BETTER IN BANGKOK: Day Two Part 3 of 4 - COOLING IT ON THE CHAO PHRAYA

by Louis Bignami

Day one covered architecture, art and history. Now it?s time to look at Thais rather than tourists. Time to get out and explore on the Chao Phraya, the river that is to Bangkok what the Thames is to London. Time to enjoy a fresh juice break at a stand few tourists see.

Time to watch, or help, a Thai family tend their vegetable gardens or compare fishing techniques with the kids along the klongs. Bring a bird or plant guide if so inclined and consider binoculars and a camera and lots of film. Expect to get moderately damp either from river spray or from the scramble in and out of long-tail boats. We suggest you rent your own boat and guide for the day. Ferries are larger and more stable but don't always squeeze into the best klongs off main waterways. Sujit Chin suggests, "Tote an inflatable pillow as boat seats are hard after 15 minutes."

If you stay nearby and start your day early enough, visit Wat Benchamabophit "the Marble Temple" on Sir Ayutthaya Road near Dursit Park and Zoo where monks chant at dawn. (Admission 10 baht, open until 5 p.m.)

The "Wat Ben" courtyard holds over 60 bronze Buddha figures, and the main building - "look up, look up!" can put a crick in any neck with its unusual roofs and wonderful carvings. Ask about any "Patimoke," the colorful monthly meeting of all monks, here or at other Wats. Such meetings are quite colorful and sometimes open to the public. Then catch a quick bus or cab back down Rajadamnoen Nok Road past the kick boxing stadium - it's open on alternate nights with Lumpini Stadium way out Rama IV Road for seven day a week violence --to the river.

Th3 Dursit District, Rama V's try at a European city, offers European-style buildings of varied historical and architectural merit, and, if you have time, the 81-room, golden teak Vimarn Mek Palace seems worth a visit even. Like the Dursit Zoo (10 baht admission and fine inexpensive noodles and other food) and "silk king" Jim Thompson?s house (100 baht admission), it did not make our "three day" cut.

Too much nightlife or too many Wats for the early start -- Catch a Chao Phraya Express Ferry after 6 a.m. and rubberneck on the restful trip upstream to the coconut groves in Ko Kret. Watch for interesting architecture and activities near ferry piers on your upstream trip; visit the best on the way back. Note that most of the stops are on the Bangkok side so sit on the right side of the boat going up and back so you're near shore at piers. Ko Kret, a traditional Mon village comes with killer pottery -- remember shipping! -- fine bamboo and some surprising basketry. The stall by the ferry landing offers lovely fried cakes and "flippin" fresh fish, but watch their curry!

It only takes an hour or so to get the feeling of rural Thailand in Ko Kret, and even less time to sample tree fresh fruits such as custard apples. Then board the down river ferry. Explore attractions spotted on the upstream trip like the Chinese and Muslim areas on the Thon Buri side of the river. Stop at Wat Chaleerm Prakiat and the Princess Mother's Park Museum. Get off the ferry to lunch at an on-the-water ferry pier restaurant full of Thais, not tourists.

If you simply aren't up to a day on your own consider modestly priced river tours to historic Ayutthaya with a bus back to a riverside restaurant meal and copious commentary by tour guides. Otherwise, try a night river tour to see the lighted historical buildings along the river. The best of these, and hardly inexpensive, book through riverfront hotels such as the Oriental, which some call "the most beautiful in the world" and through the Sheraton Orchid. Both hotels are on the main ferry system and all boatmen understand "Orchid" or "Oriental." Note that the Oriental has a particularly nice evening high tea in the Author's Lounge should you happen to be in the area. Its restaurant overlooking the river is splendid if rather expensive too.

You find long-tail boats and river ferries available at almost all floating docks. Given the exchange rate a crowd - some boats hold up to thirty - could rent their own private long tail boat for a few dollars each - bargaining is expected, and enjoy a custom cruise day or evening.

These slender, shallow draft long-tailed boats skim you into Bangkok klongs such as Bang Luang, one of the most interesting and ancient canals opposite Bangkok on the Thon Duri side of the river. When you return to the river at the far end of the klong, transfer to a river ferry and then to a long-tail boat tour up Khlong Bangkok Noi past the Royal Barge Museum that's really a sort of large, open iron shed run by the Thai Navy. Unfortunately, photos aren't allowed inside the Museum, but you can stop at its float to see the magnificent golden barges that run to 140 feet in length and can require 40 or so paddlers. Pay the 10 baht admission or take a quick look as you pass. If you are lucky enough to be in Bangkok for the annual Royal Barge outing, do not miss it!

As you glide along past rickety homes watch how life follows the klong. Cotton-clad women demurely bathe. Kids and pets swim, fish and relieve their bladders. Families buy food from floating vendors, haul water to gardens and get the mail delivered by boat. Life here is more aquatic than Venice and it serves as a reminder of Bangkok before so many klongs were replaced by streets and storm drains. Pay particular attention to the orchids. Everyone grows these and they are extremely inexpensive.

As an half day alternative to the upstream trip take a ferry to isolated Ko Keret Island with its' superb red and black pottery. The very early morning Thon Duri side Khlong Thom vegetable and fruit market seems more authentic than floating markets nearer Bangkok too.This downstream trip passes the Oriental Hotel, various historic embassies, and allows a stop at the odd Wat Yannawa built in the shape of a Chinese Junk complete with eyes to keep bad spirits away.

Such bad spirits doubtless perch on the white slab of Sirirat Hospital. Its ten museums, like the traditional medicine school across the river, offer some unique "innards and odd attractions." Consider -- briefly! -- the preserved body of a multiple murderer who smothered small children and ate their internal organs on the disproved theory this would prolong his life. He should have fed the turtles at Wat Prayoonwong to earn merit instead. These are not the only unusual attractions in Bangkok. For example, the Pasteur Institute AKA "the Snake Farm" offers a 70 baht look at venom extraction

Try to time your second day to finish at Wat Arun (admission 10 baht) a couple of hours before dusk. Take the time to explore, and then climb to the outlook half-way up the Khymer-like main prang that tops 343 feet. The golden view of sunset reflecting off Bangkok's modern buildings and the busy river traffic offer an indelible impression at dusk. Then ferry across to the Bangkok side and diner - cross-river ferries run from first light until midnight.

For dinner, try Cabbages and Condoms the amusingly named restaurant owned by the Thai Family Planning Association. Earnings go to charity but I doubt the IRS would see your visit as deductible. Prices run 100 to 400 bahts for wonderful Thai food, but d├ęcor's the star with a, how can we put this delicately?, "male contraceptive" motif that may cause one to reconsider Thai humor.