A longboat trip along the historic canals of Bangkok

As a self professed and independently validated clumsy person, you might wonder why I would choose to spend the day exploring a city like Bangkok on something that can only be described as an oversized canoe.

Let me explain.

I like history. S likes boats. I had heard that the best way to see the older parts of Bangkok was via boat, because the city was originally built around a canal system. We had already seen quite enough of shopping malls, so we figured, why not?

We carefully selected a tour (not an affiliate or sponsored or anything) out of seemingly infinite options; do we want to go to a floating market? But they don’t run on the day we want to go. Do we go another day then? Or go to an orchid farm instead? How many temples should we visit? And so on.

After a very un-holidayish early start, we arrived at a remote BTS platform. Most of the other passengers on the train had already disembarked some time ago – where were we?!

It may have only been 8:30 am but it was already hot and sticky. We wound our way through residential streets, through one of the numerous temple forecourts, and there was an unassuming jetty with a boat and boat driver (pilot? captain?) waiting for us.

Now.

Did I mention I’m clumsy?

Embarking was a feat of gymnastics and between my husband, the guide and the boat director we all made it without capsizing. I’ll spare you the details.

So, safely ensconced in the boat, here are the stops we made.

Wat Paknam

This is a new Buddhist temple. It was very large and had the air of affluence around it. There were some people milling around the forecourt, and the faint sound of chanting wafted around the corner from a funeral service in progress.

We saw plenty of statues of Buddha, some of which were shrink wrapped. I’m still not sure why. This one wasn’t, and was sat directly opposite the entrance to the temple.

The grounds were small but well kept, with some lovely flower beds and some benches to sit in in the shade.

There was also a traditional library, built over water to stop the rats getting in and destroying the books. Some turtles had taken up residence in the pond. I think they had been released there by temple-goers to generate good karma.

There were beautifully embroidered fans mounted on the ceiling beams around the main temple. Apparently these are used by monks to hold in front of their faces whilst they’re performing ceremonies so they don’t get distracted. You can tell how important a monk is by the kind of fan they have. These fans are for regular, entry level monks and are provided by members of the community.

Next we moved into the giant stupa-shaped temple next door. This housed a big ceremonial room on the ground floor, complete with scary demons on the door to keep out ill-doers.

On the next two floors were museum items, with a further collection of fans. You can tell by the shape and quality of embroidery that these are for higher-up monks to use.

There were collections of all sorts of things, from what you might expect (statues of Buddhas, sacred texts) to those you might not (pocket watches donated by past visitors, giant gold statues of past abbots). It was quite interesting, but it was very hot in there.

Finally, we reached the top floor. I was definitely not expecting what greeted us there.

Yes, this is real. That’s a stupa made out of jade glass, specially lit with spotlights. The paintings on the domed ceiling were incredible. Up close, you could see the detail on the stupa – there was a small army of nagas and lit up lotus flowers at the base.

I just couldn’t get over the sheer scale of it. Honestly, I’m still not sure what to make of it. It doesn’t even look real.

Mind thoroughly blown, we stepped outside for a welcome breath of fresh air and admired the view over the rooftops. The district we were in is known as the temple district, and it’s easy to see why.

The contrast between old and new is quite strong, with the temple spires and traditional houses in the foreground (the ‘old’ way of living) and skyscrapers in the rear (the ‘new’ way of living). Our guide lamented how the youth of today now want to live near a BTS station, not a temple.

Back on the water, we began to see some traditional dwellings, built over the water. I love the fact that this one looks like it’s on the verge of collapsing into the water, but still has a satellite dish mounted on the roof.

The plant collections were often quite spectacular.

Houses were crammed in anywhere they could find space.

After some time with the wind in our hair (and trying not to inhale too much canal water), we arrived at our next stop.

Wat Pa Chaeng Lane

This was described to us as the ‘jungle temple’. The entrance to it was certainly more low-key than the first temple, and the whole experience felt more authentic. We were the only tourists there, and the monks and locals were all very friendly. We had a nice chat to some monks who wanted to know where we were from, what was our story, etc.

