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Romantic Getaways: Bangkok's Water World

By: Ben Hall
Photography by Ben Hall

For centuries the residents of Bangkok relied on its extensive system of rivers and canals for their existence, and although many networks have been reclaimed for development, there are still pockets in the city which are holding on to the past.


As the longtail boat approaches the T-junction, it slows in preparation for a right turn into yet another canal. The driver, sitting in the back with a cigarette drooping out of the corner of his mouth, opens the throttle up on the V8 engine halfway through the turn and the front of the boat rears up out of the water.

The wake quickly reaches the banks of the canal, and a group of young novice monks on a jetty at the front of a temple wait for it to hit and then jump in. On the other side of the boat, a family with a very large fridge balanced precariously in a tiny canoe paddle furiously towards the bank to try and save their expensive cargo.

The canals, or khlongs, are the lifeblood of districts like Thon Buri and they provide the only means of transport in a water world far removed from the heat and traffic congestion of modern Bangkok.

The local people live, eat, sleep, bathe and wash in the canals which serve as a natural “road system” - they’re lined with houses ranging from quite smart multilevel homes to dilapidated wooden shacks, most decorated with Thai flags and posters of their revered King.

Instead of cars parked on the lawn, small canoes with a single paddle are tied up out front of the homes on stilts. The canoes are the main mode of transport for the locals, while the high-powered longtail boats (which can seat up to 20 people) are used for commuters who pay a small fee and for farang, or foreigners, like us who can pay anything from $30 to $80 for a tour of around one to six hours, and depending on how many other people you take along.

Since Bangkok was founded in 1782, the rivers and the natural and man-made canals made the city what it is today - with the mighty Chao Phraya River serving as the city’s main artery. This is how Bangkok earned the nickname “The Venice of the East” and in 1855 the British envoy Sir John Bowring wrote: “The highways of Bangkok are not streets and roads, but the river and canals.”

At this time three quarters of the 400,000 population lived in floating houses or on stilted homes on the canal banks. Today most of the canals have been filled in to make way for tarmac roads which service a growing population of 10 million, but there are enough khlongs remaining to provide a snapshot into Bangkok’s historical past.


Market traders paddle gracefully up to the side of the longtail boat with a surprisingly vast array of goods ranging from bottled water to colonial style hats and traditional Thai fans. Husband and wife teams serve piping hot noodles from their mobile floating restaurants, and children wave from the porches of their homes as they beat the heat with a cooling dip.

Along the way ornate temples dominate the canals and it’s worth getting off at least one or two of them to experience their beautiful design and architecture and serene atmosphere.

Most longtail drivers will build in stops on a tour, at an added cost, and the Temple of Dawn, or Wat Arun, on the Chao Phraya River is one of Bangkok’s most iconic landmarks and the most famous of the 400 or so Buddhist temples in the city. On the canal banks, several “market cities” have also sprung up in stilted halls and it’s here you’ll find out what the locals really pay for their goods. There is no such thing as “tourist prices” in any of these - not yet anyway. 

We arranged to be dropped off and left at the Grand Palace, which is also within walking distance of the banks of the Chao Phraya River, and the main tourist attraction in Thailand. Set over nearly 220,000 sqm, it’s the former royal residence and is recognised as one of the most stunning architectural feats in Asia.

It’s a bit of an overwhelming finale to a very laid-back and relaxing morning on the khlongs, and as we walk around gaping at the maze of temples, museums and government buildings, I can still feel the boat rocking beneath my feet.




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How to Rent a Longtail

Most local tour companies and hotels offer package deals which include local pickup with an English speaking guide, transfer to a jetty on the Chao Phraya River for a khlong tour which can last from one hour to six hours. Prices vary depending on the length of tour taken and how many people are on board. If you’re a part of a large group, a short tour may cost about 700baht or $26, and a longer tour on your own will set you back about $130. Tha Chang landing near the Grand Palace is one of the most popular pickup and set down points for the longtails - if you fancy a good old fashioned Thai-style haggle, then this is a good place to negotiate a price. The pier adjacent to Saphan Taksin Skytrain stop is another longtail hotspot as this is where they meet commuters off the Chao Phraya Express boat from Nonthaburi.

Where to Stay & Getting There

Bangkok Oriental

The Oriental, Bangkok, is located at 48 Oriental Avenue, Bangkok. An oasis of serenity located on the scenic banks of the Chao Phraya River, this legendary hotel has been hosting royalty, dignitaries and distinguished travellers for almost 130 years. It has beautifully appointed rooms and suites in three very different "wings" of the property, a full-service spa in a class of its own, and nine dining venues. Other unique features include a Thai cooking school and culture program. Call +66 2 659 9000, or visit www.mandarinoriental.com/bangkok.


Getting There:

Thai has direct flights to Bangkok from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Visit www.thaiairways.com.au or call 1300 651 960.


Tourism Information:

Tourism Authority of Thailand

Visit www.thailand.net.au.



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