Northern Thailand: The Perfect Trip

Haew Suwat waterfall, made famous by Leonardo di Caprio in The Beach
Photographer: Catherine Sutherland

Take a journey from Thailand’s hectic capital all the way to the jungles of the north. Start with a long-tail ride around the old canals of Bangkok, then head into the countryside to trek the forest trails of Khao Yai National Park. Catch the sunrise over the sacred statues of Sukhothai, then taste some street food in Chiang Mai. Finish up meeting hill tribes along Thailand’s border with Myanmar

Words OLIVER BERRY
Photos CATHERINE SUTHERLAND


1. BANGKOK
It’s a city infamous for its traffic jams, but there’s another way to explore – the web of khlongs, man-made waterways, that stretch out to the capital’s furthest corners

IT’S THE MORNING RUSH HOUR in downtown Bangkok, and the city’s streets are wall-to-wall traffic. Buses and mini-vans loaded with commuters are heading from the outer suburbs into the city centre. Tuk-tuk drivers tout for business, and streams of scooters whine along the boulevards, the high keen of their two-stroke engines blending with the throaty grumble of truck exhausts and the incessant blare of car horns. It’s a gridlock, and no one’s going anywhere fast.

But a few blocks away on the wide Chao Phraya River, the great brown waterway that flows through the heart of Bangkok, there’s no sign of any traffic jams. Barges and passenger ferries are chugging along the river banks, packed with school kids and office workers, and fleets of long-tail boats skip and surf on the choppy swells, dropping off their fares at jetties before buzzing off downstream in search of new business. Since the capital’s foundation in 1782, the river has been the artery that’s kept Bangkok’s circulation flowing.

But, in fact, the Chao Phraya is just one of many waterways snaking their way through Bangkok. Hundreds of miles of canals, or khlongs as they’re known locally, spiral through the little village neighbourhoods that radiate like a spider’s web around the city centre. Though many have now been paved over or filled in to make roads, they remain a vital part of the city’s infrastructure – as well as a glimpse of an older Bangkok, far removed from the modern-day, 21st-century city of skycrapers, shopping malls and office blocks.

“Bangkok is a city of islands,” explains boatman Pae Visut, as he steers his long-tail into the maze of canals in Thonburi, a residential neighbourhood west of the Chao Phraya. “In the past, the khlongs were the only way to reach areas. They’re still quicker than the roads.”

He chuckles gruffly, resting the long-tail’s rudder on his knee as he sparks up the cigarette dangling from his lips, and guides his boat though a lock-gate into Khlong Bangkok Yai, the Little Bangkok Canal.

Lines of tin-roofed houses glide past, teetering on wooden stilts above the murky water. Golden- topped temples rise alongside the banks, framed by drooping willows and jacaranda trees. Tangles of electricity cables and telephone wires hang overhead, and local residents tend forests of potted plants festooning their waterfront verandas. Occasionally, a white egret swoops down to strut along the banks, dipping for fish in the shallows, or a monitor lizard hauls itself from the tea-brown water to bask in the sunshine.

“Many people in Bangkok have no idea these khlongs are even here,” Pae says, as he cuts the engine and moors up by a riverside temple, its finials flashing like beaten copper. “But I’ve been a boatman here for 35 years, so to me they’re as familiar as the streets around my own house.” He beckons to a passing boat – a floating shop stocked with food, drinks, trinkets and temple offerings. He buys a garland of marigold and jasmine flowers, and adds it to several others draped over the long-tail’s prow. “Good karma,” he explains, rolling a fresh cigarette on his knee, and saluting another long-tail as it buzzes past.

Some canals are as old as the city itself. When King Rama I moved his capital here from Ayutthaya in the late 18th century, he built his opulent Grand Palace on the island of Rattanakosin, and established the city’s first canals to link it with the Chao Phraya River. Canals proliferated as the city grew, serving as moats, aqueducts, thoroughfares and flood barriers. Even today, the city’s locks play a key role in managing water levels during the monsoon rains.

Clattering back onto the Chao Phraya from Thonburi’s backwater khlongs, Pae steers his boat towards the golden spires of Wat Pho, one of the city’s oldest temples. It’s now nearly midday, and fleets of boats are bobbing around the temple’s jetty, depositing cargoes of monks and pilgrims carrying floral wreaths and bundles of incense to make their afternoon offering. Cascades of fallen petals float in the water, and the sound of rhythmic chanting rises above the buzz of boat engines. It’s another sign that, for all its status as a restless modern metropolis, Bangkok is still a city that’s deeply entangled with its past. From Bangkok, it’s 161km northeast by bus or mini-van to the mountains of Khao Yai National Park, where hiking and wildlife-spotting awaits.

To know more about Thailand’s old canals, forest trails, sacred statues and street food travel this trip NOW, check out LPMI’s  June 2019 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.