08 Jun My ten favourite urban heritage landscapes of Bangkok
Throughout much of our human history cities were very unique. Humans evolved and thrived as they formed cities in relationship with their natural environment, beliefs and ambitions. Today however, cities are becoming more and more alike, having us search for their unique roots beneath the veneer of concrete and tarmac and gloss of high-rises and places of instant gratification.
What kind of Bangkok blog is this?
This blog post explores, traces and celebrates the unique roots of Bangkok and its people through ten unique areas within Bangkok’s greater metropolitan area. I want to move away from a list of classic attractions or top ten activities. Instead I want to provide an overview of 10 distinct urban and cultural landscapes in Bangkok. These are all areas that I’m currently exploring and I’d like to share with you their uniqueness and what’s in for you, should you visit.
I will update this blog post and link more in-depth guides as I advance my research. I hope this blog post will be of value to both, die-hard Bangkok fans and newbies to Bangkok..
How to explore Bangkok?
BANGKOK, CITY OF VILLAGES
Mapping the distinct urban features and cultural heritage landscapes of a megacity.
I’ve been exploring the anatomy of Bangkok since I was sixteen. Before moving to Thailand I had been reading, studying or drawing my own maps back in Germany and visited on five backpacking journeys. After moving here in 2003 I have been exploring this city extensively ever since. The conclusion? To understand the DNA of Bangkok is a life long yet fun and eye-opening endeavour.
So what is Bangkok?
To me, Bangkok is more than a city. It’s an urban organism that sprawls over 2,000 square kilometres across the marshy river basin of the Chao Phraya River. The greater metropolitan area is home to approximately 20 million people and nearly 60 different ethnicities and their cultures. Throughout the past 240 years they have inscribed their stories and heritage into the geography and DNA of the city and created a fascinating and diverse urban landscape. I’m here to explore and share this diversity with you.
Where to begin?
Bangkok poses a challenge for both visitors and writers given its size, complexity and unstructured nature. I want to begin my first theme by introducing you to the geographic, social and cultural landscapes of Bangkok. What do I mean by that?
Isn’t it a classic guide to Bangkok’s most interesting neighbourhoods?
Maybe, but not quite. Bangkok has many layers. Imagine Bangkok like an onion or the cross section of a tree. Each layer represents an important stage in the evolution of the city. The urban landscapes I describe here are similar to these layers. They came into existence and evolved at a certain time during Bangkok’s journey of becoming one of the most visited and most popular city destinations in the world.
From the inner most sacred core of Bangkok to the outward fringes where the urban devours the rural, Bangkok’s strength is: Diversity and its people.
Inside this chaotic mesh of urban sprawl you can find the city’s aquatic and agrarian roots or the dense Bladerunneresque neighbourhoods of the late 20th century rapid urbanisation. My mission is to map the city along its diverse historical, cultural and ethnical make up rather than the classic demarcated neighbourhood.
Some areas are clearly defined such as the historical core of Rattanakosin. The heritage landscapes (lets use this term for my purpose here) however are less defined and more abstract. They can encompass several districts and do not constitute a homogenous historic area. These heritage landscapes have undergone many transitions. Their traditional DNA and heritage co-exists like time bubbles and melt into an ocean of more recent developments.
What do these areas have in common?
What all these landscapes have in common is: 1. They are rooted, located and connected to the city’s aquatic DNA – the river and its vast network of canals. 2. They have their own unique history, identity and environment. 3. They are home to a vast number of Bangkok’s urban villages.
But what is an urban village?
This brings to one of the core aspects of old Bangkok.Bang means village and kok means olives which refers to the villages of olives. The village is even encoded in the very name Bangkok. Bangkok retains the concept of community or village (In Thai: Chumchon) as an important part of the city’s DNA even after the introduction of modern city districts. Throughout history, visitors did not only compare Bangkok as the Venice of Asia but as a patchwork of villages rooted in diverse ethnicities, religions or professions. They are the pioneering settlements along or near the waterways and early market centres. Stories of these communities will be linked in my specialised guides including portraits their community leaders.
Bangkok’s roughly 2,200 communities are often associated with low income or slum communities. The National Housing Authority classifies 140 of these communities as historic communities. The government however does not recognise them as part of Bangkok’s heritage. That’s why it’s important to make the stories of Bangkok’s cultural landscapes also the story of its last urban villages. There is a sense of urgency to do so as Bangkok’s unrelenting development, modernisation and inequality makes it increasingly difficult to trace the historic character especially on the local level.
The Chao Phraya River. The origins of everything.
