I visited my girlfriend’s family in Bangkok over the holidays, and it’s one of my favourite cities in the world despite the heat and traffic. And of all the ways to get around the Big Mango, the ferry is probably the most exciting.
Known colloquially as “the boat,” the ferry service costs about 45 to 85 Australian cents, depending on the length of your trip, and runs along the Saen Saep Canal (“khlong” in Thai) network that cuts right through the heart of the city.
It’s a great way to avoid traffic during rush hour, but be warned: It’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s easy to get lost, extremely crowded, and the boats move fast through the narrow canals. If it’s your first time riding, prepare to get splashed.
But the boat isn’t just a tourist gimmick, as the low cost ensures that all Bangkok residents can rely on it. It’s used every day by over 60,000 people, according to its website, and plays a critical role in Bangkok’s diverse transportation network.
Come along for a ride.
My girlfriend's family's apartment is only a few blocks from the river, so we ended up using these ferries a ton.
The canal is narrower than you'd expect for ferries of this size. The drivers seem professional, but it's also a bit chaotic. The ferries race within inches of each other, and the canal walls, when it's busy. The combined waves can make for a rough (and wet) ride.
There's a map on every pier in both Thai and English -- but it's still pretty tough to navigate. Had I not been with some fearless locals, I would have been totally lost.
Getting on the boat is a little tricky. The driver pulls up to the pier for a few seconds, and people pour out. You have to jump on pretty quickly or you risk getting left behind -- or falling in.
The ticket checkers ride on the outside of the boat -- at least this guy is wearing a helmet. When you get on the boat, you pay the ticket checker based on the distance you are travelling. Most trips are between 10-20 baht, which is pretty affordable for most Bangkok residents.
I was always surprised by how many people these boats fit. The inside was a mix of benches and standing room. It's hot, and crowded, but you get where you're going quickly.
If you're sitting on the sides of the ferry, you risk getting wet -- and the water is pretty gross. There's a plastic tarp that passengers can hold up when there's a boat passing the other direction. Luckily, people in Bangkok are pretty friendly and happy to show newbies like me the ropes.
On the canal, you get to really see the city. On this particular ride, we passed slums, street art, and luxury condos.
We passed under low bridges -- again, at speeds way higher than I was comfortable with. Up ahead, you can see another ferry stopped at a pier.
Street art lines most of the canal. It seems to change on a regular basis. 'Hi-So' refers to 'high-society' Thais, who are the wealthiest Bangkok residents. They're mostly from old-money families associated with royalty, and stereotypically have an appetite for lavish Western goods and frequent Bangkok's insanely upscale clubs and bars.
On the next ferry, we were stuck in the standing section towards the back. It's right by the engine, so it's pretty loud. Watching the ticket-checker swing around the outside of the boat in flip-flops was entertaining, though.
There are handles everywhere. For a short guy like me, it's great -- but for those over 6 feet tall, you'll be ducking.
We reached our stop. The first time taking the boat was a little stressful -- I didn't think I was going to make it off in time! But it's totally worth it. It's cheap, and it's definitely a true Bangkok experience.
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