Bangkok has a surprising secret that is slowly getting out. Thailand’s vibrant capital is attracting larger numbers of tourists with children, and parents are discovering that this unique city is an ideal destination for kids. They are finding that in addition to the conveniences of a modern, bustling daily life, Bangkok still retains the charm and fascination that gave it the name the “Venice of the East” in former times.
These modern, sophisticated parents, who want to expose their children to different cultural experiences, are making a point of putting Bangkok on their list of places to visit. Krungthep, as Bangkok is called in Thai, has much to offer and even more to discover. Wander down a quiet side street or speed along a canal in a long-tail boat, and suddenly the westernised veneer disappears and a rich Asian culture emerges.
The challenge is how to capture the imagination of children and excite them about visits to this intriguing historic city.
The obvious place to start is the Chao Phraya “River of Kings”, the waterway which has served for centuries as the lifeline of the nation. Begin by having lunch or a drink at a hotel or restaurant next to the river where there are good views of the myriad of boats that pass by.
To capture the imagination of a child, it’s good to start with a question. “Do you see that long row of barges being towed down the river? Why do you think some are so low in the water?” a parent could ask. The explanation, of course, is that some are carrying heavy cargo, while others, high in the water, are returning from making deliveries. It might be surprising to learn that boats have been plying the Chao Phraya River for centuries, even before Bangkok was established as the capital over two hundred years ago.
In the old days when Ayutthaya (an hour’s drive from Bangkok) was the capital, there were two forts in Bangkok on either side of the river. In those days, it took sailing ships one full year to travel from the Americas or Europe to Bangkok and boats had to pay a tax to go up river to deliver their goods. If they tried to sneak by without paying, the soldiers in the forts would pull up a heavy metal chain stretched across the river, and stop them. The river is still filled with the sunken treasures of boats that never delivered their precious cargos.
To add to the story, it would be a good idea to show a child a map of Bangkok. The best one is the colourful Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok. “What do you see that is unusual about this river?” a parent should ask. The answer is that the river does not flow in a straight line. Instead, it meanders back and forth, which means it is a very old, slow moving river.
Believe it or not, one of the canals named Khlong Bangkok Noi was originally part of the river, but it curved so much that it looped back on itself making the trip to Ayutthaya much longer. In the mid-16th century, the king had a canal dug, changing the course of the river to make it run straighter. Where the river runs between the Grand Palace and the Temple of Dawn was actually part of that canal before the river changed course.
In the old days, Bangkok’s many canals served as the best means of transportation to get around the city. In fact, a hundred years ago, a large part of the population lived in houseboats. Today, many people still use the river and canals for transportation. Point out to children the river taxis that jut in and out of piers to let off and load people. Often a colourful group of orange-robed monks can be seen on these boats.
Now that the introduction is over, it’s time to have an exciting adventure by visiting historic places along the river. The best way to do this is to hire a long-tail boat and ask the boatman to stop at various destinations. A convenient starting point is the pier near the Saphan Taksin BTS skytrain station.
Head up river and after going under the Memorial Bridge, on the left bank you will pass the Santa Cruz Church, which was founded by Portuguese in the early 1800’s. The Portuguese were the first European traders to visit Thailand. Their descendants still live near this church, and in the neighbourhood there are bakeries where delicious Portuguese cakes are made over charcoal ovens.
The Portuguese first came to Siam (as Thailand was called then) in 1516, which was only 24 years after Columbus discovered America. They were soon followed by other Europeans, the Dutch, English, French and later the Americans. However, Chinese and Arabs traders came even before the westerners and their influence can still be seen along the river where there are many Chinese temples and mosques. Perhaps your children will be able to spot a mosque or Chinese temple.
In fact, a whole Chinese community was moved in order to construct Bangkok’s most important historic site, the Grand Palace. Bangkok’s Chinatown, also next to the river but further south, was where this community was relocated.
The perfect start for a child’s visit to Bangkok is a stop at the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun). This enormous tower, one of Bangkok’s most frequently photographed landmarks, is influenced by Khmer architecture. While the building is part of a Buddhist temple complex, the Hindu god Indra, holding a thunderbolt and mounted on a three-headed elephant, is visible near the top. Thais believe that Hindu gods are protectors of Buddhism. Ask your children if they see anything unusual about the way this building is decorated. The answer is that it is covered with small pieces of broken Chinese porcelain. Climbing up the steep stairs, children will have a great view of the old parts of Bangkok.
Directly across the river is Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha, with its many pointed spires. With its massive “sleeping” Buddha, impressive galleries of sacred images and a traditional Thai massage school, this temple complex makes for a very interesting family visit, as does the Grand Palace and adjoining Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which is just next door. Many children have never visited a palace before, especially one with giant door guardians and mural paintings filled with strange monsters and monkey armies.
Leaving the Temple of Dawn, the boat should continue further up river and turn off on Khlong Bangkok Noi, where there is another interesting stop for children. The Royal Barge Museum displays hundred-year-old barges used for royal river processions. Each boat is made from an enormous tree that has been hollowed out. The bow of each barge is carved into the form of a mythical creature. The most important boat is the one used by His Majesty the King named “The Golden Swan”.
Further along the canal is Wat Suwanaram, a temple with outstanding paintings dating back to the 18th century. To view these, you have to find the abbot with the key. However, for children, just travelling along the canal and observing daily life might be more fun. Tell your boatman you want to stop to feed fish. There are massive schools of fish that make the water appear to “boil” in front of many temples. Vendors in small boats sell bread to feed these fish that flourish because Buddhists believe it is wrong to harm animals. As long as the fish swim in front of the temple, no one will catch them.
By introducing Bangkok through life along its historic waterways, parents can capture a child’s attention and interest. Intrigued by what they experience, children will certainly be enthusiastic about visiting more of such a fascinating city.