When Somerset Maugham staggered from the Bangkok train station one steaming day in 1923, he knew exactly where to head: the Chao Phraya — the River of Kings — whose fresh breezes and open skies were even then a relief from the intensity of the Thai capital. Feeling the onset of malaria, Maugham checked into the Oriental Hotel, where verandas overlooked the busy waterfront. As his temperature climbed to 105 degrees, the writer, soaked in sweat and addled by hallucinations, overheard the Oriental’s owner telling his doctor that it would be bad for business if the author should die on the premises.
Maugham’s verdict on Bangkok would make a brutal TripAdvisor review today. In his travel memoir “The Gentleman in the Parlor,” he reviled the city’s “dense traffic,” its “ceaseless din,” its “insipid” cuisine and “sordid” houses. The Thais, he declared petulantly, are “not a comely race.”
But once he recovered, Maugham experienced a rush of euphoria at the waterside setting. He watched the parade of barges, sampans and tramp steamers pass by with “a thrill of emotion,” and conceded that the wats, the gilded and glittering temple complexes rising along the river, made him “laugh out loud with delight to think that anything so fantastic could exist on this sombre earth.”
I had a taste of Maugham’s extreme reactions as I sat in Bangkok’s nefarious traffic trying to get to the river on the first morning of a recent trip, although I was addled by nothing more dangerous than jet lag from the epic 21-hour flight from New York.
Laden with literary reference, the Oriental — now the Mandarin Oriental, although nobody calls it that — is still the obvious introduction to the Chao Phraya, which has in recent years returned to its status as an escape from the city’s urban chaos. The colonial-era edifice where Maugham stayed is now called the Author’s Wing. Although overshadowed by a 1970s addition, its exterior looks much as it did when it opened in 1887 and astonished the city with its luxurious imported carpets, Parisian wallpaper and electrified chandeliers. And the setting has not lost its soothing effect.
I pulled up a chair feet away from the “liver-coloured water swirling by,” as another famous guest, Noël Coward, put it. A parade of ferries, barges and steamboats still battles the surging currents, while islands of vegetation float past, washed downriver from the jungles of the northern provinces. It was a step back into a leisurely past, worlds away from the explosive neon energy of the central city.
It’s no secret that, despite recent political disorder, Bangkok has emerged as the unofficial capital of Southeast Asia. Everyone from Swedish aid workers to Vietnamese I.T. specialists prefers to live there and commute around the region to less dynamic cities.
The most alluring consequence for travelers has been the revival of the Chao Phraya, which was once the heart and soul of Bangkok. It was by its shores that the sumptuous royal district was built in the 18th century and, although Thailand is one of the few Asian countries never to be colonized, where European powers erected their legations and warehouses in the 19th.
It was along the river that Bangkok’s first road was built (an elephant track that became known as the New Road) and where a raucous Chinatown sprang up. The river was then so alluring that Bangkok was affectionately called “the Venice of the East,” a serene warren of canals, floating markets and stilt houses.
But after World War II, the focus of Bangkok moved north and east. The river districts fell into decay, their waters polluted. Travelers mostly stayed away and visited the waterfront as part of a day trip to the famous wats. It is only over the last two or three years that the river has been rediscovered by bohemian Thais and intrepid expats, creating a mix of decay and contemporary chic that evokes an Eastern New Orleans.
“The Chao Phraya is a lifeline of history, culture and spirituality,” said David Robinson, director of Bangkok River Partners, founded in 2013 to help coordinate the revival. “It’s changing but keeping its traditions. There are roast duck and congee shops there that are 100 years old.” The novelist Lawrence Osborne, who moved here from New York three years ago, agreed: “The modern city was thrown up over the last 40 years in gimcrack style. It looks like it might collapse any moment. You don’t feel that at all by the river — there’s a real sense of continuity.”
The parallels to New York’s adventures in urban renewal are not lost on Thai preservationists. Last year, Bangkok River Partners invited Joshua David, the co-founder of the High Line, to speak at a conference. He became fascinated by the Chao Phraya. “The river allows you to experience Bangkok in a completely different way,” said Mr. David, now president of the World Monument Fund. “An amazing variety of watercraft is still used by local communities and will take you to places you would never imagine existed.”
To me, the river also made Bangkok seem manageable. Over years of travel in Asia, I had somehow failed to venture outside its airport, in part because I was daunted by the prospect of navigating a megalopolis of over 8.5 million people that can seem like an alternate set from “Blade Runner.” But the idea of exploring by water made Bangkok more human-scale. I decided to spend my time entirely on the river to reimagine its golden age.
My inspiration would be less the jaundiced Maugham than Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski, a Polish sailor soon to be renowned as the author Joseph Conrad, who found himself in 1888 frequenting the Oriental Hotel saloon for a little over two weeks, chatting with the barflies, as was his wont, “of wrecks, of short rations, and of heroism.”
Conrad had taken over command of an Australian ship, the Otago, but was stuck in Bangkok waiting for his crew to recover from tropical illnesses — an experience that is reworked in his novel “Lord Jim” and the shorter works “The Shadow-Line,” “Falk” and “The Secret Sharer.” Although he had his life savings of 32 pounds stolen by his Chinese steward (who thoughtfully brushed and folded his clothes before disappearing), Conrad still felt fondly toward Bangkok, and never forgot its “gorgeous and dilapidated” temples, or the city’s “vertical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, almost palpable, which seemed to enter one’s breast with the breath of one’s nostrils and soak into one’s limbs through every pore of one’s skin.”
As Conrad would surely agree, if the river traffic was hypnotic to watch, it was more satisfying to join. The variety of watercraft churning between the bobbing jetties was bewildering, ranging from high-speed long tail boats to private vessels and public ferries. I found the ferries definitely the most exotic, if not always the most comfortable. In peak hours, crowds squeezed into the sweltering below-decks like sardines, with yellow-robed monks and dapper businessmen alike jostling for elbow room while harangued by boat workers with megaphones, who bellowed “Go down! Go down! Go down!”
There are no continuous walkways along the river, so I made surgical strikes from the piers on foot, ducking in and out of laneways to the lapping waves. All along the right bank stood poetic ruins. The splendid 1887 offices of the East Asiatic Company sat vacant and awaiting rescue, while the stately Old Customs House had become a fire station sprouting greenery from gaping cracks. Catholic cathedrals and European embassies staggered on in crumbling glory, while the iron pins used to moor steamers that Conrad may have used quietly rusted.
One crooked lane led to the river temple where albino elephants were cremated, another to the sacred slab upon which Thai royals could be executed. (It was forbidden for royal blood to be spilled, so a bag was placed over the victim’s head and he was cudgeled to death — a considerate gesture.)