The Chao Phraya River is the life-line of a once aquatic city. As such Bangkok’s old town constitutes the areas along the river and the vast canal system. I left out some areas that would be considered historically important as such as the Dusit District, Wat Arun – Temple of Dawn and the surrounding areas. For now I want to provide a diverse cross section of urban areas within the greater region of Bangkok and I’ll begin with the three old and most important centres.
The heart: Bangkok’s three traditional centres
These three areas are at the core of old Bangkok and include the most important cultural attractions of the city. These centres are very distinct from each other. They are the Thai Buddhist centre (Phra Nakhon), the Chinese port and merchant centre (Sampeng/Yaowarat) and the European centre (Bang Rak). These three areas are located on the eastern side of the River and emerged in the late 19th century/ early 20th century. They are probably the best documented historic areas of the city.
Below we take a closer look and over time I will link those chapters to deeper articles as I proceed with my research.
1. Phra Nakhon
First time in Bangkok? Looking to tick off the main bucket list attractions or party in Khaosan Road? Phra Nakhon would be your destination. But there is more to Phra Nakhon than the top ranked attractions and Asia’s largest backpacker hub and I will tell you why.
At the centre of Phra Nakhon sits an artificial island called Rattanakosin Island. Surrounded by concentric moats it’s the political and spiritual centre of Thailand, the nucleus that contains the Royal Palace, the Royal Temple, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha and a string of government ministries.
In 1782 its founder (King Rama I) and his ministers envisioned Bangkok to be the divine abode of Hindu Gods. Its template rooted in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. An aquatic city with a layout based on Hindu cosmology with divine centre (the seat of the monarchy), protected by concentric layers of oceans and mountain ranges. These layers are represented by the excavation of moats around Rattanakosin and by extension Phra Nakhon.
239 years later, as he divine, political and spiritual nucleus of Thailand, Rattanakosin is the city’s most orderly and regulated area. It is characterised by wide and manicured boulevards which offer beautiful views of the historic landmarks which are the epitome of Bangkok’s cultural landscape.
They capsulate Thailand’s national story through the monarchy, religion (Buddhism) and the nation.
If by nation we mean the people however, their heritage is located in the districts sub-neighbourhoods located beyond the inner moat and outside the sacred confines of Rattanakosin.
What is there to explore?
If you are done with the main attractions, then Phra Nakhon offers great opportunities to those with an appetite for Thai food, local life and motives for your camera lens.
Once you venture beyond the inner moat the world collapses from the divine back to Bangkok’s earthly and lively nature.
Phra Nakhon cannot be explored in one day, there’s too much to be explored but let me a give you a brief overview of DNA of the place. Once, I get to it, I’ll write a more detailed guide about my neighborhood of 17 years.
First of, less than 1% of Bangkok’s population lives in this historic centre. Why does it matter? Low population density, plus a high density of Thai Buddhist temples and building regulations that prevent massive property developments rewards you with a small town feel in the heart of a megacity. It’s very different from other inner city areas.
The morning rounds of monks collecting alms are a common sight. you’re looking to stay in the cultural of
In many ways Phra Nakhon feels like a patchwork of Buddhist temples surrounded by villages and neighbourhoods. These are relicts of the old days when craft villages were an integral part of Bangkok’s landscape. On top of that evolved wealthier neighbourhoods of the merchants and bureaucrats. Many of these places are still around. Their heydays may have long passed but they are still popular for a good reason, namely food and here’s why.
The hall of fame of food venues
If there’s one craft in Phra Nakhon that has been honed for ages then it is the art of cooking. I appreciate that our office and guest-house is located walking distance to legendary foodie hoods like Phraeng Phutton, Banglampoo, Dinso road or Pratu Phi.
When people comment that I got fatter each time they see me, I blame on it on those places. Forget about your beach-shape for Phuket, you better visit after the beach. Graze your way through historic food markets, hole in the walls, roadside stalls, beautiful riverside diners or hunt for the popular classics such as Netflix / Michelin Star superstar chef Je Fai. The options are endless.
But if there’s one particular culinary aspect to Phra Nakhon that I find interesting, then it’s the connection to the nobility which was historically centred in the areas close to the Grand Palace. Of all the myriad of food options in Bangkok, Phra Nakhon is a place to explore Thai restaurants that were born out of the private kitchens of palaces and nobles a century ago. More on that in my upcoming guide.
But will the local small town feel last? People are welcoming but also wary of the coming mass-transit line. Already, the planned subway stations will cause the demolition of heritage buildings and the removal of neighborhood favourites such as the Passport bookshop.
