85 kilometres upriver from Bangkok in the lush central plains lies a most spectacular ruin, World Heritage listed Ayutthaya. Formerly the Siamese capital from 1350 when King U-Thong chose the site at the confluence of three rivers; the Lopburi, the Pa Sak and the Chao Phraya, until 1767, when the Burmese invaded razing much of the city to the ground. At its pinnacle during the 17th century the kingdom was one of the largest cities in the world, eclipsing London. While the empire reached eastwards to Cambodia, west into Burma and south towards Malaysia, the magnificent canal lined city with 2000 golden spires was known as the Venice of the East.

Now it is one of the great ruins of Asia, visited by busloads of tourists who arrive and depart all at once. There is a much more romantic way to arrive from Bangkok, a leisurely overnight cruise upstream on the Chao Phraya River or River of Kings onboard the Mekhala, a beautifully restored rice barge.

View of the Chao Phraya River from the deck of the Mekhala boat

I’d checked out of my hotel as all eager travellers do very early, walking to catch a fast boat from the nearest canal to the jetty. There were no vendors cooking street side delicacies and except for a few inquisitive cats, I was the only person waiting. A woman passed by carrying a large bag of laundry. Closed she motioned. The Sky-train will get me there. At Saphan Taksin Pier I waited observing that even here, there was little happening on the river. A woman approached offering to help. No ferry boats she advised. There was a rehearsal for the Royal Barges. The Mekhala was nowhere in sight.

On the outskirts of Bangkok, after a taxi ride at top speed, I saw 4 travellers sunbathing on the deck as the Mekhala approached the pier and somewhat relieved, I was at last able to embark on the journey. The river was busy. Long barges full of freight and fresh produce lumbered by. Fishermen cast nets. Young Buddhist monks walked along the shoreline on their way to nearby temples. Small children, neatly dressed in their school uniforms with crisp white shirts and matching socks, lined up at jetties along the way, another school day having ended.

A motor boat and stilt houses on the Chao Phraya River

When we arrived at our first stop, to visit a village market, the loud thunderclaps overhead and dark forbidding skies were sufficient warning that a storm was on its way. Instead we stopped at a village further along the river, the storm having now passed. Wandering the streets provided an insight into village life, with chickens, fruit trees and neatly tended vegetable gardens laid out beside the wooden homes, and the heady aroma of the tropics filling the air. It was time to return for dinner, a delicious Thai meal by candlelight comprising several curries and fragrant jasmine rice, with dessert to follow. The cabins though cosy are comfortable and the gentle rocking two and fro provided a perfect night’s rest absorbing the serenity and peace of the river.

Next morning after breakfast of strong coffee, fresh papaya, banana, pineapple and toast, with eggs and sausages for those wanting more, I reclined in a comfortable deck chair to observe life on the river, wooden houses on stilts, ducks splashing, children fishing from old wooden jetties, cement factories belching white dust. At last we arrived at Bang Pa-in Summer Palace, established as a royal retreat, set in a beautiful manicured garden.

Boat piers opposite the Bang Pa In Palace, Ayutthaya

The Bang Pa In Palace has a variety of buildings in European, Thai and Chinese architecture

Phra Thinang Utthayan Phumisathian, a Swiss Chalet inspired building at the Bang Pa In Palace

With the boat ride having ended, my driver drove me the short distance to Ayutthaya to explore the remains of the many temples that were once here. Wat Phanancheong flanks the confluence of the rivers and has a 19 metre high Buddha statue, busy with people in prayer and lighting incense. Wat Na Phramen has Buddha images in a regal style. The island-city that the 33 Ayutthaya kings built was appropriately lavish in scale with palaces, wide moats, temples, towering spires, and statues in gold and marble.

One of Buddhist shrines in Ayutthaya

On my return to Bangkok, a note had been waiting for me. Please note that due to a rehearsal for the Royal Barges, our meeting point has been changed. By then I’d quite forgotten about the early misadventure. It had been an enjoyable and relaxing journey to experience Thai history.