With more than ten passen gers on board, the large ferry takes us across river from Phra Chan Pier to Wang Lang Pier. Ripples, created by the ferry as it shoves away from the pier slightly throw it off balance. Ahead is the mighty Chao Phraya River.The Chao Phraya flows from the' convergence of four large tributaries, the Ping, Wang, Yom, and Nan Ri¬vers in the northern mountains of Thailand, which meander south to meet at Pak Nam Pho in Nakhon Sawan Province to form the Chao Phraya proper. Thanks to its multi-layer sediment, the entire central plain, through which flows the Chao Phraya, has benefited and for centu¬ries has been regarded as the country's fertile land.Similar to Bangkok, the country's capital and commercial center, the Chao Phraya River represents the life¬blood of the country, forming a web of canals and waterways that nour¬ish riverside communities whose ways of life are inseparably intertwined.The hands of time may forever move forward and, with every passing minute cause change to everything including scenes of people washing in the river; children playing on the embankments; old houses making way for modern skyscrapers. Yet, the communities' wayof life remains in¬grained in the buildings of historical importance, in paintings, sculptures and architecture, and in the lifestyle of the people.I jump aboard the Chao Phraya Express at Wang Lang Pier as the sun breaks through the veil of early morning mist. Pak Khlong Talad is our destination.The ferry service that calls at every stop makes it possible for me to fully enjoy the riverside views. On the right are such prominent edifices as Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), Wichaiprasit Citadel, Wat Kanlayanamit, Santa Cruz Church and so on. To the left we see Wat Pho, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and so forth. While in the distance is Saphan Buddha - Phra Buddha Yodfah Bridge.Disembarking at Rajinee Pier,
I cut through a small road. Trucks with tarpaulin roofs line the roadside; the back of each fully laded with bushels of fresh vegetables, closely packed to fill every inch of available space. •Two vegetable vendors take it easy chatting away the time while waiting for customers at the entrance around the Agricultural Promotion Market. On this side of the road, flowers from temperate and tropical climes, in a kaleidoscope of color, compete for attention. Yellow garlands on the opposite side of the road seem to occupy every square inch of the pavement. Vendors with cartsare still busy making their rounds in the chaos of rush-hour.Tha Tien is a little further up the road. It's breakfast time, which makes the chicken with rice at the roadside food stall look particularly inviting. Beside, the old vendor is ever so helpful with little tips on the kind of activities most favored by visitors to the area. "The foreigners like to head for Wat Pho for traditional Thai massage."After a filling breakfast and the notion to go for a massage, I seem to wander in different directions. Before long, I find myself standing at the threshold of Wet Pho., Thanks to the warm morning sun, fatigue, however slight, is inevitable. Yet, once inside the temple grounds, standing below the thick canopy of trees seems to bring instant relief, shielding visitors, such as myself, from the merciless heat.Is only eight o'clock in the miming so the temple compound is virtually deserted as I walk past a collec-tion of stone hermits, sculpted in a variety of postures. It is said these postures can help relax muscles based on the yoga practices of Indian yogis; today they areregarded as an art of physical exercise.A short stroll passed the statues, whose sculptures depict western clothing, is the site of the traditional Thai massage school that opens daily at eight o'clock. Because it's still early morning, tourists are sparse; perhaps this is the best time to explore the area.Wat Pho is a 10-minute walk from Tha Tien, a pier with an interesting tale that has passed from generation to generation. Formerly the site of a palace, it was razed by fire that spread over an expansive area reaching to Wat Pho. It eventually served as the pier for people ferry¬ing across the river. To the public at large, it serves as a flat pier and is referred to as Tha Tien to the present day.Facing the Chao Phraya from Tha Tien,
one can see the highly ornate and imposing Temple of Dawn standing majestically ahead. Built of bricks, it is decorated with colorful tiles of different designs, some like Benjarong bowls are actually glazed plates. Atop the spire of the temple is a crown, and, taken as a whole, it presents quite an awesome sight for many.Foreign tourists, particularly Japanese, are having fun taking photos in front of the pagoda. Some are studying the Kinnaree statues around its base. Having checked the surrounds, it's off to the chapel.The temple is void of low walls, but it is surrounded by a cloister containing murals with paintings as the backdrop for Buddha images and motifs including flowers, leaves, and peacocks painted in the Chinese tradition at its center.The viharn (chapel) is presided over by a Buddha image known as Phra Buddha Chambunudh Mahaburut Lakana Asitayanubophit, another Buddha image in the attitude of Subduing Mara, measuring 3 meters wideacross the lap. Other refined architectural features in the temple grounds include a pavilion for the replica of Buddha's footprint, a pagoda, and the Buddhist Scriptural Tower, among others.After a break for refreshments, it's time to seek out the famous dessert "Farang Kudee Cheen", a type of cupcake introduced into Thailand by the Portuguese during the Thonburi Period, and a culinary art passed down through generations. It takes a little while to locate this famous Kanom (cake). Khun Pachonglak Maneeprasit, a 37-year-old lady, still makes a living making Kanom Farang Kudee Cheen, which has been a tradition in the family for several generations."It has been in the family since the time of my great-grandmother. Being the fourth generation of my family, I am known as the granddaughter of Mae Pao. But our product is completely unique; crunchy exterior and soft interior," said Khun Pachonglak with a light smile.Disclosing the secret of her trade, Khun Pachonglak says that only through the original way of making such cake could she guarantee the quality of the end-product, although cooking utensils might differ slightly from theancient stove when the mixture was cooked using a combination of firewood underneath the cooking ray and charcoal over the top of the tray. Due to a shortage of charcoal and its high cost, gas has replaced firewood but charcoal is still• used for the upper layer."To make it,
you start by beating eggs and com-bining with sugar to obtain a fluffy mixture to which wheat flour is added and then transferred into a bag. By this time, the mixture is ready for baking. Finally, we decorate it with raisins and a thin layer of sugar," ex¬plains Khun Pachonglak as she passes me a few pieces of this delicate cupcake to try. It tastes a bit like sponge cake although the difference is marked by its sweetness and its crunchy exterior and soft center.By the time I leave Kudee Cheen Pier, it is already midday, but the boat is ready to take me on the next leg of the journey to the National Royal Barge Museum.Royal Barges have served Thai monarchs for eons, undertaking a wide range of tasks. Sometimes they were used as warships, other times for a Kathin offering proces¬sion, or in a boat procession to receive foreign emissaries, or in a royal process to take ruling monarchs to Saraburi Province to pay homage to the Buddha's Footprint.It is said that the site was formerly a dock for war-ships and royal barges. During World War II, the dock was bombed and, along with the Royal Barges it housed, sustained severe damage. It was not until 1947 that the government entrusted the repair of the site, and the property within, to the Department of Fine Arts. Today, only eight Royal Barges are on display. They include the Suphannahong, Narai Songsuban of King Rama IX, Ananta Nakkharat, Anekachat Phuchong, Khrut Hoenhet, Krabi Prapmuangman, Asun Wayuphak, and Ekkachai Hoenhao.I hop off the long-tail boat at Phra Chan Pier at the end of the trip. Gazing back at the river, I feel an over-whelming sense of being a small part - if only for a short while - of the majesty and pageant of the river that today presents a fascinating trail of culture and tradition for visitors to follow at their own place.