A journey along the length of the Chao Phraya reveals much about the remarkable history—and future—of Thailand’s principal waterway.
Photographs by Jason Michael Lang.
Gliding under Bangkok’s Rama VII Bridge gives me a huge thrill. I’m giddy, elated. Which seems to surprise Noom, my guide aboard the Manohra Dream: we’ve seen a number of more impressive bridges since the boat pushed off from its jetty an hour ago. Compared to the Taksin Bridge downriver near where I live, or the elegant, gilt-cabled span of the Rama VIII, the Rama VII is an ugly duckling—concrete, low hanging, utterly utilitarian. Hardly worthy, I suspect Noom thinks, of Thailand’s mighty River of Kings, the Chao Phraya.
But it’s not the bridge that has me excited. Rather, it’s the otherwise invisible transition it marks: the end of Bangkok and the beginning of Nonthaburi Province. Sixty kilometers upriver from Bang Pu, where the Chao Phraya empties into the Gulf of Thailand amid fleets of fishing vessels and flocks of seagulls, I am finally embarking on a quest that’s been months in the making—to travel to the river’s headwaters, then follow its course all the way back to the sea. Though I’ve lived along the banks of the Chao Phraya for six years now, like most residents in the capital, I’m really only familiar with the busy, canal-edged stretch that passes though Bangkok. My mission now is to explore its entire nation-defining length.
The Chao Phraya originates in the central Thai province of Nakhon Sawan, where several tributaries stream down from the kingdom’s northern hills. The biggest, the Ping and Nan, flow from Chiang Mai and the mountains bordering Laos, respectively, meeting at an area called Pak Nam Pho to form a river that, while neither particularly long (less than 400 kilometers) nor particularly deep, is the lifeblood of Thai civilization. All current and former Thai capitals are situated along, or linked to, the Chao Phraya, which nurtures much of the country’s agriculture and over half the entire population. In Thailand, this truly is the mother of all rivers.
For the 90-kilometer stretch between central Bangkok and the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya, I’ve elected to travel the river in style. There are a handful of refitted rice barges that offer overnight cruises along this route; the Manohra Dream, by all accounts, is the most luxurious. Run by the upscale hotel brand Anantara, the century-old teakwood boat comes with just two spacious staterooms and an upper deck where you can sip champagne, enjoy a lavish afternoon tea spread, and watch the riverbanks drift by.
As we leave Bangkok behind, the hubbub of river traffic—roaring longtail boats, water taxis, tugboats and their convoys of barges —subsides and the Chao Phraya broadens. Even a river diehard like myself must concede that, after the astonishing procession of palaces and temples we passed in Bangkok, there really isn’t all that much to see upstream. But the languid journey does afford a timeless snapshot of riverside life. From my perch at the bow of the Manohra Dream, I watch fishermen along the shore casting lines into the Chao Phraya’s murky, caramel-colored flow, and children waving from the decks of wooden stilt houses before diving acrobatically into the water. Thick green mats of water hyacinth gather around docks and piers. Noom points out that while the plants do add color to the scene, they’re invasive, imported by Thai royalty in the early 1900s and now a menace to navigation. Thousands of tons must be removed each year to keep the river clear.
Our first stop is Koh Kret. Hugged by an oxbow bend of the river, this flat patch of land was transformed into an island when a canal was dug in 1722 to shorten the route to Ayutthaya. Settled by Mon refugees from lower Burma later that century, Koh Kret today is a laid-back spot popular with day-trippers from Bangkok, with motor-bike taxis waiting at the pier to whisk you to its temples and Mon pottery shops. We end up at Rongsi Studio, an old rice mill that has recently been converted into a rustic-chic coffee shop and home-stay. There are picnic tables on a wooden deck suspended above the water, hammocks and beanbags aplenty, and a stairway leading up to a big loft where visitors snap selfies amid old milling machinery. One river-facing wall is now all glass, sucking in light and illuminating the potential of hipsterizing the forlorn factories we see along the banks.
We anchor for the night beside a monastery at Bang Pa-in, three hours farther up the river. After stuffing myself on a dinner of tom kha gai (fragrant chicken soup in coconut milk), ginger fish, and spicy beef curry, I disembark for a stroll along the shore. The moon is up and the river churns melodically. Cicadas and frogs serenade the scene; frangipani blossoms scent the air. It’s a lovely reminder of the rewards of a slow boat on the Chao Phraya.
