Take the boat out of Bangkok
Bangkok’s Chao Praya Express Boats are the best way to get around the city. (Austin Bush/LPI)
Bangkok’s Chao Praya Express Boats are the best way to get around the city: there is no traffic, the breezes are cool and the views from the river are fantastic.
Sadly, most visitors to the city experience only a tiny section of the ferry route, shuttling between Saphan Taksin pier in the south and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha or Khao San Road in the north (there are piers close to both).
However, those of a romantic cast of mind cannot help wondering where the boats go after they drop off the tourists, chugging upriver and out of sight.
While most Chao Praya Express Boats stop at Nonthaburi Pier, about 15km north of downtown Bangkok, special “green flag” boats continue another 10km upriver to the town of Pakret. While Pakret has little to detain the traveller, it is the jumping off point for Ko Kret, a sleepy island in the middle of the Chao Praya River. Ko Kret feels worlds away from Bangkok: it is almost entirely green, there are no cars and the vibe is more rural Cambodia than urban Thailand. In addition to the serenity and fresh air, the island is dotted with shops that sell distinctive Mon pottery, a pleasing ochre-coloured pottery that has its roots in present-day Myanmar.
While it is easy to get to Pakret by bus or taxi from Bangkok, it is much more interesting to take a green flag express boat. These boats run from Bangkok to Pakret in the late afternoon and early evening on weekdays only, as they are used as commuter ferries for local residents. However, if you catch the first northbound ferry of the day (which leaves Saphan Taksin at about 4:05pm), you will have enough time to reach Pakret, hop on the ferry to Ko Kret, explore the island and make it back to Bangkok in time for dinner.
Take the BTS Skytrain to Saphan Taksin Station and follow the crowds to Saphan Taksin Pier, making sure you arrive by 4 pm. Board a green flag boat, ignoring those with orange, yellow or no flags, and try to get a seat on the right (starboard) side to avoid the glare of the afternoon sun. The ride to Pakret takes slightly more than an hour and costs 35 baht.
Once at Pakret, follow the crowds to the main road and take a motorcycle taxi to the Wat Sanam Neua temple (24 Moo 3 Chaengwattana Road), a short 10-baht ride away. Walk through the temple and hop on the two-baht river ferry to Ko Kret. The ride across the river only takes a few minutes.
At Ko Kret’s pier you will find a few simple stores and a fleet of motorcycle taxis – many of which are driven by women, something of an oddity in Bangkok. While most motorcycle taxi drivers in Bangkok hail from rural northern Thailand, the ladies who drive the motorcycles on Ko Kret are almost all locals. You can hire a motorcycle taxi for 50 baht per hour or, if you can bear cycling in the heat, a basic bicycle will cost 40 baht per day. It takes around 45 minutes to make a full circuit of the island by motorcycle, and the road is a narrow concrete strip less than two metres across, shared between motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, livestock and hoards of giggling children.
There are a few tourist attractions on the island, including several Buddhist temples, the most interesting of which is Wat Poramaiyikawat (57 Moo 7; 02-584-5120), which has a small adjoining museum. However, the real fun of Ko Kret is cruising through the tiny hamlets, enjoying the soothing rural views and stopping for a cool drink as the mood strikes.
Once back at the pier, take the cross-river ferry back to Pakret and head for the main Chao Praya Express Boat Pier (the same pier where you disembarked earlier). Green flag express boats only sail south to Bangkok in the morning, so you will have to pay a private boatman to take you down to Nonthaburi Pier (the going rate is about 500 baht). Be warned, a trip in one of these private speedboats is not for the faint of heart; if you do not like white-knuckled boating, take the bus from Pakret back to Bangkok.
Once at Nonthaburi Pier, catch any express boat into downtown Bangkok. There are departures about every 20 minutes until 7 pm, with the ride taking about an hour and costing 15 baht.
By the time you board the boat, night will be falling, and the views of Bangkok from the Chao Praya River at night are pure magic. The glowing peaks and spires of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha are sublime, closely rivalled by the illuminated stupa of Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn). A few minutes more and you will find yourself back at Saphan Taksin Pier, where you started your adventure.