April 28, 2008
My trip to Bangkok would not have been complete without taking to a river. Bangkok was, 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 started at Sathorn, accessible by BTS Sky Train through the Saphan Thaksin Station, with a spanking new tourist information center located near the station. Sathorn was 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.
Chao Phraya was not just a tourist place; it was a functional river 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 navigated the waters. Cruising the river was akin to a pilgrimage. Pagodas, temples, and cathedrals were the most recognizable landmarks along Chao Phraya, turning it into a river of religions. They were mostly on the Thon Buri side, west of the river.
Chee Chin Khor Temple
This golden-brown Chinese-style pagoda could not be missed, especially its sign with an unwieldy translation: Pagoda for the Foundation of Morality and Propagation of Welfare, the base of a local humanitarian society providing 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 was also known as Wat Kudi Jeen to the locals. Wat could refer to any place of worship, not just Buddhist temples; thus, a cathedral was a wat too. Say what?
This was typical Thai architecture: layered roof and gables with upturned gilded projections. These ornate designs symbolized the naga, a mythical serpent in Hindu mythology and the guardians of the wat. The more prominent center building, a wihan, contained the image of the Buddha. Its elaborate mosaic patterns on the roofing were even visible from afar.
The main event was also known as the Temple of the Dawn, said to actually look its best at twilight when it was 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 spire at the center, the prang, was a shrine where rituals were held by high priests or the king in ancient days.
The river ferry cruise ended at Tha Tien. We took another boat to cross the river to Wat Arun. The fare was paid in coins – the two ferry rides did not cost more than 5 baht. Not bad for a river cruise showcasing Bangkok’s religious side, as opposed to its risqué reputation.