Phra Nakhon had its fair share of battles for the preservation of its vernacular heritage. Ancient communities such as Pom Mahakan were hailed as living heritage by conservation groups but eventually bulldozed by the City Administration on the grounds of illegaly occupying the land.
With government bodies showing little empathy for vernacular heritage, changes in landuse regulations and lucrative prospects for investors and developers the future of Phra Nakhon is uncertain. But this topic deserves separate blogs posts. For now the social and cultural fabric of Phra Nakhon hasn’t changed much over the past 18 years that I have lived here and the gilded temple spires are still the highest structures.
Bordering Phra Nakhon to the southeast is Bangkok’s Chinatown. Dive into the hub of the world’s largest Chinese diaspora and one of the largest and most authentic Chinatown’s in the world. The history of Sampeng or Yaowarat (as we call Chinatown locally) links back to the very founding of Bangkok.
If Phra Nakhon is the political and spiritual nucleus of Bangkok then Chinatown is the old economic engine and main port of the country. The port moved after World War 2 and Bangkok’s economic centre shifted to what is now the central business district. Until the 70’s Chinatown has been the Broadway, Fifth Avenue and Wallstreet of Bangkok and the dynamics, feel, and energy is still reminiscent of those good old days.
While for many Chinatown means crowds, the impossibility of finding parking space and getting lost (apart from gold shops and street food) for others (including me) it is one of the last authentic districts.. Unlike Chinatowns in the U.S., Bangkok’s Chinatown’s never made any attempts to be appealing to foreigners through a tourist friendly version of itself.
Nowhere else does relentless economic vigour coexist so closely to tranquil historic time bubbles, No other part in Bangkok embodies the challenge to preserve its cultural identity while embracing the future and that makes it one of the most exciting and fascinating districts of Bangkok. A testimony to the living history of the city.
Because of these juxtaposition and complexities it inspires not only Hollywood directors but appeals to Thai Millennials as well as discerning foodies, urban explorers, cultural creatives, bargain hunters and history buffs.
What to explore in Chinatown?
Chinatown is These can be found in the diverse and hidden residential communities. These micro-neighbourhoods are connected through an incredible warren of tiny alleys and backstreets which is one of the outstanding characteristics of Chinatown but the least explored one. This intricate maze, is a relict of the old days when it connected diverse ethnic Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka and other Chinese communities through the sprawling squalor in Bangkok’s port area. Today, the squalor is gone but the heritage of the Teochew, Hakka, Cantonese, Hailam and Hokkien with their own distinct dialects, customs and food is still around and waiting to be discovered.
Shoppaholics pay attention. Chinatown is part of Bangkok’s “market belt” where nine markets are interlinked through the city’s maritime old town area. On average 350,000 people (pre-Covid) join in the shopping frenzy on a daily basis. However most of the products fulfil local needs, offering anything from wholesale goods to ingredients for Teochew cuisine. However, if people aren’t shopping then they’re eating. Hence foodies turn Chinatown’s main road Yaowarat Road into one of Asia’s most exciting and picturesque street food hubs.
Chinatown is also a treasure trove for fans of history and photography. Until 2020 there was no mass-transit link between Chinatown and Bangkok’s business centre. Hence Chinatown managed to retain its old Bangkok vibes. Architects identified more than 5,000 buildings that should be preserved ranging from Southern Chinese style mansions to the Post modern hype of the 70’s/80’s. (check out our Instagram feed for examples). As mentioned above, an intricate maze of alleys connect 18 urban communities many of which are upcoming neighbourhoods such as Talad Noi, Soi Nana and Saphan Han where heritage preservation meets the needs of modern city dwellers.
In conclusion, a journey to Chinatown requires three things: a zest for adventure, time to soak it all and a blank slate without any preconceived ideas of Chinatown. What ever you think Chinatown to be like, Bangkok’s Chinatown proves you wrong.
3. BANG RAK
Bang Rak evolved as Bangkok’s hub of Western Colonial powers in the late nineteenth century. Their diplomatic missions were designated a tract of land south of the Chinese port area where they set up their economic and diplomatic bridgeheads. The construction of Bangkok’s first modern road Charoen Krung Road in 1862-1864 accelerated Bang Rak’s growth to become a thriving economic centre. The growing Western community intermingled with the Cantonese and Muslims communities turned Bang Rak into Bangkok’s manifestation of East meets West.
