THE Chao Phraya River is the main artery that keeps Bangkok - the heart of Thailand - beating strongly, and the klongs are the capillaries breathing life into the industrious capital.

But Bangkok's river of life seems more alive than usual this balmy afternoon.

Like slow but sure tortoises, barges are still plodding along, stacked high with bulky building materials bound for a new hotel building site or crops for market.

Tourist vessels on afternoon sightseeing cruises are hugging the riverbanks for a closer look at the cosmopolitan city and her attractions.

Ferry services are pushing their way straight up the middle like a rugby league forward pack, transporting office workers home from their inner-city sky towers.

The first of the dinner cruises and party boats are making their start-stop journeys, picking up passengers outside major riverfront hotels.

And an endless parade of longtail boat drivers in a hurry dart here and there like dragonflies across the ripples.

Although I was born and bred in Australia's "River City", Brisbane has nothing on Bangkok's aquatic highway.

While it is a working river first and foremost, Chao Phraya is often the easiest way to get from Point A to Point B in the city of 9.3 million people whose modern road network strains under the volume of cars, trucks, vans, motorbikes, and buses.

Shirley Sinclair

But even the longtail boats' noisy motors cannot be heard over the symphony of birdsong in the lush gardens of my hotel's riverfront oasis.

I am standing on the 7th floor balcony of a Deluxe Premier River View Room in Anantara Bangkok Riverside Resort and Spa.

My arms are outstretched, inviting Asia to wash over me once again.

For the first time in three visits to Bangkok, I am not staying in the centre of the city but on the west bank of the river in Thonburi district (the capital of Thailand from 1767 to 1782, during the reign of King Taksin).

And I am enjoying this new perspective on the capital.

It is much more my speed, away from the metropolis.

Before heading downstairs for sundowner cocktails at the Longtail Bar by the pier, I survey the 4.5ha property from my elevated position.

About 60% of the grounds is tropical garden, wrapping its lush green arms around the massive pool area.

Colourful bougainvillea cascade over the white balconies, while pink and yellow frangipani trees and red-torch ginger flowers add an exclamation mark to the coconut groves.

An industrious team of gardeners tend the manicured hedges and curtains of vines, and pick up leaf litter underneath the huge umbrella trees and multitude of other shrubs, grasses and bushes.

The hotel's Riverside Terrace promenade has attracted amateur photographers waiting for sunset and guests simply drinking in the serenity as they watch the urban world glide by.

Shirley Sinclair

As the sky squeezes the last rays of sunshine from the day, couples begin arriving for a romantic candlelit barbecue meal of seafood, chicken or pork on the pier.

So I head downstairs and follow the torchlit path to the Longtail Bar just as the classical Thai dancers prepare to take to the outdoor stage.

It's Christmas every night on Chao Phraya as restaurants and hotels create a fairyland of dancing lights in swaying trees, on walls and along terraces and balconies, while vessels festooned in party lights combine with the dazzling city neon for a brilliant spectacle against the darkness.

Soon, we are boarding Anantara's own Manohra Dinner Cruise for our own magical night on the river.

A cruise on the old-world Manohra and Manhora Moon restored antique rice barges, which each seat 40 guests, is one of the best ways to see Bangkok by night.

The comfortable barges travel up what the Thais call "the river of kings" and pass the magnificent golden glow of Wat Arun (The Temple of Dawn) and the majestic Grand Palace, among the city landmarks.

As the wine flows, the tasty traditional dishes keep coming and the conversation becomes more and more animated, we barely give the delightful scenery a glance until the amazing Wat Arun comes into view and sends us scrambling into handbags and coat pockets for cameras.

Our cameras are working overtime again the next afternoon when we find ourselves just under an hour's drive and 63km south of Bangkok in Samut Songkram, staying at the serene Baan Amphawa Resort and Spa.

The traditional Thai house-style resort, set amid coconut plantations and tropical fruit orchards, is oh-so-quiet and offers a great respite from city life.

