Mekhala River Cruise to Ayutthaya
Spend the Night on an Amazing River Cruise!
Some travel excursions are idyllic, bare-knuckle experiences that leave footprints in your mind long after friends, family and foe have turned green with envy looking at your photographs. An overnight river cruise date with Mekhala, the Moon Goddess, has all the ingredients of the ultimate voyage: River scenery, history - complete with ruins, a palace and temples - a beautifully converted rice barge, cosy cabins for good measure - and 'mai pen rai' (never mind) that there wasn't a full moon between the ro mantic sunset and picturesque sunrise!
The setting is Thailand's famed Chao Praya River, birthplace and for centuries the lifeblood of Thai civilisation, connecting the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya with the stark contrast of modern-day Bangkok. Even today, the river remains an integral economic artery and is essential in providing for the livelihood of people living along the water's edge. The journey: A fascinating insight into Thai history and culture, with remnants of times gone by scattered along the river banks...
'Mekhala' is also known as the Goddess of Lightning and, in Khmer mythology, as the Goddess of the Waters (or Sea). These Century-old incarnations of the mythological creature are two expertly crafted and gleaming teak barges with six and nine immaculate, air-conditioned double cabins - small floating hotels, basically - that cruise at an average speed of 10km per hour.
Why hurry with so much scenery to take in, right? Right. The journey after all traces back the same path - and probably rowing pace - once followed by royal processions. And waving at the friendly locals along the route certainly provides one with an imaginary regal air of some kind. (Note to myself: Practice that royal wave!)
The unhurried pace of the journey, coupled with serene countryside tranquility, captures life on the river over a 24-hour period, either up-stream or down-stream, depending on the cruise program you select. Lush, densely-wooded river banks offer a constantly-changing scene of dwellings of all types and proportions - from tin shacks rising on poles above the waterline to traditional teak wooden homes and a few rather imposing mansions.
Closer to Bangkok, these make way for modern factories and apartment buildings. Temples, Buddhist stupas and pagodas - as expected - are omni-present along the way, lending an air of authenticity to a journey that takes on surrealistic, dream-like moments at times.
It was difficult to imagine that it was earlier on the same day that I had been picked up in Bangkok and accompanied by private tour guide... I had seen, absorbed and already done so much, and the sky was only just turning crimson as I gazed out over the river and reflected on the day's highlights.
Upon arrival in Ayutthaya that morning, not much more than an hour by car from Bangkok, there was the visit to an archeological site, the only remaining evidence of what is believed to have been one of the most spectacular cities in Asia (in its heyday).
Two more stops at popular temples (partly ruins, partly restored) followed, as well as a brief encounter at a mid-town venue that offers elephant rides and a show, before a scrumptious buffet lunch at a local riverside hotel. From here, it was a short and charming ride in a longtail boat to the impressive Bang-Pa-In Summer Palace with its odd (but beautiful) collection of Eurocentric-styled and Chinese buildings on immaculately groomed grounds.
Finally, after much anticipation, we boarded the Mekhala and cruised down the river to Wat Kai Tia, where the boat laid anchor overnight. In what felt like a wave of a magic wand, the boat crew of four transformed the deck into a romantic, candle-lit setting for the delectable Thai dinner that followed.
Just big enough to feel secure, and not too small to cause claustrophobia, the Mekhala measures about 18 meters in length. Her every nook and cranny, from stern to bow - cabins, bridge and galley included - has 'space savers' written all over it in capital letters.
Despite standing more than six feet tall, it was love at first sight when I saw my cosy, wood-paneled cabin. The little available space is very well planned with a tiny bathroom - complete with hot water shower, complimentary toiletries, the whole shebang! - leading down a tiny staircase under the bunker bed. Perfect for just one night, I'd say...
Equally impressive are the multiple skills of the friendly and helpful crew. The 'concierge' doubles as a tour guide, host and very competent chef, the 'captain' as a table-setting expert, and two other constantly-smiling faces are waiters, cocktail mixers and deck crew all-in-one.
Shortly before sunrise we headed back to Bangkok, and a hearty breakfast was served on the open deck. The chirpy chit-chat of my fellow passengers signaled that they, too, had had a good night's rest, and were as charmed as I by the elegant and graceful Moon Goddess. If there is anything I would have changed about this memorable experience, it would be to share it with someone.
As familiar Bangkok landmarks started approaching a few hours later, the likes of Wat Arun and the Grand Palace, I realized that my cruising date with this grand dame is drawing to a close. Back on solid ground, I glanced back at the Mekhala as she was gently floating off. "You're gorgeous," I found myself saying out load, oblivious to the fact that I might be overheard.