The Chao Phraya River is as important to modern Bangkok as it was for the city’s early settlers. Even before the country’s former capital, Ayutthaya, was destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century and a new capital was built further south along the river in Thon Buri, the Chao Phraya has served as one of the country’s main transportation arteries. With its early status as a major tax collection port and customs office for foreign traders sailing north to the former capital city, the river became critical to transportation, communications and trade leading people to settle along its banks. There they built factories and homes, some of them jutting out onto the river and set atop stilts dug deep into the riverbed. Even now some locals affectionately known as “boat people” can’t bring themselves to live anywhere except aboard their modest boats moored along the river’s edge.
Today’s visitors to modern day Bangkok have other options for transportation. The river however, still serves a critical role in the city’s economy. And without a doubt, the Chao Phraya River water taxi is the best alternative to Bangkok’s traffic clogged streets and by far the quickest and most economical way to get around the city. For tourists, views from the river suggest only a hint of the charm and beauty that Thailand’s capital city has to offer.
Today Bangkok has grown to straddle both banks of the Chao Phraya River. Among the longest in Thailand, the river is a hubbub of activity with barges carrying rice, teak and cement from riverside factories and other sites along the river. It begins in the northern part of the country, runs through Bangkok and empties into the Gulf of Thailand.
In the early morning small fishermen can be seen delivering fresh catch to local restaurants and markets that thrive along the Chao Phraya. Throughout the day long-tail boats, river taxis and private hotel boats navigate between piers along both sides of the river to deliver locals and tourists to their destinations. In the evenings, the river takes on a romantic quality with a shimmering skyline and sparkling lights from the many dinner cruise ships gliding along the river.
Passenger ferry on Chao Phraya River
In fact, a river tour on one of the ubiquitous long-tail boats is a great introduction to the city. So it’s helpful to know a little about how the city is laid out relative to the mighty river. On the west side of the Chao Phraya is Thon Buri, site of the Thai capital for 15 years beginning in 1767 when Ayutthaya was besieged. In 1782 King Rama I (the first of nine Kings in the Chakri Dynasty that continues to the present day) moved the capital to Krung Thep on the east side of the river, the area that today essentially encompasses Bangkok’s Old City and the location of most of Bangkok’s most well-known tourist attractions. Krung and Thep are the first two words of the city’s official 43-syllable name and means “City of Angels”
On the river cruise, you’ll see sites such as The Royal Thai Navy Dockyard and Royal Boat House, magnificent Buddhist temples including Wat Arun (also called the Temple of Dawn) and probably the best known historical structure on the west side of the river. The river tour goes beneath the beautiful 475 meter (more than 1,500 feet) Rama VIII cable stayed bridge and connects Thon Buri to Krung Thep. Opened in 2002, the bridge has become a recognizable part of the Bangkok skyline and appears on the back of Thailand’s 20 baht bank note. The river tour also passes the many river-side restaurants and high-rise hotels that cater to many of the millions of tourists and business people visiting the city each year. A side trip through the locks and into one of the small canals or klhongs that split off the main river gives a close-up view of how locals have adapted to life on the water’s edge in a city once called the Venice of the East.
After an introduction to the city from the comfort of a long-tail boat, it’s time to hit the streets of Old Town Bangkok and experience the city up close. And my, what an experience you’ll have!
Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn
My Bangkok exploration began on Yaowarat Road, the main street in Chinatown, established during Bangkok’s infancy. The area grew rapidly as the Chinese migrated south to Siam as Thailand was known at the time. These early Chinese settlers were followed by fellow countrymen fleeing flooding, famine and communism, settled in the area called Soi Sampheng (Sampheng Lane), which later became Chinatown, where they continued their trading tradition.
More than 200 years later, Chinatown not only serves the needs of the city’s Chinese residents but is one of Bangkok’s most popular tourist attractions. The narrow streets and alleys of Chinatown are chocked full with market stalls and small shops selling everything one could conceivably want including apparel, shoes, souvenirs, herbal medicine, lottery tickets, bird’s nest soup, gold, salted fish, used water bottles (who knew!!!), old coins, and other essential and non-essential items. Chinatown also has some streets that specialize in items such as purses, textiles (fabrics, buttons, threads, etc.), fresh produce, and fresh flowers.
As I wandered through Chinatown, the smoky aromas from the street food stalls threatened to send my olfactory senses into overload. Even though I had eaten breakfast only a couple of hours earlier, the wide selection of dishes and spicy aromas tested my resolve to wait until lunchtime to eat again. Being unfamiliar with most of the foods, I was also intimidated by the choices and reluctant to try ordering anything. As I walked around, I found food stalls that sold soup served with either chicken, duck or egg noodles. The smoke wafting from roasting barbecued pork, shark’s fins, beef, and squid made my mouth water. Of course, there was rice, but also many other foods that I didn’t recognize. Some stalls sold prepared dishes while others added oils, spices and herbs to ingredients ordered by the customer.
