Tag Archives: Chachoengsao

Bang Pakong River Tour

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.

The Bat Temple

Bat temple

Today I visited Bang Khla district in Chachoengsao Province. The “Unseen Thailand” attraction here are the thousands of fruit bats (or flying foxes) that inhabit the temple at Wat Pho Bang Khla. This is another one of those unique places that you won’t find in any Western guidebook. In fact, the Lonely Planet doesn’t even mention Chachoengsao Province. This was my third visit here. You may remember me writing before about going on a boat trip to see the dolphins. There is a lot to see in this province and I have only scratched the surface. You do sometimes see foreigners here but they usually come with Thai friends and they only seem to be going to pay homage to Luang Pho Sothon. You never see independent travellers which is surprising as it is only 90 minutes away by train from Bangkok. And the cost of the ticket? I think only 20 baht or so.

Bang Khla is about 23 kms away from Chachoengsao city. You leave the city on highway 304 for about 17 kms. You then turn left onto highway 3121 for a further 6 kms. This area is famous for the mango orchards and they have an annual fair in March. It also marks the spot where King Thaksin stopped briefly with his troops after the fall of Ayutthaya. In the town they have a statue of King Thaksin as well as a memorial on the banks of the Bang Pakong River. However, the star attraction for this district must be the fruit bats. To be honest, I wasn’t too sure whether it would be worth driving out there today. In the Thai guidebook there was a picture that only had one bat! I was thinking that maybe it would be just our luck that the day we visited, that bat would be away or something. But, we weren’t disappointed. There were thousands!

Bat temple

When we arrived at the temple it was the sound that first caught our attention. We then looked up and we could lots of dark things hanging from the trees. Then a huge bat flew over our car and landed in a nearby tree. I was actually quite surprised because I had always presumed that bats were nocturnal creatures and liked dark places during the daytime. But, these were pretty active. We were going to park right there under the tree but then I suddenly remembered my encounter with fruit bats in Australia. The liquid that comes out both ends is pretty foul and makes a mess! So, we parked around the corner and walked back.

Just about every tree in the temple compound had bats hanging from the branches. We asked a monk about the bats and what they ate. He said they ate fruit such as mango, tamarind and guava. They also ate the fruit and young leaves from the sacred boh trees in the temple. This is the tree that Siddharta Gautama became enlightened underneath when he became the Buddha. There is speculation that this has actually affected the bats behaviour. For example, they never touch the mangoes in the orchards of Bang Khla. They always go to a neighbouring district. Also, in 1957, the temple was having a special ceremony for 9 days and 9 nights for a sacred stone. During that entire period the bats just disappeared and weren’t around to bother the local people who had come to make merit. Then, in 1966, a revered abbot at the temple died. For days many of the bats refused to eat and didn’t fly out at night-time. A few days later, some of them started dropping dead out of the trees.

Bat temple

Wat Pho Bang Khla is actually quite an interesting place. The oldest building dates back to 1767. Also, in the compound, there is an array of extremely beautiful Buddha images. These seem to be based on famous Buddha amulets. I took some really good close-ups which I will get blown up and framed. The temple is alongside the Bang Pakong River which also runs through Chachoengsao city. I believe you can hire a longtail boat to bring you here or alternatively you can come by bus. If  you do get a chance then do come to visit this temple before any of the guidebook writers find out about it. Once that happens the place will change. Just don’t tell anyone else about this place! Let it remain in the “Unseen Thailand” category.

Dolphin Watching in Bang Pakong

I have been racking my brains recently trying to think of a good day trip to go on in the Bangkok area. December this year has three long weekends, so I decided I should make the most of this and try and go somewhere new. Most of the other teachers already had plans, like going to see the sunflower fields in Saraburi. Although these fields are very photogenic, I was there last year. Then, one teacher asked if I had been to see the dolphins yet in Bang Pakong. I hadn’t, so that was the start of the idea for this trip.

I had first heard about the Irrwaddy dolphins several years back but had never gotten around to going. Apparently they are seasonal and arrive in the Bang Pakong River in November, at the end of the rainy season. They then stay there a full 120 days until February. Although this had been going on for nearly five years, I couldn’t find any mention in my edition of the Lonely Planet. Yet another omission. I have been finding quite a few recently. So, I set off this morning armed with my Thai language guidebook. They at least had a double page on this area.

I have passed through Bang Pakong many times on the way down to Pattaya, but I have never stopped there before. The city is at the point where the road crosses a high bridge over a river (which I now know to be Bang Pakong River) and then does a sharp right turn and heads south to Chonburi and Pattaya. From my house it doesn’t take long to drive there. In fact, we left at 8.15 a.m. and we were on the boat at 9.30 a.m.! It was quite easy to find as we just followed the dolphin signs as we drove down the Bang Na – Trad highway.

