A way to experience Bangkok beyond the walls of the Grand Palace, the MBK shopping malls, the markets, and backpacker haven Khao San Road is to move out to the suburbs across the river.
A long tail boat ride along the klongs of Nonthaburi slows down the Bangkok pace a little.
This area was once known as the Venice of the East. The romantic image of grandeur you probably have in your head with that label is not what the Bangkok Klongs are really like.
The water is muddy and thick with pollution and quite pungent, but in places the area is still picturesque.
Crooked houses, floating markets, old bridges and elaborate temples crowd the water’s edge as you whiz past shrouding them in a puff of fumes.
We would often catch the commuter boats at the end of a school day to visit with Khun Gai’s family. Gai, was my mentor at Wat Saket High School and her sister lived out on the klongs and would often invite us for a Thai feast.
And I’m not kidding when I say feast. It was every Thai lover’s dream banquet, but left us having to be rolled out even though it looked like we barely made a dent in the piles of food.
We loved meandering through the klongs in a water taxi, heading into areas that seemed quite jungled and green, far away from the concrete hustle and bustle.
It’s hard to imagine there is peace in Bangkok, but it exists out in the criss crossed water highways of Thonburi.
You can take a water taxi and randomly cruise the area or you can take an organized tour.
On my recent Friendship to Friend Thailand tour, I thoroughly enjoyed sitting low to the murky water and watching Bangkok life slip by from a long tail boat.
It was interesting to see the two worlds of prestige and poverty live side by side.
Elaborate temples, wooden-stilted homes and concrete mansions bordered by high fences and jungled gardens were flanked by corrugated iron shacks.
We came across a section of the klongs where the rocks and verandahs of homes were filled with water monitors basking in the sun. Our guide pointed them out and explained that along this small section all of the wildlife was protected, including the catfish.
Judging by the amount of catfish we saw scrambling over each other for a morsel of bread that was being thrown at them at the docking pier for the klong tour, they are not aware of this safe haven yet.
The Klong Bang Luang Artist House
The long tail klong tour was not just about cruising around on the waters, it was also about stopping off for an ice coffee and a cultural show at the Klong Bang Luang artist house.
Originally an old Thai home, the elderly owner could no longer afford the upkeep on the property and sold the house to the local, not-for-profit Art Society who has now preserved it.
The wooden shack sits on the edge of a peaceful stretch of water. There is something to look at everywhere you turn, sculptures, statues, face masks, puppets, and paintings.
In the middle of the house, a small courtyard was filled with the cackles and excitement of young children on a school trip sitting in anticipation for the puppet show that was about to start.
We sat and watched as three men dressed in black and wearing masks performed a dancing puppet musical rendition of Ramayana Gods, their sharp, jerky movements and stomping feet making them an extension of the little wooden puppet Gods.
There was not a movement or sound heard from the children. The audience were mesmerized, more so the group of travel writing photographers sticking their lenses into the crowds to catch a shot of the dancing puppets and puppeteers.
The ice coffee was my first coffee in Thailand and from then I was hooked.
I never thought of Thailand as being a place where you could get good coffee. The Thai Art house is a great place to start.
The tour ended crossing the Chao Praya in front of the Grand Palace offering a different, yet another spectacular view, matched by the Rama VIII bridge spanning across the Bangkok river in golden splendour.
It’s not until the end of the tour that your eyes are given a small glimpse into the grandeur of the Venice of the East.
Bangkok long tail boat facts:
Where: You find long-tail boats and river ferries available at almost all floating docks along the Chao Praya River.
How much: Costs range depending on whether you join an organized tour, or hire a long tail boat privately. I have heard prices range from 900- 1800 baht for an hour for a private hire. Consider going with a group of friends and arranging yourself the price and your stop off points.