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Up the Chao Phrya on a Rice Barge

Laurence Civil

Just after 3pm Manohra Song pulled away from its moorings at Marriott Royal Garden Riverside Pier. Passing under Phrachao Takasin Bridge besides the Oriental Hotel, the delightful riverfront residences of the French and Portuguese Ambassadors, Fort Thonburi, the back of China Town's vegetable market, Wat Arun and the Grand Palace. Sitting high in the water, I have an uninterrupted view of the heart of Bangkok. Long tail boats speed their way up river, contrasting with the slow moving heavily laden sand barges working their way down river.

Manhora Song is a 20-m river barge that has been lovingly restored and lavishly converted into a deluxe river cruiser. Below deck she has four cabins each with a queen sized bed and compact suite bathroom. On deck there is there is an expansive salon and dining area with bar, plus an ample sun deck forward with loungers. As Interior Designer Kathleen Heinecke told me it is a far cry from the condition the barge was in a few years ago when found it as a rotting hull at the river. "There was no floor, no roof, only a piece of tin," recalls Kathleen" it was like a boat you might have found in a junkyard, but still I fell in love with it at first sight. We spent two years nursing the run-down 1950's barge through its restoration, rebuilding the entire boat piece by piece."

The refurbished rice barge features Teak, Padua and Mahogany woods throughout, custom-designed furniture covered with colorful Thai silks and cottons, oriental rugs decorated with Thai and Southeast Asian art, sculpture and artifacts. The total cost of the restoration was US$200,000 double the original estimate." We call it the Eastern & Oriental Express of the river," adds Kathleen, " Just to be able to operate a boat like this is a real privilege."

Traveling further north, the river is now carrying less debris and although not sparkling clean it is considerably cleaner than at the start of the journey. For those who live on the banks of the Chao Phraya the river is their only source of water. They bath in it, wash their clothes in it and use it to cook their food. To Western eyes this may seen strange but judging from the smiles of the children splashing and swimming naked in the river it is more acceptable.

Just after 4pm Chief Steward Ekkart Kredploy glides silently up to my chair on the sundeck with a pot of tea and a selection of pastries which he serves with a warm smile and retreats leaving me to relax and enjoy the calm landscape. Passing a stilted village a group of school children wave energetically crying out "Hello" in chorus.

Then just as the sun sets on the horizon Khun Ekkart glides back to take my cocktail order and advises me that we will be arriving at Wat Bang Na in 20 minutes where we will moore overnight. Being the only guest onboard I was asked at what time I would like dinner. How civilised.

Before dinner I go ashore to look around Wat Bang Na and the neighboring village. There was little to see and the conversation with the few people I do pass is limited to "Hello". Returning to the barge I find the table laid for dinner with starched white linen, silver; cut crystal and bone china tableware. The candle lit dinner for one comprised of Yam Sam-O ( Pomelo Salad with shrimps and prawns) Tom Yam Goong ( Sweet and Sour Soup with prawns) Phriew Wan Pla (sweet and sour fish) Phad Pahk Ruam Mit (Fried Vegetables) and Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai (Chicken in Green Curry) followed by carved Thai fruit and sweets for desert.

The next morning a single toll of the bell from the Wat was my wake call. When I went up on deck I found Khun Ek waiting to accompany me to Wat Bang Na to make merit. Construction of the original Wat began in 1767 by the Mon and was completed in 1807. Prime Minister and Army General Por Phiboonsongkram and the late Abbot of the Temple Luang Poo built the latest temple in 1952. He became a Buddhist priest when he was 18 years old and continued his religious studies until he obtained a degree in the teachings of Buddha in 1944.Two years later in 1946 became Abbot of Watt Bang-an. He had a wide knowledge of religious practices, transcendental meditation and the making of Buddha images. He died in 1988 aged 87. His body, unpreserved remains in a glass coffins at the Wat where his devotees regularly come to pay their respects.

I was escorted into the temple where a senior monk was sitting cross-legged waiting for us. I waived to the monk and sat in front of him. He asked where I came from, how long I was staying in Thailand and how many times I had visited the Kingdom. I was then asked to sign the visitor's book. Khun Ek then passed me a yellow bucket full of food and essential items such as soap and toothpaste, which had been prepared for me to pass to the monk. He waited in appreciation and we returned to the rice barge for breakfast.

We pulled away from our moorings and I indulged in the luxury to eating breakfast while being bathed by the morning sun. The pace of life on this stretch of the river was calm and peaceful. We passed many of Manohra Songs poorer cousins living a less glamorous life some heavily laden with rice others with sand and gravel. Long tail boats buzzed past us, small canoes were paddled across the river with local people returning home from the market. Our journey's end was at Wat Niwet Thanprat ; the Buddhist Wat built in Gothic style by King Chulankorn (Rama V). It is perhaps the only example in the world where one religion has built their place of worship in the architectural style of another religion. The romantic voyage comes to a conclusion as my bags are transferred to a waiting Mercedes for a tour of Ayuthaya and a return to Bangkok by road.

An interesting alternative to return from Ayuthaya to Bangkok is either on one of Steam Days, organized by the State Railway of Thailand. These generally are 26 March - the Anniversary of the State Railway of Thailand; 12 August - birthday of H.M. Queen Sirikit; 23 October - Chulalongkorn Day and; 5 December - birthday of H.M the King. Or arrange you schedule to catch the return leg of The Eastern & Oriental Express's dinner journey and return to Bangkok in true style.

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Email:  Lawrence Civil

Laurence Civil is a Food, Travel & Lifestyle writer based in Bangkok Thailand. Born in Kent in south of England, he started his working life in the UK's airline industry in 1976. This allowed him to indulge his passion for travel. In the early eighties, returning from a trip to the newly opened China, he started to write about his travel experiences. (More about this writer.)


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