Like the city itself, Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River is best enjoyed at night. As the searing daytime temperatures recede and the lights come up along this undulating waterway, it transforms into something a bit more magical; a place where illuminated civic monuments reflect in the inky black surface of the slow moving current. Not surprisingly, there are numerous tour companies offering trips up and down this stretch of the river — most including dinner — but over the years the Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok’s long-running nightly Horizon Cruise has set itself apart from these rival contenders.
The boat offers seating for 120 persons, with spacious air-conditioned upper and lower deck cabins, plus additional open-air seating on the fore and aft decks. It’s a good-sized ship, but once you leave Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok’s designated pier — located in front of the hotel’s NEXT2 Café — and start your unhurried journey upriver, you realise that most other river tour dinner cruise boats are twice the size. You’d be mistaken, however, in assuming that’s a bad thing. On the contrary, the Horizon Cruise is refreshingly intimate, and unlike some competitors this vessel doesn’t attempt to turn itself into a floating nightclub after dinner, with a deafening din of disco hits drowning out all conversation.
The cruise gets underway with a fruit juice welcome drink, but you can also order beer, wine, and cocktails à la carte from the bar. We begin with the signature Horizon Cruise After Sunset (B320++), a vodka-based cocktail with raspberry and passion fruit purée. By the time we take our first sip the newly opened IconSiam mega mall looms up before us, the lights of its multiple stories illuminating the western side of the river in all directions — underscoring the fact that while the Chao Phraya is home to some of Bangkok’s most historic landmarks, it’s also an ever-changing entity with no shortage of new development along its shores.
Continuing along, the Holy Rosary Church draws all eyes to the river’s eastern bank. Established in 1786 by Portuguese missionaries, it’s one of Bangkok’s oldest churches and is still very much in use by the Catholic community (there appears to be a mass in session on the very night we glide past). Enjoying the view from our foredeck outdoor table, we continuing picking out landmarks and famed structures on both sides of the river before realizing that we better get ourselves some dinner too.
Identical buffet spreads are available in the interior cabins of both decks, and the rotating entrée selections offer diners a well-chosen array of delicacies presented in shiny silver steam trays. Here Thai favourites such as Tom Kha Gai (chicken coconut soup) and Yellow Chicken Curry with Sweet Potato mingled with international fare that included a superb Beef Goulash, and a richly decadent Slow Roasted Chicken Roulade served with mushroom and cream cheese. There were also several tempting vegetarian dishes on display, including Ratatouille, Potato Lyonnais, and an elaborate sounding Green Curry with Mock Duck and Vegetable.
The appetisers, salads, and starters also range from familiar fare, such as Smoked Salmon, to exquisite specialties such as the tender Smoked Duck and Orange Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette. Of course, for many diners the sushi, sashimi, and seafood on ice selections are the star attraction, making it a permanent Horizon Cruise buffet fixture. And while the giant river prawn, plump shrimp, and succulent mussels tempted, I was enamoured instead by the thinly sliced octopus sashimi.
As we dined we continued our landmark spotting, trying to name the bridges we passed under and snapping photos of the Santa Cruz Church (built in 1770) and the dramatically lit Wichai Prasit Fort. But the real oohs and ahhs were reserved for the shimmering spires of the Grand Palace, visible above the palace walls, and the intensely illuminated grandeur of Wat Arun (temple of the dawn). For a moment it feels like we’re straddling dimensions, alternating between the reverential dignity of ancient Siam and the mega-watt madness of modern day Bangkok.
The cruise continues upstream until it passes under the beautiful Rama VIII Bridge, a cable-stayed span measuring 300 metres wide with a single asymmetrically placed pylon. It’s another magnificently lit landmark and it signals the halfway point in the cruise, meaning it’s time for a return visit to the buffet and another beverage from the bar. I choose a Lychee Royal Martini (B320++) while my guest opts for a Beringer California Chardonnay (B390++), one of over a dozen red, white, rosé, and sparkling wines and champagnes available by the glass.
Indulging in a few slices of the Slow Roasted Caribbean Spiced Leg of Lamb, and nibbling on some selections from the cheese and bread platter, the journey back to the hotel allows for some time to admire a few lesser-known but equally prominent riverside monuments. The bright white pagoda at Wat Rakhang Kositaram (also known as the Temple of the Bell), the equally bright white chedi of Wat Prayoon, and the rainbow coloured Guan Yu Shrine, a legacy of the city’s early Chinese immigrants, are all theatrically lit and stand out majestically against the night sky. Incidentally, you can ask one of the friendly staff for a complimentary pocket guidebook which gives short but concise details on the majority of the river’s landmarks.
As the boat makes its way back to the hotel, the mood on board is relaxed and amiable. Guests are mingling on the two outdoor decks, occasionally helping each other take the perfect souvenir shot against the glittering riverside backdrop. Meanwhile, the buffet’s dessert selection beckons with pastries, tarts, fresh fruits, ice creams, and a few other tempting treats, best enjoyed with one of the teas or coffees on offer. All too soon it’s 9.30pm and we’re back at the pier, already missing the cooling breeze of a boat in motion, but still ready for the evening ahead.
SHANGRI-LA HOTEL, BANGKOK
89 Soi Wat Suan Plu,
Departure from Shangri-La Pier: 7.30pm
Return to Shangri-La Pier: 9.30pm
B2,400 net per person, which includes international buffet dinner.
Tel. 02 236 7777 ext. 6205/6206.
Email: [email protected].
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