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Thailand By River

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The winter months are the perfect time to travel to Thailand, especially with this year's cold snap. Warm tropical temperatures paired with a pineapple strip and a beach anywhere south of Bangkok can cure the winter blues. Instead of lingering in Bangkok, we decided to take a slow boat up the Chao Phraya River to the Ayutthaya province to see marvelous 4,000 year-old ruins and the spirit of ancient Siam. And on this slow boat, The Mekhala Cruise you can learn about good environmental stewardship by being among Thai people, and people of the river.

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We boarded the boat at 1 p.m. and met with Teerapole (just below) who we'd been coordinating with via email. We met at a well-traveled temple and on a small pier where the fish are protected from fishing.

The group was small, about 15 of us, and we had ample space and privacy on the renovated rice barge, about 100 years old. A covered deck protected us from the sun, and the occasional hot rain. Around 1:30 PM we pulled off the pier and headed up river, passing endless barges trucking goods like freight trains or Mac trucks to and from Bangkok.

Don't expect the excitement of the turquoise water you'll find down in the south on this river trip. This is a well-traveled river, giving credence to Bangkok being the Venice of the East. The journey which will bring us finally at the banks of the King's Summer Palace (the one from the movie The King and I) gave us ample time to think and imagine a different way of life so connected to the water, and so far from the thirsty Middle East from which we arrived.

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Thai people do not lack water but they are still challenged with protecting what they have. Long over are the days when Thailand didn't have to worry about water conservation. Water must be drank from bottles not as a luxury but a health precaution. The rivers around Bangkok are polluted and the country has no clear plan of action in sight. And winding our way down the river up to Ayutthaya we saw people toss kitchen waste into the water, and using it as a washtub for clothes or bathing. No doubt it is a toilet too.

Factories that line river, including the Singha Beer factory are contributors to industrial pollution in the river as well. There are over 30,000 industrial facilities that line the river, and many of these are in clear view as we chug along.

The drive to Ayutthaya from where we were in Bangkok takes about an hour and a half by car. The Mekhala Cruise about five hours at night, and a couple more in the morning. We enjoy the slowness of going up river.

Along the way we couldn't help but notice the sandbags, the general disorder and the waterline marked by paint or sand shadows, showing where the floodwaters had risen only three months ago. Even ancient river people attuned to the currents are not immune to the chaos of climate change.

But river people live simply, many of them parking their boats under their homes.

After a half day on board we get off to visit a fresh food market. Being a little late for the day, the pickings were slim. We returned home to find a wonderful candlelit dinner waiting for us. The food was the best so far that we've had in Thailand and the staff of four were very careful to make sure they prepared food to suit our dietary habits. I was eating lacto-ovo vegetarian and they got it without any explanation.

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As for facilities you couldn't be happier: The gorgeously renovated boat and cabins were spotless and well equipped with private toilets and showers.

After docking for the night, the next day early in the morning the boat started on its journey without us knowing it. Then we docked for a nice treat: we stopped at a Mon village (see the local food truck below), an ecological village that clearly was affected by the flood. Red flood lines were painted on all the electricity poles throughout the village. See how they shop for fresh food below.

Back on the boat we ate breakfast and continued along our way to the King's Palace.

Run by the company Asian Oasis, the same outfit that runs a couple of eco-lodges in northern Thailand, the Mekhala Cruise was an overnight cruise that starts in Bangkok and ends in the old capital of Siam. The company says they can schedule trips according to your needs and interests and the company which also runs an eco-lodge in the north of Thailand (one of the very few ecologically responsible lodgings we found in Thailand) is knowledgeable and mindful of ecological practices and the importance of cultural preservation.

As revelers race towards the islands looking for parties and sunshine, an honest retreat is the Mekhala's slow boat cruise bringing you closer to the every day people that inhabit the suburbs of Bangkok. The drop off destination is a perfect launch pad for another day of must-see tourism sites: the King's Palace, and all the 4,000 year old ruins in the Ayutthaya region. These are the ruins that will give you a bit of scope and scale of the Thai culture.

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In the spirit of protecting and celebrating the river culture of the Bangkok area, we learned from our own intuition and the staff on board how important the rivers are for the way of life in Thailand. I give this boat cruise a big thumbs up as a gentle way to ease into Bangkok and the time of your life in Thailand. Also watch the film The King and I (the 1956 version) before you to take the cruise.

To extend the river trip take a long tail boat another hour up the river from the King's Palace pier for 200 baht. It will bring you smack dab in the middle of all the ruins, with the help of a motorbike taxi.

Westerners come to know Thailand through its migrant workers and domestic help. You might not notice this when they are foreigners, but Thai people have an extraordinary grace, charm and sense of humor that you can really only experience in person, in their own country.

What are Thai people best known for I asked Teerapole when we were docked in Bangkok. What can they give the ecological movement? Tolerance, he told me. Thai people are open-minded and are easy to embrace change. I told him that the Thai people also have a lot to teach the world. Their family values, communal eating habits, their simple way of life should be embraced by all of us.

For more lessons on Thailand's ecological communities see the Asian Oasis eco-lodge in Northern Thailand. The company is probably the only one in Thailand I've seen so far that embraces ecological issues, not using these issues to sell tours or hotel rooms.

::Mekhala Cruise

All images by Karin Kloosterman