Chao Phraya: River of Kings, River of Things
By John Borthwick
You can stay on it, play and pray on it, eat and sleep beside it — but best not swim in Bangkok’s Chao Phraya.
Thailand’s mother river, the Maenam Chao Phraya loops like a signature through the landscape, scrawling as it goes the history of the kings of Siam and their serial capitals, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and today’s Krung Thep.
By the time it reaches Bangkok’s bling-spangled shores the river has flowed some 340 km from Nakhon Sawan and is now alive with barges, longtails, ferries, tugs and drifting reefs of water hyacinth. Only Buddha would know what else its turbid waters have collected along the way. So stay high and dry either on the banks or aboard its rampaging commuter ferries; or, come nightfall, adrift on one of its boom-box dinner cruise boats.
The kings of old surveyed their Great City of the Angels from beautiful gilded boats with high prows adorned by figureheads from mythology. Ancient and new ones are housed in the riverside Royal Barge Museum, although the word “barge” doesn’t do justice to these delicate vessels. To see them in action and full glory catch the extraordinary Royal Barge Procession during which a flotilla of 52 ornate boats, with 2200 Royal Thai Navy sailors rowing and chanting in unison, glides past the Grand Palace and its Camelot of golden-roofed wats. One of the world’s great parades, it is scheduled for November 9 this year, with dress rehearsals slated for November 2 and 6.
The public Chao Phraya Express ferries charge up and downstream all day, with deckhands blowing shrill-whistled signals to the skipper. Hop on and off wherever you want. The fare, collected by a roving conductor, is tiny. Meanwhile, the less-crowded Chao Phraya Tourist Boat offers unlimited-stops on a one-day ticket for 150 baht, which gets you to 13 different piers and attractions. A convenient place to join either service is Sathorn Pier beside Saphan Taksin BTS station.
The Bang Rak district around the Mandarin Oriental Hotel was the heartland of 19th century Bangkok’s European trading community. Its colonial-style, riverfront buildings include the 1884 East Asiatic Trading Company (across the street from the Oriental) with a distinctive, white Venetian Renaissance façade.
Nearby, but clearly visible only from the river, is the French Ambassador’s elegant mansion. Obviously it is off-limits, but next door you can wander past the 1890 Customs House, a huge, old, Italianate sandstone dowager that once monitored all foreign vessels entering Siam’s capital. Today it looks out on the tides and waterbug boats that scamper past and, despite looking like a fire hazard itself, is the local fire station.
With the exception of the major riverfront hotels, much of Bangkok’s serious dining of the past half-century has turned its back on the river, but in recent years smaller, more casual restaurants have appeared again along the bank, pitched at Thais, expats and tourists-in-the-know. The Deck, for instance, just off Maharat Road (almost opposite Wat Pho) has a jumble of dining levels, mostly with views of the river and its nocturnal flotilla of neon-blazing dinner boats. Its crowning aerie is the romantic Amorosa Bar from where you’ve got one of the best, open-air views in town.
On the Thonburi or west side of the river, Supatra River House is long established and tourist-oriented, with Thai fare that is farang-friendly. Meanwhile, Samasara Café & Meal, a Japanese-Thai place hidden in an old teak house off Songwat Road, near Chinatown, is so well hidden that if your taxi can find it, you should shout the driver dinner there.
Sleep When You Can
“A grotesque cavalcade of bone-white, ziggurat-slanted hotels” (to use the critical words of one expat writer) lines the central Bangkok stretch of the river. Beautiful, ugly or otherwise — “Up to you,” as the Thais say — this gauntlet includes the usual suspects as well as the unusual: Sheraton, Shangri-La, Peninsula, Hilton, Anantara, The Siam, Chatrium and Avani.
Matriarch or Big Daddy — again, up to you — of them all is the venerable, pukka-to-the-max Mandarin Oriental. “I was almost evicted from The Oriental because the manager did not want me to ruin her business by dying in one of her rooms,” recalled author William Somerset Maugham of his first, malaria-wracked visit to this grand hotel in 1923.
If your pocket, like mine, doesn’t stretch to these fine quarters, there are more modestly priced waterside digs like River View Guest House, Baan Wanglang Riverside, The Aurum, Sala Rattanakosin, Arun Residence or the tiny Loy La Long. The latter featured in the 2009 film Bangkok Traffic Love Story, Thailand’s highest grossing movie of that year, as the setting for a memorable love affair.
Wherever you eat, dream or wander its banks, the Chao Phraya is a wondrous, tale-telling current — not always lovely, to be sure, but ever fascinating, to be equally sure — that’s hectic with river-train barges and disco galleons, slo-mo tugs and those howling ruea hang yao longtails. Go with its flow — just don’t fall in.
Chao Phraya Express Boat: chaophrayaexpressboat.com
Royal Barge Procession: bangkok.com/events-calendar
The Deck restaurant: arunresidence.com
Samasara Café & Meal: 1612 Song Wat Road. Tel: 026396853.
Supatra River House restaurant: supatrariverhouse.net