The trip around the khlongs is a must do when you are in Bangkok. I have done this a few times with friends and each time is like the first time. There are many things to see and be amazed at.
You step aboard a long tail boat, covered, to provide some protection from the sun. There is room enough for 8-10 people, although every time I have been on this trip we have basically had the boat more or less to ourselves. The cost of the trip is between 500-700 baht and it lasts a good hour and a half and, after the tour has finished, you even get the choice of getting dropped off at a different pier if you are planning to do more sightseeing.
Once you cross the busy Chao Phraya River, or River of Kings, you enter the much calmer canals and backwaters. If you take the tour from Phra Athit, you will pass the Royal Navy base and the Royal Barge Museum, where the kings’ barges are kept when not in use. The barges are beautifully decorated with some sort of mythical creature at the head. The barges are used normally in religious and royal ceremonies which have taken place just 16 times during the reign of the current king.
At certain points of the trip the driver slows down so you can take pictures of the houses and temples on either side. Before the metropolis of Bangkok sprang up, this is how the Thai people lived, and many still do. It is interesting to see how they have continued their lives amidst the modern city that is all around them. Along the way you see families going about their daily business, whether that’s fishing, doing the laundry, or taking their daily bath. Some of the houses are nothing more than wooden shacks and some are modern villas, with a wooden gangplank to allow access to and from the residences. However authentic this style of living is, modern gadgets have crept in, and a lot of the houses have satellite dishes and post boxes. Something that has caused a little bemusement from two of my visitors in the past.
Further on, the driver slows again and a lady, in a much smaller boat, comes alongside the long tail boat and asks if you want to buy her wares. On her boat there are all manner of things to buy and she will even ask you if you want to buy a can of beer for your driver, at a hugely inflated rate I might add. He never says no! Somewhere in the past these women have learned that the boats bring foreigners who will probably buy something from her, and why not? I wonder if the driver and the lady are in partnership, but in any case it all adds to the experience of your day.
Further up, on a small jetty, you will find people selling loaves of bread. Strange thing, but you buy a loaf anyway wondering why on earth you would need a loaf of bread whilst on a boat trip. All becomes clear when the water starts to churn with hundreds of huge cat fish waiting to be fed. There are loads of them and your loaf of bread disappears in seconds.
Another creature that lives in these water ways is the Asian Water Monitor (Varanus salvator.) The first time you see one in the water you immediately think of a crocodile because it moves the same way in the water and they are as big as one. These things are huge, about 6 feet from head to tip of their tail, and you will see them sunning themselves on the stone banks where they live in close proximity to the people.
You can also choose whether to have a guide or not. The trips that I have been on have been mostly without one, which is fine as the driver slows down or stops when he sees you are taking photographs. But I have also been on a tour in a larger boat with a guide up front telling you what the different sights are. These are a little more expensive; around 1000 baht upwards. I remember, at one point of the trip the boat was waiting for the sluice gates to open so we could continue up the canal. While we were waiting, the guide felt compelled to tell us all the things that Bangkok had to offer. I chuckled to myself because she went from steamed rice, to tours, to the Rose Garden (a cultural show) and back to steamed rice again. She was like a walking advertisement. Bless her, it was all interesting stuff but she repeated herself loads either out of the uncomfortable silence that had loomed over our boat, or because she was generally proud of what her city had to offer. I like to think it was the latter.
Pick up a canal tour boat at either Phra Athit Pier or SapanTaksin Pier.