One of the major rivers in the eastern part of Thailand is the Bang Pakong River which drains into the Gulf of Thailand. At the estuary, you can go on boat tours that take you out to see the Irrwaddy dolphins. Their visit is seasonal and you can only join these dolphin watch tours between November and February. I went to see them about three years ago and wrote a story about it for Bangkok Day Trips. I went back to Chachoengsao Province last weekend for another boat trip on the river. Though this time I started further upriver in the city of Chachoengsao. The boat trips run seven days a week. Monday to Friday there are only two rounds per day at 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. At the weekend, there are seven trips leaving on the hour starting at 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Each trip lasts about two hours.
The river tour starts at the pier behind Wat Sothorn, which is a gigantic landmark in Chachoengsao and very hard not to miss. People from all over the area make a pilgrimage to this temple to pay respect to the Luang Pho Sothorn image. If you are driving there by car you will find plenty of free parking space around the temple. It is best to come early as the place gets very crowded at the weekend. I was hoping to go on the boat tour straight away, but the next round was fully booked. So I had just over an hour to wait. But, it didn’t matter, there was plenty to see around the temple grounds.
The ticket price for the boat tour is only 100 baht for adults and 60 baht for children. There is no two price system. However, you will find that the commentary during the tour is only in Thai language. I asked the tour guide about this and she said by far the majority of tourists here are Thai people. Out of the handful of foreigners that come to Chachoengsao, the majority are with Thai wives or Thai friends. So, virtually no independent travellers at all. Which is not surprising as the province is no longer featured in the Lonely Planet.
The river tour itself was enjoyable. It was a hot day and the breeze created by travelling up river by boat was refreshing. On one side of the river was the city with some waterfront buildings that were more than 100 years old. I also spotted a couple of Christian churches, the oldest being St. Paul’s. Near the city hall, we passed an old section of the foritified wall that used to protect the city. On the other side of the river it was mainly isolated wooden houses and a great deal of nipa palm trees. One of the famous local food is “khanom jaak” which uses products from this tree. The boat trip itself was only 30 minutes. It would have been good to have gone on for longer, but the place they brought us to turned out to be the highlight of the tour. This was the 100 year old Ban Mai Market. We basically had an hour to explore this area before boarding the boat for the return journey.
The last time I had been to Ban Mai Market was more than five years ago. And what a difference. Back then the place was deserted with only a handful of tourists. Most of the houses had their front shutters closed. Now it was difficult to move in some sections. There were so many tourists wandering around. Either browsing the shops or sitting down to eat some authentic Thai food. Nearly every house was open and having some interaction with the public. Either selling food or souvenirs. There was even an old barber shop. I enjoyed myself with some great snacks and a so-called “original recipe” for iced coffee. None of the wooden houses have changed much since the reign of King Rama V. In fact, this market is a popular location for filmmakers doing period dramas.
An hour wasn’t really enough time to sit and eat. Particularly as the tour guide also took us to a nearby Chinese shrine. Well, I should say that she took me alone. There were 40 people who disembarked from the boat at the market pier. However, along the way she managed to lose them all. Maybe they were more interested in sampling the Thai snacks and desserts. But, there was time to do both. To her credit, she took me through the market to the far end to reach Wat Chin Pracha Samosorn. On the outside of the shrine it loked much the same as any other. However, inside there were a number of interesting images. One was a set of three Chinese Buddha images that were incredibly made of paper. You can see them in the above picture. Another shrine there was popular with people who wanted to make a lot of money or win the Thai lottery. I will tell you more about that another day.
Chachoengsao is to the east of Bangkok and there is plenty to keep you busy all day. Disregard the fact that not many guidebooks cover this area. If you want to go by bus, you can catch one at either Mor Chit 2 Bus Terminal or Eastern Bus Terminal (at Ekkamai). There are also regular trains leaving Hua Lamphong station throughout the day. I went there by car and it took me just over one hour. I drove along the Bang Na Trad Highway and turned left at Highway 314. You can also go by Highway 7 which is the Bangkok-Chonburi Motorway. You won’t need a map as it is well sign-posted.