangkok, and years later when we lived in the city, we’d focus our attention more on the commercial districts of Siam, Sathorn and Silom and hip neighbourhoods off Sukhumvit Road, such as Thonglor and Ekkamai, our main interests being the restaurants, cafes, bars, and boutiques that we were covering for magazines and guidebooks.
It’s only in recent years, frustrated by the traffic-clogged roads and gridlock, that we’ve found ourselves increasingly drawn back to the older parts of Bangkok and the bustling-by-day tranquil-by-night Chao Phraya River, which meanders through the Thai metropolis, snaking past of the city’s must-do sights, such as mosaic-covered Wat Arun or the Temple of Dawn, and off-the-beaten-track areas, such as the petite Portuguese quarter.
Having experienced a renaissance of sorts in recent years, it’s a very different Chao Phraya River to the one we cruised all those years ago. Most of the dilapidated stilted houses that lined the riverbanks have been demolished, boardwalks now in their place. Empty plots of waterfront land have been filled with colossal shopping malls and luxury residential developments when a park from which to enjoy the river flowing by might have been a better choice.
Yet there is still much to delight in if you ride the public ferry boats, alight to amble local neighbourhoods, leisurely explore the canals by longtail boat, and discover a secret island that even some Thai residents don’t know about. These are some of our favourite things to do on Chao Phraya River Bangkok.
Things to Do on Chao Phraya River Bangkok – Where to Stay, Cruise, Explore, and Eat
Check into a Riverside Hotel on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River
One of the first things to do on Chao Phraya River Bangkok is to check into a riverside hotel, preferably one you can arrive at by boat. The Mandarin Oriental is Bangkok’s oldest and one of its most luxurious hotels. Established as much more modest accommodations in 1876, it’s Author’s Wing has hosted writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Maugham. A stylish boutique hotel Sala Rattanakosin is set in a row of remodelled shophouses a short walk from Wat Pho and the Grand Palace. Most of its 17 rooms boast breathtaking views of Wat Arun, and there are even more jaw-dropping vistas from the rooftop bar. Nearby, in a restored 19th century shop-house, mid-range Arun Residence also overlooks Wat Arun and has magic vistas from its al fresco Thai restaurant. Also close by, Chakrabongse Villas was built in 1908 by Prince Chakrabongse, whose granddaughter Narisa lives in the elegant main house while guests stay in one of seven different types of lodgings surrounding it. The Chinese Suite has direct access to the riverside swimming pool. On the western bank, Praya Palazzo was home to Thai noble Praya Chollabhumipanish who commissioned the Italian Palladio style villa in 1923, a time when Italian architects such as Galileo Chini and Carlo Rigoli were building grand Italianate mansions for King Rama V. The 17 rooms have high ceilings with polished wooden floors and there’s a waterfront swimming pool. Located on the riverside in the Dusit district, The Siam is an exclusive 39-room retreat designed by Southeast Asian starchitect Bill Bensley. Book Connie’s Cottage, a century-old traditional teak house shipped from Ayutthaya by late Thai silk tycoon Jim Thompson.
Cruise Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River By Public Ferry
So much has changed in the Thai capital since our first visit almost two decades ago, but one thing that hasn’t changed: one of the best things to do on Chao Phraya River Bangkok remains a cruise on the historic artery. You can see the main sights on the original hop-on hop-off Chao Phraya Tourist Boat, but for a more local way of experiencing the river, board the Orange Flag Chao Phraya Express Boat, which departs from Sathorn Pier beneath Saphan Taksin BTS Station (take Exit 2), the main Chao Phraya River pier. Note that there are five public boats with their own routes and different stops, each identified by coloured flags: Orange Flag, Yellow Flag, Green Flag, Blue Flag tourist boat, and No Flag local line. Look for the small triangle flags on the boats, except for the ‘No Flag’ boat, which obviously has no flag. When you arrive at Sathorn/Saphan Taksin you’ll be bombarded by Blue Flag tourist boat ticket-sellers. Ignore them and make a beeline for the Orange Flag Chao Phraya Express Boat queue. Once on board, pay 15 baht (US$0.50) directly to the conductor and pay this again each time you board. The Orange Flag boats depart every 10-20 minutes between 6am-7pm, stopping at the most popular piers for Bangkok’s must-do sights, as well as piers that provide access to lesser-visited local neighbourhoods. Start around 9am or so and alight first at Wat Arun. After you’ve explored the temple, take the small cross-river boat (4 baht) to Tha Tien Pier #8 for Wat Pho and Siam Museum. When you’re done, head to Rajinee Pier #7 to re-board the boat and alight at Wang Lang or Pran Nok Pier #10 for lunch at Wang Lang Market. After, return to the same pier to board the Orange Flag for Memorial Bridge Pier #6. Stroll across the bridge (also called Phra Phuttayotfa Bridge, Saphan Phut or Phut Bridge) to the historic Portuguese quarter for Santa Cruz Church and the Baan Kudichin Museum. Backtrack across Memorial Bridge to visit Pak Klong Talad Flower Market and newish Yodpiman River Walk Mall. From here, Yodpiman Pier #6 will take you south to Rachawongse Pier #5, from where you can stroll along Ratchawong Road to Yaowarat Road, Chinatown.