Oh and I now want a hanging wall of plants please.

The place was quiet, shady, and peaceful. Animals wandered across the boardwalks, and the whole place was raised above water. It was lovely.

Floating market

Now, we had unwittingly booked our excursion on a public holiday, so despite the fact it was a week day we were on a weekend tour schedule, and we were told the floating food market would probably be closed. In the end, a few stalls were open and there was plenty to eat. It probably turned out to be a slightly more chilled out experience, to be honest, as there was plenty to see even with just a few stalls open.

Our guide explained all of the dishes to us, and said that whatever we would like he would get for us. We really were too hot to eat a great deal, but we tried a few different dishes and enjoyed the view out over the canals while we ate.

The place wasn’t too touristy either, which was nice. If you just want the floating market foodie experience (you could spend a whole day here alone I expect, it was huge), you can get a water taxi here directly. There were some waiting on the jetties as we left.

The orchid nursery

Next stop: pretty flowers! I have no idea where we were because all the signs were in Thai. It was pretty far away though.

There’s not much to say about the orchid nursery other than how pretty it was. We were the only visitors at the time and the owner of the nursery was very patient in answering my nerdy questions (as translated by our guide). He also gave us a tour of the other interesting plants on his property and overall it was a plant enthusiasts’ playground.

Of course it was even hotter and more humid than everywhere else we’d been, on account of the fact they were growing in a greenhouse which was full of standing water. It was worth it though.

Artist’s House

I was really looking forward to this stop, as it was billed as a local community movement aiming to promote the local arts. Apparently it’s a series of old, traditional houses that were saved from demolition by artists moving in and setting up various shops selling their creations. There’s also a traditional puppet show. Sounds great, right?

Unfortunately, we only found one shop selling anything vaguely handicraft-y, and to my (untrained it has to be said) eyes it didn’t look like anything you couldn’t get in markets elsewhere. Perhaps most shops were closed due to the public holiday, I don’t know. There were a couple of shops selling food which you could feed to the giant catfish that live in the canal. You can see the huge bags of it hanging up in the photo above. It was fun watching kids feed the fish but that wasn’t really what we came for.

So we made our way to the traditional puppet show and bagged a super uncomfortable seat while we waited for the show to begin. The place was packed and we assumed we were in for a treat, however two unfortunate things happened. One, I remembered I hate puppets. Like, I really am a bit freaked out by them. So as soon as the show started I just wanted to leave. The puppets were intricately made, yes, but I just wasn’t on for them being moved about. And what’s with the freaky black masks?!

Secondly, we realised the show was a thinly disguised shakedown for tourists. Now, I hate shows where they single someone out from the audience to embarrass them, but this was even worse. The premise was they’d not only embarrass people but pretend to hold their (expensive!) belongings to ransom or not leave them alone until they donated. Then they went around the audience doing this to everyone. We were sat near the back and after some time had passed and it became obvious they weren’t going to stop until they’d been around every single person in the audience, we decided to scarper. I would have donated before, even though it freaked me out, but I certainly wasn’t after that performance. I’m assuming it isn’t traditional for puppet shows to extort tourists but hey, what do I know.

That left a bit of a bad taste in our mouth and I think our guide was a bit surprised to see us leaving so soon. We were just glad to get back on the boat and get out in the water. It was honestly so much fun seeing into the neighbourhoods from the boat.

We spotted some local wildlife, too. We even saw a giant monitor lizard sunning himself on someone’s back garden wall.

Overall, whilst there were some good bits and some strange bits and some totally out-there bits, I’m really glad we took the boat ride. Being on the water was just so much fun and I loved seeing a different side to the shiny modern bits of Bangkok we’d seen until that point. Would I recommend to a friend? Maybe, depending on the friend. I would offer the following tips though.

Tips

> Wear boat suitable clothing. I would not recommend a dress. Also make sure you have knees and shoulders covered to look around the temples.

> Wear plenty of sunscreen (and reapply). Also bring DEET or similar – we got quite bitten on the water.

