Low-lying Bangkok, humid and thick in its swampy surrounds, has been carved, drained, protected and irrigated by canals since the 18th Century. Though Bangkok’s usual icons are tuk-tuks and traffic, its waterways are the true symbols of a city that was known as the “Venice of the East” during much of the 19th Century.
Today, many of the khlongs (canals) have been filled in and paved over to make room for roads, but a massive network of waterways still criss-crosses the city. Each day, thousands of commuters travel by motorized boat on the canals and on the Chao Praya River, which runs through the centre of the city.
Exploring Bangkok’s khlongs is a great way to get into the thick of this steamy city. Though they are often smelly and polluted, the true blood vessels of the city serve as living cultural and historical relics. And with ocean levels rising and Bangkok’s foundation sinking an average of three inches per year, the canals will no doubt play an important role in the city’s future.
The origins of the canals
Many of Thailand’s cities and towns were traditionally protected by moats, and Bangkok’s first waterways were dug for this purpose. In 1782, King Rama I created Rattanakosin Island, home of the Grand Palace and the original centre of Bangkok (which was established that year when the capital was moved from Ayuthaya), by administering the digging of a wide moat and linking it with the Chao Praya River. By 1850, second and third parallel canals had been dug, the city had grown and irrigation, drainage and transport became the canal’s primary use.
Throughout the 19th Century, the system of canals was expanded, horseshoe bends in the Chao Praya were cut off to shorten travel times and boat became Bangkok’s main form of transport. The canal and river network stretched hundreds of kilometres and was the lifeblood of the city. It connected houses, public spaces and temples, served as transport corridors for commercial goods and there were more floating than land-based markets.
European influence in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries slowly shifted Bangkok to a road-based transport system. Diplomats and merchants requested roads for horses and carriages, new construction materials like cement and cast iron became readily available, and as Bangkok’s population grew, expansion became centred on roads.
Visiting the canals
Though the glory days for Bangkok’s canals are, for now, in the past, the city is still highly dependent on its waterways.
Three of the most central and historically significant places to explore the canals are Khlong Saen Saeb, a canal in the centre of the city, Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem, one of the original canals around the Grand Palace, and Thonburi, a neighbourhood on the west side of the Chao Praya. All are close enough together to explore in one day and excellently illustrate the canals’ uses in their varying historical forms. Begin in the present, at Khlong Saen Saeb, move to the origins at Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem and then experience the khlongs in a blur of past and present on a tour of Thonburi’s narrow waterways.
Start your day in Bangkok’s bustling heart. About 18km of the lengthy Khlong Saen Saeb are serviced by public motorboat as it slices through the centre of the city, making it convenient for shopping and sightseeing. For a peep into everyday Bangkok life, catch a boat during morning rush hour when smartly-dressed commuters jump off and on the regularly-stopping boats as easily as though they were on a bus. Travel on this canal for designer (and knockoff) shopping at Siam Square and visit the Jim Thompson House, the beautiful teak museum home of an American silk trader, and other central Bangkok sites such as the Bo Bae wholesale clothing market or the hip Thonglor neighbourhood, full of boutiques and cafes. A walking path lines the canal where it is serviced by public transport and a stroll along it brings occasional delights like bougainvillea spilling down concrete walls or an old teak house among the modern office buildings.
When travelling Khlong Saen Saeb from east to west,motorboat buses terminate at Wat Saket, a late 18th-century temple topped by a golden stupa, and it takes about an hour to ride directly from the first stop at Wat Si Bunrueang. Get off one stop early at Bo Bae where Khlong Saen Saeb intersects with Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem.
Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem is the third of the original moats around Rattanakosin but there are no boat services here. At 5.5km long it is easily seen on foot, with a tree-lined walkway along the water. The canal passes Hualamphong, Bangkok’s main train station, and is a great place to spend time before catching a train.
From Bae Bo, walk south for excellent food in Chinatown and Little India, or north for the plant- and garden-focused Thewet market. Since Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem is one of the original moats around Rattanakosin, it is also a good starting point for exploring the Grand Palace and Bangkok’s historical heart. No matter which direction you travel on the canal, you will meet the Chao Phraya River, where you can catch a boat across to Thonburi on the public riverboats that constantly pass by.
Thonburi, west of the Chao Praya River and directly across from the Grand Palace, was the first area of Bangkok to be settled. In 1542, a small channel was dug to shorten one of the Chao Praya’s meandering horseshoes to reduce shipping times, and this channel is now an established part of the river’s main course. The old river bend and new channel created an island, now home to photogenic Wat Arun , the Temple of Dawn (which is actually most photogenic at sunset), and the impressive Royal Barges National Museum, where Bangkok’s fleet of ornate teak boats, used only for ceremonial processions, is on display.
A trip on public transport along the Chao Praya from either end of Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem is one way to view Wat Arun and the section of Thonburi that resides on the riverfront. But to see the heart of the district, book a canal tour at any of the central piers, including Tha Phra Athit, during which you will zip along Thonburi’s remaining network of canals past leafy trees, teak houses and temples. All tours will take you to Wat Arun and the Royal Barges National Museum, and on weekends to the Taling Chan floating market. Also in Thonburi, this market is popular for its waterborne food vendors who cook up fresh seafood in their boats and serve them to diners in floating restaurants. You will see plenty of tourists here, but it is an authentic market that is remnant of Bangkok’s early years, when floating markets were the norm.