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Backwater Bangkok

David Cawley escapes the street bedlam of the Thai capital to go messing about on its river and canals

Published on March 21st 2012.


Backwater Bangkok

I’D poked around its grand temples and palaces and shuffled through the endless bustle of locals, tourists, street vendors and blind mobile Karaoke singers panhandling their way along Silom Road.

I’d trawled vast glistening shopping malls rising over Rama 1 Road for air-conditioned refuge and peered around back streets and markets of the old town. I’d eaten affordably well (head through eclectic decor to the roof terrace of Cafe Ice, 44/2 Pipat Soi 2, Sathorn Soi 8, for endearing service and some crab spring rolls the length of a rolled up copy of the Bangkok Post). 

Also ticked in the big bumper book of grown-up things to do had been my relentless mumbled apologies to hawkers selling ‘sexy’ something or other as I’d made the walk of shame through the market trading tawdriness of Patpong.

1. Bangkok David Cawley Homes Along Bangkok's Waterways, Some Grand, Some Less So.Bangkok's waterways offer a world apart from ther rest of the city

Hot, bewildered, bewitched and after Patpong slightly grubby, a walk through Lumphini Park had been recommended as a cleansing antidote. But in truth it was a public park and though pleasant enough I’d been in one of these before. Albeit ones that didn’t come with high-speed, 6ft monitor lizards freely roaming the artificial lake. Under the circumstances hiring one of the vivid yellow pedalos was never going to be an option, unless the equally sized dinosaur was taken away and given its own island theme park.

Fortunately the ‘City of Angels’ possesses alternative water-borne adventures and more than any of the culture and shopping to hand, I wanted to journey along Bangkok’s aquatic highways and byways. Happily, there’s an armada of boat choices plying their trade along the Chao Phraya River and meandering canals (khlongs) none of which required you to sit behind a large plastic duck figurehead and peddle.

There are cultural and historic sites aplenty along the way of any water journey.  The five porcelain encrusted towers of 18th century Wat Arun and elaborately decked-out longboats kept for the pageantry of imperial barge flotillas on show at the Royal Barge Museum are just two, but more than anything else, a cruise offers a few hours respite through the backwaters of Thonburi, Bangkok’s original centre. A chance to get behind the scenes of this frankly barmy city to explore its slower, more calming side.

2. Bangkok David Cawley One Of The Small Flotilla Of Venders Who Aproach Tourist Boats On The Khlongs.One of The small flotilla of vendors who approach tourist boats

Peeling off the river along the Bangkok Noi Khlong the journey takes a sedate line along the 19th century canal remnants. What’s left is the bare bones of a once much bigger watery maze latterly filled-in to avoid the spread of cholera and to make way for new road networks.

Now among the serenity, occasionally broken by the roaring by of a "rua hang yao" or long tail boat powered by over-sized diesel engines liberated from lorries, the remaining stretches of these once busy commercial arteries still remain the life blood for the inhabitants of east Bangkok. 

Children swim in boat wakes that wash on to banks where a procession of wooden homes stilted out of the water, some at precarious angles, some rather grand, line up alongside open kitchens and local grocery stores that still rely on water transport. Here post is delivered, rubbish taken away, getting to work and nipping out to the shops is still done by flat bottom boat. Amongs it all, tawny short haired dogs turn endless circles before slumping down in the grey afternoon mugginess while more monitor lizards, at a safe distance, prowl for eggs, dead fish and discarded waste.

3. Bangkok David Cawley One Of A Choice Of Rua Hang Yao Or Long Tail Boats That Tear Through Bangkok's Waterways.One of a choice of rua hang yao or long tail boats that tear through the waterways

Back on the water, excursion boats slow down allowing the paddling approach of a small flotilla of beaming women vendors to pull alongside and sell drinks, snacks, hats and trinkets.

The practicalities are straightforward. There are a number of local tour operators who will arrange hotel pick-up and canal cruises with commentary for around 1,000 Baht (around £20 p/p) though these excursions do come with the prospect of multiple hotel pick-ups which in a seemingly perpetually grid-locked town can be a tiresome beginning and end to any cruise.

An alternative is to make your own way down to the riverside, head to one of the piers and negotiate the hire of a private long tail boat for around 500/700 Baht per hour. There won’t though be a commentary, but the experience is a little more authentic and it’s a charming way to spend time with a cherished one.

Img_2435In the wash of a powerful boat

If it’s simply a way of getting from A to B, the Chao Phraya River (River of Kings) is the quickest most fun way to navigate through the heart of historic and spiritual Bangkok. The regular tourist ferries charge a flat fee of 30 Baht (around 60p) for a one way trip and come with commentary.

For a more up close and personal experience, the cheapest way to get between much of Bangkok’s heritage is to jump aboard the Chao Phraya Express water bus which growls and bagatelles off the banks during its 75 minute route up and down the river. Running between Sathorn Pier, beneath Saphan Taksin Skytrain Station in the south and Phra Athit Pier it stops on both banks of the river and costs just half the price of the tourist boat.

Those of a nervous disposition should perhaps note that the Express crams its passengers to the gunnels. Payment is made to a ticket collector on board and it’s wise to have some change easily to hand given the difficulty of reaching in to pockets when hemmed-in by humanity.

Img_0301A floating shop in the backwaters

Standing at the back you get to witness the ship’s mate whistling signals to the captain as to when to slow down and reverse on approach to a jetty. It also means you can in advance adopt a nautical brace position when the inevitable collision comes with land and hop off the boat during the few seconds given for disembarking and embarking.

Like the rest of the city, a water journey is not always pretty, but for some time out from the sensory assault that is Bangkok’s streets, just a few hours bobbing up and down on a teak deck is a great way to rejuvenate and gird one’s loins for more exposure to this extraordinary, full-on city. Bangkok, me love you long time, but just give me 15 minutes or so rest would you before we do it again.

Img_2418Chao Phraya Water Express – the fast lane

Fact file

Emirates fly three times daily from Manchester to Bangkok via Dubai. For further information telephone 0844 800 2777; or visit www.emirates.com. Economy class fares start from £587 and look out for occasional special price promotions on their website.
www.tourismthailand.org

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