Heritage + Sightseeing
The Chao Phraya River, a.k.a. the River of the Gods, meanders through the heart of central Bangkok, passing some of the Thai capital’s most important heritage sites. Included are both traditional Thai structures as well as structures reflecting Western architectural influences.
One of the best ways to get a quick preview of what the Thai capital has to offer is to take one of the many cruises that ply the Chao Phraya River, a.k.a. the River of Kings.
The big question is: should you go sightseeing by day taking one of the public boasts that locals take to and from school or work – or should you take romantic dinner cruise at sunset or after dark?
A short list of the most interesting heritage sites lining the shores of the River of Kings follows.
1. Grand Palace
Built in 1783, the Grand Palace occupies a 60-acre site along the shores of the Chao Phraya River. The palace served as the royal residence until 1932. It is still used for royal functions and ceremonies. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is also located on the grounds.
2. Temple of Dawn
Towering 81 metres over the shores of the Chao Phraya River, the Temple of Dawn, a.k.a. Wat Arun, served as the royal temple of Rama II, a.k.a. King Lertlar.
3. Reclining Buddha
Housing several historical monuments, Wat Pho is most famous for the giant statue of a Reclining Buddha.
4. Temple of the Bell
Known as the Temple of the Bell in English, Wat Rakang is named after an ancient bell that was discovered on the temple grounds.
5. Old Customs House
Built in 1890, the Bangrak Fire Station was originally used as a customs house.
6. Siam Commercial Bank
Designed by two Italian architects, the Taladnoi Branch of Siam Commercial Bank was built in 1908.
7. Rajini School
Built in 1880, Rajini School was one of the first Western style brick buildings to be built in the Thai capital.
8. Embassy of Portugal
The site on which the Portuguese Embassy stands was granted to Portugal by Rama II in 1820. The current structure dates back to 1860.
9. Pom Pra Sumen
One of the two remaining fortresses of the 14 fortifications that once connected the city wall.
10. Wat Prayoon
Regarded as a “second class” temple, Wat Prayoon was founded in 1828.
How to Explore the Chao Phraya River
Not surprisingly, one of the best ways to explore the heritage sites lining the Chao Phraya River is by boat. But it can get complicated.
The Chao Phraya River Express is a river ferry, which sails up and down the river's Eastern shore. Locals use it to get to and from work and school so it offers a chance to experience a genuine slice of Bangkok life.
While inexpensive, the river express has one disadvantage as a sightseeing tool: it only makes stops on the east side of the river.
To reach heritage sites on the other side of the river, it is necessary to take shuttles, which ferry passengers across the river at various points.
Which is not to say it can't be done. Just make sure you leave sufficient time. One approach is to travel north, visiting sites on the east side of the river on your way up.
Then reverse the process, stopping on your way south and taking shuttles across the river to the heritage sites you want to visit.
Caveat Emptor: be careful of the touts offering to take you on cruises when you're exploring the riverfront district. They are famous for ripping off unsuspecting tourists.
One of the most enjoyable ways to explore the Chao Phraya River is aboard the many boats that ply its waters. Dinner cruises are especially popular.
I've taken two dinner cruises on the Chao Phraya River. One served an extravagant buffet dinner with entertainment and dancing. The other served a more intimate sit-down dinner cooked on board with champagne.
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