Up a lazy river: an overnight cruise from Bangkok aboard the "Manohra Song"

Several years ago a leading Bangkok fashion designer lamented to me about the industrialization of his city. "Now my life is just diesel and dust," he said. Anyone who has spent time in the fascinating but infuriating capital of Thailand must agree with his sentiments.

However, there is an escape from Bangkok's urban sprawl. Bangkok is a river city and the river is a world away from the crowded streets. While the "long tail" boats with their chromed engines sending up a characteristic plume of spray as they whiz past at high speed may fulfill the role of aquatic street hot rods the rest of the river traffic flows at a timeless pace. There's a lot of activity on the river but it's generally at a civilized nautical pace.

It is fair to say that Bangkok exists because of its river, the Menam or Chao Phraya - often simply known as "the River of Kings". Thailand was once ruled from further upstream at Ayutthaya but by the time the country opened its borders to the west, Bangkok was the capital and visitors entered the kingdom upstream along the river. These visitors included Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad who moored his ship just off the city's first international hotel, The Oriental.

These days, we all fly in and, unless we are staying in a riverfront hotel, may not even be aware that the river exists. That's a pity. The day when I fell in love with Bangkok was in the 1970s when I hopped on a boat that I thought was a cruise to the Floating Markets but turned out to be the commuter special. Over three hours following dawn we delivered school children to their classes, businessmen to their offices and monks to their prayers. Finally, I had to find someone who spoke English in the suburbs and who could direct me back towards the city.

The most characteristic vessels on the River of Kings are the rice barges that carry the grain down to the sea docks for shipping overseas. These are rounded tubs, well suited to river work, but quite lacking in grace or beauty.

But here I'm just revealing a lack of aesthetic sensibility. That became clear when I chose to go on a trip by converted rice barge up the Chao Phraya to Ayutthaya. Until the moment I stepped on board I was thinking merely that "river travel beats a bus" and then I found myself on a luxurious craft where Thai style and elegance became a grand platform to observe Thai history and modern life.

The reborn Menohra Song came about as a labour of love when Bangkok resident Kathleen Heinecke decided to turn a derelict 1950s rice barge into a luxurious vessel with just four passenger cabins. Her husband is Bill Keinecke, the long-time CEO of the Bangkok Marriott Resort and Spa, on the north shore of the river. The family's innate sense of hospitality shines through in what is now a gleaming polished-teak 16-metre cruise vessel. Of course, there is a white-liveried steward to welcome you on board and a boat crew to do all the navigation and tying up. The cabins are symphonies in polished wood and the bathrooms border on works of art. But despite the undoubted comfort of the cabins they are largely wasted because every passenger wants to spend every waking moment on deck.

In many ways, Australians are lucky travelers. Most of all, we come from a largely new country so that the rest of the world seems to have many extra layers of history and culture that we can appreciate with the objective eye of outsiders. Of all the countries in South East Asia, Thailand is the culturally richest because it was the only one not colonized by a western power. Even the language (especially the written language) is completely indecipherable to the uninitiated. So unless one can devote a lot of time to complete immersion in Thai culture and learning the language, one is on the outside, looking in.

From that perspective, a river cruise is the perfect way to travel. The Manohra Song has an open lounge area and a lot of deck space from which to view the passing parade. And what a rewarding diorama it is.

The Manohra Song has an itinerary that operates both ways: from Bangkok to Ayutthaya or from Ayutthaya back to Bangkok. Although the river drops only about two metres between the former capital and the present one, it drains about a third of all Thailand so there is quite a river current. Heading upstream seems the leisurely option - on the downstream leg, the vessel is pushed along by the river. But both ways there are enough stops to make the voyage relaxed and memorable.

Bangkok is a huge city so one doesn't leave it quickly. We pulled away from the dock at the Bangkok Marriott in the early afternoon and over the first hour passed most of the city's great sights including the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Po), the Royal Palace and the Temple of the Dawn (Wat Arun) reaching for the sky.

But there were other, less noticeable gems, too. In the 19 th Century, the river was the focal point of the city and the way every visitor arrived and departed. The French Embassy is still by the riverside although almost hidden in trees. Further upstream, the old Customs House lies dilapidated in its gardens. Today, the many bridges that span the river prevent any ocean-going vessels from coming this far but the river remains alive with smaller craft.

Towards sunset we were out in the countryside and we pulled into a centuries-old temple, the Wat Bang Na and went inside to meet the monks and make an offering. And virtue was immediately rewarded because I returned to the ship to find dinner was ready on board: an expansive Thai feast lit by candlelight and accompanied by the gentle lapping of ripples against the hull.

After breakfast the next morning we continued upstream to the royal summer palace of Bang-Pa-In. This is a remarkable mishmash of architectural styles from Asia and Europe - and it is the only place I've ever seen a Buddhist temple with stained glass windows. Of course, being Thailand, the whole complex is very photogenic and quite appealing. However, one can't walk around Bang-Pa-In without recalling the tragic tale of why it was abandoned by the king.   In 1880 the queen and their two children were boating on the lake when the boat overturned and they all drowned. Many of the royal household watched it happen but were powerless to help as the penalty was death for any commoner who touched a royal for any reason. The heartbroken king abandoned the palace.

Later in the morning as we were approaching Ayutthaya, I noticed a most unusual piece of pottery near the bow of the Manohra Song. This striking sculpture rather resembled a teapot shaped like a bird. The boat's steward saw my interest and told me that "Manohra" is a half woman/half bird from Thai mythology and my "teapot" was a representation of Manohra herself. As I learned this interesting tidbit, the Manohra Song ("song" means two - the hotel's original Manohra is used for dinner cruises) docked at Ayutthaya and it was time for me to depart.

It was with some sadness that I left the Manohra Song. Over the two days I'd been on board I'd felt affinity for the early Europeans who had sailed to Thailand. Joseph Conrad wrote of the fragrant Asian wind that was "the first sigh of the East on my face. That I can never forget. It was impalpable, and enslaving. . ." My voyage on this old rice barge was similarly engaging.

But the joy of travel is that there is always something ahead to look forward to. And I had just arrived at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ayutthaya. The ruins of this ancient city is located at the confluence of four rivers, one of which (the Ping) was once navigable all the way to Chiang Mai. Strategically, the city was at the perfect location from which to control a kingdom and it was the capital of Thailand from 1350 until 1767 when Burmese invaders successfully conquered it. They destroyed much of the royal city but the parts that remain give a good indication and feeling for what was one of the greatest cities in Asia.

Despite an intensive restoration and preservation program you can still find statues lying hidden in the grass here or a carved face on a wall largely obscured by lichen. Indeed, it's such discoveries that give Ayutthaya its appeal - even more than the grandly restored buildings.

But finally it was time to head back to Bangkok. Although winding along the river had virtually filled two days, the Marriott's chauffeured car would take less than two hours to return me to the city hotel. Coming back into the city was the usual battle across overpasses and through Bangkok's perennial traffic jams. It seemed a long way from the serenity of the river. A night on the Manohra Song neatly encapsulates the other side of Thailand.

  For more information

Manohra Cruise Reservations:

257/1-3 Chareon Nakorn Rd, Bangkok 10600. Thailand.

Tel. (662) 476-0021, Fax: (662) 460-1805, email: mcruise@minoret.com . Website: www.royal-garden.com .

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd