Explorer Ludovic Marquis de Beauvoir famously called Bangkok the “Asiatic Venice”, and it’s not difficult to see why. The expansive Chao Phraya River is the city’s beating heart, with an endless parade of boats and barges keeping the industrious capital afloat. Along its banks lie an exotic mix of traditional stilt houses, gilt Buddhist temples and dusty white fortresses, clinging to the river banks with not an inch of real estate to spare. The canals, or khlongs, shoot off in all directions like small vessels off an artery.
With much of Bangkok’s daily life occurring at street level, a long-tail boat cruise along the Chao Phraya is an ideal jumping-off point to scour hidden markets, delve into its rich, multifaceted history, and find tasty nosh to fuel further exploration.
Sathorn Pier has a large gathering of long-tail boats for private hire, although drivers hang around the major piers, including Tha Chang Pier near Grand Palace and River City Shopping Complex pier. If you’d rather not haggle with drivers, book a half-day or full-day tour ahead of time.
TO MARKET, TO MARKET
A 9am trawl through Pak Khlong Talat, Bangkok’s largest flower market is guaranteed to jump-start the senses after a long-haul flight. Peak-hour traffic here takes the form of mopeds zigzagging between rows of vendors delivering their fragrant loot: orchids, roses, jasmine, marigolds and lotuses, which emit a sweet perfume vastly different to the street just a few paces away.
“The lotus is very special to Thai people,” guide Prawit explains with a gap-toothed smile. “The flower emerging through the mud represents a wise and spiritually enlightened person who is free from attachment, somebody who carries out their tasks with little concern for any reward.” It’s a poignant remark given the market is staffed by Bangkok’s urban poor, who make a living stringing flower garlands for Buddhist offerings.
In a city where skyscrapers and shopping malls abound, the centuries old Pak Khlong Talat is an authentic window into old Bangkok and a place representing traditional Thai values. Just 350m from Rajinee Ferry Wharf, it’s an ideal river cruise pit stop, plus you can take home a fragrant bundle for as little as 20 baht (about 80¢).
LET’S GET SPIRITUAL
Any visitor to Bangkok will almost certainly notice an abundance of the following: saffron-draped monks, wats (Buddhist temples) and the peaceful, non-confrontational manner of Thai people. With more than 90 per cent of the population prescribing to Buddhism, its customs are heavily interwoven with their culture and daily life.
Situated on the west (Thonburi) bank of the Chao Phraya River and built in the 17th century, Wat Arun is one of Bangkok’s most unique and stunning Buddhist temples. Towering 70m over the water, its distinctive spires reflect the sun with a pearly iridescence, encrusted by seashells and shards of porcelain that had previously been used as ballast by boats coming to Bangkok from China. A word of warning, Wat Arun is a magnet for tourists. However, it’s well worth climbing out of a long-tail boat to get a feel for the scale and detail.
Jolt that palate for Southeast Asia out of hibernation at one of the restaurants dotted along Chao Phraya River. With its pavilion-style architecture and prime waterfront vantage point, Tha Maharaj Pier is an elegant complex just a short stroll from many of the capital’s most famous sights, such as Wat Pho and Grand Palace.
The Savoey Restaurant on the second-floor terrace is a Bangkok dining institution serving all the Thai favourites plus some modern twists. Try the shredded fresh green papaya salad with crab, the Savoey’s signature self-saucing pork spring rolls encased in a delicate pink flour and the deep fried snapper in green curry. For something quick and easy with child-friendly options, check out classic Neapolitan pizzas at Peppina or sushi and Japanese fare at Ramen Boy.
Down a nondescript street and through some dark wooden gates is Jim Thompson’s House on the Klong, a museum housing the art collection and antiques of US businessman Jim Thompson. Renowned for single-handedly reviving the Thai silk industry in the ’50s and ’60s, he was also a one-time spy, a retired army officer and ex-architect, whose mysterious disappearance has puzzled police for decades.
The property itself exudes calmness and tranquillity. Butterflies meander through the lush tropical foliage and the khlong gently rushes by, complementing the exquisite craftsmanship on display inside Jim’s masterpiece: white and blue porcelain from China, Belgian glass, Cambodian carvings, Victorian chandeliers, Burmese statues and a dining table that was once used by King Rama V of Thailand. Located in the centre of Bangkok, it can be reached by car, taxi, tuktuk, or the Skytrain (Bangkok Transit System).
A ROYAL MUSEUM
The respect of Thailand’s royal family is akin to worship. Almost a year on from King Rama IX’s death in 2017, visual tributes in the form of shrines, billboards and magazine covers were literally plastered around Bangkok, and up to 10,000 people lined the streets, waiting to get a glimpse of his cremation site.
Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum is a place where this royal devotion begins to crystallise, shedding light on the fascinating history of medical innovation and the royal family’s enduring contribution to medicine. Both King Rama IX and his father, Mahidol Adulyadej, Prince of Songkla, spent decades improving healthcare for Thailand’s poorest citizens. It’s high on the scale of cerebral travel activities, but a go-to for anyone with an interest in the history of Thailand’s royal family, medical innovation and public policy. The museum is a two-minute walk from the Siriraj, Bangkok Noi ferry wharf.
After a day spent conquering the khlongs and streetscapes, decompress at one of Bangkok’s many modern hotels soaring above Chao Phraya. Situated on the Thonburi bank, AVANI Riverside is the younger, hipper cousin to some of the more established hotels further north. Light wood, high ceilings, huge windows and sleek, minimalist furnishings create the feel of an ultra-modern penthouse apartment.
The Attitude Rooftop Bar and Restaurant on the 26th floor offers uninterrupted space to recline and watch the drama of the city unfold below. You can lounge by the infinity pool, opt for open-air dining on a day bed or inside the chic interior of the restaurant. Simply pick your favourite perch, then order an expertly mixed mojito and pork-belly that dissolves on the tongue.
Much like the city itself, it’s an intoxicating fusion that will keep you coming back for more.
Rosamund Brennan travelled as a guest of Thai Airways, AVANI Riverside and Absolutely Fantastic Holidays.