Bangkok from the water: khlong boat trip

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Once the primary transport arteries of entire Central Thailand, nowadays slightly obsolete reminders of those long-gone days, the khlongs, historic manmade canals, still crisscross the megalopolis of Bangkok. Passing through atmospheric old neighborhoods and ethnic communities, hiding in the shadows of metropolitan skyscrapers, they provide an alternative outlook on the splendor and filth of the capital city: view from the water. Many are still navigable, and a few maintain passenger boat services - a cheap tour option for travelers, a way to beat the traffic jams for locals. Floating markets, once a measure of convenience, later forgotten, have now become a sort of urban hype – old ones get resurrected, new ones established where none used to be. Of course, they do not sell groceries anymore – those are weekend congregations of kitchen boats, more like floating food courts than actual marketplaces. Still, it is an amusing experience and a nice culmination for a boat trip.

© Istock/boonchai wedmakawand

Moats, waterways and floating markets

Most common sources claim that the khlongs of Bangkok were initially dug for protection, serving as moats around the city walls. Do not misunderstand this: it is true, but it only refers to the few canals in and around Ratanakosin Island. The area had, in fact, become an island in 1782, when Rama I, the king of Siam, had ordered the moats constructed and connected to Chao Phraya River, isolating Ratanakosin from the surrounding plains. But these former fortifications are but a tiny fraction of the overall number: Wikipedia states there were 1,682 canals in Bangkok in 2019. Most of them are little more than drainage ditches, and every year another few get filled in. But the neighborhood of Thonburi, for example, still depends on such waterways for existence, with many houses using the khlong's name instead of a street in their postal address.

© Istock/surachetsh

Khlong Saen Saeb

Of all the canals in Bangkok, Khlong Saen Saeb is the one most commonly used – both by the local crowd and foreign tourists. Regular public boats navigate most of its length, linking Phan Fa pier near the Golden Mount with the modern city center at Pratunam. For the Thais, this is an excellent alternative to the permanently congested streets of Ratanakosin. For travelers, it is an exciting** opportunity to experience old-school khlong transportation – and do it on a budget. Hop on a boat, sit on a hard wooden bench, watch the dirty, unkempt backsides of posh buildings, dilapidated (but somehow cozy) slums and rusty bridges fly past, and wait for the conductor to approach you dauntlessly on the outer side of the boat**, like a pirate eager to rob you of 10 THB.

© Istock/chriss73

Khlong tours

All other khlong boat services in Bangkok, apparently, have been suspended by now. Rumors tell of infrequent public boats in the canals of Thonburi, but unless you can prove them true, your best chance to see this jumble of waterways and traditional wooden houses from the water is to join one of the popular tours. Those usually cost 1000-2000 THB, depending on their itinerary, level of comfort, and your bargaining skills. There are several minor, yet sufficiently interesting sights, particularly the so-called “Artist House” on Khlong Bang Luang. If you happen to visit it, try to coincide with one of the cultural performances, usually staged at 2:00 PM. On weekends, one of the floating markets is normally added at the end of the tour. But the main attraction is the trip itself, a very atmospheric experience.

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