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  • Writer's pictureNikki Busuttil

Chao Phraya Charms...

Life blood of Bangkok, this ‘River of Kings’, as it is often referred to, is inextricably coiled around the history, culture, development and future of the nation’s capital.

Like a magnificent intriguing serpent, the Chao Phraya River, in Bangkok, snakes its way through the city unveiling many a different aspect to this bustling metropolis on either side of its winding kilometre-clocking path, as it slithers down and emerges into the Gulf of Thailand. The full length of the Chao Phraya River extends some meandering 372km beyond the confines of the city limits and branches off into many a ‘khlong’ (canal), beckoning for exploration along the way. As history shows the world over, rivers and waterways had always attracted early settlers, as a prime location on which to dwell, providing rich pickings to survive and thrive. In 1767, it was here following Burmese invasion and destruction of the ancient capital Ayudhya, slightly to the north along the same river, that King Taksin relocated the capital to the west bank area, known today as Thonburi. His successor, King Rama I, 15 years later, decided to shift the main body of the city to the eastern banks, as a more favourable location, thus founding this modern day City of Angels – to cut a long story short.

Since that time, Bangkok has grown, flourished and expanded, way beyond the bounds of what one might have expected back then, particularly in an easterly direction, with various commercial business and entertainment districts sprouting up all over, making it difficult to pinpoint just one main centre of activity. However, the Chao Phraya River still remains a strong draw for local, expat and tourist life, with an ever-changing face, morphing and transforming with time, keeping step with progress and development, as a hub of bustling activity.

Adorned on either side with temples, monuments, palaces and forts, these starkly contrast with the towering hotels and condos, and equally conflict with aging warehouses and factories, which are then outshone by glittering lights of entertainment complexes and shopping malls. Once a gateway to the world for Thailand, the Chao Phraya River acted as main link for overseas traders and inevitably foreign settlers. Certain townships, landmarks and even cemeteries were built by Portuguese, French, Dutch, Japanese and Chinese merchants. In its heyday, floating markets littered waterways, catering to the mass of river traffic, with a few remaining examples, the most famous of which is probably at Damnoen Saduak, where tourists flock in the early hours, snapping photos and reliving a by-gone era. Heavy-laden, blackened cargo barges are still seen tugging up and down the river, transporting their loads to and from the remaining functioning factories and warehouses that have not yet been sold and converted to trendy lofts and ateliers, or flattened in favour of more contemporary usage.

As one would expect, the river offers insight into a rich and varied history and culture. The ancient past is never so gloriously highlighted than at the time of the Royal Barge Procession, dating back some 700 years, significant in both regal and spiritual magnitude and offering a splendid example of the sheer meticulous glory of traditional Thai craftsmanship. As the name suggests, the procession wends its way from the Wasukri Royal Landing down the river, as a sight to behold, with presently 51 historic barges and one more modern royal barge, collectively manned by over 2000 oarsmen. This is not an annual event, but if you are privileged enough to catch a glimpse, the scene is sure to take your breath away, leaving you both suitably impressed and urgently inspired to take your own boat journey along the river.

Many options abound for exploring river life, communities and culture along the Chao Phraya, and you only need roll up at the Taksin Pier, just below Saphan Taksin Skytrain station, to discover an array of choices. There are local public transport boats that traverse the waters to the other side or stop from pier to pier, as simple passenger carriers, where you pay your fare as you would for a bus ride. Then, there are the tourist boats that offer guided tours, dinner cruises that patrol the night scene, and the smaller long-tail boats for private hire that have you zipping on and off the main river and help you investigate the khlongs and attractions as you go. The public boat services, identifiable by colour-coded flags are operated by the Chao Phraya Express Boat Company, run on a frequent basis, from around 6am to 7.30pm daily, and for a very small fare will drop you off at pre-designated pier routes, on their scheduled lines. This is a great way to avoid the chaos of Bangkok traffic, but rush hours will see the boats particularly crowded on any given day. Similarly, the tourist boats, for a flat fee, allow you to hop on and off at will, but run less frequently than the public boats.

If you hanker to get off the beaten track somewhat, and prefer to have a guide or wish to explore at whim and leisure, then the most ideal alternative is the private long-tail boat. Prices vary and should be fleshed out or bargained before embarking on the journey, depending on whether you prefer half-day or full-day excursions. These smaller rather nippy boats can speed or chug you up and down the main drag or veer off into narrower waters and unveil local community life on the river, make stops at the famous temples and monuments, as well as carry you further afield up to Ko Kret, an island in the middle of the river, famous for pottery and its traditional Thai massage by skilled therapists, who happen to be blind, which makes for an extraordinary massage experience. Continuing on still and you can even find yourself, by river, up to the ancient ruins of Ayudhya for a fascinating, explorative day out.

Should your time be limited or your seafaring legs be less inclined for such a longer hike on the waterways, there is certainly no shortage of spots to visits within the confines of the well-trodden path. Wat Arun, or ‘the Temple of Dawn’ (above), sits proudly on the eastern bank, while the Grand Palace, with the famous Emerald Buddha, and nearby Wat Pho, with its colossal, reclining, gold-leaf-covered Buddha, both sit on the west side. These are also just a stone’s throw away from the Khao San Road area, with its blend of artsy versus hippy, flashpacker meets backpacker mix, and a burgeoning collection of shops, bars, cafés and live music culture, all explorable on foot. At Thewet, there is a wet market, rather decrepit, yet somehow quaintly picturesque, where breadscraps can be bought to feed to greedy, scrambling catfish. Close at hand from here, the Dusit area, the Royal enclave, can be reached. This is home to museums and palaces, as well oddly enough as the local Dusit Zoo.

