All Aboard the RV River Kwai

Your first thought is that it looks like a Mississippi River boat without the paddle wheel.

The spacious upper deck is the focal point of onboard activities.

Cruise Manager Peter Sahli
(center) plans the day’s itinerary.

Instead, The RV River Kwai is the first inland cruise ship in Thailand, a newly-built, colonial-style river cruiser based on the 19th century designs of the Irrawaddy Shipping Company founded in Burma in 1865. With a draft of only three feet, the vessel was commissioned specifically to sail the narrow, curvy and seasonally shallow River Kwai Noi.

Boarding the craft, passengers are instantaneously awed by the beauty, warmth and luxurious feel achieved by the use of rare Burmese teak throughout the ship. With just ten twin-guest cabins the RV River Kwai serves a maximum of 20 passengers. Each cabin faces outward and features comfortable, raised beds, private bath with shower, air-conditioning and sliding doors that offer beautiful river views and privacy when needed.

Passengers enjoy a Thai-style
lunch before heading ashore.

The upper deck is the focal point of onboard activities and is divided into three sections:  a bar/music center surrounded with comfortable chairs and cocktail tables, a dining area with tables of four to six, and an open space for sun bathing in couches and lounge chairs — perfect for curling up with a mystery novel set in a steamy jungle. 

The top deck is covered with a unique, collapsible awning which the crew drops when passing under low-lying bridges.

With fourteen fellow guests, guide and crew of ten that takes care of all passengers’ needs — from serving full breakfasts and sit down lunches to cocktails and candlelit dinners — we will spend four days and three nights cruising the river, visiting exotic temples, ancient ruins, caves, waterfalls and historic sites capped off with our cruise to the legendary Bridge on the River Kwai.

Let’s get underway!

The collapsible awning is dropped
while cruising under low bridges.

For the 4-day trip we’ll have the cruise ship, a stern-towed launch, and a full-size touring coach that travels onshore (while we cruise aboard) to rendezvous for each day’s excursion.  Our day-one pick-up at the Grand Hyatt Bangkok occurs promptly at 6:00AM before we circle the city in darkness collecting other guests who have flown in for the tour.

There are three Canadian couples traveling together, two Swiss couples who’ve never met before, two Swiss women golfers who didn’t know any of the others, a young couple from Australia and us, two Americans.

Our guide “Richard” speaks in
depth about Thai history and culture.

Our guide, Vichien Thangron, who we’ll call “Richard” for the duration of the trip — an accommodation to guests who’s Thai is less than proficient — welcomes each new passenger with a traditional bow and “Sawwat dii kab,” the Thai expression for hello.

With all guests aboard the bus, Richard begins his travel monologue, one that will weave story upon story at each stop along the way, changing language as required from English to German to Thai.

We’ll spend our first hours together visiting three temples on the road to Kanchanaburi, a city nestled in limestone hills 75 miles northwest of Bangkok, made famous during World War II as the starting point for what became known as the “Death Railway”.

There, on the bend of the river, our vessel awaits.

At 400’ Phra Pathom Chedi is
the tallest in Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, we drive the winding highway along the river plain, over provincial hills to our first stop — Phra Pathom Chedi, at almost 400 feet high, the largest pagoda in Southeast Asia. Although the Buddha never traveled to Thailand, legend says he rested here while wandering the country, so it’s a popular place of pilgrimage for Thais from across the kingdom.

Next, we visit the stunning Wat Tham Khao Noi with its monastery of Chinese architecture and art set into a steep hillside overlooking the mountainous horizon.  For our last stop of the day, we travel to the west bank of the river to see Wat Tham Sua (Tiger Cave Temple) built deep underground. We purchase a small Buddha amulet from a smiling monk who greets us cheerily while guiding us to the long stairway leading to the chamber below.  In the dim light we view exotic murals, numerous and varied religious statuettes, and at the cave’s center, a large golden reclining Buddha nested into the curve of the walls.

Chef Vasit Chatchawan prepares
a multiplicity of Thai specialties.

We reach the RV River Kwai at midday, travel weary, and ready to spend the afternoon in the dreamy state that accompanies a relaxing cruise. Before we do, however, we’ll have our first meal together on the top deck — a wonderfully prepared, Thai lunch of several hot dishes served as the cruising gets underway.

Finally, we settle into the rhythm of the river until day’s end, followed in the evening by a candlelit dinner and the shared storytelling of our appreciative party.

Riding the Gentle Giants.

Each breakfast aboard offers a full-buffet of fresh fruit and juices, baked rolls, breads, yogurt, coffee and tea with a traveling chef who prepares French toast, eggs and omelets to your taste.

Look Ma no hands! Secure benches
provide an effortless ride.

We’re anchored somewhere near a small village outside Kanchanaburi where we awake to the sound of roosters crowing and see nothing except the river and the tangled jungle along its banks.

After morning rituals we board the launch and go ashore to meet our coach for the drive through Thai farmland — rice patties, sugar cane and tapioca fields — to the Saiyok Elephant Park, and our long-anticipated, first encounter with the gentle giants of Thailand.

The experience of Thai elephant riding runs the gamut, from the easy back-mounted benches variety, to the more adventurous bareback style where one can learn Mahout (Traditional Thai elephant trainers) commands and actually “drive” the beasts oneself.

