The river of kings: how to explore Bangkok's canals
Known as the 'Venice of the East', Bangkok's canals (khlongs) have been the lifeblood of Thailand for centuries. Don't miss out on exploring this unique, bustling waterway on your next visit!
So you’ve landed in Bangkok, bright-eyed and ready for adventure. Perhaps you’re on a layover. Or, maybe you're here for a couple of days before you head north to Chiang Mai or south to the islands after checking out the sprawling mass of skyscrapers that make up the skyline of Thailand’s capital city.
While many travellers make a beeline for the obvious tourist spots; the chaos of Khao San road, the overflowing shopping complexes, and the slew of top-rated bars and restaurants - there’s also an utterly enchanting side of Bangkok that's really worth taking the time to check out.
Hidden, almost in plain sight, amongst the buzz of traffic and concrete jungle, are the gilded ancient roofs of pagodas and Wats, sparkling palaces, and high white walls of this influential and sometimes secretive Kingdom. Connected by a network of canals (khlongs) that are basically the lifeblood of Thailand, these palace and temples are a welcome relief from the modern hustle and bustle with envelopes the city. In fact, these watery thoroughfares and the buildings around them are so impressive that they earned Thailand the nickname 'Venice of the East' for many years.
Here's how to explore the canals of Bangkok in true royal style yourself
The river of kings: how to explore Bangkok's canals
The river of kings
Within a few hours of landing in steamy Bangkok, you've probably already had to navigate the city's chaotic traffic, congested overpasses, cramped subway and MRTs, and infamous tuk tuks that zoom from every direction around the city. But you might be surprised to learn that each day, tens of thousands of people are also ferried across the city on the network of khlongs too.
The centrepiece of this network is the Chao Phraya River, or River of Kings. In ancient times, this mighty river irrigated fields, transported goods, and facilitated international trade, which has a lot to do with why the country became so wealthy. The River of Kings title came about because all former and current kings of Thailand have travelled on this river in Royal Barge processions full of pomp and glamour. So it probably follows that by travelling on it yourself, you’re part way to being a royal yourself then.. Right?
Today, the canals are full of longtail boats ferrying passengers to and from various stations - and they’re a fascinating insight into some of the little communities around Bangkok that you wouldn’t otherwise see. Plus they’re cheap (around 7THB for one way) and the perfect way to relax and escape the Bangkok heat for a while!
If you're keen to explore Bangkok by khlong without the hassle of working out which line you should be on, the Chao Phraya tourist boat travels along the Chao Phraya River with stops at all the key tourist attractions. Jump on, jump off to explore the Grand Palace or a temple, and then jump back on to keep going to the next one!
Boat Timetable | Sathorn to Phra Arthit 9:00am-17:30pm, Phra Arthit to Sathorn - 09:30am-18:00pm
Frequency | Boats leave from Sathorn and Phra Arthit every 30 minutes
Route | Chao Phraya tourist boat follows the 'blue flag' tourist line, taking in the key sites along the Chao Phraya
Cost | 50 Baht for a single use ticket, or 180 Baht for a full day of 'hopping'
Reviews | Check out other travellers reviews of the Chao Phraya tourist boat on Tripadvisor here
No royal day out is complete without a palace, right?! Bangkok’s Grand Palace is up there amongst the most beautiful in the world.
Built in 1782 to house the royal family after the ancient Siam capital Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese army, the Grand Palace is an absolute heartstealer. Each of the four buildings open to the public are extravagant and exceptionally beautiful; golden trimmings and bright colours splashed across marble floors and intricately decorated columns.
Enjoy taking your grandeur with some mystery and intrigue? Wandering the palace grounds teleports you straight to the heart of some pretty fascinating historical and pop-culture events, including the 1946 death of the previous King in mysterious circumstances. So devastated was the current king (his brother), he moved out of the official residence permanently, only making use of it now for official ceremonial occasions.
And remember the novel/ musical/ movie The King and I? Well, parts of Anna and King Mongkut’s real story played out here in these very grounds, which makes it easier to picture just how your own royal story could play out
A glimpse of the Palace is a massive tourist drawcard in Bangkok; over 100,000 people make the pilgrimage here every day. Get there early to avoid the crush of people and sweltering Bangkok afternoon heat.
Hours | 8:30am - 3:30pm every day
Location | Na Phra Lan Road, Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok
Cost | 500 Baht for admission to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Central Court of the Grand Palace
Dress code | The Grand Palace is considered an extremely sacred site in Thai culture (even moreso following King Rama IX's death) and a strict dress code of long trousers and covered shoulder is enforced. Be sure to dress appropriately or you'll be denied entry!
