Dolphin Watching in Bang Pakong River

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.

2 responses to “Dolphin Watching in Bang Pakong River