The Thai word for ‘river’ is Mae Nam; the word for ‘canal’ is klong. I awoke one sunny morning and realised I hadn’t ventured to the west of the Chao Praya river, the great waterway that dominates Bangkok and is the life line between both it and the Gulf of Thailand. Now was as good a time as any and, for maximum brown-pant time, why not cross it on one of the super highways that criss-cross from the Thonburi region to Bangkok? So, I filled my water bottle to the brim and set off after working out the journey was about 25km by bike and a good hour or so with the inevitable multiple stops for GPS checking, photo shots, traffic navigating and junction crossing that occurs. The first part of the run was fine, straight down Wireless Road, under the Thai-Belgian bridge with a quick wave at The Diplomat’s office, and then down Thanon Sathon towards the Taksin Bridge. A straight line which rapidly loomed up as a long climb on this three lane river crossing. I realised, as I began the ascent with thanks to Woking’s Greatest Cyclist for ensuring I could match the pace of the 35mph traffic with a speedy burst up it, that it was me, cars, buses, trucks, and coaches.
There’s nothing like realizing you are crossing the equivalent of the Queen Elizabeth bridge over the M25 on a bicycle with no bike lane to ensure you focus hard and don’t look back. As I pedaled frantically up to the summit I saw a walkway looming that crossed the Chao Praya. A great chance for a stop, to get off the tarmac and onto safer concrete, and take some photos.
It was pretty spectacular, to be honest. Azure skies, streaks of high white clouds, massive barges and several of the cross-river ferries to watch. You can even see a Santa teddy bear making the crossing! This river is the lifeblood of Bangkok. It is the Thai version of the Thames, the Rideau, the Potomac. The river itself is three times the size of Paris’ Seine, running from the old island capital of Ayutthaya down to its three mouths on the Gulf of Thailand. Historically, it was the access point for the European nations of the fifteenth century to establish serious trading with the Kingdom of Siam. Journeys along it were meant to start with an anchorage off Ban Chao Praya and asking permission to proceed. Any foreign delegations to the court of Ayutthaya would result in squadrons of royal barges coming to meet emissaries and return with them to the capital. If the mission was trade then those ships would begin a long haul upstream past first buildings like the Dutch’s storehouses that were built after 1634. Navigating two great oxbows in the river meant great canals were cut across the necks to shorten voyages by days in the late seventeenth century. The first town you’d come across would be Phra Pradaeng, then the entrance to Klong Sam Rong, before going past riverside houses, Buddhist Temples, the busy port of Klong Toey and extensive rice fields before the river straightens again at the modern day Rama IX bridge.
The bridge I crossed is around the next great bend in the river and descending it then dumped me out onto Thanon Charoen Nakhon. Twisting my way through a small garden cultivated under the bridge I leapt out into oncoming traffic to get onto the side I needed which followed the line of the river, sweeping sharply left onto Thanon Somdet Chao Phraya. Crossing that to get onto Thanon Arun Amarin (the road that houses one of Bangkok’s greatest Wat – a must for all tourists that I somehow managed to miss as I cycled along but trust me, it’s fabulous when seen at night from the river) proved tricky and I had to haul my bike up over a pedestrian overpass through a bunch of giggling school children who found the farang an oddity on a sunny day. I was definitely off the beaten tourist track.
So, I cycled along Amarin for some time, crossing a few canals/klong, going past the Thai Royal Navy dockyard, a few Wats, the Santa Cruz church, and Siriraj hospital (there is a fascinating forensic museum inside there) until reaching my next point of river crossing at Thanon Somdet Phra Pin Klao which crosses the river and comes out directly onto Sanlam Luang Park. Before I made that same (now exhilarating as opposed to pant-wetting) cycle burst I did stop and examine several of the small canals. This one is Klong Mon; it is also named Klong Bang Saothong, used since the advent of Ayutthaya, running from the Chao Praya to Klong Chak Phra and Wat Koh. A 3km waterway, it was considered strategic for trade and was heavily policed. Several important Wats line its route such as Wat Khrueawan, Wat Phraya Tham, Wat Chinorot…amongst others. It’s importance led to it being preserved in 1967 by the government and is a major tourist run.
Crossing Ammarin Bridge takes you over a major waterway almost directly opposite the Grand Palace on the opposite shore. Even with a five minute stop to gulp down warm water, wipe the rivulets of sweat off my face and basically suck in great lungfuls of smoggy air I could see the busy river traffic with colourful barges, motorized river boats, a mat of water foliage and (though I didn’t get a photo because stopping in the middle of a three lane highway would be suicidal even for me) a huge shed with about 15 floating “barges”. These things were easily 100ft long, arching prows, fantastically painted in oranges and reds with various motifs, like snakes, dragons, winged creatures. All bobbing about, tethered to a series of long jetties protruding out into the river.
From there I stopped at the great road junction before it turns right, up and over the Chao Praya. It’s feat of traffic light control. The central tarmac is unmarked, easily the size of a football pitch and has all four compass points of entry, each with six lanes of traffic. When the light goes green and you pedal hard with the mopeds to get out and across, you finding yourself leaning into a breeze in a huge sweeping arc to the right, standing on the pedals. Almost wants you to cry “Yee Ha!” (or something vaguely cowboy-ish) as you do it. Enthusiasm over, I went up and over Chao Praya river and quickly realised where I was, now comfortably able to navigate homeward. This time, as I went through Bo Fae market I stopped and got a few photos of the klong Krung Kasem. The market tends to run along the pavement between klong and thanon. Utterly covered over it is a tunnel of cheap clothing with several foot bridges over the canal. One heralded the entrance to the Boe Fae Market 4th bridge.
This time I managed to get a photo of the pineapple sellers though not in their cars, but ready to sell on the road side. I nearly grabbed one but remembered the lament of Dad. His wife always tells him to buy pineapple but he never knows if they are good or not. Apparently you simply ask them to cut into one and taste it. Then buy the rest. Simple, eh?
Well, I was still some way from home but you know the rest of it from a previous blog so I won’t bore you with repeat details.
Oh, for the first time, I’ve got a small video to give an idea of Boe Fae market. Taken whilst cycling along the road which is always tricky to do but it is what it is…
Is this what diplomacy is all about?