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A vital lifeline into the heart of Thai civilisation, the Chao Phraya River churns steadily through Bangkok. Glittering chedis, crumbling shacks and glossy highrises lean over its dark water dotted by countless boats filled with goods, commuters and travellers. You haven’t really been to Bangkok until you’ve been out on the Chao Phraya.
You could say that the story of Thailand follows the path of the Chao Phraya. Collecting water from tributaries like the Nan, Ping and Pa Sok rivers, this great mae nam (Thai for “river,” literally: “mother water”) slices through Central Thailand, irrigating one of the world’s most productive rice basins along its 372-kilometre course. The term chao phraya translates literally as something like “grand duke,” but “River of Kings” is the commonly used English moniker.
Back in the mid-1300s, the Ayutthaya kingdom — predecessor to modern Thailand — was founded alongside the Chao Phraya. Bringing grains and produce from the northern plains and hills along with seafood and imported goods from the Gulf, this robust river nourished Ayutthaya into one of the largest and most prosperous cities the world had ever known.
After Ayutthaya was destroyed by Burmese invaders in 1767, a new dynasty of Thai kings naturally built their palaces along the Chao Phraya, some 90 kilometres to the south in Bangkok, or Krung Thep Maha Nakorn (“The Great City of Angels”) to use the name that most Thais still prefer. Some 30 kilometres further south, the Chao Phraya empties into the Gulf of Thailand in Samut Prakan, “The Ocean Fortress.”
Centuries ago, the north-to-south flowing Chao Phraya took a long loop west before cutting back south on its way to the Gulf. A canal was dug in the 1500s to bypass this sidetrack and shorten the voyage to Ayutthaya. Over time, most of the water diverted into this canal, defining the river’s current course through Bangkok. Greatly reduced in width, the old western loop is now the Bangkok Noi and Bangkok Yai canals, still important waterways in Thonburi and two of the countless khlong that weave in and out of the Chao Phraya.
Another canal was dug further north in the 1700s, creating a riverine island, Ko Kret, that would attract hundreds of Mon refugees. South of Bangkok, a long eastern loop was preserved as a natural barrier to potential invaders, shored up by a riverside fort in Phra Phradaeng. Spared of the industrial development that exists along much of the river, this giant oxbow is now a designated agricultural zone known as Bang Kachao, or “Bangkok’s green lung” to many.
The most culturally important architecture found along the Chao Phraya is the Grand Palace, ceremonial home of the still-existing Chakri royal dynasty and one of Thailand’s most popular tourist attractions. Glistening like giant crowns, graceful chedis placed atop the palace and its neighbouring royal temples, Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho, are breathtaking when seen from the river.
After the Burmese invaders were repelled from Central Thailand in 1768, the general Taksin assumed the throne and built his palace on the west bank of the Chao Phraya. His Thonburi kingdom lasted only until 1782, when Taksin was replaced by Chao Phraya Chakri, now known as King Rama I, who founded Thailand’s surviving royal lineage and moved the palace to its current location.
Few of the original buildings exist on Taksin’s old palace grounds, now occupied by Thai Navy headquarters, but his royal temple, Wat Arun, remains one of Thailand’s most important. In the early 1800s, King Rama III transformed the temple’s original chedi into the 63-metre-high ceramic wonder that you see today.
Now standing on a preservation area, several other notable historic buildings near Wat Arun include Wat Kalayanamit and Bangkok’s first church, Santa Cruz. For a great view of them all, take a stroll onto Saphan Phut, also known as Memorial Bridge. Built in 1932, it was the first to span the river, and Allied bombs barely missed it during the Second World War.
Commuters now have a dozen bridges to choose from, including three striking suspension bridges built in the last few decades. Stretching for over 13,000 metres in Bangkok’s southern reaches, the Bhumibol Bridge is one of Southeast Asia’s longest. The skytrain began crossing the river at Saphan Taksin in 2010, and a tunnel is expected to shoot subway trains under it by 2020.
