Featured Image: Klong Saen Saep Express Boat Approaching the Pier Slowly Near Jim Thompson House
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 9 January 2023
I’ve travelled extensively in Thailand since 1991. Thai culture is wonderful and the people in the main are kind and fascinating. I have written so far mainly about Chiang Mai and its food. It is time now to extend my articles to the wonders of that Asian mega-city Bangkok. The articles to date on Chiang Mai have been: 1 Akha Tribal Food, 2 Pho Vieng Chane, 3 Khao Soy, 4 French & Italian Restaurants, 5 Airport Plaza, 6 Chiang Mai Update and 7 What Travel Costs in Chiang Mai.
Klong Saen Saep
Klong Saen Saep Express Canal Boats, Transport Bangkok
A group of four of us first went to Thailand in 1991 for a month. We travelled extensively, using internal flights and just turned up at the airport when we were ready for the next leg of the journey. (It was the pre-Internet age. You used Lonely Planet to locate the area for cheap hotels and one person searched for a good one, while the other minded the bags.)
We went trekking north of Chiang Mai staying the night somewhere near Fang on the night Desert Storm began in the first Gulf War.
After the trek, we took an amazing long-tail boat from Fang down the rapids to Chiang Rai in the Golden Triangle. This was a great trip. But, not so long previously, Akha tribespeople would occasionally hijack the boat armed with AK-47s and steal everyone’s money and possessions. They shot any tourists who protested.
But, this is long ago and has disappeared along with the Golden Triangle as the wild frontier. In those days Chiang Rai was a small but pleasant market town or rural centre.
We’d arrived in Bangkok knowing little about Thailand. The hotel we stayed in on recommendation was in the Street behind Khao San Road in Banglamphu. We found the whole area incredibly exotic. Thrillingly so!
It was my second experience of Asia, the first being my sojourn at Rukmini’s flat in Jangpura in New Delhi in 1981/82. I thought the district was unbelievably strange and third worldy, not really realising at all that it was a middle class government employee enclave in the centre of Delhi.
We stayed at Ashima’s place in 1995 across the Jumna River near Mother Dairy. At dusk, Delhi’s pollution was like a thick fog, with orange sodium-lights and fires and smoke, it was like a scene out of Dante’s Inferno.
Later in the holiday in Khao San Road Bangkok, we stayed in the New Nith Chareon (the Nith was one of the early backpacker guesthouses). I’m very conservative about good places I’ve stayed in and like to repeat the experience. I stayed at the New Nith Chareon for several years. Denise and I stayed there in 1995 on the way to Pakistan and the Karakorum Highway.
But, after that Khao San Road had become too feral and we moved our Bangkok base to Patumwan House near MBK, the National Stadium, Jim Thompson House and Siam Square in Pathumwan. Pathumwan was a good place to be during the day but tended to close down around 10 pm. Nevertheless, we still stay at Patumwan House regularly.
Transport in Bangkok
I remember the frustration, when one had to exit Khao San Road and Banglamphu in 1991 to go to the railway station Hua Lamphong or Chinatown, because it would usually take at least an hour by bus each way. The traffic in Bangkok was an intense gridlock and taxis or tuk tuks didn’t help. From later experience, motorcycle taxis are the best way to go at peak hour, but only for short distances (a couple of kilometres at most) without luggage.
The BTS Skytrain system was opened on 5 December 1999. It initially had a much lower ridership than predicted, locals thought the tickets were too expensive. This had consequences in funding and paying off debt.
But, by December 2005, 500,000 single trips were made in a single day for the first time. Nowadays, in the central areas of Bangkok the Skytrain is always crowded.
Early on carriages on the Skytrain, because they were mostly empty, were very cold because of the air-conditioning. Similarly, Suvarnabhumi airport when it first opened was very cold because of a lack of passengers.
The Skytrain has been extended five times since in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2017-18 and 2019-20.
The MRT (or subway system) is later the Blue Line was begun in 2004 and the Purple Line in 2016. There are several new lines and extensions in progress.
Otherwise, there were the Chao Phraya Express boats up and down the river, but they were relatively infrequent outside of rush hour and not convenient for the central areas of Bangkok. Though the service may have improved in recent years (I have rarely used it for 20 years).
The Chao Phraya Express boats used stop at dusk, but the blue line now runs to 8.30 pm and the orange line to 7 pm. And with the Internet and smart phones it is easier to determine piers and times.
The Klong Saen Saep Express boats to some extent also used to stop early, though they now run to 8.30 pm during the week and 7 pm on weekends supposedly.
The Dirty Klong
We didn’t discover this much better form of transport until after 1991. Before the BTS Skytrain and the MRT (metro), the Klong Saen Saep Express canal boats were the quickest transport system in Bangkok.
Jane and I discovered it in 1992. One could get from near Khao San Road to the centre of Bangkok in what seemed no time at all. Even today when the route is convenient it rivals the MRT and the BTS Skytrain in speed.
