The history of the Khlongs
The area surrounding Bangkok has always been a swamp and the Chao Praya River forms the biggest waterway here. In the 16th century there were already channels dug in the Chao Praya River to give shipping better access to and from the former capital Ayutthaya. The large meanders that the river course made on its way to the Gulf of Thailand were cut off by canals. The majority of waterways were created after Bangkok became the new capital. The most southern of the canals had to be filled in again because at high tide the city flooded with seawater.
Almost all national (and with some fluctuation, international) trade was conducted on the water. Furthermore, moats were created for the defence of the city in the 18th century, after the example of the set-up at Ayutthaya and in the 19th century, for purely military purposes, a few longer canals were excavated by Chinese workers, traversing from east to west in the area west of the city. With the passing of the centuries irrigation of the surrounding farmlands and the expansion of trade mobility were prime reasons for creating new waterways as the city developed and grew. Bangkok employed Dutch water engineering experts (end of the 18th, beginning of the 19th century) to reclaim the swamp areas. After the Second World War, canal building in the swamp areas was intensified.
The ancient khlong atmosphere
Nowadays not all khlongs are in use. Some of them have been filled in to improve land transportation. Still, parts of Bangkok have retained the old waterway atmosphere providing the opportunity for a relaxing outing. You could, for example, take the Khlong Bangkok Noi water taxi and travel the old river arm and see the original canal communities. The water taxi leaves from Tha (pier) Maharat, next to Silpakort University. Each journey costs about 20 Bhat and the further you go into the khlong the more beautiful the surroundings: wooden teak houses with gold-leafed Temples and colourful orchids cultivated in tiny gardens. This taxi service is provided by the so-called ‘longtail boats’. These are brightly coloured, narrow boats, about 8m long, and equipped with huge motors (sometimes Japanese truck engines) with the propeller on a long shaft so that the boat can navigate shallow waters. You can of course, charter a longtail boat. These cost about 400-500 Bhat an hour at Tha Si Phraya. Make sure you agree the price before setting off.
Practical river transport
If you really must travel during the rush hour, it’s a good idea to take an express boat over the Chao Praya River to get somewhere. It’s a bit hectic, but a lot less muggy than trying to travel over land.
You can have a wonderful meal in Bangkok on a dinner cruise in the evening. A few are named in the Lonely Planet book and it can be useful to make a reservation. We did a really nice cruise on a typical wooden ‘rice barge’ with gentle Thai music, fine service and lots of good food. This was not the cheapest (approx 1250 Bhat per person) but it was absolutely worth it.
Another great way to see the city is by bike. Try a Bangkok cycling tour along the banks of the khlongs.
River Kwai trips
The famous River Kwai is really a highlight of any trip to Thailand. From Bangkok, you can take a trip to the River Kwai, stopping first at the famous floating markets in Bangkok and even travelling on the Death Railway built by POWs. You can even sleep in floating huts on the River Kwai during some River Kwai tours.You can build your own Thailand adventure with khlong tours, trekking, and island hopping with Thailand Travel Plan.