Once we were off the highway, and onto the side road in the Tha Kham area, our first mistake was to follow some handwritten signs for the dolphin boat tours. This took us down a dirt track to a few shacks by the side of the river and a very broken down looking fishing boat. We decided not to linger and just did a u-turn. Our guidebook informed us that we should only use the two tetsaban piers at Moo 1 and Moo 8. Apparently the boat operators there had been properly trained for dolphin watching. Arriving at an intersection we had the choice of turning right to Moo 1 or left to Moo 8. The guidebook didn’t say which was better so we flipped a coin and turned right.

About ten minutes later we arrived at Moo 1 pier. The car park was under water as it was high tide. A guy came out and told us where to park. I must admit I wasn’t really that impressed. It was nothing like the boat jetty I visited for my trip to the beach in Bangkok. This was like in the middle of no-where and pretty run-down. It hadn’t been developed for tourists at all. Our car park attendant doubled as an agent for the boats. He quickly led us down the dock as a boat was about to leave. As we waded through the water, he explained that each boat cost 1,000 baht to take it out to the Gulf of Thailand. As there were now eight of us, it would work out at 125 baht each. Not bad, so we agreed. It looked like that the other people on the boat were waiting to make up the numbers. There were no set times for these trips, the more people you wait for, the cheaper it becomes for you.

Our boat was basically a fishing boat that had been converted into a tourist boat. A couple of simple benches had been nailed to the deck and some garden netting had been stretched over our heads to provide some shade. Not exactly that comfortable but I later found out that we were better off than some people. I later saw some boats that only had some mats for people to sit on! I asked our driver what he did between March and October and he said that the boat was converted back into a fishing vessel. I guess they made good money during the tourist season so it makes sense for them to convert their fishing boats.

From our pier, we slowly made our way down the river towards the Gulf of Thailand. Along the way we passed a number of fishing huts perched on top of stilts. These bamboo poles had nets strung between them so it looked like fisherman stayed in these huts while attending their nets. At some of these places the nets were lowered into the water and other places they were pulled up. In the distance I could see four or five boats out in the Gulf of Thailand. I guessed that they were fishing boats. I was wrong.

As usual, I was taking plenty of pictures of this and that along the riverfront. It became quite funny as every time I lifted my camera to take another pictures, everyone quickly looked up to see where I was pointing. They all thought I had spotted a dolphin. But, they got their own back on my as every now and then they too pointed to something – but it turned out to be only driftwood. I started to prepare myself in the event of not finding any dolphins. I didn’t want to be too disappointed. But, I like boat trips and even if we didn’t see any dolphins it was still a nice trip out on a boat.

About 30 minutes later we had passed out of the river and into the Gulf of Thailand. The boats that I thought were fishermen were actually tour boats like ourselves. There was a circle of them and we could see people excitedly pointing towards the center. It was then that we spotted out first fin. A dolphin! Everyone was so excited (and relieved). Then we spotted another, and then another and another. They seemed to be in groups of about two or more. They didn’t seem to surface that often. They came up and then went straight down with hardly a splash. I suppose I was expecting a few jumps here and there. I think I had seen too many dolphin shows. But of course, this was very different. It was the wild. So, even though we didn’t see dolphins jump out of the water, the fact that the event wasn’t predictable at all, made it by far more exciting.

For nearly an hour, our boatman took us around in circles as we scanned the horizon in different directions. As soon as someone shouted out we swung around to get a good look. We reckoned that there must have been about 6 or 7 dolphins. It was actually quite fun though very hard to get any good pictures. You really had to be quick as they didn’t stay up for long. In the end, it was by far more interesting to sit there and just watch the activity. And also watch the humans in the other boats. By this time there were eight boats circling the dolphins with three more coming our way. Although I wanted to see the dolphins, I was conscious of the fact that I was encouraging the boatmen to keep chasing the dolphins every time they surfaced. As this tourist attraction becomes more popular, I hope they regulate it more. Like number of boats allowed to go and how close they can get to the dolphins. One of the boatmen had a radio blaring music which wasn’t really help. We were all happy to see that boat go.

After we had all seen enough, our boatmen took us back. It had been a really good trip and certainly worth coming. I would recommend it to anyone as a nice day out. In addition to seeing the dolphins, we saw other wildlife like the bats on Bird Island. We also saw the different methods of fishing. Back at the car we decided to drive down to Moo 8 pier to see how it compared. This one was further south and nearer to the Gulf of Thailand. The pier also had a restaurant where we stopped to have some tom yum goong for lunch.

After lunch, I got talking to one of the boat operators. He told me that the price was 1,000 baht per trip the same as at Moo 1 pier. I asked if he also went up to Bird island to see the bats as it was the opposite direction to the Gulf. He said they went to both. The set-up at this pier looked much better so I would probably come here the next time I visited. If you want to come yourself, I would suggest that you would have to come the last part by taxi as there is no public transport. The boat operator said he sometimes gave people a lift back to the main road for a small fee if they didn’t have any transport. But, I guess you could also hitch a lift. So, although it is a bit out of the way, it is possible for you also to come and see the dolphins in Bang Pakong.