It had all been going swimmingly until the tuk-tuk driver dropped me at the Pier…
Finding myself in Bangkok last weekend, with one and half days to explore the world’s hottest city, I had decided against an organised tour. This was partly because I don’t like being organised and I also because I reckoned I could do this ‘city visit’ thing all by myself – after all I had an app and I was due an adventure.
Having found my way to Chatuchak market – Bangkok’s biggest weekend market – via the sky train, I entered the maze of more than 15,000 stalls. And it really was a maze. As I squeezed down the narrow passageway where the gaps between stalls were hardly wide enough for two people to pass, I soon lost my sense of direction and which way was out. Picking up a Hawaiian shirt which I couldn’t decide about, I realized I’d probably never find it again and so it was a case of buy it now or buy it somewhere else! After I’d exhausted the never-ending clothing section, I browsed around some of the crafts, while I took in the sizzle and scents of the food stalls, where everything was being tossed, fried and boiled under umbrellas in the heat of the sun.
Several hours later I left clutching a bag of bargains and feeling content but footsore.
I decided to head for the river next, vaguely aware there were sights to see and it might be a bit cooler. As I approached the peer I could see a number of boats of different sizes and sorts negotiating a passage between the bridge and the pier, with chugging engines and shouts reverberating under the concrete pillars. One was an oriental wooden boat with a curved roof, while others were more modern.
“You want boat trip lady?” A small man approached me.
“Am I too late?” I said, wondering if they had all finished because it was after 5pm – shopping had gone on longer than I’d planned!
He would fit me in, he said, for a sunset cruise up the river and around the smaller tributaries. I didn’t quite know what I’d let myself in for, and hoped it would be on one of the pretty coloured long boats, that looked a bit like gondolas with engines. After plenty of shouting and maneuverings with a giant engine and massive tiller, a long wooden boat with red and orange canopy and side panels approached the peer. It was completely empty and I was told to jump in quickly with urgent hand gestures from the man on the side. Seconds later, almost before I was seated, we were off with a roar of the engine.
“Sit in the middle!” the man at the pier shouted as the boat tipped and bounced through the water.
The little boat went very fast and although I’m not a fan of speedboats, this was fun. The bows of the boat slapped into the water with loud bang and spray rose up either side. I looked down at the polished wooden planks beneath me, hoping they wouldn’t split. Occasionally I was soaked, but I didn’t mind, I was hot. Pulling out my phone to take photos, I momentarily considered what would happen if we capsized and made a mental note to put my phone in my shoulder bag if I thought the boat was going over – after all it was waterproof and I could swim. It wasn’t until much later I noted the lifejackets decorating the seats… it felt a bit late to one on at that point!
We dodged other boats and barges with hoots and whistles and eventually turned off the main brown river to a series of even browner side streams, where we passed wooden houses on stilts that looked like they were about to slide into the murky waters beneath them. A group of boys fishing off a rickety pier waved at us and a small boy feeding fish with large orange pellets stared as we passed. I felt a bit like the Queen, waving serenely, all alone in the boat with garlands of bright flowers draped over the bow.
As we passed more and more dilapidated homes on the banks of the backwaters, I could see people preparing their evening meals, washing vegetables or just collapsed on a chair beside the river after a day at work. Skeletons of houses which had sunk into the water stood out like ragged spikes on inlets where even smaller long boats and crumbling vessels were moored. A gang of lads were draped over the wooden rails of a platform just above the water, all in swimming shorts, laughing as one of them hauled himself up a ladder dripping with water. I shivered at the thought of swimming in such grimy looking water. A giant water lizard (which I thought was a snake) and a shoal of catfish were the only wild life we spotted, but life in Bangkok’s waterways looked busy and the water was a welcome relief from the incessant heat of the city.
My first day exploring had been fun. I ate freshly cut mango in a bag from a street side stall and later enjoyed a long cold beer in little café near the guesthouse.
The next day I returned to the river and made my way from one glittering temple to the next, with my ‘hop on hop’ off river boat ticket. After soaking up as many gold statues as I could cope with, the last being the giant reclining Buddha, I decided to take my chances in a tuk-tuk instead of walking back to the Pier for my return boat trip.
The tuk-tuk driver suggested I go to another pier which would be quicker – it seemed to make sense. Happy to be back on solid ground after dodging taxis and cars at speed in the tiny tuk-tuk, I walked onto the pier where a handful of people were waiting. Eventually a blue flagged boat appeared and I walked down to the edge of the floating platform and watched it chug past without stopping.
Oh, you obviously have to flag them down to stop, I thought… Another boat appeared with an orange flag and dropped off passengers, but my ticket wasn’t valid apparently. Then a blue flagged boat appeared again and I held out my arm… thinking it must be like a ‘request bus stop’. The boat didn’t slow and the man on the back just shook his head as they slid past, just out of reach.
It was very hot, my feet were tired from three different temple visits in the heat of the sun, but it eventually dawned on me, that although this pier was marked on the boat’s map… it didn’t stop there. I had no choice but to walk to the next one. The riverside pavement came to an end after a few hundred yards and I began trudging my way through a maze of little streets knowing that if I kept turning right, eventually I must come to the one leading down to the next pier. There were no tourist here and the side streets were quiet. Several roads to the river led to dead ends or bike shops… then just as I was wondering how far I would have to walk I spotted the pier entrance.
When a blue flagged boat eventually arrived I was quite happy to sit and watch the world go by as it bobbed up the river from stop to stop. I would be doing a round trip and going all the way back to the bottom of the river… I thought. Unfortunately as the we approached the final pier where I was expecting the boat to turn around and head back, the guide announced this boat was not going back to where I could catch the sky train… they were stopping for lunch and we would have to get out here and wait for another boat.
It was almost half an hour later, after at least two orange flagged boats had come and gone, that a blue flag appeared on the horizon and I was heading back in the right direction.
As my eyes started to close and the sun was sliding towards the skyscrapers on the horizon, I realized I had spent quite a bit of the past 48 hours snaking up and down Bangkok’s brown river by boat. It wasn’t such a bad way to spend a weekend.