Blinding from a distance, the pavements shone like fresh galvanized iron sheets straight out from the nearby factory.
Last night’s rain shower made them appear to look even brighter as I strut cautiously along the silvery concrete that leads to the river port.
As the hostile sun was starting to burn through the clouds and beat on my sunburned neck, the boat that would take me to the Royal Grand Palace was overly crowded though it was still eight in the morning in the “Land of Smiles”
I was warned not to take a taxi. Early morning traffic can be tricky and it gets worse until night time.
“The best and only way to go around Bangkok and know it by heart is by boat”, said the woman from the concierge desk, taking the map out, her fingers gyrating, as she started pointing directions. Though I was tempted to hire the cute “tuk-tuk” driver whom I had met the night before while looking for the best tailor shop in town, I decided to stick to what I had been told.
Together with the other tourists and first time travelers, my travel partner and I swarmed the russet-brown waters on ferry boats. While cruising along the snaking 219-mile-long Chao Phraya River (Mae Nam Chao Phraya), it felt like riding the tides of its history.
In May 1950, a coup d’état took place on the river where the Prime Minister at the time was taken at gunpoint to the warship that anchored in the middle of the Chao Phraya. After being held hostage overnight and released by his captors, the premier swam ashore just in time before the ship was bombed by the air force.
Like all urban rivers, the Chao Phraya is a story in itself. Its character and past are intertwined with the city it flows through. As King Rama I described it – the lifeblood of Thailand, for it waters the broad Central Plains, creating the fertile rice bowl of the Kingdom and at the same time provides access to the outside world.
Today, more than 50,000 people use the river for transport. From the slender high speed boats to ferries (river taxis) that carry both locals and tourists, workers and school children, as well as slow barges bearing cargo heading to the Gulf of Siam. The floating wooden shacks of the past may have diminished over the years, yet the floating market brought to the capital by boats still stands the test of time.
Among the old and the newly built, the Author’s Wing at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel was a place of solace for royalty and traveling writers alike, some of whom included Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward. Moreover, scribes; Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene once sojourned in one of the 40 commodious rooms overlooking the evocative river. In their eyes, Bangkok was the Venice of the East.
By the river Chao Phraya, I witnessed millions of lives throbbing and reaching out to the world. The look of individual faces, the worry lines and nostalgic smiles of people I encountered, the wooden houses standing next to extravagant temples with pointed roofs, the golden and emerald Buddha’s, who is either sitting or reclining and there were even shrines with hundreds of oversized erect phalluses.
By the river and on the boat, my hands gripping the sides of my seat, I saw a different side of Bangkok. More than just the countless beguiling Buddhist temples, the wharfs and colonial buildings, palaces and churches, old houses and hotels, it was a clear vision of religion and secularism, calm and chaos, vintage and contemporary, cultural and commercial, ridiculous and sublime.
I started to unfurl the map the woman from the concierge gave us that morning. She had been right and my travel partner couldn’t agree more.
It was almost midnight when we got back. Colorful strobe lights from the buildings along the banks casted their reflection upon the still water that was troubled centuries ago. The pavements no longer shine like galvanized iron sheets as it had done that morning. The cute driver was starting the engine of his “tuk-tuk” and from a distance we heard the chanting of monks, as if to wish us a safe journey ahead.
WHEN TO GO:
Located just 14 degrees north of the Equator, Bangkok is one of the hottest cities in the world. Although it is sunny at any time of the year with temperatures mostly over 30°C (86°F) that could reach to 40’s °C (around 100°F), the best time to explore the city is during the cool season that starts from November until February. Temple-tramping is fun yet tricky; a good bottle of water should always come handy.
MUST SEE & DO ALONG THE RIVER:
By boat, start the river artery from the Grand Palace (Chakri Maha Prasat Hall). Head off to Wat Pho (Reclining Buddha Temple) and then cross the river to Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn). Pass by the Memorial Bridge and make a shopping halt at either the Indian Market or China Town. Light some incense at Wat Traimit (The Golden Buddha), make a short detour to the Wang Lee House and conclude the river cruise with afternoon Tiffin at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.