Outdoor market food stalls in Bangkok
Later when I realized that I had a hunger induced headache, I finally garnered enough courage to order. After scoping out several of the many food stalls that crowded the street that led to Tha Chang Pier 9, I selected one that had a young woman who appeared to be in her late teen or early 20s (more likely to speak English I hoped) and ordered pad thai (stir-fried rice noodles). With some guidance from the young woman, I added shrimp and ordered a bottle of water. I was then directed to sidestep between rows of buckets holding ice covered water bottles and canned sodas on one side and the ancient looking cook stove and more buckets containing the raw ingredients on the other. I made my way under the small tarp that served as the combined food preparation and dining area and sat at a small table. In less than ten minutes a paper plate was plopped down onto the small oil cloth covered table where I sat. With the plastic fork I cautiously dug into the overflowing plate and was delighted when the pad thai far exceeded even the best and far more expensive pad thai that I had eaten at home.
Even though Chinatown is concentrated into a relatively small area of old town Bangkok, it’s impossible to truly appreciate its diversity unless you’re accompanied by someone who knows the territory. Many tourists choose to see the area with a tour guide. Tours usually begin at the end of Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road near the arched Odeon Chinese Gate.
Odean Gate in Chinatown, Bangkok
I wish I had taken a tour. Instead I got so caught up in roaming Chinatown’s narrow alleyways that I later realized that I missed one of Bangkok’s most revered and unique possessions – the five and a half ton 700 year-old solid golden Buddha image housed in Wat Traimit or the Temple of the Golden Buddha located a stone’s throw from the Odeon Gate. The 13th century 18-carat gold 4 meter (13 feet) high seated Buddha image was discovered in 1955 during construction at the port of Bangkok. When the crane ties holding the plaster-covered statue broke during relocation, the statue crashed to the ground breaking the plaster and revealing the solid gold image beneath. It is believed that the image was encased in plaster to hide it during the invasion of Ayutthaya, the former capital.
A few blocks north of Chinatown is Bangkok’s most popular tourist attraction - the Grand Palace, home of the Thai Royal Family for 150 years, and Wat Phra Kaeo, Thailand’s holiest shrine. Construction on this amazing city within a city began in 1782 to honor the founding of the new capital and to provide a home for the sacred Emerald Buddha now housed in Wat Phra Kaeo. In 1946 the current king moved the royal residence to a more modern structure in the nearby Dusit district.
Consisting of a total area of 218,000 square meters (about a tenth of a square mile) enclosed on all four sides by a 1,900 meter (about 6,200 feet) long gleaming white defensive wall, the complex was intended to be totally self-sufficient and home to all of the royal quarters as well as most of the royal temples and administrative offices. No royals live in the Grand Palace today. However, some of the buildings are still used for ceremonial functions and government business. One of the buildings, the Borom Phiman Mansion was originally built as the residence for Rama VI but is now a Royal Guest house for visiting Heads of State such as Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth.
Rarely have I seen such a concentration of riches, artistry and magnificent architecture. With so much to see, it’s easy to become immersed in the great beauty and sparkling riches of the palace complex by just wandering around the enclosure. However, I found that the free guided tour helped me to fully appreciate the magnificence and historical significance of the palace buildings. A guided tour takes just over an hour. Freelance guides are available for a fee at the entrance. The Palace also offers free group guided tours in English at 10:00 AM, 10:30 AM, 1:30 PM and 2:00 PM. You can also rent a portable audio guide for about $3.50.
Of the more than 400 Buddhist temples in Bangkok, Wat Pho, near the Grand Palace, is considered to be the oldest and the largest of them. There are also over 20,000 Buddha images in the city. Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, houses more than 1,000 of these images, more than any other temple in the city. The Chapel of the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, built by King Rama III in 1832, was erected specifically to hold the massive gold-plated Reclining Buddha.
Feet of the Reclining Buddha
Considered the largest and most beautiful piece of fine art of a Buddha in a reclining image (a position of power), capturing the 46 meter (150 foot) long, 15 meter (nearly 50 feet) high gilded plaster and brick image in a single photo is nearly impossible. The Buddha image, with eyes and feet are both inlaid with mother-of-pearl, fills the entire Chapel. Visitors enter the Chapel at the front of the image’s serenely beautiful face with a five meter (about 16 feet) smile, continue along the body to the feet where the mother-of-pearl images on the black soles represent the 108 lakshanas (auspicious signs which distinguish the true Buddha) then exit on the opposite side for a rear view of the image. Along the opposite wall as you exit the temple are 108 bowls into which visitors are encouraged to drop small denomination coins for good luck and long life. These coins are collected by monks early each morning and proceeds are used to feed the hungry.
