Venice of the East
You can use the Chao Phraya River and the canals in Bangkok to avoid the traffic jams or to go sightseeing.
Bangkok is also known as Venice of the East because a river and numerous canals flow through the city. You can use the river and the canals for quick transport, avoiding the many traffic jams on the roads, and they are great for sightseeing as well.
If you want to explore Bangkok from the waterways, you can take a river bus or a canal bus, you can rent a river taxi (a long tail boat), or you can go on a sightseeing cruise. Be aware that the sightseeing cruises can be extremely expensive and they are not much better than the very cheap river buses and canal buses.
Below, you can read about the various waterways, by far the most popular with tourists is the Chao Phraya River.
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The Chao Phraya River
You will find countless sights along the Chao Phraya River, including the Grand Palace and Wat Arun. In addition, you will have easy access to Khao San Road and Chinatown Market from the river.
The river itself is also worth to explore with its sailing traffic in the form of sightseeing boats, river buses and long tail boats that act as water taxis. Here are also sailing shops, offering refreshments and souvenirs to the visitors. And, of course, you can enjoy the sight of the life along the river, for example, you may see children taking a swim in the otherwise not very inviting water.
Several companies offer sightseeing on a riverboat; however, with a single exception, their prices are exceptionally high, especially if you compare them to the river bus prices. A sightseeing company may easily charge 10 to 20 times the prices of the river buses used by the locals.
If you want to avoid the local commuters, you can take the blue line river bus. It is a line targeting tourists; the bus stops at the most popular tourist spots along the river, like The Grand Palace and Wat Arun. Unlike the other sightseeing boats, the blue line offers more reasonable pricing. Below, you can read more about the blue line.
Operated by the Chao Phraya Express Boat, the river buses offer five lines along the Chao Phraya River. The prices are low, for example, if you take the green line from one end to the other, a total of 21 kilometres (13 miles), it only costs 32 baht (32 baht).
The five lines differ in length, and they do not stop at the same piers. The lines are marked with flags in different colours on the buses, green, yellow, orange, and blue – and then there is a flagless line.
The yellow line is an express bus that has only a few stops, while the flagless line stops at all the piers.
The price for the blue line, the tourist line, is higher than for the other lines; however, the price is much lower than the price for the other sightseeing boats. A single journey ticket costs 50 baht (50 baht), no matter how far you want to go. In addition, you can buy a day pass and use the river bus as a hop on hop off bus to take a closer look at the attractions. The price of a day pass is 180 baht (180 baht), you can get a discount if you buy more than one ticket. You can read more at the tourist line's website.
If you want to visit a specific attraction, make sure to take a bus that stops there. You can find a route map and a timetable at the Chao Phraya Express Boat website. You can find a route map and a timetable for the tourist line at the tourist line's website.
You can see the various stops at the piers along the river on my map of Bangkok on Google Maps.
For the regular lines, you buy the ticket aboard. Take a seat after boarding, and the ticket seller will come to you. The ticket is for one trip only; thus if you get off to visit an attraction and you then continue, you need to buy another ticket. If you buy a day pass for the blue line, you present your ticket each time you board.
You can buy the day pass to the blue line at the line's website; however, you will have to change the electronic ticket to a paper ticket before boarding, and you can only do that at two of the piers: Sathorn Pier and Tha Maharaj Pier. Hopefully, they at some point will enter the digital age and accept the electronic ticket, as this is a serious shortcoming.
Sights along Chao Phraya
If you want to visit The Grand Palace, get off at the Tha Chang Pier. Please be aware that the area around The Grand Palace is full of people that will try to scam tourists. Ignore anyone who offers to help you find the entrance or whatever else they suggest. As you get off the ferry at Tha Chang Pier, you have to go inland and over a road. Continue along the white wall on your right hand until you reach the entrance. Usually, there will be many other people heading towards the palace.
The entry is 500 baht (500 baht). The Grand Palace and is open for access from 8:30 (8:30 AM) to 15:30 (3:30 PM) every day; however, (very rarely) it may be closed in connection with public events. Some of the people trying to scam tourists will tell you that it's closed, and they will then offer you somewhere else you can visit. They will earn a commission from the tuk-tuk driver as well as from the place they take you.
Please note that there is a dress code to enter the palace:
It does not appear directly from the image, but bare feet are forbidden. If you wear sandals or flip-flops, you need to wear socks. It is possible to rent clothing at the entrance if you have left without suitable attire.
Wat Arun, also known as The Temple of Dawn, is also a popular and very impressive attraction.
Some lines stop at the Wat Arun Pier, while other lines stop at Tha Tien Pier on the other side of the Chao Phraya River. If you end up at Tha Tien Pier, then you can cross the river on a ferry. At many of the piers along the river, there are ferries crossing the river. The price for crossing the river is affordable, typical 5 baht (5 baht) or less.
