Chao Phraya River is 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 Thaksin, after the fall of Ayutthaya to the Burmese, located his new capital here, on the western banks 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. Later still the canals it feeds became famous, earning Bangkok its 'Venice of the East' epithet. And, meanwhile, eminent Western authors like Maugham, Conrad and Coward were singling out the Chao Phraya as one of their favourite spots in the Far East.
Truly, the River of Kings - as King Rama I named it - is the lifeblood of Bangkok. And not just because of this rich history. Around 50,000 people still use its ferries to get to 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 water.
Soaring hotels and condominiums hem in solemn temples, churches and civic buildings that look 19th century European, while yards 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 that makes the Chao Phraya so evocative.
Five public boat lines, all operated by the Chao Phraya Express Boat company, ply the same 21km route: 'local line', 'orange', 'yellow', 'blue' and 'green-yellow'. Operating between 06:00 and 19:30 daily, each is identifiable by the coloured flag hanging off its rear.
Sound complicated? Not especially. 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 09:00 and begin again at around 16:00. Cross-river ferries operate at most major piers and will drop you to the other bank for 3.5 baht (see quick links for details).
'Tourist Boats' are another option, offering unlimited trips to ten prominent piers for a 120 baht flat fee. 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.
I, like most, was bewildered by the logistics involved in travelling on the Chao Phraya: the different boats, different routes and different timetables. But it's not so bad. Those long, thin ferries with plastic seating and the flags dangling off the backend? They're public ferries heading upriver. The chubby boats with standing room only? Cross-river ferries that drop you to the other bank.
Even the mystery that is the different routes isn't that hard to crack. The local line, which stops at every pier, and three others - blue, yellow, green-yellow - only run during peak hours. And there is a 'Tourist Boat' between 09:00 and 15:30 for those who want their sites spoon-fed in ten easy to swallow, pier-shaped doses.
However, the uncontested King of the River Routes is the orange line: it's the only one that operates uninterrupted all day long, during and after and during busy rush-hours. Not only that, it stops at most of the interesting piers and only costs 15 baht - pretty good considering you can travel as far north as Nonthaburi, a new province entirely.
Head north and the whole landscape changes. One minute the river banks are a jumble of 40-storey hotels, Buddhist temples, European churches, old civic buildings, imperial bridges and the odd distressed-looking shack, home or warehouse. The next it's a scene of pure picturesque dilapidation: thick swathes of tenacious green, broken up by the occasional hovel, line of stilted shacks or temple complex. Lovely.
This flow from urban to provincial is completed at Nonthaburi, a backwater town with cyclos, a clock-tower, clothing market and general air of sleepiness. Charming. It is possible to go further north to the island of Ko Kret (by taxi to the Pak Kret Pier, and a local boat from there). But I head south, back towards Bangkok.
I jump off at random. Some piers like 'Rama 7' (N24) and 'Phayap' (N18) are a dead-end. Others like 'Thewet' (N15) are 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. A worthwhile stop. As is 'Phra Athit', especially if you want to chill out in an artsy shophouse cafe, or hit Khao San Road.
At 'Wang Lang' (N10), on the Thonburi side, I squeeze through a market teeming with adolescents out to snap up cheap fashions. And while onboard a cross-river ferry loaded with monks to 'Tha Chang' (N9) the majestic, sun-glinting prangs of the city's most revered temples swing into view. The market here is a haven for mystics, vendors selling old religious texts, amulets, medicinal herbs, phallic charms, even false teeth.
By 17:00 there are more boats plying the water, not just Orange flag boats. I hop off at 'Oriental' (N1), the old Westerner Quarter with crumbling European architecture, antiques shops and the venerable Oriental Hotel, where some of the 20th century's most eminent scribes once stayed. Then I take the 'local line' to Rajinee (N7), home of the colourful Pak Khlong Talad Flower Market. It's all the things you thought Bangkok was no longer, a living breathing oriental market teeming with life, dilapidation and fresh vegetables. What a river. What a city.
The invigorating air, the cooling breeze, the scenery at once sleek, scruffy and spiritual... the Chao Phraya river is up there with the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, one of the city's most indelible sights. Not only that, it's super efficient ferry network - not to mention river cruisers, dinner cruises and long-tail boats - means it is also a picturesque gateway to many, many others. Unmissable.