Cruising the Chao Phraya to Ayutthaya

never a dull moment on the river cruise

never a dull moment on the river cruise

The vast expanses of the Chao Phraya River were in ancient times simply known as Maenam which translates as river. In later eras the waterway became known as the River of Kings. It is formed by the confluence of the Ping and Nan rivers 250kms to the north of Bangkok. On its southerly journey the Chao Phraya flows past the ancient royal city of Ayutthaya and Bangkok’s iconic landmarks of the Grand Palace and the Temple of Dawn before emptying into the Gulf of Thailand.

In days of yore the Chao Phraya was integral to the livelihoods and existence of Siamese people living in what now forms the central plains of Thailand. The river fed numerous tributaries and thereby gave farmers the necessary water to grow rice and other crops. Barges plying the Chao Phraya transported essential goods for residents of the region and, in later times, for export.

Countless modern-day holidaymakers visiting Bangkok have included Chao Phraya River cruises on their itineraries as they offer glimpses of the region’s rich heritage. A river tour also provides an escape from Bangkok’s busy streets and way of living and out into pastoral landscapes left relatively untouched by contemporary development.  

There are various options for Chao Phraya cruises. Companies such as Classic Barges, Mekhala and Anantara offer bespoke two and three cruises aboard beautifully refurbished teakwood rice-barges with accommodation the epitome of opulence. Most visitors do not have the time to indulge themselves with a trip in the lap of luxury but settle for a one-day cruise.

Due to the fact that Ayutthaya is more them 60kms upstream from Bangkok, the majority of the tour operators providing one-day cruises do this leg of the tour with air-conditioned coaches which call in at Bang Pa-In en route to Ayutthaya. River Sun Cruise and Grand Pearl are two of the companies which follow this routing with prices around the 1,800 Baht mark for full-day tours.

Bang Pa-In sits on the banks of the Chao Phraya and is home to a fabulous complex of buildings which Thais call the Summer Palace. The palace actually dates from the 1630s, although highlights such as the tower of Ho Withun Thasana and the Aisawan Thiphyat Pavilion were built by King Chulalongkorn in the latter years of the 19th century. Magnificent gardens and ponds provide a regal background for the palatial edifices.   

After walking round the palace, travellers board their buses for the short hop to Ayutthaya. The city was the capital city of Siam for 400 years until it was largely destroyed during a Burmese invasion in 1767. What remains is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is mostly contained within the confines of the Ayutthaya Historical Park.

The tour buses transport visitors to the main sights in the park. The ruins of the royal monastery, Wat Mahathat, are probably the most significant of the sights. The temple was the headquarters of the Sangaraja Buddhist sect in Thailand. Pagodas, brick walkways, numerous statues of Buddha and other temple ruins make for an edifying visit.

After the short sightseeing trip, travellers then head for the Bangsai Folk Arts and Crafts Centre on the south side of Ayutthaya. There is usually time for a look around before boarding vessels at around lunchtime for the return leg to Bangkok.

A buffet lunch is served on board and typically offers fried rice, fried noodles, mild coconut curries, dumplings, some kind of vegetable dish and fresh fruit for dessert. Water is included but people on the cheaper tours are usually required to pay for all other beverages with prices generally higher than those on dry land.

After lunch it is time to relax and enjoy the passing scenery. The Chao Phraya passes through bucolic countryside which looks especially attractive when emerald-green plants are sprouting in rice-paddies. The sight of buffaloes and farmers toiling in the fields is a fitting reminder that Thailand is one of the major rice producers of the world.

pick a cruise company that has comfy boats

As the Chao Phraya enters Bangkok, the first major sight is the island of Koh Kret. The island was formed when a canal was excavated across the neck of a loop in the river. Farther on the first of Bangkok’s river bridges emerges over the horizon. The concrete supports and arches of Phra Pinklao Bridge are downstream and signify that the boat is approaching the Grand Palace.

The spires and pagodas of the palace as well as those of the adjacent Wat Pho are an arresting spectacle when viewed from the river. Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn as most Westerners refer to it, is the next major attraction along the river. The embedded porcelain temple’s lofty 80-metre Khmer-style tower sparkles in sunlight and makes for great snapshots.

Just before the final destination at the River City Pier, the hotel towers of the Millennium Hilton Bangkok and the Peninsula stand like guardian sentries against the skyline and provide a pleasant contrast to the older warehouses and heritage buildings on the banks of the Chao Phraya.

About the Author

Andrew Bond is a travel writer who has been living in Thailand and writing about the region for more than 10 years, contributing to numerous local magazines and major web travel brands. He travels around South East Asia by tuk-tuk, bicycle, cyclo, jeepney, taxi, moto, elephant or foot in search of new smells, sounds, sights, and atmosphere. Share your travel bits with him on Google +

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