We landed in Bangkok on the first stop of our Southeast Asia vacation. Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River are shown above. Old districts along the river contain major temples and Chinatown. Boats on the river and canals were the primary mode of transportation until the late 19th century. Bangkok is a flat, sprawling city with a mean elevation of 1.5 meters. Like Venice, Bangkok is slowly sinking.
Water transport is still important in Bangkok. In addition to using Bangkok’s elevated trains and subway, we rode boats extensively, because they’re the fastest way to get to the major temples on the river.
Shown below, boats cruise on the Chao Phraya, with the Wat Pho temple across the river. The boat emitting the long, black exhaust cloud is a long-tail boat, named because it’s powered by an automobile engine driving a propeller on a long shaft.
The boat shown below is known as an express boat, which takes people along the river. We sometimes waited 20 minutes for express boats, so they didn’t seem express to us. Perhaps they replaced boats that were even slower…
What is express is the way the boat docks and how you pay. When docking, the boat driver slows down a bit, slamming the back of the boat (note the black rubber bumpers on the side of the boat) into the dock. The guy in the blue shirt jumps off the boat, ties the boat to the dock, and blows a whistle to signal the driver to gun the engine again. Gunning the engine while the boat is tied to the dock stabilizes the boat at the same level as the dock, so the boat doesn’t rock up and down as the passengers get on and off the boat. The guy in the blue shirt offers a hand to people as they get on and off. People are very orderly. First, people get off, and then people board. When everybody’s on board, the docking guy blows the whistle again, and they unmoor the boat and roar off. It’s fast, and it works.
A ride on this express boat with an orange flag costs 15 baht (.50 USD). No tickets are sold on the dock. Instead, you board the boat, and a person on the boat comes around to take money and gives you a torn ticket. The money taker usually relies on people to offer money, and this seemed to work well. I saw the money taker ask a backpacker to pay, but he produced a worn ticket from his pocket, and that was good enough.
Smaller ferries take people across the river. Below, a pair of ferries simultaneously load people, cross the river, and docks on the opposite shore. The bow in the foreground is one boat; the other boat is on the far shore. We used this ferry to see the Wat Arun temple across the river.
A third kind of boat, long-tail boats, have a colorful name, and they were featured in an old James Bond flick. Because of this cool factor, we looked forward to going for a ride in one, but we eventually thought better of it. This long-tail boat leaves a cloud of black exhaust as it speeds off.
The long-tail boats don’t secure themselves to the dock like the express boats, so the long-tail boat bobs up and down as the passengers try to climb on and off.
Notice how low the long-tail boats sit in the water, so low that passengers get splashed. From a tour of the Jim Thompson House, we learned that this American bought his house after World War II next to a canal, called a khlong. He was setting up silk weaving, and he wanted to use the khlong for transportation. During the tour we heard long-tail boats roaring past on the khlong, which has a long-tail ferry service. After the tour, we checked out khlong and perhaps go for a ride on a long-tail boat. In the street behind the house and next to the canal, we were greeting by the very strong smell of urine and sewer gas next to the house and the khlong. Perhaps raw sewage is dumped into the khlong? Being ignorant and just starting our vacation, we weren’t dying to ride a long-tail boat on the khlong. Instead, we walked to a nearby mall, and our first taste of mango and sticky rice smoothed over any lingering disappointment.