A cruise along the river of kings
he Chao Phraya isn’t just one of Bangkok’s distinctive sights, it’s also regarded as the most important river in Thailand for its size and history. It’s a major communication highway, known here as the “River of Kings” for the many fish that swam in it during the reign of King Rama I (late 18th and early 19th centuries). The source of the Chao Phraya is in Nakhon Sawan (to the north of central Thailand), at the confluence of the Ping and Nan rivers. One is reddish and the other greenish in colour, and when they join they flow through several provinces in the centre of the country until they reach Bangkok and flow into the ocean through the Gulf of Thailand.
A city like Bangkok, with close to ten million inhabitants, isn’t easy to get around. You can’t see it all at once, but a boat trip on the Chao Phraya allows you to see some of the Thai capital’s main attractions, like Wat Arun, the Grand Palace and Wat Pho (temple of the reclining Buddha). The waters of the Chao Phraya are ‘occupied’ by ferries covering express routes, renovated former rice boats and luxury cruisers.
The peace of Bangkok
Besides being one of the symbols of Bangkok, Chao Phraya is a breath of fresh air in the busy city. An estimated 50,000 people use the ferries to go to and from work. This takes the pressure off the city's jam-packed streets.
The first, like Chao Phraya Express, are used by locals as a daily means of transport and are the fastest – and cheapest – way of seeing the city or getting to the main attractions. Many of these river routes start at the central quay, next to BTS Saphan Taksin station. They are also used to carry goods from one side of the city to the other, like they did centuries ago.
For quieter routes that allow you to see some of the city’s canals, the best choice is to hire a long-tail boat, one of the typical Thai wooden riverboats that are easily recognisable for their long, slender shape. The best time of day for a boat trip is at dusk, with the sun setting between the outlines of the city’s monuments, which are lit up as night falls. There’s a reason why Bangkok is known as “Venice of the East.”
People with a bit more time on their hands can sign up for Anantara Rice Barge Cruises. The company has rebuilt 100-year-old teakwood rice boats and fitted them out with modern amenities. These cruises last several days and take you way beyond the Thai capital. For instance, the three-day Ayutthaya Thousand Golden Temples Cruise, which goes all the way to the city, 70 kilometres north of Bangkok aboard the Anantara Dream.
You pass by the Grand Palace and Temple of Dawn, and the boat makes a number of stops to show you how people still live the old way along the river and practise their traditional rituals. Inside the riverboats, where once rice was stored, there are now luxury suites with stunning views of Chao Phraya along its 372 kilometres, and no shortage of champagne.