In 1995 Denise and I travelled on the dirty Klong Saen Saep to near the Pakistan embassy. Where, fortunately for us, the Thai receptionist was angry with her boss and we obtained immediate three month multiple entry visas to Pakistan. We didn’t realise until we were in Pakistan how rare these visas were and our travelling friends were extremely envious. We accomplished in a couple of hours what would have taken us at least a day by other means of transport.
From Khao San Road one walks to Democracy Monument and then to the foot of the Temple of the Golden Mount, about ten minutes. The end stop of the Klong Saen Saep Express (see map) is just below the bridge. A boat leaves whenever it fills up. One rarely waits more than a few minutes.
The Temple of the Golden Mount or Wat Saket is on an artificial hill within the temple compound and dates from the Ayutthaya era, though the current structures are mainly 19th century. The Golden Mount is certainly worth a visit. It is very popular with Thai worshippers and gives a terrific panoramic view over the city only exceeded by the Baiyoke II and King Power Towers and other Bangkok skyscrapers.
The Klong Saen Saep Express
The express boats are large with huge engines that puff diesel smoke. One sits on narrow bench seats with partitions between them every few rows. One’s knees are hunched up and it is not that comfortable for foreigners (like all klong boats including long tails).
In 2023, this has all changed a few with much more comfortable bench seats to sit on and a large space in the centre of the boat for standing. We didn’t go down to the Democracy monument end but the boats may no longer have to fold down to get under bridges. The striped plastic screens (see below) no longer rely on passengers to operate and seem more efficient. But, everything else is the same.
On our first visit to Bangkok, we took the Chao Phraya River Express to its last stop upstream. We crossed the river on a ferry and a local helped us to find the right bus. We took a bus into the country for half an hour and then caught a long-tail klong boat back to Bangkok, which took two hours. We were very stiff by the end but it was a fascinating journey. You can still do this and other country klong trips today in central Thailand.
The Klong Saen Saep Express roils the klong with a massive wake and waves as it passes. At bridges the boats slow and carefully navigate, for some of them the whole roof of the boat is bent forward and comes down six or eight inches to get under the bridge. (The Thais are very inventive.)
There are blue-striped plastic screens, like poly tarp, along each side of the boat, which the passengers control with nylon ropes on pulleys. The screens are to stop splashes from the wake on the klong walls or when another boat passes. They are used assiduously by the locals.
We foreigners fantasise that the water is like acid and every drop burns.
The new clear plastic screens are also less crucial in 2023, because one is standing or sitting much higher than previously.
Embarking and disembarking the boats isn’t easy and varies from jetty to jetty. The boats do not linger at the pier and foreigners are given no quarter. It is every man and woman for herself. Again in 2023, this is much easier as one is standing upright already to disembark which makes the whole process easier.
The cost of tickets is minimal from 10-20 Baht depending on distance. The conductors walk along narrow ledges on the outside of the boat collecting money and distributing tickets. They cling onto rails on the roof for balance. Life is also easier for the conductors these days. Indeed the Klong Saen Saep Express no longer feels like the wild west but is still a terrific transport system that one should use.
The klongs and parks of Bangkok are the home of Asian monitor lizards. The klong ones are sometimes huge but rarely seen except during floods. They can be 1.5 to 2 metres in length and are the world’s second heaviest lizard after the Komodo dragon. They don’t eat people, but cats and rats and other small animals are fair game.
Klong Saen Saep Destinations
Most foreigners use only part of the Klong Saen Saep Express destinations (see map).
Apart from the Phan Fa Leelard (literally king’s walk) Pier at the Temple Mount, we have mainly used the Sapan (pier) Hua Chang (Siam Square), which is close by Patumwan House in Soi Kasem San 1 and Jim Thompson’s House, Soi 2 in Pathumwan. The pier is under the elephant bridge, Chaloem La 56 bridge or Hua Chang (elephant’s head) bridge. The slum area across the klong from Jim Thompson House was originally the area where Jim Thompson’s silk weavers lived. The tradition is carried on by a few family shops within the area.
Sapan (pier) Hua Chang is the stopping off point for the Ratchatewi and the National Stadium Skytrain stations. For BACC (Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre), MBK, the Siam Discovery Centre, Siam Centre, Paragon Mall and Siam Square. The junction of Phaya Thai and Rama 1 Roads is one of the busiest intersections in Bangkok.
The other major stop of tourist interest is Asoke-Petchaburi pier close to the Petchaburi MRT. A pleasant but long ten minute walk down Asok Montri Road leads to the Terminal 21 shopping mall and the Asok Skytrain station.
There are several important stops between Sapan Hua Chang and the Asoke-Petchaburi pier and several after that give easy access into different areas of central Bangkok.
The Klong Saen Saep Express continues out to Wat Sriboon reung pier on what was once probably the edge of town but is still quite far out in the suburbs north of Suvarnabhumi International Airport.
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