Monday, April 18, 2011

Rollin' down the river (on a reconverted rice barge)

Now I know what you're thinking ... and no, the title does not refer to a barge that hauls twice- or even once-converted rice.

(A quick aside: was there ever a more useless food created? What's wrong with long grain/short grain/sticky/Basmati/brown/wild rice? Why do we need to convert rice? Can't we allow it to keep its own spiritual beliefs?)
All aboard the Mekhala!

No, what I'm actually referring to is an old rice barge that Thai River Cruises converted into a passenger boat to ferry tourists up and down the Chao Phraya, a.k.a., the "River of Kings." The company actually runs two boats, I happened to be aboard the Mekhala for my overnight cruise from Ayutthaya down to Bangkok.

The boat is 20 metres long and constructed from huge teak planks. It’s 100 years old, but it has been transformed into a rather stylish floating hotel, complete with a sundeck, fully-stocked bar, books for passengers' reading pleasure and staterooms that include air-conditioning and private western style bathrooms.

I'd spent the first half of the day exploring the ancient capital of Ayutthya with Neung, a guide with Nutty's Adventures, using bicycles to visit the ruins and ancient temples from the days when this city was the capital of Siam.

Having traded bicycle wheels for boat engines, I sat back and relaxed, watching the river roll by on our journey to the modern-day capital of Thailand.

A raft of water hyacinth and a fish shack.
Our passenger list certainly had an international flavor to it. I was the only North American on this particular cruise; we also boasted a German, an Austrian, seven Danes and a Thai lady who had grown up in Denmark. Then, of course, we had a Thai crew of four.

We saw an odd mix of the old and new as we motored at a leisurely pace along the river. Buddhist temples and their associated buildings certainly dominated the structures we saw along the riverbanks. On the river itself, our boat was joined by craft as small as one-person fishing skiffs to huge barges of rice, ore and other materials being hauled up and down the river by tugboats. At various points, we also saw large rafts of water hyacinth plants floating on top of the river.

Once underway, our crew prepared us cocktails of our choosing. For my first drink of the day, I opted for a "Mekhala Special", a concoction of different tropical fruit juices, gin and something called "Thai whiskey," which, as I understand it, is closer in character to being a rum than a whiskey. (And depending on who you talk with, there is or is not a spirit called Thai whiskey.)

Regardless of its ingredients, it was delicious - cold and refreshing.

Alternately napping and snapping (photos), I whiled away the afternoon. At about 5 p.m., we reached Wat Kai Tia, a Buddhist monastery and its associated village. The captain turned us loose for an hour or so, to wander about the one main street. There wasn't a lot there, but I did manage to find a little café where no one spoke English, but sold very cold Leo's Lager Beer. I enjoyed a can before heading back to the boat for a sumptuous candlelit dinner on board.

Enjoying the deck during our cruise
 We were up and heading down the river before 6:30 the next morning. We enjoyed another fine meal, a hot, full breakfast. A rain shower drove us under cover for a few minutes, but it passed by quickly.

And that's really a good description of how the cruise ended - all too quickly. Before long, the skyline of Bangkok loomed in front of us with its contrasting mix of old and new buildings, modern hotels next door to ancient temples, the ferry boat traffic moving people and goods up and down the city's main thoroughfare. (Before the automobile and its associated roads became the main form of transportation, Bangkok could be negotiated by a series of canals, which gave rise to it often being referred to as "the Venice of the East.")

We said our good-byes, passengers and crew, and disembarked to head off in our separate directions for our next adventure in Thailand.

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