Jun 11 2012
One of the most interesting ways to get around Bangkok, and especially useful for those staying at one of the hotels or guesthouses along the Chao Phraya River on Khao San Road, in Banglamphu, Chinatown, or Thonburi, is the Chao Phraya river boat system.
Blessedly free from the traffic that wracks the rest of the metropolis during daylight hours, the riverboats whistle, chug, roar, and splash their way up the river. You can see the reasons that Bangkok used to rely on their canal system in place of roads. Wats open onto the river and heavy barges loaded with sugar or coal drift by. Vegetables speed down the river from upcountry farms ready for market, and police skiffs glide by looking for smuggled goods. Canals flow into the river from all angles, some clean and obviously well used, others overgrown and murky, memories of neighbourhoods that no longer exist.
If you’re a morning person (or just having a bout of jetlag and are up early) head up river to Thewet (N15) pier for a morning snack and a wander through the flower market. Coming back down towards the south, there’s Khao San Road and Banglamphu, accessible from Phra Athit (N13) pier. Hop off a bit further down for the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew at Tha Chang (N9) pier. You could easily walk to Wat Pho from there, but if having too much fun on the boats get off one more stop south at Tha Tien (N8) pier, where you can also catch the cross river ferry to Wat Arun.
Further down, Memorial Bridge (N6) pier (aka Saphan Phut) is your stop for the giant flower market, Pak Khlong Talaat, and Ratchawongse (N5) pier is the gateway to Chinatown. Get off at Sathorn (Central) pier (aka Saphan Taskin) to change to the BTS Sky Train, or continue one more stop to Wat Worachanyawas (S2) to access Asiatique. If cruising the river around 17:30, you’re typically treated to some stunning sunsets over Wat Arun and the riverfront high-rises.
For first-timers, catching the boat can be a confusing ordeal, but it’s simple once you learn one boat from another. First off, there’s the Chao Phraya tourist boat. Take note: you don’t have to go with this option just because you’re a tourist, although the ticket counters at Phra Athit, Tha Chang, and Saphan Taksin piers won’t mind if you think you do. Tourist boats only hit piers with access to the major sights along the river, and they run a flat 40 baht (the fare just jumped by 10 baht on June 1, 2012) for a one-way ticket no matter how far you go, or 150 baht for a full day pass, which can be used on any of the other lines.
Although considerably more expensive and not too different overall, tourist boats are more spacious than the regular ones, making them a good option if you don’t want to be sardined into a crowded express or local boat during the morning and evening rush hours. For tourist boats, it’s best to purchase tickets from the booths at the pier before getting on the boat, although it’s no big deal if you get on without one — a ticket collector will make you cough up the fare on board. Tourist boats run roughly every half hour from 09:30 to 16:00 daily.
Similar to the tourist boats except a lot cheaper and more cramped are the orange flag express boats. The river’s true workhorses, these cruise from a far southern pier, Wat Rajsingkorn (S3), all the way up to Nonthaburi (N30) pier a good distance north of Bangkok, hitting the majority of piers along the way including all those that access the major sights. Orange flags run all day, every day, stopping roughly every 20 to 30 minutes from 06:00 to 19:00, although on week days the last boats typically pick up between 19:30 and 20:00. Tickets cost a flat 15 baht no matter how far you’re going, and although you can pay the attendant at the piers — look for someone wearing an orange shirt and working a small desk off to the side — most pay the orange clad fare collectors on the boat.
Additional boats are available on weekdays, but only during the hours of 06:15 to 8:10 in the morning, and 15:00 to 17:30 in the afternoon. Local “no flag” boats hit every pier between Nonthaburi (N30) and Wat Rajsingkorn (S3) and cost from 7 to 14 baht depending on distance (pay on the boat).
The yellow flag line runs all the way from Nonthaburi (N30) to the furthest south pier on the line, Ratburana (S4), but you might want to avoid these as they don’t hit any of the usual tourist piers and run specifically for commuting locals. If you do hop on a yellow, the fare is 20 to 29 depending on distance.
The green flag line costs 13 to 32 baht depending on distance and covers most of the same stops as the tourist and orange flag boats, although Phra Athit (N13) is a notable exception. Most piers also offer river crossing ferry services that run all day and cost 3 baht per person for a one-way trip to the other side.
Still confused? You can always check the clearly marked maps and timetables at most piers, or dig into the Express Boat’s website.
Note that all these boats can get crowded, and it’s something of a quick and chaotic rush to get on and off, so do keep a solid handle on both your valuables and your footing. Despite the chaos, Chao Phraya boats offer a fun cruise on Bangkok’s infamous river, and you can’t beat the prices. See you on board.
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