After coffee the next morning, I’m off to explore Bang Pa-in, a palace complex of extravagant mansions, halls, and pavilions set within 19 hectares of gardens and ponds. The site was founded in the 17th century but fell into disuse at the end of the Ayutthaya period. King Mongkut (a.k.a. Rama IV), the fourth monarch of the current Chakri dynasty, began restoring Bang Pa-in in the mid-1800s, with his son and successor Chulalongkorn adding most of the European stylings one sees today, including a red-and-orange-striped observation tower from which the reform-minded ruler once surveyed his surrounds.
Across the channel where the Manohra Dream has moored is another curiosity from that era: Wat Niwet Thammaprawat, arguably Thailand’s most unusual Buddhist temple. Designed by an Italian architect in the manner of a Gothic Revival church, the building features a soaring steeple, stained-glass windows, and an altar surmounted by images of the Buddha. It’s a folly, to be sure, but an intriguing one at that, and a fine prelude to the marvels that await me upriver.
While Ayutthaya vies with Angkor and Bagan in terms of ancient splendor, I’ve often been perplexed by the site’s relative obscurity, particularly given its proximity to Bangkok. I suppose that’s partly down to the setting. Angkor is still crumbling poetically in the Cambodian jungle; Bagan’s pagodas stretch across a wide untrammeled plain alongside the Irrawaddy River. The great brick temples of Ayutthaya, by contrast, are overshadowed by the busy modern town that has grown up around them. Which is what makes approaching by river such a treat.
Founded in 1350, the second Siamese capital (after Sukhothai) must have presented an amazing spectacle to early visitors. Hundreds of gilded temples studded the island-city, along with enormous teak palaces, elephant kraals, and a vast web of canals that earned it the sobriquet “the Venice of the East.” Home to more than a million people at its heyday, Ayutthaya was among the world’s grandest cities, a glittering entrepôt that drew merchants from China, Japan, and India up the Chao Phraya to exchange silk, tea, and porcelain for sandalwood, spices, and birds’ nests. Siam’s rulers grew fabulously rich off the trade, and used some of that wealth to build monuments to their glory. Among them: a giant bronze Buddha that is said to have stood 16 meters tall and been clad in 170 kilograms of gold.
It all came to an end in 1767 when the Burmese sacked the city and carted off whatever treasures they could carry. Still, Ayutthaya remains one of the great ruins of Southeast Asia, a fact not lost on the mainly Thai tourists I spot among its surviving temples. Many are dressed in rented period costumes. At Wat Chaiwattanaram, a group of day-trippers from Bangkok pose for sunset pictures in grassy plazas framed by majestic chedis and prang (corn cob–shaped towers). A young lady named Poy has donned an Ayutthaya-style silk wrap; her partner wears a red robe and a large sword. A recent spate of historical TV dramas, she says, has rekindled interest in the bygone kingdom. “Now everyone likes posting pictures from Ayutthaya.”
But by nightfall, the tourists have thinned out substantially, which explains why I can get a corner suite on the top floor of Ayothaya Riverside Hotel for only US$32. As at my home in Bangkok, I sit for hours mesmerized by the churning brown river below and the cornucopia of boats it carries, all busily bound for somewhere.
Early the next morning, I’m on a train bound for Nakhon Sawan and my long-anticipated arrival at the headwaters of the Chao Phraya. (The river isn’t navigable by boat beyond the Chao Phraya Dam, built in the 1950s about 70 kilometers south of here.) Unfortunately, it’s downright disappointing. At Pak Nam Pho, which served as a logging station in the days of the British teak trade, the waters of the Ping and the Nan converge unceremoniously at a turbid confluence where a huge theme park is under construction. Gaudy gold dragons slither along the riverbank in front of a 140-year-old Chinese temple that’s been recently lacquered bright red. On the far shore, Nakhon Sawan, an overgrown market town that serves as the provincial capital, now sports its first (albeit still under construction) high-rise, huge Chinese characters on the side.
