Boat Transport in Bangkok and Thonburi

Photo at left: Canal boat on Klong Saen Sap in Bangkapi by Ramkamhaeng. The boat holds about 70 people seated, and over 100 during rush hour, many standing in the back.

Historical Perspective      Map      Chao Phraya River

Klong Bangkok Noi

Klong Saen Sap      Klong Tan - Prakanong

Historical Perspective

Historically, Thailand was "the Venice of the East" whereby water transport was the primary means of long distance transport of goods. If fact, the canal system in Bangkok and elsewhere was far more extensive than ever existed in Venice, and I'm not aware of any place on Earth where the manmade canal network has ever been as extensive. If you look at a good Bangkok map, you will be amazed at the extent of the criss-cross grid. (Of course, natural streams do not make a straight line.) As you drive down the road, you'll probably note many straight streams that aren't on the map.

Archaeology has revealed that this has been the way for thousands of years here. For example, approximately 5000 years ago, the seaside reached about 100 km north of Bangkok, where a place now called Saraburi was one of the seaside cities. (The plate with Thailand's seashore has been rising rapidly.) Arial photography revealed an extensive network of criss-cross anomalies, and archaeological investigation shows these to be prehistoric canals with old artifacts.

The Thai word "klong" means "canal" and shall be used hereafter.

The 20th century saw a rapid transformation to surface vehicle transport. In fact, many of the main roads of today are just filled-in klongs. Since klongs weren't owned by anyone, loosely speaking, it was easier to fill them in to make roads than to displace people. For example, Silom, Sathorn, Phloenchit, Sukhumvit and Asoke are just a few of the filled in klongs. Many places are named after klongs, e.g., Klong Toey, Klong Tan, Marbu-Klong.

The Thai people have their cultural origins along the klongs, though this changed drastically in the 20th century.

Today, water transport still exists, but is pretty much confined to the Chao Phraya River which runs thru Bangkok and Thonburi, and a few canals which have commercial passenger boat services. These can be used to beat the traffic, but they are also worth taking once or twice just for the cultural experience. They are very cheap and a nice tourist adventure... if you know what you're doing. To the best of my knowledge, only three or four klongs still have commercial passenger boat services. Several routes have died in the last 10 years, but the ones below are still going.  

Map

It would be nice to put a map here someday. Any volunteers? (Didn't think so. Easier to just surf...)  

Chao Phraya River

There are a number of commercial boat services each with a fleet of large, modern boats going up and down the river on a regular schedule. The furthest north they go is Nonthaburi pier, and the southernmost place is the Taksin Bridge (Sathorn Rd., last skytrain stop), except for a few boats which continue down to Phra Pra Daeng and Bang Na Trat. These usually cost less than 20 baht. Though they are a commercial service, they are quite enjoyable for simple tourism.

The main Chao Phraya Express Boat schedules is a good guide to river transportation for the daily commuter.

There are other boat carriers, too. You can jump on at any pier. A conductor will come up to you to take your fee. They start near sunrise and stop around sunset.

There are also ferries which cross the river and are ubiquitous. Typically just a few baht. You pay at the gate to the pier.

You can also ride a small long tailed boat which seats only a dozen or so people, often students. These are used on regular routes. The driver or his partner take your fee. You can also go somewhere solo for a negotiated fee.

The book stores have some handy maps prepared for you if you're not keen on relying on your own printouts or phone or tablet bookmarks.  

Klong Bangkok Noi, other tourist canals

There are tourist-oriented ride along some long canals on the Thonburi side which give you a good feel for old Siam. Most start on the Bangkok side, race over the river, into the klong and then slow down and cruise down the klong. Some are loops, some are out and back. The best place to catch them are in and near Wat Po.  

Klong Saen Sap

This is a Bangkok canal which has a large boat service oriented to commuters, not tourists. Each long tailed boat has a capacity of more than 100 people, about 7 per bench seat. The klong stinks and the water is black (due mainly to the black clay underneath and upstream). The boats also put out smoky exhaust, so when they pass each other the air is noxious. Nonetheless, many expats enjoy taking this boat a time or two. At rush hour the boats are packed and it's often difficult to get on except at the first stop. However, on weekends and mid-day during the week, the boats are less than half full. Wait at any pier and wave it down. When you want to get off, just get up and move towards the end. The driver will stop at the next pier.

The canal goes parallel to Petchburi Rd. then turns up Ramkamhaeng and the boat service ends at a wat a short way past Sri Nakharin. (The canal actually continues tens of kilometers further to another city, Chachoensao.) The first pier downtown is across the street from the World Trade Center just about 20 meters from Petchburi Rd. One boat line goes east towards Sri Nakharin, whereas lower ceiling boats go west (lower bridges) a few more kilometers towards the river. There is no link to the river.