Like at the Grand Palace, there are also many who will try to scam you at Wat Arun. Ignore all the "friendly" people – especially those who contact you unsolicited. Wat Arun is open between 8:00 (8 AM) and 17:30 (5:30 PM) every day and access costs 50 baht (50 baht). Get there in good time before closing; otherwise, they may not allow you to enter.
Generally, at all the tourist spots along the river, you will meet people who will try to scam you or charge you an overprice. The same applies if you try to hire a water taxi; you may even risk a demand for a higher price for the crossing ferries.
If you want to visit Khao San Road, then get off at Phra Arthit Pier. Chinatown Market is in walking distance of Rachawongse Pier. If you want to change to the BTS (Skytrain), you can get off at Sathorn Pier, which is about 150 metres (500 feet) from the Saphan Taksin Station.
Hire a Water Taxi
You can go on a personal sightseeing tour by hiring a water taxi. That way you visit the smaller canals and see the life along the canals.
Typically, long tail boats operate as taxis. The given prices can fluctuate quite a bit, from 500 baht (500 baht) to over 3000 baht (3000 baht) for 1 to 1½ hour, if you are not sharing the boat with other people. Do try to haggle for a lower price; and do not be ashamed to offer a much lower price when you haggle, as long as you smile when haggling. 1500 baht (1500 baht) seems to be what most water taxis require for 1½ hours of sailing – you should be able to end at a price in that area or lower.
When haggling for a lower price, please make sure you agree on what the price covers (e.g. sailing to a particular location, or for how long – and how many people); otherwise, you may risk that they impose extra charges afterwards.
Be aware that it may be tough to haggle for a lower price if there are other taxis nearby. Typically, they press each other to offer high prices. Furthermore, it may be easier to get a low price in the afternoon when they fear that there will be no other customers that day.
Make sure you only rent a water taxi directly from the captain. I have heard of scammers who convey trips where they agree on one thing with the tourist and on another with the captain.
You can rent water taxis at several of the piers along the Chao Phraya River, e.g. at Wat Arun Pier, at Saphan Taksin Pier, and at Ta Chang Pier near The Grand Palace.
The San Saeb Canal
The locals use the San Saeb Canal to get through Bangkok without being stuck in the traffic jams. Please note that in the rush hours there may be quite a few passengers, all fighting to get first on or off the boat.
After a few accidents where people ended up in the water, they implemented new security measures to reduce the risk; for example, they try to prevent people from jumping on or off before the boat stops. I haven't used the boats since then; thus, I do not know how effective the security measures are. Nonetheless, if you want to go sightseeing on San Saeb, I will recommend that you do not go in the rush hours in the morning and in the afternoon. The boats sail from 5:30 (5:30 AM) to 20:30 (8:30 PM) on weekdays and from 5:30 (5:30 AM) to 19:00 (7 PM) on weekends and public holidays.
There are two lines on the San Saeb Canal, The Golden Mount Line, which sails from the western end to Pratunam Pier, and The NIDA Line, which sails from Pratunam Pier and to the eastern end. The price is 10-20 baht (10 baht-20 baht) depending on how far you are going. You buy the ticket aboard. Both lines use the same tickets; thus, you can buy a ticket on one line to a pier on the other line. The boats sail every 20 minutes outside the rush hours.
You can see the various stops at the piers along the canal on my map of Bangkok on Google Maps.
The western end station, Panfa Leelard Pier, is within walking distance of Khao San Road. If you want to go shopping, get off at Pratunam Pier; here you are close to CentralWorld, Pratunam Market and Platinum Fashion Mall.
If you want to visit the MBK Mall with its more than 2,000 shops, get off at Hua Chang Pier and head south. Next to MBK, you will find the BTS station (Skytrain) National Stadium. However, if you want to switch to the Skytrain without visiting the MBK Mall, head north instead, here you will find the Ratchathewi Station – you save about 100 metres (300 feet) by going north.
At Asoke-Phetchaburi Pier, you can switch to the MRT line (Metro) at Phetchaburi Station and to the airport line at Makkasan Station. At Chit Lom Pier, you can switch to the BTS line (Skytrain) at Chit Lom Station – despite the same name, there are about 600 hot metres (0.4 miles) to walk from Chit Lom Pier to Chit Lom Station (you may see the name spelt as Chidlom instead of Chit Lom).
There are plans for a new tourist line, starting at Pratunam Pier on the San Saeb Canal and going east to the Banglumpoo canals in the area of Khao San Road.
I have made a map at Google Maps, here you will find information about where you can change from the river buses and the canal bus to the Metro and the Skytrain. In addition, you will find the most popular shopping malls and markets, and even the most popular spots for nightlife.
A Few Tips
If you sit in front of the canal buses or water taxis, the trip may be a bit bumpy; if you stay in the back of the boat, you may get wet from splashing water.
If you encounter a boat selling souvenirs, fruits, or anything else on the Chao Phraya River, please be aware that it will not be cheap. You should only buy if are very hungry or thirsty, if you want the experience of buying from a boat, or if you want a story to tell at home.