This morning we leave Bangkok in style – by restored rice barge. We’re spending two nights on board, cruising the Chao Phraya river to the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya and back.
The Manohra Song is made entirely of teak and rare woods. It’s just beautiful. There are 4 staterooms and 4 crew for 7 guests. Our stateroom has a queen-size bed, 2 sinks, a private bathroom and full shower. Plus gifts waiting for us every time we enter – a flower bracelet, t-shirts, hats. The moment we step on board, we’re treated like royalty. Flowers around our necks and coconut drinks in hand, we sit on the deck and watch the city float by.
Our tour includes a few stops along the way, the first of which is Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn. We’re pleasantly surprised to disembark from the boat and discover a private English-speaking guide waiting for each couple. “Mr. and Mrs. Sébastien?” she asks, somehow discerning us from the other guests. She had everything arranged for us – tickets and all. When the tour was over she told us she’d see us at the next site and again the next day at Ayutthaya. Turns out the tour guides travel ahead of us by car so they can be waiting for us at the next stop.
This temple is even more photogenic than the Grand Palace, in my opinion. Our guide waited at the bottom while we climbed the super-steep steps to the top of the central tower. (I was embarrassed to find that my legs were sore for the next two days.)
The temple is covered with tiny bits of Chinese porcelain. Our guide told us that they were all broken while in transit from China; rather than discard them they used them as decoration.
Our guide took us inside the monastery and showed us how to pray Buddhist-style. They start with dipping lotus buds into holy water, then kneeling facing the Buddha. Then they head inside for more prayer and may give a monetary offering to the monks, who live off people’s contributions. In turn, the monk gives a blessing, sometimes a shake of wet lotus blossom, and often a little gift, in this case an orange string bracelet. Unfortunately I flinched (actually I was just trying to make it easier for him to put it on me) and my hand touched his. I thought I saw him sigh and then he excused himself from his post – probably to wash his hands. Our guide told us later monks are forbidden to touch women.
Under the cannonball tree at Wat Arun. Our guide insists it has special powers – according to Wikipedia it has antibiotic, antifungal, antiseptic and analgesic properties and can cure many diseases. However, there’s also this funny tidbit: “In Sri Lanka, Thailand and other Buddhist countries the tree is often planted at Buddhist temples. It is here mistaken as the Sala tree, the tree under which the Buddha passed away and under which the previous Buddha Vessabhu attained enlightenment.”
Back onboard the board, we head upriver for our next excursion: the Royal Barges Museum. Eight barges displayed here have been restored out of thousands that once plied the river. Today they can still be seen in action, which must be an awesome sight, for an almost-annual procession of 50-some barges for the royal family to donate new robes to the monks at Wat Arun. The largest barge is 50 meters long and requires a rowing crew of 50 plus navigators, a flagman, a rhythm-keeper and a chanter. The king’s personal barge — the Suphannahongsa or golden swan — was carved out of a single teak tree trunk.
After touring the museum, we reboard and enjoy an indulgent lunch “under steam.” Our cruisemates are a couple from Germany, a couple from Australia, and a girl from Chicago who is heading to Burma after touring Thailand.
After lunch we sit back and enjoy the view. But soon we grow a little temple-weary – there are something like 30,000 temples in Thailand, and it seems that most of them are along this river. Still, it’s fascinating to see them roll by.
A few hours after lunch, an English-style afternoon tea is served. An hour or two later, aperitifs and canapés. Shortly afterwards, a traditional Thai dinner. We all wondered where we could find the on-board gym, so we could work up an appetite in between all these meals.
That evening we moor at Wat Samakiyaram. In the morning our guide meets us for a tour of the temple. Our tour package apparently includes an offering for the monks – a basket full of food and toiletries. (Seb was also “encouraged” to put some cash into an envelope.) We sat in front of the monk and gave him our gifts in exchange for a blessing. They call it “making merit” with the monks.
Another relaxing day on board with plenty of food & sights to see. I particularly liked seeing the riverside homes and getting a peek at how people live.
We had begun to notice a pattern. In front of most homes and businesses was a small altar, or mini shrine. We found out it’s called a “spirit house,” and it’s there to encourage any spirits moving about inside the house or business to take up residence in their comfy outdoor shrine instead. Every day offerings are made to the resident spirits — often a full can of Coke with a straw. To make it easy for them to drink, of course.
In the afternoon, another temple visit. This one had a huge golden Buddha with robes that you could purchase as an offering. The monks were busy hanging the robes while people pushed in to fit their heads underneath it. Behind the Buddha, ladies gathered up the used robes and put them back out front for re-purchase.
Finally, we arrive at the ruins of Ayutthaya, once called the “pearl of the east,” now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was the capital of Thailand from A.D. 1350 until 1767 when it was destroyed by the Burmese. It’s a massive religious complex, and you can tell it was once quite beautiful. It still is.
Afterwards, an elephant ride and dancing elephant show. “Chang” is Thai for elephant, also the name of one of Thailand’s national beers. They sure were cute, but something about it made us a little sad at the same time.
After a tour of the city in a private limo (another indulgent surprise to us), we rejoin our cruisemates and the barge across town. We cross over the river in this cable car, operated by monks. As usual, we were moored next to a temple and got to see the young monks busy cleaning the street. In Thailand it is common, even expected, that all young men spend one year in training as a Buddhist monk.
Tonight is New Year’s Eve. From the boat, we enjoyed sunset, another fantastic dinner, and fireworks in the distance. For such a tiny boat, they pack an enormous amount of food, wine & booze. (We should know after the bar tab we ran up.) One of the guests went to peek in the kitchen after dinner and discovered the chef sleeping on the floor. Sad.
In the morning we tour the temple, which our guide assures us is named for a “very famous” monk, but I couldn’t tell you much more than that. Unfortunately we’d started to tune her out. In fact, every time we rejoined our cruisemates on the barge, we’d swap guide stories. The otherwise lively & hilarious couple from Australia would come back each time completely shell-shocked and weary. Eyes wide open, nodding involuntarily… their guide was a bit of a talker and completely wore them out. There’s just not enough time or head space to properly digest and file all the facts, figures and names. Yet they can also become repetitive. I guess they think they’re not doing their job if they’re not telling you something all the time.
Whoever the famous monk is, he gives us little plaster figurines of himself. Our guide says that if we carry it, it needs to stay above our hearts. I had a little pocket in my hat where it could fit. She told Seb he could put his in his pocket but only for a short while, just until he could get back to the boat and put it in a safe place. We’ve learned that Thais are very superstitious.
Across town we went to Bang Pa In, an island district where the Kings of Thailand have kept their summer residences since the 17th century, save 80 years or so. A very pretty European-style place. When we tour the Royal Hall, we’re given little purple books — a gift from the King himself, they tell us — written 100% in Thai. They don’t look like calendars, but our guide says they’re something like that, containing a blessing and certain
superstitions guidelines for each day. Kind of like a horoscope, but for each day of the year. We give one of these books to our limo driver, who is elated to have it. Thais adore their king, we’re told. Our driver carries the King’s picture on his rear view mirror, above a little Buddha.
After one last stop at Bang Sai village, a school built recently by the Queen Majesty to keep Thai craft-making traditions alive, we do a little souvenir shopping and then head back downriver to Bangkok. The barge drops us off first at the pier nearest the train station. It’s hard to leave our little floating resort and new friends! We have had a wonderful time.