Bangkok Water Mobility: The Remnants of the “Venice of the East”

Bangkok Water Mobility

When Thailand’s new king, Rama I, moved his capital to the other side of the Chao Phraya River in 1782, he ordered the construction of a canal to ring the new city. This main canal expanded, splintering into smaller thoroughfares and connecting with the river and the canals on the opposite bank. This complex canal system and the importance of waterways in inner-city transportation earned Bangkok the title of “Venice of the East.”[1] However, the Bangkok of today is a far cry from the waterway metropolis it used to be. After over 100 years of western influence, the city has built nine bridges, it has grown uncontrollably along an extensive and congested road system, and it has filled in many canals to make way for bigger and wider streets. For locals and tourists alike, the city is a traffic nightmare.

An uncoordinated mobility solution

To combat the traffic congestion, Bangkok has become a conglomerate of public transportation options. The city offers busses, taxis, motorbike taxis, and tuk-tuks. In the past fifteen years Bangkok has built a Mass Rapid Transit system including a subway line and two BTS Skytrain lines. But, some of the quickest and most effective means of urban mobility remain the riverboats and ferries. Two main water transportation services still operate in Bangkok: the Chao Phraya Express Boat connects various piers on both sides of the Chao Phraya River from the northern suburbs to the city centre, while the Khlong Saen Saep Boat Services operate on the east-west flowing Saen Saep canal.

Chao Phraya Express Boat

Chao Phraya Express Boat

The Chao Phraya Express Boats run on the Chao Phraya River, the north-south running river that has traditionally been the main artery of the city and Thailand’s express way to the rest of the world. While barges carrying rice still float up river and boats bringing vegetables from the countryside still flow down river, the Chao Phraya is almost void of traffic in comparison to the choked city-streets. The Chao Phraya Express offers five different lines. Although all of the lines travel along the same river, the portion of the river travelled as well as the designated pier stops varies. The Green, Orange, and Yellow flag lines operate as express lines, spanning the similar lengths but stopping at different piers along the way. The local “no flag” boats, however, stop at every pier. Finally, the Blue Flag line operates only in the city centre and stops at eight sites with popular tourist attractions. All along the way, the Chao Phraya Express boats provide transfers to city buses, subways, and Skytrain lines.[2]

Khlong Saen Saep Boat Services

Khlong Saen Saep Boat

The Khlong Saen Saep boats are a little more chaotic than the Chao Phraya Express Boats, but they can save a rider anywhere from 90-30 minutes travel time compared to a city bus along the 18 kilometre route. The fact that these boats carry 60,000 passengers per day attests to their efficiency.[3] However, these boats can be crammed packed during rush hour and the Saen Saep canal is highly polluted (and yes, many seats are in the “splash zone”). Each boat has 40 to 50 seats and a ride costs between 10 and 20 Baht (0.20€ to 0.48€) depending on the distance travelled. Embarking and disembarking is done sometimes in a matter of seconds along the 30 different piers. There are no walkways on the boat, so passengers and ticket collectors alike are obliged to walk along the outside planks before stepping over the protective tarp to take a seat. The boats are equipped with hydraulic ceilings that can be lowered to clear the many bridges during times of high water. Ticket collectors also wear helmets for protection from overhead structures. While this boat service does not live up to many transportation standards expected in the West, it does provide quick transportation – and a little bit of fun – in a city struggling with congested streets and excessive pollution.

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