The City of Angels
The Chao Phraya River is as important to modern Bangkok as it was for the city’s early settlers. Even before the country’s former capital, Ayutthaya, was destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century and a new capital was built further south along the river in Thon Buri, the Chao Phraya has served as one of the country’s main transportation arteries. With its early status as a major tax collection port and customs office for foreign traders sailing north to the former capital city, the river became critical to transportation, communications and trade leading people to settle along its banks. There they built factories and homes, some of them jutting out onto the river and set atop stilts dug deep into the riverbed. Even now some locals affectionately known as “boat people” can’t bring themselves to live anywhere except aboard their modest boats moored along the river’s edge.
Visitors to modern day Bangkok have other options for transportation. The river however, still serves a critical role in the city’s economy. And without a doubt, the Chao Phraya River water taxi is the best alternative to Bangkok’s traffic clogged streets and by far the quickest and most economical way to get around the city. For tourists, views from the river suggest only a hint of the charm and beauty that Thailand’s capital city has to offer.
Today Bangkok has grown to straddle both banks of the Chao Phraya River. Among the longest in Thailand, the river is a hubbub of activity with barges carrying rice, teak and cement from riverside factories and other sites along the river. It begins in the northern part of the country, runs through Bangkok and empties into the Gulf of Thailand.
In the early morning small fishermen can be seen delivering fresh catch to local restaurants and markets that thrive along the Chao Phraya. Throughout the day long-tail boats, river taxis and private hotel boats navigate between piers along both sides of the river to deliver locals and tourists to their destinations. In the evenings, the river takes on a romantic quality with a shimmering skyline and sparkling lights from the many dinner cruise ships gliding along the river.
In fact, a river tour on one of the ubiquitous long-tail boats is a great introduction to the city. So it’s helpful to know a little about how the city is laid out relative to the mighty river. On the west side of the Chao Phraya is Thon Buri, site of the Thai capital for 15 years beginning in 1767 when Ayutthaya was besieged. In 1782 King Rama I (the first of nine Kings in the Chakri Dynasty that continues to the present day) moved the capital to Krung Thep on the east side of the river, the area that today essentially encompasses Bangkok’s Old City and the location of most of Bangkok’s most well-known tourist attractions. Krung and Thep are the first two words of the city’s official 43-syllable name and means “City of Angels”.
On the river cruise, you’ll see sites such as The Royal Thai Navy Dockyard and Royal Boat House, magnificent Buddhist temples including Wat Arun (also called the Temple of Dawn) and probably the best known historical structure on the west side of the river.
The river tour goes beneath the beautiful 475 meter (more than 1,500 feet) Rama VIII cable stayed bridge and connects Thon Buri to Krung Thep. Opened in 2002, the bridge has become a recognizable part of the Bangkok skyline and appears on the back of Thailand’s 20 baht bank note.
The river tour also passes the many river-side restaurants and high-rise hotels that cater to many of the millions of tourists and business people visiting the city each year. A side trip through the locks and into one of the small canals or klhongs that split off the main river gives a close-up view of how locals have adapted to life on the water’s edge in a city once called the Venice of the East.
After an introduction to the city from the comfort of a long-tail boat, it’s time to hit the streets of Old Town Bangkok and experience the city up close. And my, what an experience you’ll have!
My Bangkok exploration began on Yaowarat Road, the main street in Chinatown, established during Bangkok’s infancy. The area grew rapidly as the Chinese migrated south to Siam as Thailand was known at the time. These early Chinese settlers were followed by fellow countrymen fleeing flooding, famine and communism, settled in the area called Soi Sampheng (Sampheng Lane), which later became Chinatown, where they continued their trading tradition.
More than 200 years later, Chinatown not only serves the needs of the city’s Chinese residents but is one of Bangkok’s most popular tourist attractions. The narrow streets and alleys of Chinatown are chocked full with market stalls and small shops selling everything one could conceivably want including apparel, shoes, souvenirs, herbal medicine, lottery tickets, bird’s nest soup, gold, salted fish, used water bottles (who knew!!!), old coins, and other essential and non-essential items. Chinatown also has some streets that specialize in items such as purses, textiles (fabrics, buttons, threads, etc.), fresh produce, and fresh flowers.
As I wandered through Chinatown, the smoky aromas from the street food stalls threatened to send my olfactory senses into overload. Even though I had eaten breakfast only a couple of hours earlier, the wide selection of dishes and spicy aromas tested my resolve to wait until lunchtime to eat again. Being unfamiliar with most of the foods, I was also intimidated by the choices and reluctant to try ordering anything. As I walked around, I found food stalls that sold soup served with either chicken, duck or egg noodles. The smoke wafting from roasting barbecued pork, shark’s fins, beef, and squid made my mouth water. Of course, there was rice, but also many other foods that I didn’t recognize. Some stalls sold prepared dishes while others added oils, spices and herbs to ingredients ordered by the customer.
Later when I realized that I had a hunger induced headache, I finally garnered enough courage to order. After scoping out several of the many food stalls that crowded the street that led to Tha Chang Pier 9, I selected one that had a young woman who appeared to be in her late teen or early 20s (more likely to speak English I hoped) and ordered pad thai (stir-fried rice noodles). With some guidance from the young woman, I added shrimp and ordered a bottle of water. I was then directed to sidestep between rows of buckets holding ice covered water bottles and canned sodas on one side and the ancient looking cook stove and more buckets containing the raw ingredients on the other. I made my way under the small tarp that served as the combined food preparation and dining area and sat at a small table. In less than ten minutes a paper plate was plopped down onto the small oil cloth covered table where I sat. With the plastic fork I cautiously dug into the overflowing plate and was delighted when the pad thai far exceeded even the best and far more expensive pad thai that I had eaten at home.
Even though Chinatown is concentrated into a relatively small area of old town Bangkok, it’s impossible to truly appreciate its diversity unless you’re accompanied by someone who knows the territory. Many tourists choose to see the area with a tour guide. Tours usually begin at the end of Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road near the arched Odeon Chinese Gate.
I wish I had taken a tour. Instead I got so caught up in roaming Chinatown’s narrow alleyways that I later realized that I missed one of Bangkok’s most revered and unique possessions – the five and a half ton 700 year-old solid golden Buddha image housed in Wat Traimit or the Temple of the Golden Buddha located a stone’s throw from the Odeon Gate. The 13th century 18-carat gold 4 meter (13 feet) high seated Buddha image was discovered in 1955 during construction at the port of Bangkok. When the crane ties holding the plaster-covered statue broke during relocation, the statue crashed to the ground breaking the plaster and revealing the solid gold image beneath. It is believed that the image was encased in plaster to hide it during the invasion of Ayutthaya, the former capital.