Navigating and Chill on the Chao Phraya: A Night Aboard The Mekhala River Cruise

Confused on where we are? I’m taking this moment while my travels are grounded to care for my mom to catch up on my black hole of un-blogged content. Here, I’m covering my time in Thailand[1] in May of 2017. My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me.

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We hadn’t looked at a screen for hours, swapping work for daydreaming and swapping social media for simply sitting side by side, holding hands.. We barely even spoke when we saw something of note, simply pointing in the direction of whatever wonder was passing us by, nodding to let each other know we’d clocked it, not wanting to break the lazy silence.

The Chao Phraya was bursting with life and activity; we just had to sit back and watch it.

We were onboard an overnight river cruise from Bangkok to Ayutthaya aboard the Asian Oasis’s Mekhala[2], an elegantly restored rice barge. We’d boarded in Silom, after spending a frenetic weekend there[3] exploring. It was time to slow down. Way down.

Today, one can drive from Bangkok to Ayutthaya in an hour or two, depending on traffic. We were going to spend the next twenty hours or so making the journey the old fashioned way — along the mighty Chao Phraya.

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We were assigned one of the boat’s six cozy cabins, cleverly designed to fit everything you’d need for a night into the tiniest of spaces. I swooned over the cabins’ teak design, as well as the fact that the ubiquitous bottles of free water were the refillable glass version, rather than the plastic ones we’d sadly see occasionally bobbing by on the river.

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We didn’t linger below though; the real show was up on deck. The views as we snaked through Bangkok were familiar ones — I’d seen them many times while riding the public transportation river ferries, or on tours like our first Thai dinner cruise[4]. But I loved soaking them up in this serene environment — in fact, I noted a few riverside restaurants and interesting buildings that I added to my Google Maps to investigate further on future trips.

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Life in Thailand once revolved around this river almost completely — and that energy still flows. Endless construction, corporate businesses and monotone high rises were broken up by ornate temples, colorful murals, clap-board houses, and families still living, working, and commuting along the Chao Phraya.

These waterways are as busy as any highway — commercial barges transporting goods, fancy boats shuttling travelers from their five star hotels across the river to the sights on the other side of it, and river ferries getting locals where they need to go.

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I was as riveted as I am in a movie theater. The charming crew regularly delivered snacks like cut up fruit, and while all meals were included, there were drinks available for purchase — 60B for juice, 200B for cocktails, 80B for beer, and 600-1100B for bottles of wine.

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There were four couples onboard, and everyone pretty much kept to themselves — and there was plenty of room to in the various corners of the boat, from the covered lounge with cozy cushions to the wide open sun deck where I soaked up Vitamin D. That was fine with us — we were too mesmerized to socialize much, anyway.

I kept my camera close and found it rarely left my hands — there was simply too much to see.

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The afternoon, we docked at Pathum Thani in the afternoon to visited a fresh market bursting with local food and fresh produce. Clearly, Ian and I have been to our share of local markets in Thailand, however I welcomed the opportunity to stretch our legs a bit and enjoy a slice of life in a tiny corner of Thailand I wouldn’t otherwise have visited.

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Back onboard, we continued the short journey left in the fading daylight. We marveled at the variety of dwellings often set practically side by side. From wooden shacks that seemed like they were moments from collapsing into the river…

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to bizarrely modern structures seemingly straight out of an issue of Architectural Digest…

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to ornate palaces complete with rooftop sculpture gardens…

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…Thailand certainly has it all.

We docked at Wat Kai Tia, a Buddhist temple in a tranquil rural village, in time to freshen up and return to the top deck in time for a beautiful sunset. The crew prepared a gorgeous, candlelit dinner of traditional Thai dishes that were the perfect send off to a beautiful day.

We slept soundly, tucked in our cabin, floating on the ancient waterway.

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The next morning I was up at sunrise, back on my perch at the front of the boat, eager for another few hours of watching the world pass me by.

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We docked not long after at the Mon community of Baan Saladang, where villagers have successfully preserved a very traditional way of life not far from one of the world’s most sprawling metropolises. Normally I prefer to kind of just wander on my own, with my camera, but I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed our tour guide’s thoughtful explanations of the village’s culture and history.

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The charming village had some incredible examples of Burmese-style pagodas, traditional raised wooden Thai houses, and a simple way of rural life that can be hard for tourists to get to observe so intimately. Needless to say, we were the only visitors to the village at that time, who our tour guide assured us that Asian Oasis maintains a close relationship with and supports in order to dock there.

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One of my favorite “I never would have seen it otherwise” details — a gate where the homeowners had marked the height of the river’s most shocking floods by painting the Thai year at the waterline. They were both over my head.

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Back on deck for a lavish breakfast and a few final hours of reading, I wished we were staying another night. (And writing this in retrospect, I also wish my hair were still so mermaid long.)

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With Ayutthaya not far ahead, it was time to say goodbye to our sweet, languid time aboard the Mekhala. But luckily, our own adventure was just starting another chapter — we disembarked at the Bang-Pa In Royal Palace, where we’d start three days of sightseeing in one of my favorite central Thailand towns[5], which I’d long been eager to return to.

Clearly, we really adored our time aboard this unique voyage. According to my destinations page[6], I’ve now fairly thoroughly explored twenty-two different destinations in the Land of Smiles. That’s a lot of Thailand travel! Naturally, I’ve started seeking out somewhat quirkier and more off-the-beaten path experiences, and an overnight river cruise had long been on my list.

It was everything I hoped it would be — a relaxing excuse to unplug, a new view on a fascinating aspect of life in Thailand, and an incredibly unique mode of both accommodation and transportation. This is not a budget tour (in fact, the price tag is a little shocking) and might not appeal to solo travelers, but I recommend it for couples, families, and those looking to splash out on a memorable cultural Thailand experience. And it’s a rare one — Asian Oasis is one of just two companies that offer regular overnight cruises on the Mekhala that aren’t charter-only.

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Personally, I slept peacefully onboard and experienced no nausea. But since I know that’s a common concern for cruising travelers[7], I’d certainly recommend packing a natural motion sickness remedy[8] and re-useable earplugs[9] on any overnight voyage, just in case.

Asian Oasis has changed up the Mekhala’s offerings[10] slightly, since our voyage. They now offer three day cruises that make the round trip journey from Bangkok to Ayutthaya and back, or an overnight round trip journey very similar to the one we took here, though stopping at Koh Kret (a small island on the Chao Phraya renown for its pottery, and high on my own Thailand bucket list) and returning to Bangkok after.

I don’t think you could go wrong.

Next up: Ayutthaya, very different from the first time I did it!

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Many thanks to Asian Oasis for hosting us aboard the Mekhala.

References

  1. ^ my time in Thailand (www.alexinwanderland.com)
  2. ^ Asian Oasis’s Mekhala (www.asian-oasis.com)
  3. ^ a frenetic weekend there (www.alexinwanderland.com)
  4. ^ first Thai dinner cruise (www.alexinwanderland.com)
  5. ^ my favorite central Thailand towns (www.alexinwanderland.com)
  6. ^ my destinations page (www.alexinwanderland.com)
  7. ^ for cruising travelers (www.alexinwanderland.com)
  8. ^ natural motion sickness remedy (amzn.to)
  9. ^ re-useable earplugs (amzn.to)
  10. ^ the Mekhala’s offerings (www.asian-oasis.com)

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