Siam has always been tied to the Chao Phraya River in some way. The kingdom of Sukhothai was founded on the banks of the Yom River, a tributary of the Chao Phraya, while downstream, another former capital – Ayutthaya – was settled…then sacked. Riverside communities bear the marks of this close bond: wooden stilt houses, floating markets and flood levies among them. Without this twisty, meandering behemoth – also known as the River of Kings – Thailand would simply not be Thailand.
The economic zones of Bangkok are well protected from flooding from the Chao Phraya, which means that trade and leisure on the river continues unabated all year round – commuter ferries, longtail boats, hotel transfers, sand barges and river cruises are the primary sources of all this waterborne activity.
If you find yourself with spare time in Bangkok, whether you're a traveler or a resident, the following pursuits will give you a good idea of both the city's history and its current identity.
Things to do around the Chao Phraya:
Shop: True, you can do this anywhere in Bangkok, but the riverside offers up the prettiest shopping opportunities, with some fresh air thrown in for good measure. River City, at Sri Phaya Pier – two stops from the terminus at Saphan Taksin – has waterfront restaurants and upmarket tourist-centric stores selling pricey silk, gems, souvenirs, antiques and artwork.
Across from River City right next to the Millennium Hilton, is Talat Khlong San, a typical local marketplace that sells mainly clothes – all very inexpensive – with all the usual market fare on offer as well. You can hop on the Hilton's ferry to get there, or pay 3 THB to cross from River City on the commuter ferry. The pier is called Khlong San.
Asiatique is the newest riverside shopping development, with hundreds of covered market stalls (a smaller, classier version of Chatuchak market), chain restaurants, upmarket dining and plenty of space to sit and people-watch. It's a 15-minute free shuttle boat ride from Saphan Taksin BTS and pier, and worth the trip. Avoid trying to drive here – the traffic and parking situation is a nightmare.
The tourist boat – the express boat with the blue flag – is usually the best way to navigate the river. It's 40 baht per trip – more expensive than the local commuter boat, but faster and with fewer stops. Stand near the back of the boat when you want to disembark – the boat stops for approximately 10 seconds at each pier, guided by a whistle-toting attendant – and the driver has no sympathy for slow-pokes. The attendant speaks some English if you need assistance.
Koh Kret: This is an urban outpost for an ethnic Mon community, who make a living on the steady stream of local and foreign tourists that visit for an afternoon to eat and shop for handicrafts and pottery, which the island is known for. You can join an organized tour to get there, or take the peak-hour green flag express boat to Pak Kret, or during the day, the green flag boat to Nonthaburi, then take a taxi. The island is a square that you can cycle or walk around (there are no cars) – a relaxing day out if you like temples, pagodas, museums and checking out the everyday life of a small village in Bangkok.
Phra Pradaeng: If the idea of cycling around a green area appeals to you, the Phra Pradaeng area of Bangkok is worth a look. It's a segment of jungle bordered by a loop in the Chao Phraya, with canals, a floating market, villages, wildlife and bicycle rental – elevated cement walkways over the marshy ground allow you to cycle, walk, or even Segway. You might want to venture into the urbanized area of Phra Pradaeng, or you might be content to explore the park right near Tha Bangkrachao pier. You can get to this pier by ferry or longtail boat from Khlong Toey pier.
Thonburi khlong tour: The "other side" of Bangkok is still has legitimate river-based communities who live in much the same manner as they have been for centuries. Tour operators are clueing up to the attractiveness of this area by offering organized longtail boat trips there, but you can achieve the same by hiring a private longtail boat by the hour. You can probably negotiate 300-500 baht per hour, and you need someone with Thai language skills on board. The pay-off is a relaxing – and sometimes thrilling – cruise through canals, sneaking peeks into the stilt houses of locals and being loudly greeted and splashed at by local kids using the khlongs as their backyard pool.
Dine: The river is best visited in the late afternoon so you can enjoy the change of scenery as sunset fades into nighttime. During high season (November-January-ish), there's a fresh breeze, so it's much less humid than the city center. There are countless places you can dine along the riverfront. On the more expensive side are the five-star hotels near Saphan Taksin: the Mandarin Oriental, the Shangri-La, the Peninsula and the Millennium Hilton among them.
Mid-range restaurants – whether Thai or international – can be found at River City, Asiatique and Viva Aviv, or you can head upriver to the Anantara or to a romantic waterfront restaurant such as The Deck. Then there are a handful of affordable and chic/rustic watering holes such as Samsara Café and Meal – a quirky converted stilt-house with bar that serves Thai food and art and has several resident cats.
On the very local end of the spectrum, you can always dine in an authentic Thai manner – street-vendor style. Any pier will have a few street carts to provide take away meals so you can find a patch of riverside to temporarily claim as your own. One popular Isaan food restaurant is located at Pepsi Pier, a 3 THB ferry crossing from Saphan Taksin. During football season, a big outdoor screen goes up, but generally it's just you, the river and a small crowd of locals winding down after a long day. A meal here will cost you less than USD 5 and they have menus in English with pictures.
Cruises: A dinner cruise is usually an over-rated affair, but if you have limited time to enjoy the city, it ticks a lot of boxes at once. You've got views, Thai food, a sightseeing tour and the river all bundled into one, with minimal effort on your behalf. If you want to take a day cruise, you can go up river to Ayutthaya or downriver to the Royal Barges National Museum, or just to Khao San Road and the boutique shophouses of Phra Athit. A little web research before committing to any cruise is recommended, as there are lots of different options – some more expensive than others. Have fun!