The water transport system in Bangkok is a quick, cheap and efficient way to get around the city. Yes, the boats spray water back at the passengers, but they come equipped with tarps that function as splash guards. Unfortunately, this being Thailand, you’ll only occasionally find a boat where those splash guards actually do function.
Many visitors are familiar with the river transport on the Chao Phraya, the large river that cuts through the middle of Bangkok. These boats ply a set route up and down the river, making stops on both sides and they cost virtually nothing. More importantly, they make a stop near Khao San road, which does not have a subway or skytrain connection anywhere in the vicinity.
Now naturally, it makes little sense not to connect the hub of tourism in Bangkok to the public transport net, but I’m guessing this is simply due to the power of the taxi and tuk tuk collective. True, you still have bus connections, but most tourists can’t be bothered trying to figure out the bus system. You also have the river boats, but they don’t generally venture outside the waterways and if they ever do, you’re better of not being on that particular boat.
The Chao Phraya Express Boat Service does connect Khao San Road to the Royal Palace and Bangkok’s three most famous temples, Wat Arun, Wat Pho and Wat Pha Kraew (I’m going to go out on a limb and say ‘Wat’ means ‘temple’). It also connects with the skytrain—and through it with the subway—at the final stop, Sathon, but that trip will obviously take some time. If you have the time though, the boats offer a much more interesting alternative to taxis.
On hot days, which in Bangkok seems to be every single day, they also offer a nice respite from the heat. The air on the river is always a few degrees cooler and the breeze that comes with speeding over the water is a welcome relief. Thanks to the generally defective spray guards, you’ll also be assured a refreshing faceful of river water if you manage to nab a seat near the side.
I would be shocked to hear that the Phraya River is not polluted, but I doubt taking a few sprays to the face will kill you. I’m still alive and I still have 20/20 vision in all three of my eyes (just to be clear: that’s not a reference to Hinduism, but to the polluted river water turning me into a three-eyed mutant freak—don’t go swimming in the river). I wouldn’t worry too much about getting splashed on the river boats; the canal boats, however, are a different story.
By far the most well-known and the most useful of the boat services runs along the Saen Saep Canal, which cuts right through the middle of Bangkok. The boats begin just behind Khao San road at the Golden Mountain temple and run east, connecting to the Jim Thompson House, the National Stadium, the MBK center and the other nearby shopping malls (Siam Square, Siam Discovery, Siam Paragon) and several other attractions.
While they cost slightly more than a bus, they avoid Bangkok’s congested streets and are thus much faster than not only the buses, but the much more expensive taxis as well. The main problem with the canal boats is the canal itself. In short: it stinks.
Imagine a combination of foul smells: raw sewage (apparently the main component of the canal), rotting garbage, rotting flesh, rotting anything really. Basically, take every horrible smell you can think of and combine it and the result will smell infinitely better than the Saen Saep Canal.
Even if you lucked out and got the one boat out of a hundred with functioning splash guards, you can’t ignore the smell. Pleasant canal cruise this is not. Most of the time though, the guards don’t work and you will not want to sit near the side and if you do end up on the side don’t talk or do anything else that requires an open mouth. You’ll probably want to keep your eyes closed as well.
Of course both sitting in the middle and closing your eyes will make it impossible to see the tiny signs that indicate the stops and with this particular boat service being famous for its haphazard operation, don’t expect the stops to be announced either.
In fact, the guys operating the boats are some of the least friendly public transportation workers you’ll ever run into and that’s saying a lot. That said, if my job had me plying up and down a river of shit all day long, I’d probably be in a foul mood too. Even with happy workers, you’d almost certainly miss your stop though, so ask some fellow passenger to let you know when to get off.
If you do keep your eyes open and they don’t get water in them and melt out of their sockets, you might notice the concrete walkways on either side of the canal. At first glance, you’ll probably think them a cruel joke by some disgruntled city planner, but look closer and you’ll actually see a number of Thai couples enjoying a romantic walk along the banks of the sewer. I guess, like people living near sewage treatment plants, they’ve been desensitized by the smell; but it’s not like the view is all that nice either.
Despite the stench and the possibility of taking some sewage spray to the face, I recommend any visitor to Bangkok give the canal boats a try. It’s an interesting experience, but it’s also probably the best way to get around Bangkok. At the very least, it gets you out of the taxis and the tuk tuks and that’s always a good thing. In fact that’s always my number one advice for Bangkok: take a tuk tuk once for the experience, if you must; then never even look at one again.