Cruising from Bangkok to Ayutthaya on a vintage rice barge | Travel

TOt sunrise on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River the express ferries and rainbow-striped longtail boats are setting off on the morning commute and the skyscrapers on the far bank blush peach in the early light. I’m a sucker for a river view and I don’t even have to get out of bed to enjoy this one – the electric blinds at the Four Seasons reveal floor-to-ceiling windows at the click of a remote. The effect is like a stage curtain rising at the theater; the river’s magic gets me every time.

Forty-eight hours later I’ve gone from the dress circle to the stage itself, on board Loy River Song, a 100-year-old rice barge carefully transformed into a luxury cruiser and the second vessel from Loy Pela Voyages. Accommodating only eight guests, it launched in August 2020, but due to Covid it has largely been off limits for overseas travelers until now.

Loy River Song deck

The Chao Phraya, Thailand‘s principal waterway, flows from Pak Nam Pho in the northeast through Bangkok to the Gulf of Thailand. Our two-night journey will take us upstream from the capital to its predecessor, Ayutthaya. It’s a trip that could take about 90 minutes by car, but we’re channeling old-school Siam and cruising at a sedate six knots.

Bangkok, like Ayutthaya, was built for boats and this stretch of “The River of Kings” is a hotchpotch of factories, warehouses and Buddhist temples topped with elaborate snarling nagas (guardian serpent-like creatures). Temple overload is a recognized condition here but our first stop, Wat Arun, is a must-see. Pre-pandemic, annual visitor numbers were in the millions. In mid-March, when I was there, I hardly saw a soul.

A huge, psychedelic wedding cake of a temple, ornate tiers held aloft by legions of demons and deities, it is impressive enough from afar. Closer inspection reveals that the decoration I’d presumed to be paint is, astonishingly, mosaic. Like a bull in a china shop, it is encrusted in broken porcelain.

“Chinese merchant ships used porcelain as ballast,” explains our guide, Chana Ondej, who told us to call him Jack. “When they reached Bangkok, they’d dump it. Same with the Chinese warrior statues here: all ballast. So King Rama III took it for the temple and his palace of him. ” In today’s throwaway society, the notion of a recycling 19th-century king is certainly charming.

Wat Arun, Bangkok

We moor for the first night by Wat Bot, under the gaze of a towering golden seated Buddha image. We’re just north of Bangkok, barely 45km from our starting point, but already it feels as though we’re entering a different age. The 401-year-old temple has shut for the evening, and all is quiet bar the occasional bark of a street dog.

Mealtimes on board are communal affairs, enjoyed in the airy, open-plan salon / dining room, where walls of sliding windows ensure everyone gets a view. Our talented chef is moonlighting from Loy Pela’s sister hotel, Anantara Riverside, where I’d spent several nights and taken an inspiring cooking class under his instruction di lei. Menus over the three days feature nouveau and royal Thai dishes, such as river prawns with tamarind and an intense, spicy coconut and squid soup, as well as palate-cleansing sorbets and luxuries including lobster and caviar.

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With Thai silk furnishings, antiques, hardwood floors and handpainted wallpaper in jeweled tones, Loy River Song feels akin to a boutique hotel. This is a boat designed for refined relaxation, and leisurely evenings shift easily from dinner to late nightcaps on deck.

The ship’s four staterooms – named after the river’s northern headwaters – follow a similarly rich palette. Mine, Nan, has geometric paneling, louvred shutters and jade-tasselled light pulls, jazzy as a flapper’s earrings. The chevron-tiled bathroom, a mainly monochrome affair, adds to the art deco ambience.

Anantara Riverside, Bangkok

Anantara Riverside, Bangkok

I sleep soundly and wake early. Bangkok behind us, the river widens and nature comes to the fore. Dense thatches of broadleaf forest reach over the banks, interrupted only by corrugated-roofed stilted houses and the occasional swanky new-build. Taking a coffee on deck, I watch egrets fishing off matted water hyacinths.

Our next stop is Bang Pa-In Palace. Although its regal foundations stretch back to the 17th century, the surviving complex was created largely between 1872 and 1889 by King Rama V.

“Please dress up politely” entreats the leaflet we’re handed on arrival, whereupon surprisingly I come a cropper, thanks to cropped trousers that have never failed an entrance exam until now. The palace remains an occasional royal residence so is no place for my inadvertently irreverent calves. I’m saved by a nearby stall selling sarongs for a few quid. Ditto my similarly chastened male traveling companions, who, with no choice beyond traditional Thai fisherman pants in fuchsia, rock a flamboyant vibe.

The palace is worth our sartorial sacrifices. A grandiose array of mansions, memorials, temples and towers, the bizarre architectural blend spans baroque, Khmer, gothic and Thai. Most impressive is the royal residence: Wehart Chamrun. A vast, double-eave Chinese-style mansion with red, imperial yellow and lashings of gold leaf, it’s a mini-ringer for the Forbidden City.

Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya

Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya

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At points, the estate feels like a folly. Not so the second Siamese capital, Ayutthaya. Founded around 1350, until its annihilation by the Burmese in 1767 this historic city was one of the world’s largest, richest and most sophisticated. Now a Unesco world heritage site, the countless crumbling stupas, pagodas and temples bore witness to the tremendous power that once existed here. Exploring the sprawling site by foot and longtail, Jack tells of secret tunnels and treasures, hidden centuries ago from Burma’s advancing army, that are still to be unearthed. Turns out killing your loyal slaves immediately after they’ve buried your valuables for you is a brutally effective way of ensuring nobody – and I mean nobody – nicks your stuff. When Ayutthaya’s aristocrats were subsequently massacred by the victorious Burmese, their secrets died with them.

We arrive back at the ship to find the crew, now resplendent in traditional Thai costume, waiting to welcome us with a heartening late-afternoon tea and sunset cocktails. As we embark, an old man appears on the dock, chatting animatedly with Jack before rolling his eyes and heading off. “He doesn’t believe the boat’s just for you,” Jack tells us. “He says it’s too big.”

A room at Four Seasons Bangkok

A room at Four Seasons Bangkok

FOUR SEASONS

Too big? It’s too late to protest but I want to say to him that after the sprawling palaces and temples of the River of Kings, Loy River Song’s comfortable opulence feels just right to me.

Abigail Flanagan was a guest of Loy Pela Voyages, which has a two-night all-inclusive cruise for two from £ 4,300 (loypelavoyages.com). She was also a guest of the Four Seasons Bangkok at Chao Phraya River (B&B doubles from £ 424; fourseasons.com) and the Anantara Riverside (B&B doubles from £ 110; cooking class and market tour from £ 95pp; anantara.com)

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