Charoen Krung Road still boasts the architectural legacy of the early days of Westernisation but you won’t find tranquil nostalgia here. The frenetic inferno of clocked streets, street vendors and shops operating in Sino-Portuguese shophouses stand in stark contrasts to the towering skyscrapers of Bangkok’s 80’s/90’s boom times.. The countless side streets and back alleys offer some respite and many hidden gems can be explored here.
What can you explore in Bang Rak?
Bang Rak has it all. Five star hotels and luxury malls sit next to rickety bars while colonial heritage buildings mix with state of the art cafes and innovation spaces. Grab specialties from local vendors, enjoy a tea set at the authors lounge of the Mandarin Oriental. Explore ethnically diverse micro-neighbourhoods, local markets, temples, cathedrals and mosques and discover street art and hip cafes and top it off with a drink 247 meter above the ground (albeit dress code necessary). Bang Rak’s cultural diversity and the fusion of historic communities and upscale hospitality puts it on a unique map for fans of food, culture, history and jaw-dropping gastronomic experiences.
Thonburi introduction – Bangkok’s vast and unexplored westside
Thonburi is one of many districts on the western side of the river. We usually refer to the entire west side of the river as Fang Thon (Fang = side, Thon = short for Thonburi). This side is so big that we will divide into three parts.
1. Khlong San the areas along the west-bank (we will leave out Wat Arun and the norther part of the west bank in this article),
2. The Chao Phraya Oxbow and the “Water-highways to the west” leading all the way into the neighbouring provinces.
3. Beyond the oxbow and along the ancient “water highways” into the neighbouring provinces
The west side of the river served as the capital from 1768 – 1782 before the founding of Bangkok. King Taksin the Great ruled this vast aquatic world and many of the canals and heritage date back to his era and earlier.
During Taksin’s reign Bangkok was a small but growing centre for trade on the eastern side of the river run by Teochew Chinese. When King Taksin himself was partly Teochew which made him the only monarch in the history of Chinese descent. When he was disposed in a coup, a new dynasty came into power they relocated the capital to the east side of the river and established Bangkok as the new capital. To make way for the construction of the royal citadel and the Grand Place a sizeable Teochew community had to relocate a few kilometre south into the marshes. That’s when the rise of Bangkok as the new capital began and Thonburi fell into neglect.
In the shadow of the new capital, Thonburi still grew to become Thailand’s second largest city. It was integrated into Bangkok in 1971 and became one of the Bangkok’s 50 city districts. Yet, Bangkokians continued to refer to the area across the river as simply as Fang Thon – The Thonburi side, as if nobody really knows or cares about what’s happening on Bangkok’s western half.
When we think of Thonburi, we think of a green suburbia with canals and plantations where time ticks a notch slower than on the eastern banks of the river. We think of the origins of the city as Thonburi has kept most of its canals intact while many of the canals on the Bangkok side were replaced by roads.
So, lets dive into some of the Thonburi dimensions through the three following heritage landscapes outlined under the Thonburi theme.
4. Thonburi – Khlong San
Khlong San is an old harbour and commercial centre located on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River. It was traditionally the domain of the Hokkien Chinese right across the river from Sampeng which is the hub of the Teochew Chinese, Both groups tried to avoid another for their interethnic rivalries. As a riverine trade centre, Khlong San was home to famous trading magnates and noble families in the 19th and early 20th century. Their descendants still live in the area and some of their heritage is accessible to the public.
Today, remnants of those bygone days are still visible. Old factories and warehouses as well as worker barracks intermix with working class neighbourhoods that sprung up in the 60’s and 70’s. Some areas are popular shooting locations for movie productions.
The further you go south along the river the more developed it gets, New upscale property developments such as condominiums, five-star hotels and the nearly 2 billion USD riverside mega-mall The Icon Siam are transforming parts of Khlong San into an international tourism hub. Much of the rest however retains it’s old-school vibe and keeps its heritage as Bangkok’s former multi-ethnic riverine trading hub.
What is there to explore?
The southern end of Khlong San has been become more gentrified over the years due to its proximity to the BTS Skytrain extension. You’ll find a range of “tourist-friendly” attractions such as the Icon mega Mall, Khlong San night market and the relatively new Long 1919 heritage mall. The northern parts on the other hand have remained immune to the modernisation.
A string of countless smaller neighbourhoods stretch along the river. The fun comes with the exploration of the small byways and alleys connecting these neighbourhoods, If you like to stroll and explore the meandering alleys, you will find a treasure trove of local markets, communities, local shrines, temples and other heritage buildings. Each of these neighbourhoods have their own history. The knife makers, the leather makers, Islamic communities, warehouses with traditional herbs, illegal liquor dens and massive street food markets. In recent years some neglected buildings have been restored into small lovely places such as chill cafes run by locals without turning the entire neighbourhood into a hipster area. This provides a great and relaxed respite during your explorations. The mix of various sub-neighbourhoods, ethnic diversity, a great array of street food and low-key atmosphere are the big draw.
