These long orange-and-white boats provide access to parts of the city that are still off the metro lines, including the Rattanakosin historic district, Khao San Road and Chinatown, and below we highlight some of the handiest piers, from a tourism point of view, for your sightseeing needs.
Thewet, Phra Arthit, Phra Pinklao Bridge, Thonburi Railway Station and Wang Lang piers
You might start by heading up river to Thewet Pier for a wander through its eponymous wet market and the nearby Dusit palaces. Coming back south, there’s Khao San Road in the Banglamphu area, accessible from Phra Arthit Pier, just across from Phra Pinklao Bridge Pier. Also on the Thonburi (west) bank are Thonburi Railway Station Pier and Wang Lang Pier, both of which are near another buzzing day market and the small railway station where you can catch a train to Kanchanaburi.
Tha Maharaj, Tha Chang, Wat Arun and Tha Tien piers
Hop off a bit further downstream for the Amulet Market, National Museum, Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew at Tha Maharaj Pier or Tha Chang Pier. You could easily walk to Wat Pho from there, but if you’re having fun on the boats, hop back on and get off one more stop south at Wat Arun Pier to check out the towering porcelain spires before taking a cross-river ferry over to Tha Tien Pier near Wat Pho.
Yodpiman, Ratchawongse, River City, Si Phraya and Sathorn (Central) piers
Further south, Yodpiman Pier is your stop for the giant flower market, Pak Khlong Talad. Next is Ratchawongse Pier, the gateway to Chinatown. Get off at River City Pier to check out antique art galleries, or Si Phraya Pier to explore Charoen Krung Road or catch a cross-river ferry to Khlong San Market over on the west bank. Sathorn (Central) Pier is the place to link up with the BTS Skytrain, or you could continue one more stop south to access Asiatique. If cruising the river around 18:00, you’ll often be treated to a sunset over the riverfront temples and towers.
What do the flags mean?
For first-timers, catching the boat can be confusing but it’s simple once you learn one boat from another. First off, there’s the Blue Flag, otherwise known as the Chao Phraya tourist boat. You don’t have to go with this option just because you’re a tourist.
Stopping every 30 minutes from 09:00 to 17:30 daily, Blue Flag boats only stop at piers with access to the major attractions in Bangkok. They run a flat 50 baht for a one-way ticket, no matter how far you go, or 18 baht for a full day pass. Blue Flag boats are a lot more spacious than the regular boats and they come with an on-board guide who describes points of interest in sometimes comprehensible English. Quite a few locals take the Blue Flag simply because it's a more relaxing ride.
Similar to the Blue Flag boats, but cheaper and more cramped, are the Orange Flag express boats. These slender workhorses cruise from a far southern pier, Wat Rajsingkorn, all the way up to Nonthaburi Pier to the far north of Bangkok, hitting the majority of piers along the way. Orange Flag boats run all day, every day, stopping roughly every 30 minutes from 06:00 to 19:00, and tickets cost a flat 14 baht no matter how far you go. In recent years authorities have attempted to stop overcrowding on all express boats, often resulting in longer waits for Orange Flag boats (Blue Flag boats rarely fill up).
Additional boats are available on weekdays, but only during the hours of 06:15 to 08:10 and 15:00 to 17:30. The Yellow Flag line runs all the way from Nonthaburi to the southernmost pier on the line, Ratburana , but you might want to avoid these as they don’t hit any of the usual tourist piers and run specifically for commuters. If you do hop on a Yellow Flag boat, the fare is 20 to 30 baht depending on distance.
The Green Flag line costs 13 to 35 baht depending on distance and covers most of the same stops as the Blue and Orange flag boats, although Phra Arthit is a notable exception.
Most piers also offer cross-river ferries that run all day and cost only three baht per person for a one-way trip to the opposite bank. These are convenient, for example, if you're heading from Tha Chang to Wang Lang, or Ratchawongse to Tha Din Daeng.
For all boats, tickets can be purchased at stands found at most of the piers. You can also pay on board, though the boat company has tried to discourage this in recent years, particularly for Blue Flag boats. Note that if you pay for a Blue Flag ticket beforehand, you won’t be able to hop on an Orange Flag if it arrives first—so it ends up being a “luck of the draw” situation. At less-popular piers you can usually wait and hop on whichever type of boat arrives first.
If paying on the boat, have your money ready and be polite to the collectors, even if they’re not so polite to you. They hold down one of the more frazzling jobs in one of Asia’s most chaotic cities. The Orange Flag boats still do get crowded, especially at rush hours, and it’s a quick rush to get on and off. Keep a solid handle on your valuables and your footing. The docks do shake around when the river is choppy.
Also, obey the ticket collectors when they scream, “WALK INSIDE!” We know it can seem like a good idea to linger at the far back of the boat, where it’s easy to see out the sides and stay close to the exit, but by doing this you’ll clog up the already narrow entryways and annoy the locals. Even when all seats are taken, you can usually avoid being squished up against strangers by moving all the way up towards the front. On Blue Flag boats you can go up on to the bow or, on some newer boats, an upper deck, for unobstructed views.
Still confused? You can always check the clearly marked maps and timetables at most piers, or dig into the Chao Phraya Express Boat’s website.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.