Thailand's "River of Kings," the Chao Phraya,cuts through the center of Bangkok, Thailand,casting a spell as compelling as the fabledtemples that line its shores. Few visitors canresist exploring the river and its (tributary canals)aboard low-riding long-tail boats, but the waterway'shidden charms only unfold fully on an extended cruise.The best option from Bangkok is a 3-day luxury sailnorth to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya aboard a traditionalrice barge such as the .
Beauty and the Boat
The is a genuine Thai barge, 66 feetlong and half a century old, with its hull planked in teak.It no longer hauls pearls of rice. Instead, it has been convertedinto a posh river cruiser with four fully appointedtwo-story passenger cabins below; main deck withcanopy, sofa, and bar above; and a sun deck with loungechairs on the bow. Its crew of four knows the art of pamperingpassengers and feeding them well.
There's no cruise director (just a printed itinerary),but the real language is that of the river. Its entire lengthlined with temples, the Chao Phraya is also every inch amodern working river, populated with enormous fertilizerplants, stilted wooden houses, and boat familieswashing their clothes in the brown river water. The moststriking traffic consists of the vessels that have replacedthe traditional rice barge: enormous black metal hulksthat ride three stories high when empty, but sink cleardown to the waterline when filled.
Highlights on the River
Three things set this river cruise apart. First there arethe candlelight dinners, prepared aboard and served ondeck, with the lantern light of riverbank monasteriesproviding an exotic backdrop. Second, there are theshore excursions, conducted by an efficient local guide.The first tour, on day two, concentrates on Ayutthaya, aUNESCO World Heritage site founded in 1350 and theroyal seat of power in Thailand for 417 years. Its templesand palaces lie in vast ruins, the result of fierce battleswith invading armies, a shift of power to Bangkok,and, above all, the toll taken by that merciless foe, thesheer passage of time. This day's unhurried tour endswith an elephant ride through palace grounds. The nextday's tour is of Thailand's Summer Palace, Bang Pa-In,Thailand's answer to Versailles.
A third reason to take this cruise is the chance to seesmaller temples along the way, where a rice barge, ratherthan a raft of tour buses, can tie up and spend the night.The first evening the barge moors at Wat Bang Na, wherein the morning, after an English breakfast on deck, passengersare greeted by elaborately tattooed monks, thetemple cats, and the fourth chief monk of the temple,who, upon his death in 1988, was mummified and placedin a glass case. At the altar, passengers present his successorwith a bucket of offerings provided by the crew. Inthis ritual offering, visitors are "making merit," which isthe Buddhist way of earning peace and happiness in thepresent life and of making progress in the next.
Turning back to Bangkok, the docks but once, at the Bang Sai Royal Folk Arts andCrafts Center, a riverside emporiumwhere the prices and handicrafts aresuperb. Drifting on downriver, passengerscan lounge contently on the sundeck,leafing through the passenger logbookuntil high tea arrives on silvertrays. The many towers of Bangkok,skyscrapers and temples alike, begin topack the shore.
The five-star Regent Bangkok Hotel(800-545-4000 or 66-2251-6127; www.fourseasons.com), well situated forwalking and shopping, can book ricebarge cruises for its guests on theManohra Song, the only vessel currentlyoffering overnight tours fromBangkok. For more information, callManohra Cruises in Bangkok at 66-2477-0770 or visit their Web site,www.manohracruises.com.