Also from here it’s a beautiful walk that connects via the Sky Park to the Bangkok side or as an extension further north into the Kudi Jeen Community and beyond to the Temple of Dawn. More on this will becoming in our detailed guide that maps the heritage space, food and hidden gems of Khlong San.
5. Thonburi – the Chao Phraya Oxbow
The Great Chao Phraya Oxbow is the original flow of the Chao Phraya river. 400 years ago ancient Kings decided to dug a short cut between the area of today’s Bangkok Yai and Bangkok Noi canal to lessen travel time. Originally the river would flow in a wide bow to the west. After the short cut was dug the river eroded but still formed an important settlement area in which farmers, merchants and bureaucrats lived in symbiosis with its aquatic environment.
The term Chao Phraya Oxbow is a term used among conservationist and no taxi driver or local would know what you meant by that. The oxbow consist of several interlinked canals such as Khlong Bangkok Yai, Khlong Bang Luang, Khlong Chak Phra, Khlong Bangkok Noi, etc. ).
The shape of these canals appear almost like an amphibian ring road. From here many other canals branch off westward leading all the way to the Tha Chin River and Nonthaburi. The Oxbow was a landscape where a water-based culture thrived. The Oxbow bend embodies the cultural heritage of farmers, merchants and civil servants. Many commuted by boat to the palace and government district of Rattanakosin as well as the numerous market centres along the Chao Phraya River.
The landscape lends nostalgia to a city that ran on, along and around water. The main characteristic are the numerous interconnected canals, plantations, high density of Thai Buddhist temples and the light-wood structures lining the canals. Most of these are houses built on stilts with varying degrees of architectural detail.
Like many of Bangkok’s historic areas, the Chao Phraya Oxbow is also facing formidable challenges as flaws in urban planning and unchecked development have negatively impacted the original landscape. As Bangkok urbanised and less people relied on agriculture people moved away from the water towards roads. Old waterfront settlements were not included in the planning process and the road system cuts off these once aquatic communities.
Many of the beautiful wooden structures are not well-maintained and entire communities have turned into slums without access to public services.
What to explore in the Chao Phraya Oxbow?
Especially the lower half of the oxbow has many highlights for people to explore. The banks are lined with temples at nearly every kilometre giving evidence to the numerous settlements and important centres for trade. In some parts the canal runs close by one of Thailand’s first railroads. As such you can find also historic markets apart from the historic temples if the area,
In its entirety, the Chao Phraya Oxbow is best explored on a price boat tour which can be arranged at most of the major river piers. Some neighbourhoods along the oxbow can be reached by skytrain or by taxi but most of the highlights are too far apart to be explored on foot.
Alternatively bike tours and eScooter tours provide a great way to enjoy the sights and support the local communities along the canals. Other highlights include the artist community of Khlong Bang Luang with the Baan Silapin (Artist House) project. Further south, you’ll be amazed at the sight of Bangkok’s largest sitting Buddha at Wat Phasi Charoen which has become the new iconic landmark for Thonburi.
6. Go – West! Bangkok’s ancient “water highways”
Beyond the Chao Phraya Oxbow, there are major canals connecting Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River with the Tha Chin and Maeklong river basins in the west. Following the Free Trade Agreement in 1855, Thailand shifted from tributary trade with China to a global trade driven by Western capitalism. Thailand’s central regions were cleared and cultivated to meet the fast growing demand for agricultural products.
Canals were constructed for irrigation and to transport the produce from the frontier regions to the markets in Bangkok. Many of these canals can be found within the greater metropolitan area of Bangkok but hardly anyone pays attention to them as life has shifted to roads but there are countless hidden gems waiting for city dwellers as well as travellers looking for nature and culture.
In the 1940’s, my grandmother (who is 94) traveled on a nearly 100km journey down these canals to transport coconuts from Samut Songkhram to Bangkok. Along the rivers and these aquatic highways many villages, temples and floating markets emerged and flourished in the 19th and early 20th century. But what is left of these agricultural roots that had been part of Bangkok for such a long time?
What is there to explore along these canals?
There are many canals leading south-west, west and northwest. The further you travel along these canals the greener and more rural the landscape gets. But there are different shades of green depending on the route. Going southwest, near the highway, you’ll find yourself in a semi-rural, semi-industrial area, never ending clusters of factories and living quarters of migrant workers.
