The River of Kings

Since ancient times, the Chao Phraya River has been the life-blood of Thailand. Long ago, known only as ‘Menam’ or ‘The River’, it irrigated fields, transported products and facilitated international trade, allowing ancient Siam to become one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the world.

The ‘Old Capital’, Ayutthaya , was built where the waters of the Pasak and Supan Buri rivers unite with the Chao Phraya. Sixty miles upriver, surrounded by water, this fortified ancient city was larger than London, and was the meeting place where European sailing ships joined Chinese junks in the trading of silks, exotic timbers, spices and of course the famous Thai rice. It was from Ayutthaya that ancient kings ruled Siam .

Travelling in extravagant barges the king could easily travel the rivers and canals to quickly reach most parts of the kingdom. This regal travel earned the river the name ‘The River of Kings’. Although far enough up the river to be safe from seaborne invasion, Ayutthaya was constantly threatened by Burmese attack. Unfortunately, on 7th April 1767, an invading Burmese army captured and destroyed this glorious city. Although the invaders were eventually repulsed, Ayutthaya was never rebuilt and the capital was moved down the river to its present, more secure site of Bangkok.

Pom Phet Fortress – Click to EnlargeFollowing in the wake of ancient Royal Barges, today’s voyagers can travel ‘The River of Kings’ aboard a variety of vessels engaged in tourism.

The Chao Phraya is navigable from the Gulf of Thailand to Pa Mok, which is the first town north of Ayutthaya . After Pa Mok the river is navigable with care until Ang Thong, and then becomes navigable with difficulty to Chaiyo Township . Beyond Chaiyo navigation of vessels the size of ‘Montha’ is only possible with extreme difficulty; the furthest we have been is to Wat Chaiyo, when even with sophisticated navigation equipment, the shallow water and sandbanks made progress somewhat tedious.

The water levels in the rivers are generally consistent throughout the year with the exception of the period at the end of the monsoon, from September to November, when water released from the Chao Phraya Dam at Chainat, and high water levels in the Pasak River , swell the rivers to flood level. During this period, travel on the Menam Noi, a tributary of the Chao Phraya, may not be possible due to low bridges. Also travel upriver is slower against the current and in extreme years, some flooding of riverside attractions occurs. The river levels are usually back to normal in time for the Loi Krathong Festival which is celebrated on the full moon in November. The water temperature is a constant 32°C throughout the year.

Rainfall in the river basin is usually absent from early November until June when isolated thunderstorms start to appear. By the end of July the monsoon season has set in and thunderstorms, with severe wind-gusts and torrential rain, become a daily event. Although these storms usually only last for about 30 minutes, the heavy rain and violent winds make vinyl side curtains irrelevant, and open veranda decks are swept with a mist of water. Classic Barges philosophy of partially glazed upper decks enables our travellers to enjoy nature’s wonders in air-conditioned comfort. Unseasonal thunderstorms may occur at any time of the year and rarely, some light rain and early morning fog may occur in the middle of winter, January.

Sunset – Click to EnlargeTemperature and humidity varies significantly throughout the year. The best time is November and December, when clear skies comfortable temperatures and low humidity please even those who “Can’t stand the tropics!” January sees slightly higher humidity and a cooler northerly breeze may occur. After January, temperature and humidity progressively increase, with clear skies, until the southwest monsoon winds bring relief towards the end of May. During this period, there are times when a fully air-conditioned boat is essential; even for those who do like the tropics! June and July sees a return to more comfortable conditions, after which the monsoon rains keep temperatures down but increase the humidity. We recommend that light long sleeves and slacks be carried during the winter, January and February, in case of cooler weather.

Insects are found throughout the world and the Chao Phraya River is no exception. Classic Barges owes a great deal of thanks to a travel writer who wrote an article about a night on one of the more prestigious barges on the river, the upper deck of which is open veranda. He twice mentioned mosquitoes and that he retired early that night. It was that article which prompted Classic Barges to air-condition the upper deck. Although mosquito coils are ineffective outdoors in a breeze or near ceiling fans, active electronic means is very effective against both mosquitoes and the millions of gnats which swarm on the river after rain. Nothing however, seems to deter the few little beetles which spiral down from the lights just as the soup is placed on the dinner table; nor is there any way to deter the occasional swarms of flying ants which keep their own itinerary; they must be excluded. Relax on Board – Classic Barges uses both electronic means and air-conditioning, as appropriate to ensure your comfort is not affected by nuisance insects; insecticides are avoided if possible.

Prevailing winds are from the southwest throughout the year, bringing warm air and clear skies from the Indian Ocean. During the northern winter, northerly breezes may occur, bringing cooler dry air from China, with generally clear skies. The winds usually blow at about 10 km/hr and pleasantly moderate the temperature; however if the barge is travelling into the breeze, the resultant wind of about 20 Km/hr blows tablecloths around and can indeed blow glasses off tables. Under these circumstances we find that guests, ladies in particular, prefer to take their martinis into the lounge and partially close the glass doors.

In general conditions on the river are mild, tropical and pleasant for most of the year; however we at Classic Barges are ever thankful to the aforementioned writer who prompted us to build the only barge on the river having air-conditioning on the upper deck. The floor to ceiling glass in no way interrupts the view, and when the tropics become less than comfortable, the generous doors and windows can be closed and our guests can travel ‘The River of Kings’ in a style and comfort that ancient royalty could never have imagined.