The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

WoWasis cruises Thailand’s River Kwai: a confluence of indolence and history

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 03•11

RV River Kwai on the Kwae Noi river

WoWasis is on a 4 day river tour on one of Asia’s most storied rivers, accompanied by a cold beer as the sun begins to set. The boat we’re on is the RV River Kwai, a beautifully appointed river craft. The first inland cruise ship in Thailand, this newly-built colonial style river cruiser is based on designs used by the original Irrawaddy Flotilla, founded in Burma in 1865.

We’re on the River Kwai primarily for history, wanting to become better immersed in the story of the building and destruction of the famous railway and bridge of World War II. The tour we’re on will take us up and down the river, to the museum and cemetery, to a ride on the railway, to pagodas and temples. We’re writing on the forward deck of the boat, under a canopy, as she lazily passes a temple where the chanting of monks is the only sound we hear, with the exception of the calls from the ever-present bird life.

Behind us (we’re already on our next beer) sits a Swiss family of seven. The parents are taking their children for a tour around the world that will take a year. Every day they break for two hours of class lessons. The children are polite, relate well to adults, are well-behaved. When they return home after a year, their schools have agreed to put them into the age-appropriate class for each, no questions asked. This is one of the joys of world travel, to see how smart people are raising their children in non-traditional ways.

Death Railway train overlooking the RV River Kwai

Most people come to the River Kwai area for a historical exposure to the Japanese death railway of WWII.  Passengers read up on its story along the way, perhaps by taking in Pierre Boulle’s legendary novel The Bridge on the River Kwai, while having a drink or two, motoring down the river. Or they come for the temples. The Prasat Muang Singh historical park, for instance, boasts lovely laterite Khmer architecture from the late Lopburi period, constructed ca. 1400 ACE, a potent reminder of the vast expanse of the  Khmer empire. 

It’s become apparent to us, on our third day on the river, that watching the river indolently pass by is the greatest thrill, and the one we’ll remember. It’s not just the fascinations of riverine life culture, flora, and fauna, either. The Karst topography, with it’s sharp limestone peaks, is ever-present, looming over the riverside trees, a constant purple background framing the green vegetation fringing the banks.

This is something that can’t be seen from the road. Thai traffic is chaotic, sometimes even in the country. Instead of a steering wheel here, you’ve got a beer. That big red sun, which would play hell with your eyes if you were driving into it, becomes an icon of nature, the sun-god’s nightlight. Three kids fishing from a bridge at sunset wave to you on the deck: they raise their lines when they see the boat coming, as interested in what you and your friends on deck look like as the fish they’re going to catch 5 minutes after the boat passes.

As it gets darker, you feel you’re floating back in time. Maybe this is how the Mississippi once was, before civilization lined the shore with concrete, steel, and cities. You see an occasional hut, a boat, a landing. Occasional blue pipes reach down into the green waters, sucking up irrigation to some hidden fields above the banks. The perfume of burning brush floats over the water and onto the deck. What matter of vegetation is that?  I’ve never smelled anything like that before…

Writer Clifford Kinvig calls this river, the branch of the River Kwai called Kwae Noi, “probably more widely known than that of any other river of comparable size and significance on the surface of the globe.” And the Kwae Noi is where the RV River Kwai spends most of her time.

Side trips

There are a number of wonderful side trips that are part of this tour, including the aforementioned Death Railway and Death  War Museum, the Saiyok Elephant Park, the Hellfire Pass, and our favorite, the lovely 6th century Khmer temple Prasat Muang Singh. A separate side tour to golf the River Kwai area can be made as well. You can also take a 3 day jungle raft trip as well.

The boat

Aside from the great Thai food, the RV River Kwai has a few other things going for it, too. The 10 cabins are well-designed in teak-moderne, and functional. The instant hot showers have exceptional water pressure, the modern toilets really work, the shower drains immediately, the cabins are air-con, and there’s an always-on electrical outlet in each cabin. The food is terrific, the bar well-stocked. In short, this is an exceptional river-cruiser. There is a crew of 8: two pilots, an engineer, two chefs, a barman, one waitress, one maid.

So if you’ve got a mind to take a leisurely, yet historically interesting inland cruise in Thailand, this would be the one.  Book a tour on the RV River Kwai.

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One Comment

  1. Katelyn says:

    Really liked what you had to say in your post, WoWasis cruises Thailand’s River Kwai: a confluence of indolence and history WoWasis TravelBlog, thanks for the good read!
    — Katelyn

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