Along the canals of Thonburi and farther out, there are attractions such as the Khlong Lad Mayom and Don Wai Floating Markets but I’m interested in a journey rather than a destination. A journey by car limits you to roads and it’s not immersive and for walking the distances are too far. Is it still possible to navigate the region by boat just as my grandmother did!? This is on my list to find out but other than going on the water there is a great alternative heading in the southwestern direction. Namely, a lowlife journey by train from Wong Wian Yai in Thonburi to Thailand’s largest seafood market in Mahachai. From a station across the river from Mahachai you can further connect by train to the infamous Maeklong Train market.
The routes further north toward Baan Paew and Nakhon Pathom are ideal for cycling. My mission is shine more light to the agricultural world along the rivers and canals of the three river basins. Even though much of the old world may have vanished during the transition from agriculture to industrialised/urbanized (especially from the 1960’s) there are still amazing places around. Places like those forgotten villages along the Damnoen Saduak Canal or the Maeklong river. Places still deeply rooted in Buddhism and agriculture with their traces of Chinese mercantile heritage. I will update this article and my YouTube Channel as I explore the hinterland regions along its beautiful waterways and regularly post on Instagram as well to create amazing cycling routes and an alternative guide of a region that is little talked about.
7. Khlong Saen Saeb – the East-West artery
Khlong Saen Saeb is the most important remaining canal on the Bangkok side and is still home of some the last remaining old communities in the central business area. This rather overlooked artery dissects Bangkok east to west and was constructed in 1837. It connects Bangkok with the Bang Pakong River 72km east of Bangkok.
The job to excavate the canal fell to the Malay war captives brought in from the southern sultanates. After the completion of the canal they were given land to settle along the canal. Hence the cultural landscape of Khlong Saen Saeb is predominantly Islamic. Thus the story of Khlong Saen Saeb is part of one of the most diverse Islamic migrant populations in the world.
Khlong Saen Saeb is a popular route for commuters seeking to avoid the city’s notorious traffic jams. I personally took the boat regularly from the old town to the Ramkamhaeng university which is roughly 18km to the east. It takes less than half the time of what it would take you by boat.
What is there to explore along Khlong Saen Saeb?
Along a stretch of over 72km you’ll find everything from lush paddy fields to glitzy mega malls, ancient markets, temples and so much more. However only a stretch of roughly 20km of inner Bangkok is serviced by the public canal boats.
Beginning from the terminus pier in the old town (Phan Fah Pier) you will major attractions such as the Golden Mount, Loha Prasat, Khaosan Road, etc. within walking distance. Moving into the city, you will have opportunities to drop off at the Bo Bae textile market, visit old Islamic communities such as Bang Krua Tai and Bang Krua Nuea with their silk weavers as well as Bangkok’s main shopping areas: Siam and Pratunam / Ratchaprasong.
Pratunam is the central pier from where you travel further into the eastern parts of downtown Bangkok and all the way to Bang Kapi in the east. A journey along the entire stretch reveals the many faces of Bangkok. From gilded temples, mosques, skyscraper canyons and mega malls to the slums, old markets and fertile countryside.
However, don’t expect Khlong Saen Saeb to be your relaxed Venice style boat cruise. The canal is considered one of the most polluted canals in the city. During rush hour, boat drivers steer their boats in a Bangkok Derby fashion down the canal, potentially causing tsunamis of blackened water. Sometimes those who can, huddle against the protective plastic sheets as if they were in a trench during an artillery barrage. But for me that is part of the fun, the Bangkokian way.
After all, Khlong Saen Saeb remains to be the fastest, cheapest and most exciting way to explore Bangkok. It also intersects conveniently with Bangkok’s mass transit lines. The piers have detailed listings and maps of nearby attractions and it’s possible to buy a day pass to hop on and off at each pier. (those tourist boats are more expensive but have a more chill way to go around).
In conclusion, whether you want to explore markets, malls or temples, Khlong Saen Saeb provides enough localities to fill an entire holiday. I’ll be writing a more detailed guide, especially on the far eastern fringes of Khlong Saen Saeb to uncover the less known secrets of one of the city’s oldest canals.
8. Khlong Toey – the port of Bangkok
Conservative historians would probably wonder why I add Khlong Toei to my list of Bangkok’s heritage and cultural landscapes. Khlong Toei has a reputation for poverty and being the city’s largest slum but for us represents an important part of the country.
First, bangkokvanguards is partly rooted in Khlong Toei. One of our co-founders hailed from Khlong Toei and the stories of civil society, community and resilience sparked much of our organisation’s purpose. Khlong Toey opened our eyes to the complexities of Bangkok and were able to tell a different story of the city.
