The highways of Bangkok are not the streets or roads but the river and the canals.

-- Sir John Bowring (1855)

Bangkok has changed a lot in the past 150 years and the dominant means of transportation has long since been the automobile, but many of the canals are still there. And in particular, the bit about highways remain very true: the best escape from Bangkok's infamously horrendous traffic jams is to take the canal (khlong) speedboat.

Boats of Bangkok

The Chao Phraya River Express, which plows up and down the great river of the same name, is the handiest means of reaching many of Bangkok's tourist attractions (Wat Pho, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Arun, wat ever) and thus firmly on the tourist track. Easily accessible from the Skytrain, well signposted with big signs in English, large boats with English-speaking staff and still a ridiculously cheap bargain, your guidebook will tell you all about it and thus I won't!

No, today's topic is the humble reua hang yao or longtail boat. Your standard longtail is a stretched-out colorful wooden boat with a high curved bow, seating 4 abreast in 20-odd rows, fitted with an absurdly oversized motor, a canvas roof to protect you from the fierce tropical blaze and blue plastic 'curtains' to attempt to protect you from getting wet. Place these in a narrow canal with just enough space for two to pass at high speed, place a maniac hopped up on yaba at the steering wheel, and you're set!

Where They Go

By far the most useful longtail service -- for your average farang, anyway -- runs along Khlong Saen Saep (aka Sen Seb), whose west-east route paralleling Phetchaburi Road looks approximately like this:
  • Phanfa pier (Golden Mount) on Ratanakosin, a short tuk-tuk hop or longish walk from Khao San Road or the riverside wats
  • Saphan Hua Chang (Phrayathai), near BTS Ratchathewi and Jim Thompson's House
  • Pratunam market, near World Trade Center and Siam Square
    • Note: All passengers must change boats here to continue
  • Soi Chitlom
  • Wireless (Witthayu) Road
  • Soi Nana Nua (Sukhumvit 3)
  • Soi Asoke (21)
  • Soi Thonglo (55)
  • Soi Ekamai(63)
  • Soi 71 (another change needed here)
  • Wat Sribunruang (Bang Kapi)
Boats run from 6 AM to 9 PM on a demand-regulated system, a fancy way of saying they take off when there are enough passengers on board. At peak hours this means every other minute or so, and even at off-peak the interval is 15 min or so at worst. The maximum fare is around 15 baht, some examples at time of writing were Phanfa-Pratunam 7 baht and Pratunam-Thonglo 9 baht, the rate being around 50 baht to the euro. This makes them far cheaper than taxis but more expensive than buses, and while status-conscious wealthy Thais will opt to stew in their SUVs instead, you'll see not a few office ladies in high heels gingerly stepping on.

Other popular services run along khlongs Phrakhanong, Bang Luang/Lat Phrao, Phasi Charoen, and Bangkok Noi. You can even charter your own complete with driver, but expect to pay around 400 baht an hour for the privilege; not unreasonable for a larger group but rather expensive if going solo.

Note that in the rainy season (August-October), boat services may be temporarily suspended if prolonged heavy rain has caused the water level to rise too high, meaning that the boats can't squeeze under the bridges.

How To Use Them

The hardest part is actually figuring out where to board the longtails. The piers (tha) are not exactly well signposted -- most have no signage in English -- and you pretty much have ask the locals. But if you see see a stairway leading down to a rickety wooden canalside contraption, with a bunch of people standing on it waiting and a few blue signs in squiggly Thai, you just hit paydirt.

So. Get down on the pier and figure out which direction you want to go (nearly all piers are bidirectional). Once a longtail comes barreling down in your direction, hail it by waving your hand if needed; the boat will expertly dock at the pier and you now have approximately 2.7 seconds to haul yourself in before the driver floors the accelerator.

Plunk your rear end down on the wooden bench, at the front of the boat if you can manage it so the din from the motor is not completely overwhelming. The plastic curtains are operated by an advanced rope and pulley system; yank the rope, the curtain goes up! Whee! Try to figure out how this works before the backwash from a longtail rocketing in the opposite direction hits you (literally), and be a gentleman and lower the curtain back down if the boat docks on your side.

But wait: who's this funny fellow in a helmet clambering around outside the boat? Not only is he (or not uncommonly she) suicidal -- you will soon note that there are approximately 10 centimeters of clearance between the roof and the bridges overhead -- but he wants your money. Give him a 10-bt coin, and you'll get a ticket for the maximum fare of the current leg and your change (wave fingers if you want a different fare, he wouldn't understand English even if he could hear you). Now sit back, relax, and try not to pass out from the canal stench.

Once you approach your destination, get up and perhaps even clamber on to the side of the boat you'll be docking on (watch your head!), the boat crew will take the hint. And then you have another 2.7 seconds to disembark, and there you are, at the other end of Bangkok in record time!

Why To Use Them

Just in case you didn't figure out yet: on an extended business trip in Bangkok, I used to commute from my hotel near Pratunam to the worksite by the Ital-Thai Tower by longtail. By boat, the trip took exactly 7 minutes, all day every day, and cost me exactly 8 baht; by taxi, the trip took anywhere from 15 minutes (in optimal traffic) to one hour plus (in normal traffic) and cost me 50 baht plus stuck-in-traffic surcharges. You do the math.


Rough Guide to Thailand (nice map too)
Lonely Planet Bangkok (not much detail)
Personal experience