Reviews | See what other travellers thought of the Grand Palace on Tripadvisor here
Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha)
Inside the historic Grand Palace lies Wat Phra Kaew - the home of the highly revered Emerald Buddha. This depiction of Buddha in the meditation pose was carved from a single block of Jade and dates back to the 15th century.
It’s said that the Emerald Buddha brings prosperity and greatness to whichever country it resides in, which makes it the most highly revered image of Buddha (and may also account for some of Thailand’s booming economic growth!). It’s made it the subject of a few moves as well, finally brought back to Thailand in 1779 after General Chao Phraya Chakri conquered Vientiane.
As can be expected when beauty and greatness are involved, the Emerald Buddha attracts an enormous amount of visitors each day - though thankfully the vast crowds almost melt away here as you move around the complex in spellbound awe of the intricate decoration and the riot of gold and colour at every turn.
Hours & location | The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is located inside the Grand Palace grounds
Cost | Your 500 Baht Grand Palace entry ticket is also valid for the Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Dress Code | The same strict dress code at the Grand Palace also applies here too
Reviews | You can see what others thought of the Emerald Buddha temple here
Wat Pho (Temple of the reclining buddha)
Across the road from the Grand Palace lies Wat Pho, a name far easier to pronounce than its official full name of Wat Phra Chettuphon Wimonmangkhlaram Ratchaworamahawihan.
The complex is the first ranked of Bangkok’s few Wat Luangs (royal monastery), and is home to some of the city’s biggest royal sights - figuratively and literally.
Here, you can witness the extremely impressive and (much) larger than life golden Buddha reclining. His size defies both belief and his shelter; a hole cut in the elaborately decorated roof to fit around the top of his head. Listen out for the hypnotic chiming that rings out around the temple too, the result of small coins dropped into the 108 bronze bowls that line the walls by visitors seeking good luck.
The crowds in the 8-hectare complex are much smaller than those at the Emerald Buddha and Grand Palace, which means you can take in all the sights - including 394 gilded Buddha images in Lotus pose - at a far more leisurely pace.
Speaking of leisurely, while Wat Pho is pretty significant as the site of the earliest public university in Thailand, it’s also well-known today as the centre for traditional Thai massage and medicine. What better way to end your day as a royal than by indulging as the Royals would - with a traditional Thai massage?!
Hours | 8:00am - 18:30pm everyday
Location | Maharaj road, next to the Grand Palace.
Cost | 100 Baht (admission free for kids under 14)
Dress Code | Again, make sure legs and shoulders are completely covered
Reviews | Read reviews of Wat Pho from other travellers on Tripadvisor now
how to explore bangkok's canals and temples
While it's definitely possible to explore each of the palace and temple complexes independently via the khlongs, we found it was far easier to jump on a guided tour that takes in all the sights.
This 5-hour Urban Adventures 'Temple and River of Kings' tour takes in the Chao Phraya river by longtail, the Wat Pho temple, and the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha complex all with an English-speaking Thai guide.
It's a unique insight into the lives of the Thai who live along the khlongs, a world away from the skyline of skyscrapers we're so used to seeing of Bangkok.
How to get to Bangkok
Looking for cheap flights to Bangkok? Check out SkyScanner for the best airfare deals now
where to stay in bangkok
Like all major cities, Bangkok has a vast selection of accommodation options, with something to suit every budget and traveller
If you're after a more luxurious experience, you'll probably want to check out the hotels that line the Riverfront: the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, the Peninsula, and the Shangri-La to name a few. Search HotelsCombined to find your perfect pillow!
If you're a backpacker looking for a budget hostel, you're in luck. Bangkok is a firm favourite on the budget travel trail, which means there's no shortage of places to rest your head at night that won't break the bank. If you're looking for a true 'Bangkok Backpacker' experience, Khao San Road is the most obvious choice, although much quieter and chilled out options are available all over town.
Bangkok was actually our first foray in the world of Airbnb'ing, and we've never looked back. For about the same price as a hotel room, Airbnb gives you the chance to live like a local in a local area, and we LOVED getting to know the bustling neighbourhood around our apartment.
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We were hosted by Urban Adventures on their 'Temple and River of Kings' Bangkok canal tour, but as always, all opinions are our own.
This post originally appeared on the Urban Adventures blog