Resident, expat or tourist, what cannot and should not be ignored or overlooked are the myriad of luxury and boutique hotels, long anchored or newly blossoming, on or in close proximity to the river. The frenzied wave of hotel and residential construction has profoundly changed the face of the land-loving business and entertainment central city areas, such as Sukhumvit, Sathorn and Thong Lo, extending out to On Nut and beyond in an ever-east-oriented direction. This has, however, permeated to and resonated on the banks of the Chao Phraya in more recent years.

After the late 90s financial crash, the institutional hotels, such as the Mandarin Oriental, the Shangri-La, the Peninsula, the Royal Orchid Sheraton and the like, were left to carry on their traditions stoically, keeping a stiff upper lip and admirably holding the fort as it were, together with a few lone visionary idealists and entrepreneurs cashing in on the hotels’ dependable tourist flows. More recent spates of development have seen their flanks surrounded by new and exciting ventures, meaning they no longer need to fight the good fight and uphold the long held image of the River of Kings alone, amid crumbling warehouses and half-built abandoned, bank-reclaimed projects. This lifeblood of the city, thesedays, is truly alive and kicking. The aforementioned hotels have all seen renovations and re-branding of restaurants and bars over the years, and each have noteworthy attributes that keep them headlining the pages of guidebooks, magazines and newspapers, on and off-line.

Most major luxury hotel brands have now added to the ranks of the above, with Millenium Hilton and its fabulous terrace and glorious weekend lunch buffet, Anantara Riverside Bangkok Resort & Spa, a down-stream, dreamy urban oasis and a host of new and stylish riverside boutique properties. The Siam Hotel is primely located on the river front with 39 luxuriously spacious suites, close to the palaces, temples and museums, which has you dreaming of days of yore, blending traditional splendour with contemporary comforts, reachable by their private pier. (Be sure to indulge in their weekend Siam Afternoon Tea.) The Praya Palazzo delivers on exquisite elegance in a stylish renovated mansion, with just 17 rooms, also within walking distance to many historical sites. The setting echoes the golden era of King Rama V and is imbued with a sense of authentic Thai culture, in stunning extravagance. At Riva Surya, 68 rooms provide style and charm, and an ideal location from which to explore the historic cultural treasures of Bangkok, found by the Chao Phraya.

With countless residential developments in varying stages of completion, dotting the riverbank skyline, as well as international schools, the Chao Phraya has witnessed a revival, as a hub of community activity, but with a serious injection of cash into the equation. Although the pioneers of the movement were initially hard-pressed to sell out quickly, unlike desirable ‘central’ locations along Sukhumvit Road, the tides would appear to be changing somewhat. Especially after the extension of the BTS Skytrain services westwards, a whole new and attractive world has opened up to people wishing to escape the maddening(!) crowds in CBDs, yet still remain connected, without having to battle through rush-hour traffic, and live a calm that more suburban environments and a river lifestyle tend to emanate. Thus, the Chao Phraya is no longer being unjustly boycotted as ‘out-of-the-way’ by residents and expats, or overlooked by time-conscious travellers wanting to avoid jams and lengthy taxi rides.

In response and in addition to the magnificent offering of dinner cruises and luxury hotel restaurants sat in ear-shot of the lapping waters, such as Sambal Bar & Grill at the Royal Orchid Sheraton, or the cultural dinner shows at the Mandarin Oriental’s Sala Rim Naam, exciting new revelations are bursting at the seams. On the site of what was probably derelict warehouses, a short boat ride down flow from Taksin Pier, is the open-air entertainment and shopping complex of Asiatique (below). Boasting some 1,500 boutiques, around 50 restaurants and live shows, including the Calypso Cabaret and Thai puppetry from the Joe Louis Theatre, it opens in the evenings around 5pm, carrying through to 11pm, for 6 hours of shop-til-you-drop and eat-til-you-explode pleasurable combustion. For a different kind of shopping or wining and dining, across the river from Asiatique, is the River City shopping mall, which has invested considerable sums on a glamorous revamp and which promotes high-end products and services, from art and antiquities to clothing and souvenirs. Just next door to Royal Orchid Sheraton, to pose shopping bags and watch the sunset over a fine vino and a bite or two, the riverfront terrace of River City is now lined with a variety of restaurants and bars. Viva & Aviv, popularized first by the earlier ‘Kolour Sundays’ parties, which move around the city’s hotspots, is a chilled must-try any time of day.

As further testament to its chilled and inspirational environment, it is not only the entertainment and lifestyle sector that has picked up on the backdrop potential of a Chao Phraya locale. For centuries and decades, artists and photographers have been depicting and snapping the waterway muse for its beauty, bustle and enchanting allure, especially during annual celebrations, such as light and firework displays at New Year (Thai or Roman calendar) and the Loy Krathong festival, when flooded with flickering candles atop small floating objects at the November full moon. It is little surprise to learn then that the art scene on the river is quietly simmering away, with small galleries and ateliers occupying some of the spaces in the area, ripe for discovering on a backstreet walking tour.

Close to the shores of the Chao Phraya, behind the Portuguese mission, Belgian-born, colourfully gifted and renowned Bangkok-based artist Christian Develter has his Warp studio, in an old converted warehouse, originally built in the 1940s by the Japanese, where he blends oils, acrylics and bold shapes, in striking and vivacious technicolour.

The Chao Phraya River kingly appears to have it all - from history, art and culture, where luxury intermingles with traditional, local subsistence, and everything to entertain and sustain daily life for residents’ and tourists’ contemporary desires, be they dining, entertaining, shopping and transportation. The reputation of the Chao Phraya and its significant role in the futurescape of Bangkok seems to be continually and assuredly unfolding…

*Images courtesy of TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) or credited on photo.

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