Historically the main port of Thailand was located in Sampeng but moved to Khlong Toey (Pandan leaf canal) after the second world war. The demand for labor rose in the 50’s and with the country’s growing industrialisation especially in the 60’s.-90’s Khlong Toey became a congested and impoverished melting pot of migrant communities from Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and rural Thailand. Today has evolved into a tight-knit community of roughly 100,000 residents living in roughly 30 legal and illegal slum communities.
Khlong Toei is home to a considerable number of NGO’s such as Duang Prateep Foundation and the Mercy Center who have been social services to the people. One of the major challenges is the uncertainty of their future for the communities. The first settlers were given land for free or very little rent as an incentive at a time when land ownership documentation was nonexistent. Throughout the existence of Khlong Toei, the people have struggled against authorities who threatened with eviction. Today, the people are fighting again against their eviction to make way for another giant tourist friendly shopping mall.
What is there to explore in Khlong Toei?
For tourism Khlong Toei is not really on the radar but Khlong Toei is home to Bangkok’s largest fresh market, the Khlong Toei fresh market. Most local travellers use the boat crossing at the Wat Khlong Toei Not temple to reach Bang Krachao.
We also don’t want to encourage slum or poverty tourism. If you want to explore the communities in depth we recommend to inquire with local organisations whether they can facilitate an experience according to their guidelines and which helps to contribute to the communities. Also, there are some local community based tourism initiatives but due to the Covid-19 these initiatives are on hold.
If you’re exploring on your own for photography purposes we recommend to keep a low profile, do not wear any fancy or skimpy clothes. Don’t take closeup images of people’s homes (especially interior) as walk pass. Ask for permission if you want to take a photo of a person always be polite and respectful to people. If you’re going deep then we recommend to go with a local or as mentioned book a community based tourism experience that benefits the local community.
Khlong Toei may not be what the government wants you to see but it is certainly an important part of Bangkok’s history. It’s a dimension that exemplifies Thailand’s transition from an agrarian to an industrialised country. The symbols of economic success loom as a towering skyline above Khlong Toei and as a stark reminder that Thailand is among the economically most unequal countries in the world. In the shadow of the city’s gleaming skyscrapers, millions of people labor as maids, workers, guards and so many other jobs that keep the city and the economic functioning. Khlong Toei is their story, it’s the place that fuelled my passion for urban exploration and it’s here where I found some of the most inspiring stories.
9. Go-East! Khlong Prawet Burirom, the eastern trade artery
To the south of Khlong Saen Saeb exists a second historic trade artery called Khlong Prawet Burirom. This canal passes Suvarnabhumi airport and connects Bangkok with the Bang Pakong River in Cha Choengsao. The canal was excavated in 1877 connecting Samut Prakan, Bangkok with Cha Choeng Sao and as a major trade route and source for irrigation. Similar to Khlong Saen Saeb the canal and its countless other feeder canals are home to many islamic water front communities and historic floating markets.
The canal starts as Khlong Phra Khanong near Khlong Toey in densely urban areas and develops into a beautiful, wide and open canal with decent water quality and proper embankments. Long stretches of the canal are ideal ideal for recreational activities. Along the pathways are beautiful gardens, temples and mosques. Homes of locals are well maintained and beautified with flowers and fruit trees.
What is there to explore along Khlong Prawet Burirom?
The canals are the forgotten world of old eastern Bangkok. They stretch like elongated gardens between industrial parks and gated communities, hinting at its tranquil agrarian past. We need to look beyond the Khlong Prawet Burirom itself and see the entire eco system that the canal feeds into.
Countless feeder canals branch off from the main canal and connect every part of eastern Bangkok. Here the heritage and way of life lingers on in pockets along these canals. Major landmarks such as the historic floating markets along Khlong Prawet Burirom can be reached by taxi or public transport but the main draw are the adventurous trails along the vast canal network that enable us to experience the countless neighbourhoods, villages and places of worships.
Unlike the Thonburi side there are no private boat tour operators offering trips into the world of eastern Bangkok. But, I’ll do further research on that. So, far all my explorations have been by mountain bike and to fully explore the area on a local level I recommend either a guided tour or renting bicycles. I’m just beginning to explore this part of Bangkok and I hope to provide an in-depth guide about Khlong Praweet Burirom, its history and hidden gems, For updates follow us on Instagram.
