A tour of Bangkok’s canals and khlongs
Following on from last month’s rainy-season themed post, it seems fitting to dive back in with a look at Bangkok’s canals and khlongs. These watery backroads show a different side of the capital, and are a great way to spend a chilled out morning or afternoon.
I had harboured a secret fascination with Bangkok’s khlongs since a stay at a beautiful hotel in the Khlong Toei district, which just happened to have a canal on the other side of its pool (in retrospect, the clue was in the name!). A large wall and masses of vegetation and climbing plants blocked any kind of view, but the sound of water sloshing around and engines puttering past quickly gave it away. How surreal – less than a meter away from the sun loungers, there was this mysterious channel! Hearing the boats but being unable to see what this hidden canal looked like sparked my interest. If the canals and khlongs wound their secretive way through the maze of Bangkok, what sights did they reveal?
Finding a canal tour that didn’t seem to take all day, or pack in as many punters as possible took a while, but eventually we settled on the good folks at Co Van Kessel and their two-hour longtail boat tour of Bangkok’s khlongs.
Starting from their base at River City, we walked with our lovely guide Lily through some of the backstreets of the Talat Noi district, which is home to some of the oldest Chinese communities and families in the city, towards our moored longtail boat. We were the only guests on the tour, and walking and talking with Lily and hearing her fascinating explanations and stories about the neighbourhood was almost as interesting as the canal tour itself.
Safely boarded, we crossed the Chao Phraya river (which suddenly feels much bigger from the bow of a tiny longtail boat) to Thonburi, on the western side of the river. Riddled with khlongs, and feeling much less developed than the buzzing, touristy districts on the other side of the river, this gave us a real insight into another aspect of Bangkok life. Here, wooden houses are perilously stacked on stilts over the sloshing water, and vegetation tries hard to take over. It was easy to forget that we were still in the middle of the city.Even familiar Thai landmarks such as temples look different from the canal, and at one point we stopped to get a closer look. Having visited most of the major tourist temples in Bangkok, it was wonderful to see a local temple in the middle of the community, and also to walk round it with Lily’s careful explanations and descriptions. Whilst on dry land, we also went to stock up on snacks and supplies to keep us going, and again having a local to buy some unusual items for us to try was a bonus. Our guide also explained that a lot of the smaller shops (such as the one she took us to) have had fierce competition from the growing number of 7-Elevens, and that many were struggling to survive. Being regular patrons of the 7-Eleven when in Thailand, this was an eye-opener for us and we made a mental note to be a bit bolder and shop more locally. Nosing through some more of the western bank’s neighbourhoods, we eventually headed back towards the Chao Phraya and the skyscrapers of the city. After hitting the major tourist sites, shopping malls and temples, it can be easy to assume that you’ve seen Bangkok’s highlights, but for a completely different view of the city and its inhabitants, it is well worth spending an afternoon on its fascinating khlongs.