Cruising the Chao Phraya

On Saturday, Theresa and I took a sunset dinner cruise along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.  Several companies offer cruises along the river, but Theresa found one that operates on a 70 year-old converted rice barge and that is the one on which we went. This antique barge is made of solid teak with extensive hand carvings.  This vessel has two decks — the top for dining and the bottom for the kitchen and the staff — and its roof is woven from multiple layers of bamboo skins.  While the boat can carry up to 70 passengers, there were only about 20 diners on it last night.

I had not realized how extensively the Chao Phraya is used for transportation of not just cargo but also people.  In addition to the barge and ship traffic, numerous river buses, cross-river ferries, and water taxis ply the river carrying passengers up, down, and across it. Bangkok developed along the river with a network of canals providing access to inland areas.  While many of the canals were long-ago covered by roads, waterborne traffic seems like a great way to visit many of Bangkok’s attractions while avoiding the roadway congestion.

Our trip began at a dock near the Royal Orchid Sheraton, a short 3 mile taxi ride (that cost all of $2.50) from our apartment. After stopping at a couple of nearby hotels along the river to pick up other people, the boat headed north along the Chao Phraya for about 6 to 7 miles passing numerous temples, churches, embassies, and historical sites along the way. The captain then turned the boat around and we cruised south. The trip lasted for about two hours.

We first went by the Assumption Cathedral, the largest Catholic church in Thailand and the church where we celebrated Easter last week. The cathedral was built at the request of French missionaries in the early 1800s and it is located near the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and the French Embassy. The French and Portuguese have the oldest embassies in Bangkok and both were built near the river in the early 1800s since the river and canals were the primary transportation infrastructure. Indeed, the first road in Bangkok (Thanon Charoen Krung or New Road) was built during the 1860s at the request of the consuls so that they could use their horses and carriages. The road parallels the river and runs about 5 miles connecting the embassies with the Grand Palace.

After passing by the cathedral, the Oriental hotel, and the French and Portuguese embassies, we next came to River City, a shopping mall that specializes in Thai crafts and antiques. Immediately north of River City is Holy Rosary Church, the second oldest catholic church in the city.  Both Holy Rosary and Santa Cruz Church, the oldest catholic church in Bangkok, were built by the Portuguese along the river. Santa Cruz (below left) is on the western bank of the Chao Phraya while Holy Rosary (below right) is on the eastern bank.

We next passed Chinatown and the Pak Klong Market, the largest wholesale flower and fruit market in the city. As we approached the Grand Palace, we first went by the Rachini School (below left) and the Chakrasbongse House (below right). The Rachini School, or Queen’s School, was the first school for girls in Bangkok. It was founded in 1904 by Queen Saovabha Bongsri, wife and half-sister of Rama V and mother of Rama VI and Rama VII.

The Chakrasbongse House was built for Prince Chakrasbongse, the fourth son of Queen Saovabha and the fortieth child of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). Although Prince Chakrasbongse was a favorite of the King and Queen, he lost his right to succession to the throne when he married a Ukrainian women — Ekaterina Desnitskaya or Catherine Na Phitsanulok — whom he met while studying in Czarist Russia. The prince’s house was built over 100 years ago and the prince used it when he attended ceremonies at the nearby Grand Palace. After Prince Chakrasbongse’s death, the house was passed down to his only son, Prince Chula, and it was his primary residence until his death in the early 1960s. Since that time, the house has been maintained by Prince Chula’s daughter, Narisa.

Seven years ago, the Chakrasnongse House underwent a massive restoration. Today, it is perhaps one of the most exclusive boutique hotels in Bangkok. There are just five rooms in the complex, and as one reviewer on tripadvisor.com commented, it’s like staying in the House of Parliament in London or the Sydney Opera House. Maybe one day one of my wealthy friends (Stuart — I am thinking of you!) will come to Bangkok and stay here, and then I can see it first hand. For more info, see: http://www.chakrabongsevillas.com/

The Grand Palace was the highlight of the cruise. The splendor and beauty are overwhelming as the gold glistens in the setting sun. Words cannot do justice this sight, so let me just provide some pictures to enjoy.

We continued north on the river for another mile or so, dining on seemingly unending plates of Thai food. Our meal consisted of five appetizers, Tom Yam Goong soup, nine entrees, rice, and half a dozen small desserts. The plates and bowls are small, so you get to enjoy a sampling of many dishes. My favorites from the cruise were the fried shrimp and fish cakes, the yellowfin tuna with capsicum jam, and the roast duck salad with tamarind sauce.

We went beneath the Rama VIII bridge before turning south and heading back.  This bridge took just three years to build and it opened in 2002.  It is a stunning, asymmetric cable-stayed signature bridge with an inverted y-shaped main pillar that soars 500 feet into the sky.  Quite a sight to behold from the river.

The sun had set by the time we began our way back south. Pictures became more difficult to take since the shutter had to remain open longer while the boat continued its steady movement down the river. The captain, however, brought the boat to a standstill near Wat Arun and we were able to get some clear nighttime pictures here.

Wat Arun is also known as The Temple of Dawn; Aruna is the Hindu god of the rising sun.  The temple has one central tower (or prang) that symbolizes the center of the universe.  The four smaller towers and pavilions symbolize, respectively, the four oceans and the four winds. The Wat was built during the reigns of Rama II and Rama III, and it is decorated with broken glass and ceramics that were used as ballast on ships coming to Thailand from China.  As Theresa and I found out when we visited Wat Arun in February, the towers are very steep.

I hope that you enjoyed this recap of our dinner cruise as much as we did the cruise itself.

Kop Khun Krab.

© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to Cruising the Chao Phraya

  1. Theresa says:

    Although Kurt’s description of the trip and sights is fabulous, nothing can compare to what we actually saw! We visited the Grand Palace on our first trip to Thailand and were duly impressed. By night with the lights shining and the gold sparking, it’s truly something to behold. A river cruise is a “must” when family and friends come to visit.

  2. Pete Trench says:

    Looks like you guys are having a great time.

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