When the heat, congestion and yammer of Bangkok begin to pall, you can always hire your own water taxi and cross the Chao Phraya River into another world of experiences ...
Ah, the relief! Cooled by rushing air, I'm skimming down Bangkok's Chao Phraya River in my own hang yao, a gaily painted "long-tail" water taxi powered by a souped-up Chevy engine, sweeping past the sluggish tourist boats, dodging the ponderous whale-prowed river schooners and broad-bellied barges, leaving shimmering silver sprays in my wake. Somewhere way back in the heat haze over the river are the fetid, congested boulevards of Thailand's capital city, where it's 95-plus degrees year-round and you need three changes of clothes a day to combat the humid air that douses you like a tidal wave every time you (reluctantly) leave your air-conditioned hotel.
I'm off to explore the "other" Bangkok on the west side of the Chao Phraya river, the older city of Thon Buri, once the capital before King Rama I decided to shift everything over to the desolate mud flats of the other side of the river in 1782 and create the spanking new nexus of palaces, temples and pleasure gardens for himself and his fortunate followers.
Thon Buri remains much as it was in the old days, a higgledy-piggledy confusion of cramped urbanity bound together by a maze of canals, or klongs -- so bound by canals, in fact, that to explore it, you need never leave the water.
"It has been called, sir, the Venice of the East," my hang yao driver-guide shouts above the roaring engine as we narrowly miss a half-submerged tree trunk floating down the river to the Gulf of Thailand, 10 miles to the south. It seems that any city with a semblance of canals gets the "Venice" appendage nowadays; they even attach it to China's water-logged city of Suzhou, a place of such gray-on-gray mundanity it would be hard to imagine anything less like the original.
Abruptly, we leave the river and enter the world of klongs. The still water is earthy brown and offers a kaleidoscope of floating objects, an instant portrait of canalside life: coconut shells by the dozen (fresh coconut milk drunk from a newly-cleaved nut is one of the minor delights of life in Thailand), the spike-studded skins of the huge durian fruit looming like green mines in the water ("smells like hell, tastes like heaven" -- the durian is forbidden in most hotels, as its noxious aroma possesses skunk-odor impact and longevity); clumps of weedy water hyacinths; a bright red garland of flowers fallen from some klong-side shrine; empty brown bottles of Thai whiskey (40 cents a pint, and deceptively mild in taste), and banana skins of all sizes and colors (Thailand boasts 28 different kinds of bananas, from long plantains to tiny thumb-sized beauties in scarlet skins).
An elderly woman wearing a coolie hat paddles by in a tiny sampan, on which is perched a cast-iron pot filled with steaming rice. She smiles, lifts the top and offers me a bowl for 5 cents. My taxi-man advises me to wait: "Further on, sir, much nicer." The woman accepts the rejection with typical Thai grace, raising her hands together in the arched shape of a temple roof (the wai gesture -- the higher the hands, the more respectful the gesture), smiling and bowing her head as we putter on up the klong.
That Thai smile! It will zing your heart and buckle your knees, and not just because there's a pretty girl behind it. The Thai people, young and old, of both sexes, possess a grace and benevolence of spirit that seems to flow directly from their gentle Buddhist culture; tolerance and thoughtfulness and -- dare one say it -- a genuine lovingness toward one another, to strangers, and to all animate and inanimate objects, characterizes daily life here. It's even apparent in Bangkok itself -- which, with its hype, pressure-cooker pace and humid congestion, is a match any day for New York. As the old lady moves on down the klong, I find myself raising my hands spontaneously into the temple roof configuration of the wai.
Single-story teak houses line both banks, some on stilts with narrow balconies extended over the klong, others set back behind small muddy gardens. Naked, bronze-skinned children leap from lopsided balustrades into the dark water, shrieking, splashing one another and waving at the passing boats. An ancient woman watches them from her bamboo stool beside three earthenware pots, Ali Baba-sized and painted with bright red flowers and leaves. ("For rice and rainwater," my driver explains. "They like much of both!") She waves, too, and smiles a Thai smile with her betel nut-stained mouth.
On every patch of spare riverbank, vegetation explodes -- coconut palms; luxuriant wild banana fronds with thousands of tiny purple fingers, which in a few weeks will be curved branches of yellow fruit; brilliant splotches of orchids and jasmine -- all offset by soaring green rods of bamboo, clustered like bunches of ascetic anarchists in the shade of their spiky leaves.
Another tiny boat nudges alongside us, brimming with baskets of fresh-picked fruit -- bulbous yellow pomelos (a sort of overgrown grapefruit with pink segments), durians, custard apples, guavas, mangoes and a pile of tomato-sized fruits with deep purple skins. In the back of the boat, my guide does a little dance that almost tumbles me into the klong, then explains with great enthusiasm: "Mangosteens, sir, the lady has mangosteens! You will like. You try."
