Chugging out of Bangkok in a 100-year-old rice barge...
The ungainly, yet rather endearing Anantara antique rice barge. Photo My Bathroom Wall
The sky beyond the riverbank grew mauve as the temple bell tolled the dawn. I sat on the edge of the bed and gazed out of the window of my cabin, watching a longtail boat of schoolchildren piercing the rafts of water hyacinth. A tugboat passed, its captain, in a white vest, brushing his teeth at the wheel. I felt a world away from the stresses of Bangkok, but in fact I was just a dozen miles or so upstream from the city’s chaos.
The three-day cruise from central Bangkok, along the Chao Phraya River in a 100-year-old rice barge, was the most relaxed I’ve ever felt in or around the city. I’d always pegged cruises as being impersonal and distancing you from the culture on shore, yet these few days afloat proved to be both intimate and revealing.
Dawn from my cabin. Photo My Bathroom Wall
The Anantara Song is made of teak and looks a tad comical, with a bulbous front and rear, a deck high out of the water and a canopy on top — like a little Noah’s Ark. But the chief butler, Johnny, welcomed me aboard reverently. He rewarded my minimal effort of climbing up the few steps — as he did every time for everyone over the next three days — with a lemon-grass-scented cold towel and a glass of iced water. He introduced me to the first mate, Milky, Captain Lekky, and Witty, the chef, as well as my fellow passengers: couples from Guernsey, Hamburg and Bangkok.
The first stop was the Wat Arun temple, where the landing stage was taking a bruising from tourist boats. A different guide met each cabin group; mine was Tommy. After a whistle-stop tour of the rocket-shaped spikes of the temple, we sat by a fan in the throne hall discussing Buddhism, the traffic and, hushedly, the ailing king’s health.
A few minutes further upriver was the Royal Barge Museum, where eight 160ft barges were on display. Tommy explained that the Chao Phraya is called the River of Kings, and that its royal pageants started in the 12th century.
Once past the giant Rama VII road bridge, we ate lunch at the shaded table on deck. Then I sat on a padded lounger at the prow and watched the city give way, intermittently, to wooden houses, jetties and stalls, and countryside. To our right, a flock of large whitish birds descended gingerly onto a tree, their spindly legs treading the air in quest of a branch strong enough to support them. Johnny told us that they were Asian open-billed storks, and handed round binoculars.
Mon Temple, with offerings of Fanta Cherry rightly to the fore. Photo My Bathroom Wall
Our next mooring was at the island of Koh Kret, home to the ethnic Mon people, who arrived from Burma centuries ago. The tree by our barge was reputedly saved from being felled by two young boys. Now it’s part of a temple and bedecked in flags, with an offerings table and a line of cherry Fanta bottles in pride of place.
My cabin had a double bed, and a bathroom with a blue-tiled shower and Bulgari toiletries It was a delight to walk down the village alleyway. An earnest-looking man was crafting clay dioramas, a long-haired youth strummed a guitar and taxi-mopeds returned from the school run. I bought a cold drink from a stall holder, who tried to make it a job lot with a toy gun and a herbal tea — good for “removing beer bellies”.
That evening, with the boat moored by a monastery, we relaxed on deck. A mosquito buzzed by my ear, but almost before I could flap, Johnny handed round insect-repellent sprays. After a River of the King sundowner cocktail, we dined on lobster with green bean salad, chicken in coconut-milk soup, duck in red curry, kale with black mushroom and oyster sauce, and bread and butter pudding.
The barge passes a large Buddha statue in a little village. Photo My Bathroom Wall
A Thai woman, Sunree, talked about the importance of water in her culture. She was originally from a village with no roads and said: “My dad threw me into the water when I was three, with a coconut to cling to. I learnt to swim that way, and swam and swam, and didn’t want to get out for all my childhood.”
The next morning, after giving an offering to, and receiving a blessing from, the 91-year-old head monk, we sailed on to the former Thai capital, Ayutthaya. In its 14th-century heyday, it was a city of more than a million people, with 5,000 foreign traders and emissaries.
After a brief tour of Wat Panancherng, inside which the huge seated Buddha seemed too big for his building, a car and guide took me to the heart of Ayutthaya. The main island is a thrilling ensemble of golden stupas and crumbling temples. The city was founded in 1350 and remained the Siamese capital for 417 years. It’s not as jungly or as vast as Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, but there’s a similar romantic essence to it.
The on-land highlight for me, though, was the Bang Pa-in, or Summer Palace, a sprawling, Potsdam-like ensemble of royal whimsies 12 miles south of Ayutthaya. I climbed a 100ft tower, built so the king of Siam could watch herds of roaming elephant, and paused at a memorial to the king’s consort and three children who drowned nearby. None of her servants lifted a finger to save her, because to lay a finger on her — as royalty — would have attracted the death penalty. I saw a collection of vintage English-built king’s carriages — hence why Thais drive on the left — an opulent Chinese pavilion and several European-style palaces. Afterwards, I helped my guide, Ann, collect a bag of little white flowers for her friend’s chest infection. The infusion is a remedy.
The car dropped me by a small khlong, or canal, where saffron-robed young monks operated an electric gondola across the 100 or so feet of water to where the barge was berthed. It was a gorgeous spot, just off the Chao Phraya, by a bulky monastery and a lighthouse where a wordy plaque seemed relieved to wind up its historic spiel with “at last this lighthouse stopped working”.
A double bed in the bijou teak cabin, and the forward lounging deck. Photo My Bathroom Wall
There’s always scenery on a river cruise, so, despite the wood-panelled cosiness of my 260 sq ft cabin, which had a settee and a table, I preferred the deck. The four cabins are air-conditioned, with a small ladder to a double bed and, down some steps, a very decent bathroom: blue-tiled shower, wood-latticed floor, full-sized basin and Bulgari toiletries.
Weaknesses on the cruise were the slightly patchy level of guiding, tepid showers and bland spice levels, reined in for the western palate I imagine. Yet these things were far from my mind when we steamed back into Bangkok. I lounged at the prow with earl grey and biscuits, watching the longtail boats, ferries and giant barges as they churned up the muddy water. Just as I felt a drip of sweat forming on my forehead, Johnny swivelled one of the outdoor fans to waft in my direction.
I travelled as a guest of Anantara Cruises