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Exploring Bangkok's Historic Canals

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From many perspectives, Bangkok is a modern metropolis – airports, carousels of people boarding and disembarking the BTS Skytrain, and fleets of ride-hailing service cars. But renderings of the city’s development remain.

Centuries-old canals flow through the capital, each harkening back to a time when the Chao Phraya River was the lifeblood of its people and economy. Today, these waterways serve as a conduit of Bangkok's rich history and provide an interesting way to experience Thai culture.

Bangkok Canals

The Historical Significance of Bangkok's Canals

The adoption of the canal, or “khlong,” dates back centuries, when the waterways were carved into the landscapes to shorten trade routes to the then-burgeoning Siamese stronghold of Ayutthaya. Long stretches of the Chao Phraya River’s natural course could be circumnavigated by cutting more direct paths between settlements. And it was on these khlongs that merchants plied their domestic and international trade. Ayutthaya grew in wealth and power.

Transportation became easier and more direct. Naturally, communities built their homes along the banks to reap the benefits.

With the eventual fall of Ayutthaya to the Burmese invasion in 1767, the capital was re-established further downriver in what is now modern-day Bangkok. Defense became a primary concern. Many canals were dug in the following decades to bolster the Kingdom’s security. 

Subsequent kings and governments continued to order the construction of khlongs for connectivity, commerce, and irrigation as the city continued to grow. 

However, as Bangkok modernized and expanded, many of these historic canals were filled in to make way for roads and development. Though, of course, some khlongs survived the test of time.

The Chao Phraya River

The Chao Phraya River is Bangkok’s major waterway that connects many of its canals, floating markets, and riverside communities – it's a transportation route and a conduit of the city’s history. Thousands commute on the river daily, passing both the modern high-rises of today and the traditional wooden houses of years prior.

Visiting Bangkok's Canals

The canals themselves offer an intimate way to experience Bangkok. Public transport services and traditional longtail boats can be hired for private tours of the khlongs, where passengers can witness local life along the banks.

Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem

The Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem was dug in the mid-19th century to serve as a new fortified moat for the expanding capital, protecting key landmarks like the Grand Palace. Today, it sees little of its intended use, blending into the metropolis of Bangkok’s city center. Still, revitalization efforts have been made to preserve its historical significance, including an electric boat service running its three-mile course between Hua Lamphong railway station and Therawat Market. 

Khlong Damnoen Saduak

One of Thailand’s most famous canals, Khlong Damnoen Saduak was also completed during the mid-19th century, under the rule of King Rama IV. The waterway connects the Tha Chin and Mae Klong rivers west of Bangkok, cutting through the Thai countryside. Naturally, the banks of the Damnoen Saduak were settled, with the canal being used for transportation and commerce. Floating markets were commonplace.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market + Bangkok's Canals

Today, with impetus from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the namesake Damnoen Saduak Floating Market welcomes crowds of domestic and foreign tourists to witness and partake in the commerce of local produce, food goods, and souvenirs. Even with its Ratchaburi location, Damnoen Saduak is Thailand’s most famous and visited floating market – a feat helped by its feature in the James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun.

Read our guide on Bangkok's famous floating markets.

Khlong Bangkok Noi

Khlong Bangkok Noi flows through the western part of Bangkok. Dating back to the Ayutthaya period, this canal constitutes part of the Chao Praya’s original meandering course. To shorten transit times, the then-king ordered the construction of bypass canals. In time, these new canals became the main course of the river. 

Today, Khlong Bangkok Noi is a scenic canal dotted with traditional Thai houses, temples, and greenery. Landmarks along its banks include the Royal Barges National Museum, Wat Amarinthraram, and Wat Suwannaram.

Khlong Saen Saep

Khlong Saen Saep takes a route east out of the city. It was first used for military transit during a conflict between Siam and Annam.

The canal continues to function as a transportation artery connecting 21 districts and many smaller waterways. Lined with numerous piers, its water buses offer commuters a swift and efficient alternative to navigating Bangkok’s congested streets. The main service runs between Pom Prap Sattru Phai, north of the city center, and Min Buri, a district further east. 

Khlong Phasi Charoen

Khlong Phasi Charoen links the Tha Chin River to the Khlong Bangkok Yai – the latter being another stretch of the Chao Praya’s original course before man-made canals diverted it. The waterway opened up new land for commercial use and cultivation, as well as providing access to the Gulf of Thailand.

Much like the rest of Bangkok’s canals, usage of Khlong Phasi Charoen has lessened with the advance of technology and transport. But with communities along its banks and vessels in its waters, the canal remains integral to many peoples’ daily lives. A boat service also operates between Phetkasem 49 Pier and Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen Pier to accommodate daily commuters and tourists.

Akin to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, Khlong Phasi Charoen also saw screentime during a boat chase in The Man with the Golden Gun.

Read our guide on Bangkok's famous floating markets.