Like all urban rivers, the history of the Chao Phraya is intertwined with the city it flows through. The original site was chosen by early settlers because of its fertility and abundant fish. Later, King Taksin, after the fall of Ayutthaya to the Burmese, located his new capital here on the western banks that's today known as Thonburi.

In 1782 King Rama I, finding the eastern banks more favourable, founded modern Bangkok and celebrated the occasion by building some of the world's most beguiling temples. The canals it feeds later became famous, earning Bangkok its 'Venice of the East' nickname. Meanwhile, eminent western authors like Maugham, Conrad and Coward singled out the Chao Phraya as one of their favourite spots in the Far East.

Chao Phraya River in Bangkok - one of the highlights of 28 Best Things to Do in Bangkok and 17 Best Things to Do in Bangkok Riverside (Read all about Bangkok here)

Chao Phraya: ‘The River of Kings’

Truly, the River of Kings – as King Rama I named it – is the lifeblood of Bangkok. And that’s not just because of this rich history. Around 50,000 people still use the ferries here to get around each day. Slow barges bearing cargo coast upstream. Kids still frolic in the russet-brown water. Wooden shacks, mottled by the elements, still lurch over the riverbanks.

Soaring hotels and condominiums hem in solemn temples, churches and civic buildings that look 19th-century European. Not far away, the odd wooden sampan sells noodle soup or dried squid to hungry river workers. It is this juxtaposition of calm and chaotic, modern and traditional, religious and secular, ugly and sublime, foreign and indigenous, which makes the Chao Phraya so evocative.

photo by (CC BY-SA 4.0) modified

Chao Phraya riverboats and ferries

There are 5 public boat lines, all operated by the Chao Phraya Express Boat company, that ply the same 21-km route: 'local line', 'orange', 'yellow', 'blue' and 'green-yellow'. Operating between 6am and 7.30pm daily, each is identifiable by the coloured flag hanging off its rear.

The rush-hour only 'local line' stops at all 34 piers, while the other four are express lines stopping at only selected piers. Only the Orange Flag Line, with its flat fee of 15 baht, runs all day and on weekends – for most journeys, this fits the bill. The others stop at around 9am and begin again at around 4pm. Cross-river ferries operate at most major piers and will drop you to the other bank for a very budget-friendly fare.

photo by Bernard Spragg. NZ (CC0 1.0) modified

Chao Phraya 'Tourist Boats'

The Chao Phraya 'Tourist Boats' are another option, offering unlimited trips to 9 prominent piers for a flat fee (service hours are between 9.30am and 3pm daily). That's not a bad deal if you plan to do a lot of hopping on and off over one day, want more comfort and the sites to be pointed out to you.

Bear in mind though – these run every 30 minutes while the public lines used by locals typically run every 15 to 20 minutes. Other options for exploring the river include hiring a long-tail boat (usually includes trips down the city's canals), a river cruise or dinner cruise. All give a different perspective on this fascinating river.

photo by Fabio Achilli (CC BY 2.0) modified

Chao Phraya River

Phra Arthit Road runs parallel to the Chao Phraya River, stretching from Phra Sumen fort to Thammasat University. Lined with quaint shop-houses, cosy hole-in-the-wall restaurants, bars and cafés with live music, this is where the artsy type convene after sundown before hitting nearby Khao San Road. The nearest river pier is Phra Arthit Pier.

Thewet is scintillating. People come here to make merit by releasing fish or to feed the school of frenzied catfish scraps of bread. There's also a ramshackle yet photogenic wet market and the Royal enclave of Dusit nearby. The nearest river pier is Thewet.

Oriental, the old Westerner Quarter with crumbling European architecture, antique shops and the venerable Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where some of the 20th century's most eminent scribes once stayed. The nearest river pier is Oriental.

Pak Khlong Flower Market, a living breathing oriental market teeming with life and colour, is one of the most pleasant places to spend an early morning. Find fresh flowers of all species, fruits and vegetables at wholesale price. The nearest river pier is Rajinee.

Willy Thuan | Compulsive Traveller