Undeterred, I hire a motorbike taxi to tour the marshlands east of Pak Nam Pho. Spread across more than 200 square kilometers, Bueng Boraphet is one of the largest single wetland sites in Thailand. It’s also prime bird-watching territory, with big flat-bottom boats available for hire. Ardent birders will want to keep a lookout for the white-eyed river martin, an endemic if likely extinct species that hasn’t been spotted since the 1980s.
The water levels are low during my March visit; it’s the end of the dry season, and locals are beginning to worry about a possible drought. This seasonal ebb and flow applies to the entire Chao Phraya watershed, of course; the Chao Phraya Dam was constructed as part of a vast irrigation system designed to water the croplands of the central plains during the dry months. But deluge is also a concern. In 2011, heavy monsoon rains swelled waterways and sent floodwaters surging down toward Bangkok, overflowing levees and swamping the city for months. All told, the flood affected 13 million people, with more than 800 deaths and damages estimated at US$50 billion.
The vagaries of nature and politics have been part of Bangkok’s fabric since the city was founded. After escaping the siege of Ayutthaya in 1767, a young Thai general, Phraya Taksin, mustered his forces to drive out the Burmese invaders. Crowned king later that year, he chose to move his capital to a more defensible position downriver rather than to rebuild Ayutthaya. The site he picked was Thonburi, a village near the mouth of the Chao Phraya, which he set about rechanneling. Yet Thonburi’s role as a royal capital was fleeting. In 1782, a new king, Rama I, established his own city across the water in what is now the historic center of Bangkok, Rattanakosin, fortifying the area with moats and citadels and building the Grand Palace. While still boasting exquisite temples like Wat Arun, Thonburi became a little-visited backwater. For me, that was part of the allure when I moved here six years ago—a refuge from the clamor of the rest of Bangkok. Taksin, for his part, fared even worse than his short-lived capital; according to official records, he was beheaded at Wichai Prasit, a river fort guarding the Thonburi stretch of the Chao Phraya. But there are more colorful accounts of his demise. Charlie Lee, who takes me on a boat tour of the nearby klong (canals), says the king was deposed in traditional Siamese style—by being stuffed into a velvet sack and beaten to death with a sandalwood club.
Lee is a big jovial American in his 70s who’s been living in Bangkok for more than 20 years, most of it on the river. Not surprisingly, he has plenty of intriguing insights to share as his canopied riverboat motors up a klong in Thonburi, where the largest of Bangkok’s surviving canals are found. These waterways were built as aquatic thoroughfares in the days before roads; now, they serve primarily for drainage—and as the front yard for an estimated 6,500 households. Our cruise takes us past rickety stilt houses, little-visited temples, and even an entire artists’ colony built on planks.
“I can’t believe this is Bangkok,” says a fellow passenger as we putter alongside mango groves in neighborhoods likely little changed since the young French count Ludovic de Beauvoir left Brussels in the 1860s to circle the globe. Stopping in Siam, he wrote: “Behind a bend of the Maenam [Chao Phraya], the entire town of Bangkok appeared in sight. I do not believe that there is a sight in the world more magnificent or more striking. This Asiatic Venice displays all her wonders over an extent of eight miles.”
Bangkok boomed after the Bowring Treaty opened Thailand to international trade in the mid-19th century, and the Chao Phraya became a superhighway of commerce. You still see scores of historic riverside structures that attest to the prosperity of the era, including the original wing of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, which first opened in 1887, and the old Customs House, a moldering Palladian pile that has been shuttered for decades. And the city’s first paved road, Charoenkrung, was built in the 1860s along a route that followed the sinuous curve of the river from the Grand Palace south to the European enclave of Bangrak.
But with the economic boom that followed World War II, Bangkok spread east away from the water, first to Silom and Siam, then to Sathorn and Sukhumvit. Younger generations moved to newer suburbs. By the time I first visited the city in the early 1990s, grand riverside hotels like the Oriental and the Shangri-La were being supplanted by flashier properties uptown. Subsequent development has followed the subway lines and continued to ramp up in neighborhoods far from the banks of the Chao Phraya.
