Free from the traffic that chokes the rest of Bangkok, the Chao Phraya Express boats chug passengers up and down the broad river of kings. Aside from being a lot of fun, the long orange-and-white boats provide reliable public transport to parts of the city that aren’t accessed by the skytrain/subway. As of 2016, that includes the entire Ko Rattanakosin historic district, Khao San Road and most of Chinatown.
You might start by heading up river to Thewet (N15) for a wander through its eponymous market and the nearby Dusit palaces. Coming back south, there’s Khao San Road and Banglamphu, accessible from Phra Arthit (N13), just across from Phra Pinklao Bridge (N12), Wang Lang (N10) and its buzzing day market.
Hop off a bit further downstream for the Amulet Market, National Museum, Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew at Tha Maharaj or Tha Chang (N9). 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), where you can also catch the cross-river ferry to Wat Arun.
Further south, Yodpiman pier is your stop for the giant flower market, Pak Khlong Talad. Next is Ratchawongse (N5), the gateway to Chinatown. Get off at Sathorn (Central) pier to change to the BTS Skytrain, or continue one more stop to Wat Worachanyawas (S2) to access Asiatique. If cruising the river around 18:00, you’ll often be treated to a sunset over the riverfront temples and towers.
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 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, although the ticket counters at Phra Arthit, Tha Chang, and Sathorn piers won’t mind if you think you do.
Stopping every 20 minutes from 08:00 to 18:00 daily, tourist boats only stop at piers with access to the major sights along the river. They run a flat 40 baht 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 boats. Tourist boats are a lot more spacious than the regular boats, with more patient staff, and they get you an on-board guide who describes points of interest in sometimes comprehensible English.
Similar to the tourist boats, but 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) to the north of Bangkok, hitting the majority of piers along the way. Orange flags run all day, every day, stopping roughly every 20 minutes from 06:00 to 19:00, although on weekdays the last boats pick up as late as 21:00. Orange flag tickets cost a flat 15 baht no matter how far you go.
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 between seven and 14 baht, depending on distance.
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 commuters. If you do hop on a yellow, the fare is 20 to 29 baht 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 Arthit (N13) is a notable exception. Most piers also offer river crossing ferry services that run all day and cost a measly three baht per person for a one-way trip to the other bank.
For all boats, tickets can be purchased at stands found at most of the piers, or from ticket collectors on board. Note that if you pay for a tourist boat ticket beforehand, you won’t be able to hop on an orange flag if it arrives first. At least this is the case at the busy Sathorn pier, where officials keep passengers stuck in separate queues until the respective boats arrive. Hint: instead of prepaying, sit down on a bench and join the line for whichever boat happens to arrive first.
If paying on the boat, have your money ready and be polite to the collectors, even if they’re not polite to you. They hold down one of the more frazzling jobs in one of Asia’s most chaotic cities. All of the boats can get crowded, and it’s a quick and chaotic rush to get on and off the orange flag and local boats; do keep a solid handle on your valuables and your footing.
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 the more spacious tourist boats, you can go all the way up onto the bow for unobstructed views.
Still confused? You can always check the clearly marked maps and timetables at most piers, or dig into the rarely updated Express Boat’s website.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 27th February, 2015.