April 28, 2008
A trip to Bangkok would not be complete without taking to a river. Bangkok is, after all, the “Venice of the East.” Due to limited time, I reluctantly skipped the Floating Market in Ratchaburi. But I took time for Chao Phraya River, the aorta at the heart of Bangkok.
The boat ride starts at Sathorn. It is accessible by BTS Sky Train through the Saphan Thaksin Station. A spanking new tourist information center is located near the station. Sathorn is a corporate area of modern office buildings. Tourists in shorts with cameras in hand seemed out-of-place, but this was where we embarked on our Chao Phraya ferry ride.
Make no mistake about it. Chao Phraya is not just a tourist place. This is a functional river. It is used by locals to cross both sides of the city or to avoid Bangkok’s infamous snarled traffic. Boats ranging from large pagoda-size to small rainbow-size constantly navigate the waters. Cruising the river is akin to a pilgrimage. Pagodas, temples, and cathedrals are the most recognizable landmarks along Chao Phraya, turning it into a river of religions. They are mostly on the Thon Buri side, west of the river.
Chee Chin Khor Temple
You will never miss this golden-brown Chinese-style pagoda, especially its sign with an unwieldy translation: Pagoda for the Foundation of Morality and Propagation of Welfare. Say it quickly, five times. It is the base of a local humanitarian society that provides disaster relief and donations to the poor.
Santa Cruz Church
I had not expected to see a Catholic church here, but there it was – its dome and cross stood tall alongside the Buddhist pagoda, prang, and stupa. The cathedral was built by the Portuguese, the first Europeans in Siam, in the 19th century. It is also known as Wat Kudi Jeen to the locals. Wat can refer to any place of worship, not just Buddhist temples; thus, a cathedral is a wat too. Say what?
Now this is typical Thai architecture: layered roof and gables with upturned gilded projections. These ornate designs symbolize the naga, a mythical serpent in Hindu mythology. They are the guardians of the wat. The more prominent center building is called a wihan, a hall that contains the image of Buddha. Elaborate mosaic patterns on the roofing are even visible from afar.
The main event. Also known as the Temple of the Dawn, it is said to actually look its best at twilight when it is against the sun. I got neither; I saw it in broad daylight. It appeared stone-gray from across the river, but up close it was, in fact, gilded with colorful porcelain. The projecting tower at the center is called prang, a spire that contains a shrine where rituals were held by high priests or the king in ancient days.
The river ferry cruise ends at Tha Tien. You have to take another boat to cross the river to Wat Arun, which was what we did. The fare is unbelievably cheap. I remember paying in coins – the two ferry rides did not cost more than 5 baht. Not bad for a river cruise that showcases Bangkok’s religious side, as opposed to its risqué reputation.