Public canal boats in Bangkok

Public canal boats in Bangkok

Snaking throughout Bangkok are the remnants of its pre-road days: the canals, or khlong, to use the Thai name. While most of these aquatic thoroughfares are now used only for drainage purposes, public boats continue to zip people around on two of the widest canals. In addition to convenience and fun, the boats offer vantages of the city that you otherwise wouldn’t get to see.

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The San Saeb Khlong Express Ferry

The most widely used public canal boats ply Khlong San Saeb, a murky canal shooting from near Democracy Monument in the Rattanakosin historic district all the way to Bangkok’s far eastern fringes. The boats run from dawn to around 20:00 (19:00 on Sat-Sun) and cost only 10 to 20 baht depending on how far you go.

Not a great option if you have loads of luggage. : David Luekens.
Not a great option if you have loads of luggage. Photo: David Luekens

Catching the San Saeb boats can be a little harrowing—prepare to climb over the outer edge as people quickly jump on and off in an example of controlled chaos that typifies Bangkok. Consider these boats the wilder cousins of the Chao Phraya River ferries. Once you’re on board, look for brave conductors walking around the outer rims of the boat to collect fares as fellow riders pull up plastic sheets to keep khlong water out of the boat. If you stand, watch your head when the roof is lowered so the boat can fit beneath bridges.

Many travellers catch the San Saeb boat at the first stop in the west, Panfa Leelard Pier, located one kilometre east of Khao San Road, just north of the Golden Mount. To find it, head east on Ratchadamnoen from Democracy Monument, cross the little Panfa Leelard Bridge just beyond Mahakan Fort and you’ll see the entrance next to a 7-eleven on the right, across from King Prajadhipok Museum.

The khlongs can be surprisingly scenic in places. : David Luekens.
The khlongs can be surprisingly scenic in places. Photo: David Luekens

The next stop heading east from Panfa Leelard is Talad Bobae Pier, where you might hop off to peruse the wholesale clothing stalls at Bobae Market. Two stops further east takes you to an old silk-weaving community near Baan Krua Nua Pier. Next comes Hua Chang, an important pier located off Phaya Thai Road and just 300 metres south of National Stadium BTS Skytrain Station, MBK and Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) in the Siam Square area.

From Hua Chang the boat continues east to Pratunam Pier in the heart of the Pratunam area off Phetchaburi Road, where you’ll have to change boats (they all use one pier) if continuing east. The next several stops heading east from Pratunam—Chitlom, Witthayu Bridge, Nana Nua and Nana Chard—are all located around a kilometre north of Sukhumvit Road but few travellers use them since the BTS Skytrain shoots directly above Sukhumvit. The next pier that we sometimes use is Asok/Phetchaburi, located next to Petchaburi MRT Subway Station at the northern end of Asoke-Montri Road.

Always interesting. : David Luekens.
Always interesting. Photo: David Luekens

You can keep cruising east and get off in the northern reaches of the Thong Lor and Ekkamai areas before continuing out to Ramkamhaeng and Bang Kapi in East Bangkok. We enjoy taking the San Saeb boat all the way to The Mall Bang Kapi Pier to explore the sprawling Bang Kapi Wet Market, Happy Land Food Market and the vintage toy displays at Batcat Museum. From here you can catch a taxi a bit further east to Kwan Riam Floating Market.

The Bangkok Canal Tourist Boat

The owners of the San Saeb Express boat service launched this service specifically for tourists in 2017. The boats are larger and more spacious than those used on the regular service, but they go slower, give you more time to get on and off, and employ tour guides who explain some of the passing attractions in sometimes comprehensible English.

Departing roughly every 20 minutes from 10:00 to 18:00, these boats start at Pratunam and cruise west on the San Saeb Canal, stopping at most of the same piers as the regular khlong boats (Hua Chang, Bo Bae Market, Phanfa Leelard). But from Phanfa Leelard they continue west on Khlong Banglamphu and make a final stop near the corner of Chakrabongse, Samsen and Phra Sumen roads, just north of Khao San Road and west of Phra Arthit Pier on the Chao Phraya river ferry lines. The tourist boats do not run east of Pratunam. Tickets cost 200 baht for a full-day pass, which is quite expensive if you're only taking a single trip.

The Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem Boat

Launched in late 2016, this free service connects Hualamphong Railway Station in Chinatown to the Thewet Market area near a Chao Phraya River ferry pier, a kilometre north of Khao San Road and just south of popular guesthouses like Shanti and Tavee near the National Library. Along the way it stops near Nang Loeng Old Market and a pier near Government House, which is useful for checking out Wat Benchamabophit and the palaces of Dusit. The boats pick up every 20 to 30 minutes from 06:00 to 20:00 (08:00-20:00 on Sat-Sun). They do not have roofs, but umbrellas are available!

Watch your head. : David Luekens.
Watch your head. Photo: David Luekens

To find Talad Thewet Pier from the west end of Khao San Road, walk north up Chakrabongse Road and continue north up Samsen Road. Before you reach Thewet Wet Market, hang a right on Krung Kasem Road and you’ll find the pier on the south bank of the canal. From Hualamphong Railway Station, leave through the front exit and turn right (north), then keep right along the west side of the station and you’ll see the pier near a green bridge just past the car park.

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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.