Before rampant development and 21st century transit systems changed its face forever, Bangkok was 'The Venice of the East', with life revolving around its network of canals. But then Bangkokians fell in love with their cars, turned most of the klongs into roads and largely got rid of a water-based lifestyle - and a superb way of navigating the city.
Today, while a far cry from its heyday, Bangkok still boasts a system of public water transport that's cheap, efficient and fast. And - for adventurous visitors – offers a glimpse of a way of life far-removed from the street-side hurly-burly.
Travelling by klong is not, however, for the faint-hearted. At the smaller jetties, boat drivers swoop in and slam the engine into reverse - causing a great surge in the pier-side water - while passengers clamber from slippery jetties onto the heaving vessel. Surprisingly, it's rare to see anyone suffer more than a minor indignity in the process.
The drivers are competitive, while the water - contained between concrete embankments - can become surprisingly choppy. Bouncing over the waves, it's not unusual for the bow wave of a passing boat to drench a whole section of passengers. Then there's the vicarious pleasure of watching others gingerly getting on and off...
But don't be put off. It CAN be quite safe, and going by klong is a must if you want to experience the unseen side of Bangkok - and avoid the gridlocks which refuse to be tamed by hi-tech mass transit systems.The only route currently operating (on long boats powered by massive V8 diesel engines) runs from Democracy Monument in the west to Ramkamhaeng in the east.
Unless you're unusually agile and adventurous, start at the Pratunam (Thai for 'watergate') terminus - and avoid rush-hour! Mid-morning's ideal. Pratunam pier is located across the road from one of Bangkok's best-known shopping malls, Central World Plaza.
There are two piers - the south pier serves the east, the north pier the west. The system's easy. You clamber aboard and sit on one of the hard wooden benches, or - if it's full - stand around the exposed engine avoiding the spinning fan belts. After departure, an attendant collects fares - still only 10 baht to the western terminus, Panfe pier. If you're at the end of a row it's your responsibility to work the splash-screens.
En-route to Panfe, you'll glimpse Jim Thompson's House. Note where it is; on the return journey you can disembark close by for a 10-minute walk to one of Bangkok's most famous tourist attractions.
This winding section of Klong San Saeb is lined with once-grand timber houses and shops on stilts that afford a rare opportunity to witness how many Bangkokians still live. You'll see houses tilted at crazy angles - floors sloping up to 30 degrees - yet still occupied; kids swimming in the murky water; small-scale commerce, cooking and domestic chores going on along the raised towpath. Here life is lived outside - indoors is for sleeping.
When you arrive at Panfe, you're just a short walk from Democracy Monument. Look left and you'll see the Golden Mount round the corner. A longer walk (or a tuk-tuk ride) will get you to Dusit Zoo, Chitlada Palace, Khao San Road (Banglamphoo), Wat Po, the Grand Palace and others.
Most of Bangkok's tourist attractions are west of Pratunam, but it’s still worthwhile going east. Ask for Wat Mai on New Petchburi Road: your first interim stop – so get ready. You'll disembark on the left side; signal your intention by standing just after passing Prasan Mitr pier (right) and climb carefully onto the side as Wat Mai draws close. Be ready to jump - the driver might only slow down! Hesitation is the enemy of successful klong travel.
Wander through the temple to the road, turn right and look for a tiny passageway clustered with food stalls about 10 minutes away. At the far end is a quaint 'ferry' across the klong to Bangkok's main mosque and a large Muslim community - many living in stilted houses over the klong. If it's Wednesday there'll be a thriving market in the square. With its Muslim influences, the food here is different - and delicious.
Next, weave your way between the houses and food-stalls to the east out onto the towpath. A gentle five minutes stroll will bring you to a tiny pitch-roofed jetty. Here you catch your ride back - but be warned: this one's not for the nervous!
Most visitors to Bangkok never use the klongs - and miss an adventure that would keep them in after-dinner tales for months! Klong travel needs a touch of ingenuity and a brave heart, though the rewards are well worth the effort. But forget notions of reclining idly in a picturesque long-tail boat, put-putting gently along tranquil waterways – you're on public transport and this is not, after all, Venice!