Note: This was originally a slide-show style post, but there’s a bug in WordPress that prevented this from working correctly on my host configuration, so I’ve had to edit it to a single page post.
Nothing quite beats the Chaophraya Express boat for getting to many of Bangkok’s main tourist sights, especially the “Big Three” – the Grand Palace, Wat Po and Wat Arun. But as you make your way up or down river, there are a lot of interesting buildings along the way which you may be curious about. Some of them are attractions in their own right, while others don’t take kindly to visitors. I’ve put together this post of the things you might see, and what they are.
This series, which is constructed of a sequence of pages since there are a lot of photographs, starts at the Sathorn Pier and covers the sights as you head up-river towards the Grand Palace.
East Asiatic Company Buildings
Not long after leaving the Sathorn Pier, just past the huge Shangri-La Hotel on your right, you’ll see the buildings of the East Asiatic Company. Founded in 1897, EAC is still one of the world’s leading trading companies. These beautiful Venetian-styled buildings were built in 1901 and used to be kept in rather pristine condition, but as of this writing they were beginning to look a bit run-down.
The buildings are right next to the Oriental Hotel, and a pier that is the first stop for the boat after leaving Sathorn is at the end of the road that runs between the two properties.
Just past the Oriental Hotel is the French Embassy. The Embassy is the second oldest in Bangkok, after the Portuguese. The French sent their first ambassador to Siam in the seventeenth century. The embassy has been expanded many times over the years, but has recently been restored to something close to its original form to serve as the Ambassador’s residence, so it’s generally not open to the public. Embassy services are carried out in the rather brutal modernist CAT Telecoms building just a little further up-river.
Old Customs House
The 1880 Customs House next to the French Embassy is in a very sorry state. It was turned over to the harbor fire brigade when larger ships necessitated a move down river and apparently hasn’t even been painted in over 30 years. The building apparently once rivaled the EAC offices in splendor. It has been listed as an historic building and an agreement was signed with a private company to restore it in the early 2000s, but successive governments have been unable to find an acceptable plot of land on the river for the fire services to move to.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to have formal ties with Siam. The plot of land on which the current Chancellery stands was granted by King Rama II in 1820. The originally building was replaced later in that century by the current structure.
The Chancellery stands next to the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel, and beyond that is the River City Antiques shopping mall.
Holy Rosary Church
Just past River City, still on your right, is the Holy Rosary Catholic Curch.
The Holy Rosary Church was built by the Portuguese community in 1786 on land granted by King Rama I. It has undergone major renovation three times in its history, the last completed in 1898 which gave the Catholic church its present form. The church is flanked by two schools.
Siam Commercial Bank
The next pier where most boats stop is the Marine Department pier. Next to the pier is a well kept 100 year old building that was the original headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank.
Siam Commercial Bank started out as “The Book Club” in 1904 under the auspices of Prince Mahisorn, a brother of King Rama V. It was a roaring success and was transformed into Thailand’s first commercial bank around 1907. The riverside building was it’s first headquarters, built around 1907 to 1911. The building still functions as a branch of the bank, so casual visitors are frowned upon.
Che Chin Kor Foundation
Shifting your attention to your left as you go up-river, you can hardly miss the towering Chinese style pagoda on the west bank of the Chaophraya river. This quite recent addition to the riverside temples and palaces is part of a large Chinese temple in a compound built by the Chee Chin Khor Moral Uplifting Society.
The society was formed in 1952 to perform charitable works. It has had several headquarters around Bangkok over the years, and the temple was just established on the bank of the river in 1993. The grand pagoda, given the royal name Mahathat Chedi Prajonchatri Thai-Chin Charoen, was officially opened in 2001 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the society and the 72nd birthday of His Majesty the King. The pagoda and its adjoining temple are open to the public.
Wang Lee House
Next to the Chee Chin Khor Moral Uplifting Society is the Wang Lee Mansion. The old Chinese styled house was once one of many large houses built by Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century who came to the growing commercial center of Siam to trade.
The traditionally styled courtyard house is one of the very few remaining examples of of these houses, which were once numerous in the Thonburi area. Although the others have been torn down or fallen into disrepair, the Wang Lee clan has maintained the mansion in reasonably good condition. The family owns a lot of riverside property, including the Anantara Riverside Resort.
The house is not open to the public, and in fact the security guard will ask you not to take photographs if he notices you. The best view of the house may well be the one you get from the top of the pagoda in the Chee Chin Khor temple next door.
Kuan Ou Shrine
The colorful three story Chinese building on your left just before you reach the Memorial Bridge is hard to miss. This is a shrine to Kuan Ou, the Chinese goddess of mercy. The relatively modern tower stands in front of a much older clan hall that probably pre-dates the founding of Bangkok. Further back from the shrine is the Princess Mother Memorial Park, a fascinating little museum devoted to the mother of the current King.
Just before you pass under the Phra Popkhlao Bridge you’ll see on your right a small yellow and white building with a clock tower in its center. This is one of Bangkok’s oldest post offices, but although the building was renovated in the early 2000s there’s no sign or marker giving any details of its history. There is a small post office in the base of the building, but otherwise the building has been empty since it was restored.
As you pass under the Memorial Bridge, where most boats stop as well, on your right is the Pak Klong Talat, once Bangkok’s main wet market, and still one of it’s biggest. Just past the market is an elegant old building set among some very modern ones. Although the building bears the words “Royal Seminary“ on it’s fancy portico, it is now part of the city’s oldest girls school, founded by one of the wives of King Rama V in memory of another of his wives who drowned in the river. The building was damaged by fire during renovations of another building but fully restored in 2005.
Church of Santa Cruz
As you approach the heart of the royal city, keep an eye out on your left for Bangkok’s oldest church. The cream-colored Church of Santa Cruz is about the only clue that this part of Bangkok was once the area where Portuguese merchants and missionaries once lived in the early years of Bangkok. The church was originally built in the late eighteenth century when Thonburi was briefly established as the capital of Siam. It was rebuilt in 1834 and again in 1913.
You’re now in the heart of the royal city (Ratanakosin), where most of the things you’ll see from the river are in the guidebooks. There’s more to see if you continue up-river past the Grand Palace, but I’ll save that for another post.