The riverfront is graced by many other historic structures, some lovingly restored and others falling apart. Down in the old European quarter near Silom Road, the Portuguese and French embassies have for centuries occupied attractive colonial-era buildings, while the Mandarin Oriental preserved its original structure, regarded as Thailand’s first hotel. We’re partial to the old Customs Building, now a dilapidated firehouse that sure looks like it might be haunted.
In striking displays of “the new atop the old,” historic buildings mingle graciously with flashy modern towers along much of the riverfront. Most of these newer buildings are high-end hotels like the Peninsula and Chatrium, or pricey condos like the ultra-modern The River, which currently stands as Bangkok’s third tallest building.
There’s also Thailand’s first hospital, Siriraj, a sprawling complex with many buildings each representing the eras when they were added. The current king, 87-year-old Rama IX, often resides somewhere in the hospital. He does however get out for the occasional royal barge procession, an ancient tradition that sees the royal entourage rowed downriver in some 50 elaborate long boats.
Though intertwined with Thailand’s royal past and present, the Chao Phraya has always been a working-class river. Clustered into neighbourhoods that have been around for generations, many people still live in ramshackle houses set on stilts over the water, allowing visitors a glimpse of a far more modest lifestyle existing in the shadows of the palaces and luxury hotels.
In the impoverished Khlong Toei area, the old Bangkok port echos the Chao Phraya’s roll as a commercial artery that dates back many centuries. In the 1800s, teak logs from the North were floated down to Bangkok’s sawmills. Chinese trading junks steamed in goods to be sold, while fishing vessels offloaded their catch at Pak Khlong Talaad, now the kingdom’s biggest flower market. Other notable riverside markets include Wang Lang, Phra Chan and Thewet.
Over the last few decades, the Chao Phraya’s focus has gradually shifted from commerce and industry to tourism and leisure. Old riverside warehouses and factories were reborn as slick hotels like Sala Rattanakosin and Loy La Long. Closer to Khao San Road, Phiman Riverview carved a cheap riverfront guesthouse out of a humble old village, while the classy Riva Surya was built from scratch.
In 2013, an old port built in the 1800s by the Dutch Asiatic Company was transformed into Asiatique, a popular night bazaar complete with a ferris wheel, theatres and the city’s longest riverside promenade. Next to Memorial Bridge, Yodpiman River Walk and its boutiques opened in late 2014 as another sign of what’s to come.
Restaurateurs also recognise the Chao Phraya’s appeal. You can enjoy a quality Thai meal fairly cheaply on Steve Cuisine‘s terrace; kick back for a creative sundowner cocktail at Viva & Aviz; or splash out for fine dining at Chakrabongse Villas, which also includes a five-star inn amid its gorgeous 19th century estate, which was first built for a prince. These are just a few of the countless dining options found alongside the river.
While most of the riverfront was covered over by buildings long ago, a handful of green spaces provide the public with places to picnic, jog or juggle. Authorities today are planning a seven-kilometre walkway on both sides of the river, which sounds like a great idea until you learn that it “will involve the forced eviction of more than 200 communities, a dozen temples, schools and almost 20 ‘important sites,'” according to the Bangkok Post. One thing is for certain: the Chao Phraya won’t look the same in 50 years.
Still a vital thoroughfare for everything from giant barges pulled by tug boats to dinner cruises for tourists and wooden sampans rowed by locals, the Chao Phraya always bustles with boat traffic. An extensive network of piers support a fleet of cross-river ferries, longtail boats and the dirt-cheap Chao Phraya express boats that thousands of commuters rely on each day.
The same company runs the Chao Phraya tourist boat, which can be a cheap and reasonably comfortable way to take in the riverside sights. Stopping only at piers that access major attractions, it’s accompanied by tour guides who impart sometimes-accurate info about the riverside architecture in sometimes-comprehensible English. In Bangkok alone, you could spend weeks exploring the Chao Phraya River.