10. BANGKOK’S SUBURBAN ISLANDS
Name me an island in Thailand and you’d quickly come up with Phuket or Koh Samui, etc. Now, this final chapter of my list will introduce you two additional islands. Islands without a beach but still beautiful and peaceful escapes into nature.
Thanks to ancient kings Bangkok has two artificial islands. They deemed it necessary to excavate shortcuts along the meandering flow of the river to shorten travel time, One island is located in the north (Koh Kret) and one is located in the south (Bang Krachao). Both islands have their own cultures, history and vibes and provide a unique escape from the city for a day or more.
10 A. Koh Kret – The pottery island
Koh Kret is located 20km north of Bangkok in Nonthaburi but is still within the greater metropolitan area of the city. The island was created in 1722 and has been one of the main settlements of the Mon people. The Mon people are famous for their production of pottery ware and Koh Kret is sometimes also referred to as the pottery island. The Mon villages scatter around the island and connect through little pathways. You can rent a bicycle and explore beautiful temples, river life and the car-free, slow-life atmosphere.
What is there to explore on Koh Kret?
If cycling is not your thing, you could try and walk the island but bear in mind the distance of around 8-9km and the hot climate. Koh Kret offers a busy weekend market which is popular among Thai people. Fortunately Koh Kret has preserved much of its charm and has a lot of potential for cultural tourism.
One fun activity is to partake in the pottery workshops offered by the descendants of the Mon people. Additionally there are also Muslim communities which offer Batik workshops by the river. Food explorers can try traditional and hard to find ethnic Mon snacks. Koh Kret is also home to a popular craft beer joint called Chid beer where you can cool down with a beer and nice view of the river.
The best way to get to Koh Kret is by river express boat from any of the Bangkok river piers. The orange and yellow flag stop at the Nonthaburi pier from where you can take smaller private boats on a short ride to the island. We will provide more detailed information in our upcoming blog to provide unique insights into this unique part in the greater metropolitan area of Bangkok.
10 B. Bang Krachao – The Green Lung of Bangkok
Bangkok provides only 3.6sqm of green space per inhabitant on average. That’s among the lowest in Asia. However if you add the green space of Bang Krachao (Bangkok’s green lung) then that number would increase by almost another 2 sqm. Bang Krachao is almost entirely surrounded by the river and a short-cut was dug turning Bang Krachao into an island that is shaped like a Krapho Mu (pig’s stomach).
Bangkok Krachao was named “best urban oasis” by Time in its “Best of Asia” series and once you start exploring you will know why. It absorbs up to 6,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and releases about 6 million tonnes of oxygen a day and for those Bangkokians who want to breathe through Bang Krachao is the best choice close to home. If you want to move from the concrete jungle to the real jungle, Bang Krachao is your choice.
What’s there to explore on in Bang Krachao?
Bang Krachao can easily be reached. It is located across from Bangkok’s Khlong Toei Port close to the city centre. It’s one of the most popular cycling spots in Bangkok and there are bike rental stations where you can rent bikes for 100THB/day. The lush, green and tropical landscape is dotted with hidden and beautiful cafes, restaurants, homesteads and temples. All these tiny hidden places are connected through an intricate web of narrow, elevated pathways accessible only for motorbikes and bicycles. These paths open up beautiful views of the tropical countryside, farmlands and rustic countryside life.
A popular destination is the Bang Nampueng floating market. Even though people are not paddling their boats anymore it is still a nice place to visit. You can explore a wide range of delicious snacks and drinks at affordable prices without the mass tourism vibes of the Damnoen Saduak Floating market.
There are other attractions that be easily reached on bike such as the Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park and a number of ancient temples. But alternatively you can rent kayaks to see more of the stunning eco-system of the river and canals. Impressive Nipa palms line the waterways and are best explored on a boat. There are farmers groups and local community organisations that offer various local and sustainable experiences based on the local wisdom and traditional way of life,
The initiatives include local products and ingredients such as fruits and herbs. There are local Herbal Spas, community enterprises and organic farms such as Suan Som Theppharot and Bang Krasob Learning Centre, where you can purchase local products, observe or partake in tea production from Nipa palm. Other groups offer to make herbal incense or herbal bags for massages. Some local homestays also offer local experiences but in any case, Bang Krachao offers you ways to explore on your own or get down hands on with locals. The support of local community based tourism is important for the local economy and to provide future perspective instead of selling the last green reserves to developers and businesses who’d bring the urban jungle over to Bang Krachao.
Explore Bangkok’s other unique urban dimensions
Bangkok-based experience designer, blogger, tour guide and hobby anthropologist.
I explore and introduce you to the places, people and ideas that matter