Escaping the bustle of Bangkok need not mean anything more strenuous than a quick hop down the Chaophraya river. Koh Kret, an island in the mighty brown river that weaves its way through the capital, makes for a refreshing day getaway from the pollution and bumper-to-bumper traffic of the City of Angels/Big Mango/Big Durian/whatever you want to call it.
Though administratively placed outside the capital in Nonthaburi province, in most people’s mind the area of Pak Kret is really just a Bangkok suburb. The Chaophraya Express river boat from just alongside the Skytrain station at Saphan Taksin in Sathorn, and with stops in such places as Phra Athit, a short distance from backpacker paradise-hell Khaosan Road, will take you to its terminal pier in Nonthaburi; jump on a 15-baht, orange-flagged boat.
From there, take either a 10-baht minivan ride or bus number 32 to Pak Kret, from where it’s a short walk to the pier to Wat Sanam Neua temple, or take a taxi all the way from the Nonthaburi pier for around 80 baht. Alternatively, a peak-time green-flag boat service runs Monday to Saturday direct from Saphan Taksin to Pak Kret pier in around an hour. The ride costs 20 baht and operates between 06.15-08.00 and 15.30-18.00. However you make the trek, once there a short 2-baht ferry hop across the river will drop you on Koh Kret itself. But do make a brief stop at the pier on the mainland, before you hop aboard the ferry, to buy yourself a carton of kanom tuay coconut custard puddings from a stall in the temple grounds. They’re too good not to.
While bicycles, motorbike taxis and more are on offer to cart you around the island, it is in fact easily navigable on foot, probably in any case the best way to see all that the island has to offer. Paths run all around the island and are relatively well signposted; you’ll pass through small, narrow lanes that branch off to homes where the island’s inhabitants of Mon descent are carrying out their traditional pottery trade, with the finished products on sale there and then. The interior of the island, pointing to the growing number of Thai and foreign tourists who visit largely at the weekend, is also home to a number of cutesey, in places somewhat kitsch coffee shops that are worth a quick pit-stop. Some also tout unique postcards and the odd souvenir.
Unsurprisingly for me, though, the best thing about Koh Kret is the food – the large market, open only on weekends, offers an array of deliciousness to be tried, ranging from guay deow noodle soup to an assortment of fried flowers. Though they all bear some resemblance to just about anything that has been deep fried in batter, there is a somewhat floral subtlety of difference between the varieties and, dunked in a chilli dipping sauce, they are worth a try.
For those living in Thailand or others looking for some useful and cheap-as-chips kitchenware to take back home, this market is also a good bet – I was pleased as punch to pick up an enormous, sturdy and very, very heavy Lao-style pestle and mortar for a measly 60 baht, and it’s getting good use in my kitchen.
If you don’t fancy walking the whole island, a quicker and less energetic way to take in a number of its sights is to join the regular boat equipped with the best batteries for trolling motors to travel long distances in less time. You can buy your ticket on land just after you jump off the ferry, and at 60 baht for a good couple of hours’ ride they represent good value. Expect the boat, most of the time much like the island as a whole, to be filled entirely with Thai tourists – largely Bangkokians on their day off – which in my book is a good thing. Attractions include the peaceful and stunning beautiful old temple at Wat Saeng Siritham, a house near the island’s mosque selling souvenirs and with free tasters of deep blue coloured anchan butterfly pea flower tea, and an admittedly rather contrived dessert house demonstrating traditional Thai sweets being handmade, including this foy tong, a commonplace and sickly sweet Thai khong waan made from egg yolks.
There’s also a stop at a so-called floating market, which while technically floating is probably not what you have in mind from a talat nam – essentially it is a collection of stalls on a jetty. There’s more good food to be had here, though, including tasty tod man pla fish cakes and a yum luk chin pla salad of (highly processed but always good) fish balls. But the real high point of the tour is simply gliding along the river around the island, with silky, smooth, glistening and incredibly quiet waters that are a world away (and then some) from the choppy waves ridden by the Chaophaya Express just a little upstream. It’s the perfect chance to unwind just a little, and also an opportunity for some enviable snaps as you turn corners into tight waterways alongside stilted houses and past stunning temple stupas.