We sit down in the late afternoon in the undercover veranda at a corner table, closest to the jetty, where we arrived a few hours earlier by longtail boat up the Mae Klong River.

Mae Klong is the "mother river" to the people of Amphawa and she cradles us in a gentle rocking and occasional whooshing of the wake under the deck as each longtail boat motors to the next village or takes another boatload of tourists in search of the thousands of fireflies electrifying the river banks after dark.

On this cool, still afternoon, as the deep blue sky morphs to purple, then pink and orange with the red sunset behind coconut palm silhouettes, we are captivated by our surrounds.

But the climax - when the orange harvest moon creeps up through the trees to rise to a brilliant white full moon throwing a golden beam across the water to our deck - is a Kodak moment worth writing home about. And sunrise the next morning proves to be just as spectacular.

We think we have seen it all but we've only just scratched the surface of river life.

Ten minutes off the main highway from Bangkok, heading south to Hua Hin, we find ourselves in rural Thailand, where life on the canals has changed little for centuries.

Shirley Sinclair

Ecotourism specialist Royal Silk Holidays has brought us here as part of its Flavours and Fragrances of Central Thailand tour: an up-close-and-personal look at the essence of Thai village life.

We again are reminded how the waterways play a vital role in preserving the cultural and natural heritage, and time-honoured traditions - from agricultural practices and authentic culinary dishes to architectural styles.

Staying 160km from Bangkok in the tradional-style villas of Petchvarin Resort and Spa in Tha Yang, we become intimately acquainted with the good health of the Phetchburi River on the edge of Kaengkrachan National Park.

Here, the tropical forest and tranquil park-like gardens on the banks of the river, with a backdrop of velvet green hills, is home to a plethora of frogs, geckos, fruit bats and birdlife that make visitors almost feel like they're camping in luxury in the wilderness.

In two days, we visit floating markets and jasmine rice fields, watch skilful dessert cooks of the "sweet village" create treats outlined in the poetry of King Rama II, see coconut trees growing on canal plantations, and marvel at stilt houses in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand belonging to the mussel fishermen of Bang Taboon.

We witness the process of producing salt from seawater, and sugar from both coconut and sugar palms for use in desserts and as a condiment in Thai cooking.

But we are perhaps most intrigued by the strange multistorey buildings used to replicate the limestone caves near Phi Phi Island that are home to thousands of swiftlet birds.

The nest of these birds are made of solidified saliva - the basic ingredient used in the Chinese delicacy, bird's nest soup.

But the buildings' interiors are strictly off-limits to the public and the extraction method remains top-secret to preserve the monopoly.

Quirky traditions such as this make the Thai economy go round and have sustained families for generations and whole communities for centuries.

The recipe for success is passed down from one generation to the next.

In Plai Pong Pang in Amphawa district, we meet Mr Thaweesak Prai Preuk whose 4ha coconut plantation with 100 coconut trees produces about 300kg of sugar a day as part of a five-family co-operative.

His mother Sam Pao, now 76, helped start the plantation 60 years ago.

The sweet nectar of the coconut palm is used to make the sugar in the chemical-free process that takes place in time-honoured techniques under the main house.

The only noticeable change is the stainless steel bowls that have replaced the wooden ones of times past.

About 50litres of nectar produces 10kg of sugar to be sold at market for 900bt (about $30).

And to ensure the longevity of the cottage industry that is his family's livelihood, Thaweesak still prays before climbing each tree to retrieve his 200g of golden nectar treasure.

The three generations living on the plantation also produce chao koh (coconut milk) and their traditional teak house is a homestay for the inexpensive price of 300bt (about $9-10) a night.

As with most Thai families, they are a hardworking people - toiling 9am to 5pm each day, 365 days a year.

Like the flow of the Thai waterways, their industrious work ethic never stops but supplies them with all they need for a happy life.


Good to know about the CENTRAL PLAINS

Anantara Bangkok Riverside Resort and Spa:

The hotel's 10 bars and restaurants create a multicultural experience.

Royal Silk Holidays:

Baan Amphawa Resort and Spa:

Petchvarin Resort and Spa:


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