In this case the experience is the former — a very comfortable, completely safe version where for $10US you’ll ride with an experienced driver on a pleasant one-hour outing. A picture set-up at the end of the ride will document your expedition.

Bangkok International School
students learn about ancient Khmers.

In the afternoon we travel to Prasat Muang Singh, an historical park with Khmer architecture of the late Lopburi period some 700-800 years ago. The extensive ruins of the temple are a potent reminder of the vast expanse of the Khmer empire.  Each day concludes upon return to the river for a celebrated sunset onboard, a convivial dinner with shipmates, and an evening of quiet cruising under the lights of the vessel that point to the river ahead.

A Remarkable Variety of Excursions.

A long-tail boat speeds passengers toward Kaeng Lava Cave.

It seems every daylight hour is filled with uncommon adventures. In the days that follow we will:

  • Visit the beautiful Saiyoknoi waterfall where we also see a World War II era train engine, a relic of the Death Railway.

  • We climb the 114 steps that
    lead to the mountain top cave.

    The restored WW II train travels a
    section of the now defunct RR line.

    A Canadian veteran walks alone
    amidst memories of Hellfire Pass.

    Take a high-speed, long-tail boat up the river’s shallower reaches to the Kaeng Lava Cave with its steep trail of 114 steps, bats and big insects; then push farther upriver to the Saiyokyai waterfall where we lunch on the sundeck of a floating restaurant.

  • Visit a Border Patrol Police School, built under the patronage of HRH Crown Princess Sirinhorn, ten miles from the Thai-Burma border where 27 boys and 20 girls evenly divided by nationality live, work and learn in a special cooperative, growing their own food, raising fish, cleaning, cooking, and doing nearly all that’s required to run a boarding school for fifty kids.

  • Rise at dawn, take the launch ashore and greet village monks making their morning rounds to gather food for the temple residents. Each of our donations adds good karma!

  • Embark on a restored 1943 train for a short, but exciting ride over a long wooden viaduct to Saphan Tham Krase, a riverbank cave with a large golden Buddha.

  • Climb down through dense forest that leads to Hellfire Pass, a part of the Death Railway cut through the stone mountain.  It’s named for the nighttime reflections seen on the granite walls from the POW’s and Asian conscripts working under kerosene lamps. It was said to be like working in hell.

  • Click Here for additional photos from the Kwai River.

The Death Railway is Alive in Our Remembrance.

In June of 1942 Japanese Imperial Headquarters instructed its occupying army to build a 250-mile long railway from Thailand to Burma providing a backbone to its expansion into Southeast Asia. The work, through steaming jungle and over the rugged terrain of Three Pagodas Pass on the Thai-Burma border, was to be completed within 14 months.

The Kanchanaburi War Museum documents
a difficult chapter of WW II history.

To meet its aggressive schedule, the Japanese herded over 60,000 prisoners of war and 200,000 conscripted Asian laborers into two groups — one in Burma and one in Thailand — to work from opposite ends of the track toward the center. With picks and shovels, dynamite and pulleys, they moved millions of cubic meters of rock and built nine bridges.

By the time the line was completed in October 1943 it had earned its nickname, the Death Railway: nearly 16,000 POW’s and 100,000 Asian laborers died from disease, malnutrition and exhaustion while working on it.

Our cruise aboard the RV River Kwai visited many of the important landmarks that commemorate the Death Railway. None of these is more moving than the Kanchanaburi War Museum with its tools, photographs, sketches, testimonials and memorabilia documenting the grim living conditions and atrocities endured by the men put forcibly to work.

Small headstones mark the graves
of fallen World War II veterans.

The nearby soldier’s cemetery with its rows of small headstones is an emotional remembrance of the human toll taken during the building of the railroad. Both are located a short distance from the iconic Bridge on the River Kwai, itself immortalized in the British 1957 WW II movie of the same name starring William Holden and Alec Guinness.

While the film draws upon the real life construction for its historical setting, it is still fiction. The main plot line — when British Special Forces commandos parachute in to wire the bridge with explosives, experience numerous setbacks, yet still manage to blow it up just after completion — never happened. The true story lacks the film’s theatrics, but is a much more compelling human drama.

On this trip we made our way up the now peaceful River Kwai, through the many small villages on its banks, past important markers — each with something to reveal about the real six-decade old history of the Death Railway. We’ve visited noteworthy temples and numerous natural sights. It’s a cruise through the past to the present moment, where you’ll find history still lives in the vivid recollections of a people who make this region of the world so intriguing.

The cruise ends at the iconic Bridge on the River Kwai.

You Can Cruise the River Kwai. - With Adventure!

The RV River Kwai cruise ship.

The RV River Kwai cruise is operated by VALUE WORLD TOURS, a travel company founded in Los Angeles, California in 1992. VWT is one of the most respected river cruise operators in the United States with over 3,000 passengers traveling annually with the company.

VWT offers weekly River Kwai embarkations from September to April. River tours may be purchased alone starting at $799 per person, double occupancy or as part of a ten-day land/cruise package for $1,999 PP excluding port charges, airfare and taxes.

Value World Tours
17220 Newhope St., #203
Fountain Valley, CA 92708     
Toll Free: 800-795-1633         
Phone: 714-556-8258 
Fax: 714-556-6125     

—  Feature by Jim Hollister, Jetsetters Magazine Luxury Travel Editor; photography by Jim & Robin Hollister.

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