> Bear in mind you’ll be outdoors all day and nowhere you visit will have AC. So, prepare to be very hot for 7+ hours! Make sure your tour will provide plenty of water (ours did) and bring your own just in case. I thought we were drinking enough but once we got back to the hotel we were basically useless for the rest of the day, so perhaps we didn’t do as good of a job as we thought.

> Read up on the various permutations of tour, and pick the itinerary that suits you. Some tour companies will even create a bespoke one for you. I particularly enjoyed the jungle temple and orchid farm, the floating market was fun and it was good to have a guide to talk us through all the food on offer, I frankly didn’t know what to make of the bling mountain, and was not impressed by the artisan’s house. Your opinion may differ, that’s just mine.

> Take small notes to tip your guide and driver

> There won’t be room for you to sit alongside each other – it is a narrow boat. That’s fine but don’t expect to be able to hold a conversation with each other while the boat is moving, over the sound of the motor and the wind you’ll be hard pressed to.

> Following on from that, don’t expect commentary from your guide as you’re actually moving along. You won’t be able to hear a word they’re saying. Of course, they’ll guide you around the stops – just not en route.

So I have to ask. Would you have given money to the puppet show?

-Rachel

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13 Comments

  1. 19th July 2017 / 22:48

    oh what great tips and these photos! that first temple though and comparing it to the jungle one. kinda fascinating. i just know i’d love visiting one someday. that jade sculpture is something that i’d love to see in real life too. i cant imagine the detail up close!!

    xoxo cheshire kat

  2. Kelly
    20th July 2017 / 03:01

    Well done for not capsizing…it’s a tall lass thing!
    Okay the temple and orchids looked amazing but what on earth is going on with that puppet show…that’s just so weird to do that, I hate rip off joints like that!
    Puppets are scary along with street performers.
    Loving all these posts from your adventures xx

  3. Jen
    20th July 2017 / 03:13

    Wow these photos are incredible! You sure were able to see some amazing sites on this trip.

  4. 20th July 2017 / 04:05

    Beautiful photos and what an awesome experience – except for the lizard – Im deathly afraid of lizards and would probably have freaked out ha!

  5. 20th July 2017 / 04:26

    This sounds like so much fun and a great way to see the city! I had no idea that Bangkok was built on a canal system, so obviously by boat is the best way to see the city! And I totally felt the same way about getting into the gondolas when we were in Venice, I thought that I was going to just fall over into the water, so I’m glad that both of us ended up safe in our situations. And I totally would have left the puppet show too, that’s not my cup of tea either!

  6. 20th July 2017 / 11:04

    These photos are so beautiful, I love the lighting! And, what a fantastic boat trip, I love that you got to see a different side to the city. You got to see so much and I can just imagine that seeing it all by boat made it that extra bit special especial even if it was a bit wobbly at times!

  7. 21st July 2017 / 04:01

    this is such an interesting way to see a city! not gonna lie i am way too clumsy for that, but if you were okay maybe i would be haha. but seriously KC would not be okay with being hot for like 7 hours with no AC. he’s a baby 😉 also those black masks are terrifying. why though?

  8. 25th July 2017 / 17:16

    I realize I’ve not seen much of BKK despite having been there a few times. HA I really need to go back and take it all in! This seems like a great way to see a different side to BKK!

  9. 26th July 2017 / 00:34

    This was such a fun read! And lovely photo too. I didn’t go on one of these but it looks kind of fun, though sometime I’m wary of such tours too. But it seems like he brought you to mostly good places, except for the puppet show. How unfortunate! That sucks that they’re literally asking for money. The temples look lovely though. The jade stupa is just incredible!

  10. 31st July 2017 / 05:04

    This is definitely my kind of tour. Those orchids are gorgeous. I’m sad – I just killed my orchids. Those turtles are cute, too…. but I have a thing for turtles.

  11. 31st July 2017 / 20:06

    Wow, such an interesting way to see a different side of Bangkok! I love the intricacy of the details at the temples. That’s a shame about the puppet show – I’m with you, I often find puppets quite weeeeiird at those sorts of things! I would love to see the traditional houses and the orchids.

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