In the last six years or so, however, the waterfront has been experiencing something of a renaissance. As in other global capitals that rediscovered their river roots, this movement has been spearheaded by artists and bohemian types like Duangrit Bunnag, one of Thailand’s most prominent architects. In late 2013, Bunnag staked his claim to a river revival by transforming a cluster of old Thonburi warehouses into The Jam Factory, where restaurants, an art gallery, and a bookshop are complemented by weekend markets and art events. He then doubled down with Warehouse 30, an even larger creative complex that opened two and a half years ago on the opposite side of the river.
And now, Bunnag seems less outlier than part of a fast-spreading movement. Clubs and cool cafés have sprouted among the crumbling shophouses on Charoenkrung Road, while dockland renewal projects have extended to a once-derelict pier built for Chinese ships in the mid-19th century. Now dubbed Lhong 1919, the collection of offices, warehouses, and courtyards has been converted into retail and restaurant spaces, with a shrine to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu taking center stage.
“The movement has really picked up,” says David Robinson, the Australian co-founder of the Creative District, which helps promote the area’s clutch of arts and lifestyle venues. “More people are moving near the river, and there are more places to eat and go. It’s got a good vibe.”
I’ve had a front-row seat to this rebirth since moving into my apartment at the aptly named River House Condominium, which sits right on the Chao Phraya next to The Jam Factory. At 15 stories, it was the tallest building on this side of the river when it opened in the mid-1980s; now, it’s dwarfed by new neighbors like IconSiam, a mixed-use development that includes Southeast Asia’s biggest shopping mall and two skyscraping residential towers.
And there’s more to come. Leaving the River House on the last leg of my Chao Phraya journey, I pass IconSiam and am soon gaping across the river at the 73-story tower of a new Four Seasons hotel that is slated to open in the next few months. Next door, the 101-room Capella Bangkok is nearing completion, while farther downriver, the ground is about to be broken on a palatial sister property to the beloved Sukhothai hotel in Sathorn. Architect Bill Bensley tells me the plans include as many as 2,000 residential units.
Farther on, the Chao Phraya curls northward and then performs an almost full circle as it wraps around Bang Krachao, a 16-square-kilometer swath of agricultural land and mangroves that is known as Bangkok’s “green lung.” Popular with cyclists, it offers a slice of quiet village life as well as a pleasant botanical garden filled with birdsong.
The neck of Bang Krachao is spanned by the Bhumibol Bridge, which crosses the Chao Phraya twice, its massive curlicues of concrete spinning high into the sky. Like the Rama VII Bridge 16 kilometers to the north, it marks Bangkok’s city limits. On the far side of its road deck are the delta lands of Samut Prakan, a coastal province created during the Ayutthaya period to serve as Siam’s seaport. During the reign of Rama V, Samut Prakan’s eponymous capital had the distinction of being the first Thai city connected to Bangkok by rail, telegraph, and phone line. Its defenses were also beefed up, with a new fort, Phra Chulachomklao, built at the mouth of the river in 1893.
These days, Samut Prakan has been absorbed into the patchwork of Bangkok’s urban sprawl, as was confirmed last December with the extension of the BTS Skytrain into the province. But there are still rice fields to be seen, and other old forts, and lovely temples like Wat Khun Samut Chin, which once sat on the mainland but is now surrounded by the sea and reachable only by boat. A friend of mine who lives nearby tells me the coastal erosion that marooned the temple began a few decades ago when a mangrove forest was cleared to make way for shrimp farms. The tides have gnawed away at the shoreline ever since.
I follow the yawning river mouth to Bang Pu, a recreational area just to the east of the estuary. Here, a long pier extends out into the Gulf of Thailand. It’s thronging with Thai tourists. And seagulls—hundreds of them, screeching and circling overhead in a Hitchcockian finale to my trip. The atmosphere is jolly as people share snacks and pose for holiday snapshots. One popular backdrop is a ring of bamboo poles that has been planted in the silty shallows. It’s in the shape of a heart—a loving Thai farewell, I imagine, to the Chao Phraya’s life-giving waters as they drain into the sea.
Bangkok River Boat
Book Charlie Lee’s klong tours (about US$50 per hour) via email@example.com.
Two-night cruises aboard the Manohra Dream are available by private charter only, from US$6,815. 66-2/476-0022.
248 Chiang Mai Rd., Bangkok.
41/1-5 Charoen Nakhon Rd.
Charoenkrung 30, Bangkok.
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Where Runs the River”).