Among the more than 1,000 Buddha images at Wat Pho is a bronze meditating Buddha image in the Main Bot (temple hall). Along the portico in the compound of Wat Pho are several golden images in the seated position. At first glance they all looked the same. However, upon closer examination, I saw that the facial expression was different on each image. I was told by the guide that Buddhists believe that the face of a Buddha image takes on the image of its builder.
The Wat Pho compound also contain a group of four huge tile color-glazed chedi or pagodas to honor the first three Chakri kings (one each for King Rama I and II and two for King Rama III) along with 91 smaller chedi of varying sizes containing ashes of relatives of high ranking royal family. The giant Chinese rockery statues standing guard by the entryways were ballast from the ancient trading travels to China. The Rock Giants are carved from Chinese granite and represent significant characters in Thai history including the Chinese Monk, the Political Nobleman, the Civil or Workman Warrior and four Chinese giant guardians representing Marco Polo, the first European visiting and introducing European tradition to China. If you’re tired from all the walking, you can also get a 30 minute traditional Thai massage for about US$7.00 from professionals trained at the famous Thai Traditional Medical School located within the compound walls.
Modern transportation in downtown Bangkok
In contrast to the historical, crowded sites in Old Bangkok, the Dusit District is a relatively modern untouristy area with broad tree lined boulevards and large open spaces. As the successor to the Grand Palace about four km away, Dusit is considered Bangkok’s “new” royal city. It was laid out at the beginning of the 20th century by King Rama V who modeled it after European capitals he’d seen during his travels and named it Suan Dusit or Celestial Garden. It was later renamed Dusit Palace.
Although the original palace complex covered approximately 76 hectares or 190 acres and consisted of 13 royal residences and three throne halls, today’s complex is less than a tenth that size. In 1900 construction of the new royal residence, Vimanmek Palace, was completed. Formerly the building was the King’s Summer Palace located in the Chonburi Province on Thailand’s eastern shore. It was dismantled and rebuilt at its present site in the new royal complex. Constructed entirely without nails, it is thought to be the first building in the country with electricity and indoor sanitation. After serving as the primary royal residence for only a few years while the new royal palace was being constructed, the building laid abandoned for more than 80 years.
Today the restored 81 room Vimanmek Mansion, as it is now known, is a museum dedicated to the beloved King Rama V. The halls and antechambers of the three storied Mansion are tastefully decorated with pieces of art, jewelry, antiques, paintings and other royal treasures and artifacts. About 30 rooms in the Mansion, the Dusit district’s top tourist attraction, are open daily to the public for guided tours except on days when it is used for ceremonial functions. The King and Queen now reside in nearby Chitrlada Palace (not open to the public).
In 1899, King Rama V commissioned an Italian architect to build Wat Benchamabophit, near the new royal palace. It is the last major temple to be built in central Bangkok. Constructed of gray Carrara marble, the Victorian-style stained-glass window temple is also called the Marble Temple. It was one of the most beautiful temples that I visited while in Bangkok. In the cloisters behind the temple are 53 bronze Buddha images, each slightly different in appearance, from around Thailand and other Buddhist countries.
Also located in the new royal city is Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall, home to an excellent collection of handcrafted silver creations and metallic collages, stone carvings, bamboo basketry, and other Thai traditional, crafted artifacts. Admirers of exquisite Thai crafts should not miss the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. The white marble building designed by Italian architects has a beautiful rotunda with a ceiling of golds, bronzes and blues. The former home of the Thai parliament for a brief period, the building displays masterpiece artworks created by native Thai who learned their artistic skills from the Chitrlada Arts and Crafts Center under Her Majesty the Queen’s Royal Patronage. The Hall displays only the best of the best such as the embroidered “Himavan” Forest ceiling to floor size screen which took two years, six months and 162 artisans to create. Also on display are collage art created from the wings of brilliant blue-green beetles, award-winning embroidered paintings of traditional Thai images, fabrics with designs from all regions of Thailand, and large gold nielloware replicas of royal thrones and barges. Unfortunately, photos are not permitted in the Hall.
Just beyond the lush lawn of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall is the royal plaza with an equestrian statue of King Rama V in his field marshal’s uniform. Standing a total of six meters high, it was cast in Paris in 1907 during his tour of Europe.
Is this zoo guy crazy?
Along with the Dusit Zoo, originally the private botanical garden of King Rama V, and the Elephant Museum, Dusit has much to offer and provides a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Old Bangkok. Expect to spend the better part of a day taking in the sites of this new royal city.
From its early days as a tax collection port, Bangkok now spans an area far beyond the shores of the Chao Phraya River and consists of a modern, dynamic metropolis of more than ten million people, nearly a tenth of Thailand’s total population. The city is the country’s spiritual, cultural, diplomatic, commercial and educational hub. Over six million tourists flock to the City of Angels each year making tourism the city’s largest foreign exchange earner. I feel fortunate to have been one of those tourists.