Cruising along a culture
|Gliding down the Chao Phraya provides an exotic view of of the many facets of Thai life|
The river, erstwhile Siam's bloodline, is unrecognisable by night. In the uncompromising light of day, the water runs a muddy brown, with twigs, branches, hyacinth clumps and what have you free-floating in it. The barges sport peeling and faded paintwork, the boats look down-at-heel. The buildings on both banks look like those anywhere in the world, the Third World, that is.
The noise of the city permeates the river too. There is a permanent haze on the water, and the people who live on, sell from and ply their boats, seem a sad, dreary lot. What redeems the river are the wats (temples) that stand regally on the banks, their golden spires reaching for the skies, their orange and green roof tiles radiating serenity.
It's altogether a different scene at night. I'm on the Chao Phraya cruise boat, a vessel that is to take me on a two-hour ride down the river. There's a hearty complement of tourists already aboard, already seated at tables, heads and bodies turned to the banks for the best view.
All lit up
The River City Pier is ablaze with lights, as indeed, is our vessel. Lights shine from the tall buildings, from more modest boats that move silently alongside ours and from the bank opposite.
The river, which runs a good 370 km across Thailand, is named after Chao Phya Chakri, the founder of the Chakri dynasty and also known as Mae Nam. It moves smoothly, a black, gleaming surge, taking us along, and all is peace.
Well, all is not peace, not initially. The tourists aboard the vessel are out for some raucous fun, some dancing to the live band (1970s love songs done in a distinctly Thai accent... let's pass this one) and a lot of eating. Within the half hour of our setting off on the cruise, the long table in the middle of the deck is groaning with food, which is an artful mix of Thai and Western cuisine. There is the clink of glasses, not-so-muted laughter and conversation flowing as smoothly as the Chao Phraya.
We pass magnificent suspension bridges like the Rama 9 Bridge and the Taksin Bridge and the Yodfa Bridge, hanging high above us. We pass some of Bangkok's five-star hotels along the waterfront, and get a clear view of a fashion show being held inside the ornate river-facing ballroom of one. We pass ferries taking home locals and brightly robed Buddhist monks after their day's work is done.
We pass the First Presbyterian Church, the Royal Thai Navy Dockyard, the Thai Maritime Navigation Company and the Old Customs House.
All that is grist to the river mill. It's when we start to move past the wats, the ancient temples of Bangkok, all lit spectacularly, that silence settles on the people at the deck rails of the cruiser. The Wat Prathum Khong Ka appears to our right, the Wat Kanlayanamit, with its massive viharan, to our left.
A little further, the gorgeous Wat Po that holds the jaw-dropping gold-covered statue of the reclining Buddha, 150 feet long and 40 feet tall, is appropriately enough a gleam of gold.
On the opposite bank, the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun, stands. Its intricately worked 74-metre high tower of Phra Prang magnificent in the gloaming, even though the statue of Indra in the four niches cannot be seen too clearly, nor the many bits of porcelain that cover a group of buildings at the wat.
The Thai singer on board is crooning "Yesterday", people are tucking into their food but all of the noise has suddenly become muted. Thai dancers bending their fingers back at impossible angles, perform slowly, gracefully, a perfect complement to the temples that we glide past.
Next on the riverbank is the Wat Rakhang Khositaram. This small temple was founded by the first king of Bangkok, Rama I, and houses ancient scriptures.
On the opposite bank rises the Grand Palace like some beached vessel with many prows. The palace, with its many halls, its golden throne and paintings, indeed epitomises the word "grand".
Wat Pra Kaew, in which reposes the Emerald (actually jade) Buddha, adjoins the palace, as befits the Chapel Royal of the palace. And right at the end is the Pom Phra Atit.
The jewels in Bangkok's crown are indeed the wats — silent sentinels by morning and gleaming icons by night. Just as no visit to Bangkok is conceivable without time spent at the palace and the many beautiful wats by day; it would be indeed incomplete without a cruise down the Chao Phraya by nightfall.