Sunday, April 16, 2006

Thailand: Cruising the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Today was another take it slow day. All I needed to do was to get my luggage from Ton's apartment. I had left one of my bags with Ton so that travelling in Laos would not be that much a hassle for me. So I woke up quite late.

Since Ton's apartment was near Chatuchak Market which was quite a distance from where I was staying, I made sure I planned my transportation to his place. And this included the Chao Phraya River Express. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, the Khao San tourist area was not connected to the skytrain or subway and the cheapest way to get to them was via ferry from Banglamphu (Pier No. 13 - Phra Arthit Pier) to the Central Pier which was a few meters from the Saphan Taksin BTS Station.

The Phra Arthit Pier was about half a kilometer from Khao San Road. So it was just a few minutes walk away. Right beside it was the Phra Sumane Fort (above), one of the few remaining fortified outposts in Bangkok. You could also see the newly-contructed Rama VIII Bridge (below) which was opened to traffic in 2003.

Sigh! The newly-built bridges in our Southeast Asian neighbors just makes me despise the DPWH which constructs some of the ugliest infrastructure in the world! I guess they've already mastered the formula of estimating just the right amount of material to build a bridge so that they could pocket as much of the funds allotted to the project as they can. In fact, there are well-entrenched corruption networks in these agencies that newly-appointed agency heads, no matter how clean, are powerless against them.

Anyway, the ferry ride was just THB11 and you passed by some of the best sights in Bangkok. In fact, river cruises along the Chao Phraya are a very lucrative business. There are even luxury ferries which offer lunch and dinner packages for tourists and locals. I was amazed at the variety of tourist ferries which were sailing along the river from the traditional to luxurious! Many if not most of the great cities of the world were founded along the banks of rivers. It makes me feel sad that the country neglected the Pasig River which had the same potential as the Chao Phraya or the Singapore River. In fact, much of Manila's heritage is found along the river. And if we rehabilitate both the river and its banks, we can lure visitors for a cruise. But this I could say, you will know if a country is mature if some of its best real estate is found along the river. I'll expound on this later.

Among the landmarks along the river are (1) the domed building of Thammasat University, (2) Patravadi Theater, (3) Wat Arun, (4) the Grand Palace and the Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram, (5) and (6) the Royal Naval Institute, (7) Wat Kanlayanamit, (8) Santa Cruz Church, (9) Memorial Bridge, (10) and (11) more heritage buildings and temples, (12) Holy Rosary Church, (13) pagoda of the Foundation for Morality and Propagation for Welfare, and (14) five-star hotels and office buildings along the river.

As I mentioned earlier, you will know that a country is mature if some of the best real estate is found along the river. Here in the Philippines, the Pasig River is a dumping area for factory wastes. I mean if we did urban planning right, you should see some of the best buildings from the Guadalupe Bridge. But instead, you see factories, shanties and billboards!

In Bangkok, the Royal Orchid Sheraton, Shangri-La, Oriental, Sofitel Bangkok and the Peninsula are just some of the few luxury hotels right by the banks of the Chao Phraya River. In fact, when I took a walk around the Bang Rak area a little later, I was surprised to see that the land route to these hotels were not scenic and you had to pass through some narrow streets and backroads to get to these hotels. Thus, the river is their biggest asset and each has a port from which their clients could go on cruises along the Chao Phraya.

I think Metro Manila can change this by re-zoning the banks of the Pasig River. All factories and other industrial structures must be relocated elsewhere and these properties along the river should be redeveloped. Once this is done, coupled with the rehabilitation of all the heritage along the river, and that includes restoring the old bridges and preserving the Arroceros Forest Park which we all hope Mayor Atienza won't chop down, we can lure tourists to enjoy a dinner cruise along the Pasig and out into Manila Bay.

I got off at the Central Pier and walked a few meters to the skytrain station. I got a day pass for THB100 but unlike the Hong Kong pass I got, it wasn't a 24-hour pass and was good only up to 11:59 p.m. of the day you purchased it. Anyway, I got my bag and then took the subway from Lat Phrao to Hualamphong Station where I planned to take a cab to Khao San. As soon as I got out of the station, it started to rain again. Damn! It was supposed to be the dry season and my trip had been marred by rains everywhere I went. Our weather has gone haywire thanks to human intervention, especially those countries who produce the most pollution and yet don't want to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

I had planned to walk around Bang Rak after dropping off my luggage at the hotel. Since it was raining, I took a cab to the area instead of a ferry. The Silom-Bang Rak areas offered several great walking tour routes including one that took you around the seat of Catholicism in Thailand. My first stop was the Holy Rosary Church (which is known in Thailand as the Temple of the Beaded Virgin). It's signature gothic spire can be seen from the river. Built in 1767 after the fall of Ayutthaya, the current structure was rebuilt in 1897.

Then it was off to the Assumption Cathedral which was a kilometer or so away. The walk under the rain was most worth it. Greeting me was a complex of stately and elegant colonial buildings surrounding the Assumption Cathedral. The interior of the cathedral was so grand that you would even think while marveling at the interior of the Assumption Cathedral that Thailand was more Catholic than the Philippines! Right beside the church and the complex of old convent buildings were more stately buildings including the East Asitic Company and the Oriental Hotel.

After saying a few prayers, it was off to more exploring. On the way to the skytrain station, I passed by a hawker stall which sold noodles and rice meals. I realized that there was something in the way they arranged the ingredients in the stand that attracted tourists like myself since a few minutes later, a lot of foreign tourists were stopping by as well to order food, attracted by the display. First and foremost, if our hawker stalls in Manila are to become popular and tourist-friendly, we have to ensure cleanliness at all times. At the same time, displays must be attractive with ingredients colorfully presented for all to see. Anyway, I ordered noodles.

The next day, I was off to the airport. For breakfast, it was more phad thai! Again, the stand was attractive thanks to the mounds of noodles and other ingredients on display.

I booked an airport bus the day before which costed THB100. I had planned to go by train since the ticket was much cheaper but I realized that that did not include the cost of the taxi, the hassle of carrying your bags here and there, and when you got to the airport train station, you had to bring all your luggage up a pedestrian flyover to the terminal. And it was a good move as well since it was raining. I could not imagine the hassle I would have gone through if I took the train.

It was actually a van that took us to Don Muang Airport. The ride offered me another way of seeing Bangkok's core. The avenues and boulevards were wide and islands and sidewalks full of neatly-cut shrubs and flowers. Stately colonial buildings and government offices were in abundance. And every little bridge over a canal was a work of art. I have yet to see a bridge in Bangkok's center similar to our ugly standard DPWH bridges since every little bridge had a unique design, pedestrian bridges included! Hello DPWH! Wake up and stop making Manila the ugliest city in the world!

Anyway, my flight to KL left at 3:15 p.m. There was a THB500 airport tax so don't forget to save money if leaving Bangkok from the airport.
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