The city of Bangkok has nearly 600 high-rise buildings, ranking it fifth in the world. It’s hard to believe a metropolitan city of that size and stature could also be the home of an intricate canal system set up along the Chao Phraya River.
I discovered these canals on an extremely humid fall afternoon, after boarding a wooden long-tail boat from my hotel’s dock. We set out on a two-hour adventure to explore a couple of Bangkok’s most-visited sites on the road—or waterway—less traveled.
The boat was a welcome escape from the sticky heat and blazing sun. The single motor attached at the back gave the boat enough power to create a breeze from the river; the canopy made of blue, yellow and red water-resistant fabric blocked the sun, while a matching fabric wrapping the trim of the boat protected us from most, but not all, of the water that sprayed from the river’s wake. The boat was big enough to seat at least eight people, but we chose to keep our tour private.
As we pulled off from our hotel, parts of the city’s skyline could be seen twinkling from the sun’s rays. Our captain, a local man who spoke hardly any English, sped past dozens of other hotels, several restaurants and even a few apartments while we tried to capture every moment on our iPhones. It took us nearly 20 minutes to arrive at our first stop, Wat Pho.
When we arrived at the dock closest to Wat Pho, there were nearly 50 people standing around waiting for the next ferry. As we jumped off the boat, our captain instructed us to be back in 30 minutes. The dock leads straight into a local market filled with merchants selling everything from souvenirs and toys, to a variety of freshly squeezed juices and Thai snacks made to order.
A short five-minute walk took us directly to Wat Pho, one of Bangkok’s oldest temples and the temple ranked first on a list that classifies first-class royal temples. It is a complex made up of 23 buildings that you could easily spend an entire afternoon exploring. Most of the buildings are simply white, but they are ornamented with brightly colored tile roofs and trimmed in a thick, shiny gold that glistens every time it’s hit by the sun.
Each building serves a different purpose. One building contains ashes of different members of the royal family, whereas another is simply a gallery. Wat Pho is also considered the first public university and the base of Thai medicine. Visitors can even enjoy a traditional Thai massage in the complex by booking an appointment at the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School.
The most popular attraction in the complex, and the only building we made it to because of our short exploration time, is the Chapel of the Reclining Buddha. Inside this building there is a Buddha statue made of brick, which was modeled, shaped with plaster, and then gilded in gold leaf. It stands nearly 150 meters tall, making it one of the largest Buddha statues in all of Thailand. It was built in 1832 by Rama III and lays in “sihasaiyas,” the posture of a sleeping or reclining lion. The Reclining Buddha statue represents the entry of Buddha into Nirvana and the end of all reincarnations. You will not get over your initial shock of how massive the statue is until you get to the soles on its feet. There you will become entranced by the 108 panels of prosperous symbols of Buddha, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. At the center of each foot there is a “chakra,” or energy point.
On the rear-facing side of the Reclining Buddha there are 108 bowls lining the wall, each representing one of the prosperous symbols. Most visitors drop a single coin in each of the bowls with hopes that it will bring good fortune. Luckily, there is no need to tote that many coins around before arriving at the wat. You can use cash—only Thailand’s baht are accepted-—to purchase a cup filled with just enough coins. The monks maintain the wat with the money collected from the bowls.
Although Buddhists do not look upon the Reclining Buddha as a religious temple, there is still a dress code that you are expected to follow. First, shoes are prohibited in the temple. Complimentary plastic bags are provided for you to carry your shoes around in, and the bags should be returned immediately after you exit the temple. Second, if you are wearing a short dress/skirt or revealing top, you will be asked to cover up in a robe provided by the temple. Men are asked to not wear shorts, but we saw several guys in shorts and no one enforcing the rule. Entry is 100 baht per person and the temple is open from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily.
As our 30 minutes came to an end, we rushed back to the dock where we had been dropped off to meet our boat. He was already there waiting for us, so we hopped in and headed to our next temple, Wat Arun.
The truth is, Wat Arun is directly opposite Wat Pho on the other side of the Chao Phraya River, and it would have taken us less than 10 minutes to get there. But that wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun as exploring the canals of Bangkok. Before this ride, I had no idea that this industrialized city had an intricate canal system mere minutes from the city center. We spent nearly a half-hour zooming through neighborhoods, seeing locals fishing and dining with no view of the skyline in sight. Twice we stopped in a lock that met a canal with a different water level. Both times, we waited for the lock to fill with several other long-tail boats, a few with other tourists, but mostly locals on their way somewhere.
When we finally arrived to Wat Arun, located on the Thonburi west bank of the Chao Phraya River, the sun was setting, making it so obvious why Wat Arun is known as “Temple of Dawn.” Unlike most temples, Wat Arun is made up of colorfully decorated spires, which reflect the sun off of the water over which it majestically sits. This temple is among the best-known landmarks of Thailand, and its Ordination Hall is one of the most memorable buildings I saw while in Thailand. A dress code is strictly enforced here. Shorts are prohibited, and women in short dresses or skirts will be asked to rent a scarf to cover up for approximately 20 baht. The temple is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and admission is 30 baht.
Megan Pinckney (@shadesofpinck) is a retired beauty queen turned lifestyle blogger who loves exploring the world and writing about it.