If I want to come back a rich man in my next buddhist incarnation then I will come back as a Chao Phraya river hawker.
Me: "I just want to travel on one of the waterbuses to the Oriental hotel..."
Him: "It full! No more room!"
Me: "But there are spaces on there, I can see them.."
Him: "You want longtail! Only 300 baht, this man will take you!"
Sleepy man gets up and shambles over.
"You want see canals! We do best deal only 300 baht!"
As a tourist you are herded by the touts on the Chao Phraya piers like elephants into a kraal and then ferried around by the tout's wizened scrawny relatives. Oh the bahts they must coin in.
But the canals of Bangkok are a great excursion for a couple of hours. From the faintly aromatic water, you can see Bangkok life go around you - stilt houses, gaudy temples, people washing in the river and colourful viharn's. There is something typically oriental to sit back in a longtail with a cold beer and watching the scenery drift past. The sound of the Bangkok traffic is a distant memory, and combined wth a trip to the barge museum and Wat Arun this can one of the best uses of your time in the Thai capital.
All Bangkok used to look like the canals of Thonburi. 19th century Bangkok was described as 'Venice of the East' - the great roads east of the Chao Phraya river - Sukhamvit, Phetaburi and Silom were once wide canals as Bangkok was built on swampy soil (the same soil which prevents an underground metro being built). People lived in stilt houses and paddled around in canoes, the famous floating market at Damnoen Saduak is a relic of those days. The irony is that even in those days there was traffic congestion in Bangkok - at certain junctions there were canoe jams.
To have a look at the more watery side of the river you can take a tuk-tuk across the Prao Pinklao bridge from Banglamphu which is a short walk to the royal barge museum or take a tour from one of the Chao Phraya river piers. This is the way most tourists see the canals and the best places to pick up longtails are the two piers closest to the Grand Palace - Tha Maharat and Tha Chang. The rickety piers are usually crowded with people who are trying to pick up waterbuses to other parts of Bangkok, and even when you are waiting for the waterbuses the touts will approach you with offers of tours. Bartering is a good idea here and most tours should work out about 300-400 baht to see Thonburi. But you can beat them down to even 200 baht, but a warning the more you want to see - the more expensive it will be. The barge museum and Wat Arun will be extra, Wat Arun in particular is easily reached by public transport. Lumbering waterbuses set off from Tha Thien pier for only 10 bahts.
Longtails seat up to four people but most operators generally only allow two. And once you have clambered into this tiny craft they will gun the engines and set off across the Chao Phraya. Longtails are tiny craft only 10ft long, they are powered by a propeller shaft controlled from the rear of the boat by the pilot. The space is very confined as you must stretch your legs out in front of you and watch out for the spray. Then it was west into the canals of Thonburi. There was something utterly oriental about touring these canals. Traffic noise was obliterated, and either side were wooden houses built on stilts with attached longtails bobbing in the water. At the start of the journey the banks were lined with palms, refuse piers, chicken coop's and people fishing or standing up to their waists washing in the water. It was wonderful to settle back and watch the life of the river go on about you.
The guide muttered something about James Bond. Then we realised, this was where the khlong chase in 'The Man With The Golden Gun' happened. Unlike in the film, there was very little boat traffic on the canals. Coloured Viharn's (Temples) and Wat's lined the banks - their golden stupa's glittering in the sun. They were nestled between concrete apartment blocks and houses were lifted 4ft above the brown water on stilts. These houses looked very brittle and were designed for life outside - you could see the washing lines, televisions, dogs, chickens, young girls collecting water from the river and whole families having meals on tables open to the river.
It was so relaxing - then souvenir sellars in canoes ambushed us. The sticky heat of Bangkok is just as bad on the canals as in the streets and it was good to settle back with a Singha beer and watch a forest of palms drift by. Then after one and a half hours it was suddenly over and we were clambering out of a wobbly longtail and back onto the pier. I spent a little more time on Tha Thang pier as I was fascinated by the water life around me. To me this was the Asia I wanted to see:- zooming longtails, jetty boys herding Thai's into water taxi's and the pinnacles of temples on the other side of the river.
Away from the pollution and noise, the Chao Phraya is the best part of Bangkok.