The River of Kings

Posted on: 26 March 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

If you are looking to experience the breathtaking beauty and rich cultural diversity of Thailand, a journey along the Chao Phraya river is the only way to do it, argues Thai travel expert Don Ross.

The Chao Phraya is not Thailand’s longest river by far. That distinction falls to the Mun River at 750 km closely contested by the Nan River at 740 km that flows from a mountainous source on the Laos border to where it joins the Chao Phraya. However, in the relatively short 370 km of bends and sweeps from Nakhon Sawan to the Gulf of Thailand, the Chao Phraya moulds and crafts the lifestyle of Thais more than any other stretch of water.

That is partly due to its path through the heavily populated heartlands of the central plains and its passage that cleaves the capital city Bangkok in half before it flows into the sea.

The majestic ‘River of Kings’ nourishes the nation’s rice paddies, stretching across the delta lands as far as the eye can see. It also provides a major transport channel for trade and even delivers the drinking water to Bangkok’s thirsty 12 million residents.

Sports enthusiasts have water-skied its wide expanse negotiating the river’s convoluted meanderings through Bangkok in minutes, while single-handed, a traveller kayaked its length, taking weeks to complete the task. Other visitors spend just seconds on a ferry crossing from a hotel in the business district to a restaurant clinging to the river bank on the Thon Buri side. Or they may travel on the capital’s river express, commuting to work from neighbouring riverside towns.

Barges, mostly laden with building materials and drawn by powerful tugboats, still ply the river. Weighed down to the gunwales, they nudge their way in convoys downstream to riverside port on the outskirts of Bangkok.

For most travellers the river provides a short interlude on a city tour to a floating market or a transfer from hotel to the famous Temple of the Dawn. It doesn’t need to end there. For the traveller ready to explore its course and tributaries north of the capital, the Chao Phraya offers fascinatiing insights into Thai rural lifestyle, moving with the times but still entwined with the river.

Luxury riverboats ply the river from Bangkok to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, carrying thousands of visitors for a day excursion. Laden with buffet tables and drink trolleys, the boats speed their guests to Bang Pa-in, the site of the royal summer palace, approximately 60 km north of Bangkok. From here the remainder of the trip to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya is covered by tour bus.

However, to explore the river in detail the preferred options are the slower converted river barges with cabins below and a well appointed top deck to relax and enjoy meals.

The Thanatharee Chao Phraya Barge Cruise to Ayutthaya

Winner of the Award of Excellence for the Inbound Tour Programme in the Thailand Tourism Awards 2004, Thanathep Pintusan, owner of Education Travel Centre, takes travellers back to the “roots of Thai culture” following the course of Chao Phraya River on the Thanatharee rice barge.

“Thai life has changed dramatically in the city, but I noticed that once you sail upstream the inseparable link between the river and Thai people reasserts itself. We can capture that on our barge trip,” Mr Thanathep explains.

Thanatharee carries 12 passengers who sleep in bunks dormitory style on the lower deck of the stout teak wood barge. There are just two bathrooms and showers, but “guests have all day to shower so it is not an issue on a slow moving barge,” Mr Thanathep adds.

While not the most luxurious river barges, the Thanatharee compensates with a “hands on” approach to travel. Guests can learn how to cook a meal in the small galley tucked into the stern of the barge. At an early morning stop at the thriving market of Prathum Thani, 35 km north of the capital, they can shop for fresh spices, vegetables and fruits, learning firsthand about the ingredients that make Thai cuisine so special.

Later on the first day of this two-night cruise to Ayutthaya, they embark on a side trip by mountain bike to the vast expanses of paddy where they learn how to plant rice and ride a quaint looking mechanical plough, powered by a noisy two-stroke engine.

It’s a learning experience, an encounter with rural Thai values and heritage. Passengers live for two days almost as the villagers do, close to the river, dining on its fresh fish and the finest rice harvested in the vast emerald-green paddy fields of the Chao Phraya delta.

The captain of the Thanatharee eventually steers a course off the main river at Bang Sai, up a tributary known as the Chao Phraya Noi, but not before paying his respects at the foot of a spirit house, the guardian of the river and the people living on it. This particular tributary cut a channel from the Chao Phraya far north at Chai Nat, running south almost parallel before rejoining the parent river at Bang Sai.

Passing farming communities and orchards, the barge will eventually drop anchor for the night near a temple, allowing its passengers to admire a star-studded night sky while the cook conjures up yet another array of spicy Thai dishes for the buffet table. In the morning they will have an opportunity to make merit at the temple and meet the village residents.

Visits follow to villages that specialise in making pottery, knives and handicrafts as the barge wends it way upstream to Ayuttha

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