Several years ago, you could switch boats again and go to the floodgate at the river or else to the train station (Hua Lampang). Those boat routes shut down around 1998.

Also, in yesteryears, you could go all the way to the airport by switching boats at a certain pier, whereby the second boat would turn into Klong Lad Prao and then go up that long, quiet, relatively clean and charming canal which is narrower and nicer than Klong Saen Sap. It ended at the Air Force Base, at a community and market, whereby you could catch a motorcycle to your terminal a short distance away. Alas, that service ended sometime around the year 2000.  

Klong Tan - Klong Prakanong

As of mid-2002, this little boat service is still operating. It's located in the Sukhumvit expat region near a skytrain stop, it's small, charming, and goes down a relatively clean klong. It's worth a ride once just for the experience.

The boat starts under the bridge just past Sukhumvit 71 (near the Klong Tan skytrain station)which goes over Klong Prakanong, right by the intersection of the Ram Indra expressway. They are small longtailed boats which carry a maximum of about 20 people, two per bench seat. They wait there until enough people get on the boat. They also pick up students and others along the way, so they usually leave half empty or even less. Make sure you specify that you're going to Sri Nakharin because some of the boats go to odd places.

Note: There are freelance boat drivers who will offer you a ride to anywhere for, say, 100 baht. Just decline and take the normal boat that other people are on.

Klong Prakanong is partly a natural stream, so the boat zig zags around. Some of the piers are incredibly small, basically just steps going into the water, yet the boat driver is masterful at guiding the boat. People get on and off, and sometimes take on and deliver goods along the klong. It goes past some beautiful wats and a tall Muslim mosque. Everything is very relaxed, and sometimes the boat driver will have a friendly chit-chat for half a minute or so with people who have shops or homes around the piers, "the peers by the piers".

Some time ago, I wrote up a web page on this ride and where to go after you reach Sri Nakharin Rd (unless you just want to take the boat back) for a typical "day tour": Klong tan boat ride  

Important Tips Regarding Klong Rides

I wrote this section back in 1995, and it applies mainly to the commercial Klong Saen Sap route, which I used to take often from Bangkapi into Bangkok:

The klong boats are an excellent way to beat the traffic. They also cost within just 15 baht per ride. However, it's NOT for delicate people. Regardless of your level of toughness or determination, a few tips and warnings should be considered.

  • The klongs generally have polluted water. You should avoid getting water mist in your eyes, or else you risk an eye infection.

  • Avoid rush hour, unless you don't mind standing up at the back of the boat for the duration of your ride, or waiting on the pier as filled boats pass by without stopping.

  • Try to find a seat at the front of the boat. The boat causes a mist as it passes thru the water, and wind or waves caused by a boat passing in the opposite direction often causes mist to be blown onto people on the back of the boat.

  • Bring earplugs or tissue paper to put in your ears in case you get on in the back of the boat. The engine is LOUD, e.g., my ears ring loudly after just a few minutes there.

  • Be careful when getting on and off the boat. If you're not well coordinated, then you'd better think twice about taking the klong.

  • BE ESPECIALLY CAREFUL if you encounter a wet piers or wet spots on an otherwise dry pier. They are SLIPPERY. I have seen many, many people step off the boat to slip on the pier, which not only can injury you or dirty your clothes but can also can make you slip into the water itself. WATCH YOUR STEP!!

  • I recommend taking the boats only during non-rush hour, e.g., after 10:00am. It's crazy during rush hour. Also, if a boat looks pretty full, then I skip the boat and wait for the next one. They're usually spaced around 5 minutes apart, less or more depending upon time of day. It's better if you get on at one of the first stops, as during rush hour the people at the middle stops watch many full boats go by without stopping.

Notably, the notorious boat accident of 1995 (actually, it was on the big Chao Phraya River) was due to a floating pier which became overcrowded and sank when people exited off a boat to the pier. None of the klong piers I've seen are floating, and most seem very sturdy, but a few seem to be sinking in the mud like some of the adjacent walkways and banks. Since the river pier disaster, the authorities started inspecting piers and enforcing safety standards.

If you live next to a klong with no boat service, you may be able to get one of the small private boats to regularly take you somewhere, for a higher fee, of course. Some people pay 100 baht and go far down side a few of the less polluted side klongs.

It would be real nice if some organization hired some of the ubiquitous cheap labor to make the klongs prettier, e.g., planting flowered bushes along the banks. I could also suggest some significant design improvements for the boats, which could be retrofitted onto existing boats, to make the whole system nicer and safer. The klongs have great potential, both for reducing traffic (especially with all the expensive subway and overhead train media schemes) and artistically enhancing some unique elements to life in Siam.




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