Evening dinner tours of Bangkok's biggest river are popular - but do they represent good value?
What do you get when you mix ancient Buddhist temples, a huge pan of lasagna, and Psy? Why, a night on a Bangkok river cruise, of course! As we discovered firsthand, a Bangkok river cruise on the Chao Phraya River tour takes several classic Thai experiences, throws in a bit of contemporary fun, and leaves you thoroughly entertained - and sometimes a bit baffled too.
We were eager to embrace a new country and a new city right away after our flight. Despite the challenges of Bangkok’s notorious traffic, we were picked up right on time at our hotel and promptly brought to the departure pier, where our cruise boat and table number were confirmed. Hurrah!
In the past on similar tours we’ve often elected for the slightly less expensive option of meeting the group at the departure point but in this case, we’re glad someone else was doing the navigating. The tours depart from a pier that’s next to a waterfront shopping plaza and there was a bit of time to browse for those interested. The addition of an orchid pinned to our shirts was both a nice touch of a Thai hospitality and also a practical measure to identify tour participants at a glance.
Boarding the boat, we were greeted with bows and warm welcomes from the staff, some of whom were wearing traditional Thai dress. Finding our table was easy and it was nice to discover that we were sitting at a table for two. Even though we were on a tour, suddenly our excursion was a candle-lit date, complete with a waterfront view! The table was already set with a bowl of complimentary shrimp crisps and the wait staff was soon coming around with perfumed wet cloths so we could refresh ourselves before dinner.
After watching two dancers perform a customary Thai dance of welcome, we were ready to eat! The buffet features both traditional Thai food as well as western dishes (hence the endless pan of lasagna!) There were several selections suitable for vegetarians, including an extensive salad bar, but those with peanut or shellfish allergies should proceed with caution as cross contamination from serving utensils is a real concern.
As with most group tour experiences, the quality of the food was a bit hit or miss. We would have liked to see more authentic Thai food and less lasagna, spaghetti bolognese, and ranch dressing but I do understand that they’re trying to serve a large group of people with diverse preferences. The highlight of the buffet was the dessert table, which featured over a dozen different selections, everything from tiramisu to orange cake to éclairs. Rumor has it I went up more than once, but I’m not saying anything officially!
As we sat at our waterfront table, admiring the view, I was struck by how calm and serene Bangkok felt in the early evening. As the boat drifted past palaces, government buildings, and temples, we were utterly removed from the city’s chaos and congestion. We passed by the occasional barge and fishing vessel but it was otherwise very quiet, showing an altogether different side of Bangkok.
But the quiet didn’t last very long, as suddenly it was our boat that was bringing the river to life! Our on-boat entertainment featured a male and female singer, as well as a saxophone player, all intent on belting out covers of the most popular hits from the past 50 years! I’m not sure what the riverfront residents and hotel guests thought about hearing new versions of “Country Road”, “You Were Meant For Me”, and “My Heart Will Go On”, but it was a thoroughly entertaining, if somewhat surreal experience. By the time they began a rousing version of Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, people were up from the tables and dancing. The evening ended with all the staff standing in the middle of the aisle and doing a Thai-influenced line dance to “Achy Breaky Heart”. Did I really say that Bangkok felt calm and serene?
While our cruise felt like a once-in-a-million moment (especially during the line dancing!), we passed numerous vessels cruising up and down the river with a similar number of passengers. Even the lights and the sounds were about the same! After talking with other travelers, it seems like there’s a pretty standard script that the river tours stick to: a light scattering of commentary, a heavy dose of entertainment, and a similar carb-heavy buffet. My best advice for choosing a provider would be to scour the internet for coupons and discounts, read the fine print to see what’s included (like tips, alcoholic drinks, and transportation), and try to get personal recommendations from friends.
I really enjoyed the mix of warm Thai hospitality and modern fun on our Chao Phraya River cruise and it was great to see two different sides of the city. Our tour embraced both the calmer side of the city, as well as some cosmopolitan fun, and it would make for a lively and unforgettable activity for anyone with a free evening in Bangkok.
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