As upbeat and modern as today’s Bangkok seems, its history flows and swirls in plain sight through the city in the form of the Chao Phraya river.
From the water you can see Thai temples, Chinese temples, Christian churches, Muslim mosques and other imposing 19th-century buildings and warehouses lining the banks. These are signs of just some of the communities and traditions Thailand has embraced, while still keeping its own strong sense of identity and heritage. This synergy has contributed to Bangkok’s vibrant, optimistic character, just like the positive energy and flow of the Chao Phraya—‘The River of Kings.’
The people who built Bangkok came via this river from Ayutthaya, Thailand’s former capital 85 kilometers to the north. Ayutthaya was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767 when it was at the height of its powers—a grand city of gold-filled palaces, one million inhabitants and a huge fleet of trading vessels.
These early residents developed the existing farming and trading community into a city of floating markets and stilt houses, linked by canals and piers. The canals have long since been filled in and concreted over, and there’s no walkway along the river—instead you can hop off your ferry or boat at piers to access the various neighborhoods.
A new royal district was built near Tha Chang Pier—construction of the Royal Grand Palace began in 1782 for the first kings of the current Chakri Dynasty. A Chinatown sprang up near Tha Ratchawong Pier some 200 years ago, and is still the place to find gold and traditional Chinese medicine as well as teahouses and street food.
One of my favorite places to stop is Tha Maharaj, an ‘old city’ street market near the river with vendors selling fresh fruit and a mix of unexpected items—amulets, Chinese herbs, old-school Thai comic books, even false teeth—displayed as they would have been 100 years ago. Along the street you’ll see tiny, family-run ‘restaurants’ with peeling paint on the walls, wonky seats and Grandma’s ceramic bowls. These make a great pit stop for a lunch of duck noodle soup.
Plenty of commuters use the riverboats as a way to get to work quickly and avoid the traffic and congestion in the city center. Whenever I come to this side of town, I always choose to travel by boat, as there’s a real sense of continuity being on the river. It’s like a timeline of history, culture and spirituality compared to the modern, busy, rather Westernized city center. Though it’s only 370 kilometers from source to sea, the river acts as an inseparable link to our roots; it tells the tale of our cultural background more than any other stretch of water.
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