Explore Bangkok’s Khlongs on a Longtail Boat Canal Tour
Old Bangkok was called the Venice of the East for good reason – it was criss-crossed by khlongs (canals) – which makes exploring the khlongs one of the essential things to do on Chao Phraya River Bangkok. I get giddy thinking about the Thai capital’s transformation in just a century or so from a bustling little riverside town where residents went everywhere by boat to the metropolis on land that we know today with its tangle of overpasses and toll-ways. Bangkok’s last major khlong was dug in 1895 and the khlong building period wound down by 1915, when these watery arteries began to get filled in and paved over to form roads. These days you can count on both hands the number of khlongs left on the Chao Phraya River’s right bank – in Phra Nakhon, home to Rattanakosin Island, Dusit, Prom Prap Sattru Phai, and Samphanthawong – however, on the left bank, in the laid-back residential districts of Khlong San, Thonburi, Bangkok Yai and Bangkok Noi, khlongs still lace the area and are used by locals. Check into canal-side lodgings, such as the charming Siam Motif Boutique Hotel, for instance, and you’ll see locals commuting to and from work by boat along Bangkok Noi canal in the mornings and early evenings. One of best things to do on Chao Phraya River Bangkok to get a feel for how life must have been lived on the water is to do a khlong tour or hire a longtail boat for a privaten klong tour. We’ve tried both. The organised tours typically depart from Tha Chang or Si Phraya piers on the Chao Phraya River and might include a stop at Wat Arun and the Royal Barge Museum before cruising into Bangkok Noi canal. Longer tours might also take in Bangkok Yai canal, the Artists House, an orchid farm and perhaps a floating market, and you can expect picturesque scenery like the lush vista in the image above. On weekends, cruises include the Artists House and Taling Chan Floating Market. Some also take in Lat Mayom Floating Market. Convenient piers to hire a longtail boat for a private tour are Tha Tien and Tha Chang piers, where a regular public boat service operates from 6.30am-11pm every half hour or so, or when full for 30 baht per person.
Eat Your Way Around the Mon Island of Koh Kret
One of the most satisfying things to do on Chao Phraya River Bangkok is to eat your way around the Mon island, Koh Kret (Koh Kred), which remains something of a delicious secret, overlooked by most visitors to Bangkok and even unknown to many Thais. The small Chao Phraya River island is much loved by Bangkokians for its traditional food, as well as its Mon clay pottery and slow pace of life. There are just seven villages, no roads or cars, lush farmland fringed by palm trees, and a perimeter skirted by dilapidated wooden houses on stilts. Hire a private longtail boat for a cruise around the island. A typical itinerary includes stops at a handicraft centre cum art gallery, a pottery shop and Ran Baan Khanom Wan or Thai Dessert House, where you can watch desserts being made and try some before you buy them. After, take a stroll or bike ride to absorb everyday life (and work up your appetite for more eating). Expect to see ramshackle timber houses with washing hung between balconies, dogs dozing on doorsteps, locals throwing fishing lines into ponds, and sarong-clad women in straw hats tending to their fields. Don’t miss the whitewashed 200 year-old Mon pagoda Wat Poramai Yikawat with a reclining Buddha and Ayutthaya-style murals. On weekends and holidays, there’s a market where you can graze on street food, tropical fruit and kanom waan (sweet snacks), many of which are Portuguese influenced, such as foi thong, duck egg yolk shaped into golden yellow strands in boiling pandan-scented sugar syrup. Travel to Koh Kret by public boat (approx. one hour) from Saphan Taksin pier. Take the green flag Chao Phraya Express Boat during peak hours (6.15-8am, 3.30-6pm; no service Sundays) to Pak Kret (pier N33) or orange or yellow flag Chao Phraya Express Boat to Nonthaburi (pier N30) the rest of the time. Then walk 500 metres or so to Pak Kret or take an air-con van, public bus 32, taxi, or longtail boat river taxi. At Pak Kret, longtail boats shuttle visitors from Wat Sanam Neua pagoda across to the island every 5-10 minutes.
Have you explored Thai’s capitals river and canals? What are some of your favourite things to do on Chao Phraya River Bangkok?
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