The lady looks half asleep but senses an easy sell, and snaps open the thick casing to reveal a white fruit, similar in size and color to a fresh litchi. Hardly do I pop the dainty little thing in my mouth when my senses burst with tantalizing tastes: sweet but not cloying, tart but not acid, peachy -- with overtones of apple, orange, plum, even strawberry at the soft center -- in all, one of the most wonderful taste combinations I have ever experienced. And presented so coyly, too -- in soft, cushiony segments somewhere between marshmallow, cotton candy and sun-softened grapes in texture. I am an immediate and total convert. Even my driver is taken aback by the mountain of mangosteens filling the bottom of our boat for the remainder of the journey.
We ease on, past thick-hulled riverboats with white eyes painted high on their prows. "If the eyes go under the water when the boat is full then he got trouble with police," my guide explained.
In one boat, I see an extended family living on board -- grandparents, parents, cousins and children galore. There are hammocks under the canvas awning at the rear of the boat. A lovely young girl with long black hair is wafting the flames of a charcoal fire with a straw fan. Another girl with even longer hair (and equally lovely -- a very overworked word when applied to Thai females) is washing a scarlet sarong in a rusty pail.
All the way down the klong, lines of bright washing and colorful pha tung sarongs wave in the warm breeze. Everywhere, it seems, people are scrubbing themselves, their dishes, rice pots, even the teak walls of the tiny houses, in an ongoing frenzy of cleanliness.
Outside each house, usually set on tall pedestals, are ornate spirit houses in the form of miniature temples surrounded by offerings of food, incense and even household treasures for "the good spirits." Apparently the tolerance of the Buddhist philosophy encompasses these ancient remnants of animism and the belief that spirit houses discourage local evil influences. Unfortunately, such discouragement does not appear to include the drivers of water taxis, who use the klongs as their own private race tracks. One roars by, spraying everything around, as I bite into my fifth mangosteen. Sitting in the boat, urging the driver on, are four saffron-robed monks with shaved heads, grinning at the confusion and disarray left in their furious wake.
"Anyone can be a monk," my driver comments as he valiantly struggles to prevent our boat from capsizing. "They were students. Sometimes they just go to the temple for a few weeks, then go back to college. Some are very crazy!"
Surprise, surprise! As we round a bend in the snaking klong, the lines of cramped wooden shacks give way to a soaring Buddhist temple set among a series of pointed spires and round-topped towers. The early morning comes alive in bursts of gold statuary, soaring white columns, flyaway roofs covered in green and orange tiles, walls sheened in intricate patterns of tiles and sparkling mirror-glass. Unlike the magnificent edifices of Bangkok, this is a temple-in-miniature, yet still brimming with all the symbolic trimmings -- a repository of riches beside this muddy klong.
Shaven-headed monks move slowly about the compound, eating rice they had collected earlier in their begging bowls from the canal people. The monks depend on the local people for their daily diet and usually line up by the temple in the early morning, waiting with bowed heads for their bowls to be filled. Huge creepers and vines, some as thick as a man's arm, hang from the shade trees. I look more closely. In spite of the ornateness of the temple buildings, sections of courtyard are badly cracked and buckled by tree roots; vines are strangling the white stone statues of ferocious gods; the steps down from the klong are lopsided and sinking into the mud.
Somehow it all seems a microcosm of Thailand's endless contradictions: a superficial wealth disguising enormous poverty; high tech in the midst of hideous inefficiency; the most innocent-faced child-women sidelining as prostitutes in sex clubs and massage parlors; fervent cleanliness in the midst of mud; privacy and inner-centered calm in one of the world's most chaotic cities.
My driver seems to sense my confusion. "It's all same." He pauses and smiles, trying to explain the essence of Buddhism. "Good-bad, clean-dirt, rich-poor ... " -- he moves his hands as if covering a sphere -- " ... live-dead. All same. All together. All go round."
Then I remember the little sparrows in bamboo cages at the Wat Po temple in Bangkok. A sign says, "Please Set Free These Birds You Will Be Happy And Prosperous." Tourists pay 50 cents to release a bird and watch it fly off over the golden spires and towers. Children clap in delight, not knowing that after the freed birds perform a couple of aerial circles they head straight to another set of cages on the far side of the temple compound. An hour later they are right back where they started, ready to be released again.
"All together. All go round," gestures my guide again, and I think I know what he means. He chuckles, and that says it all.
As we move away from the temple, the water taxis and sampans begin crowding together and serious business is building. Some are almost submerged under loads of fat melons, wicker baskets brimming with cucumber-shaped vegetables, bamboo trays of bright green limes and little bundles of spiced rice tied in banana leaves. A young man in a brown derby hat sits cross-legged in his boat like a Buddha, barbecuing bananas and wafer-thin pork kebabs basted in scarlet satay sauce. I buy a couple of the kebabs for a few cents; my mouth is aflame instantly.
The sun loses its morning coolness and sweat begins to pour. The women wear broad-brimmed straw hats, which keep head and shoulders in permanent shadow; I make a note to buy one at our first stop. The boats are crushed together; the narrow klong smells of durian, dried shrimp, broiling meat, hot sesame oil, with soapy overtones of coriander. Everybody is trading with everybody else -- a wonderful bobbing commotion of straw hats, blue shirts (indigo being the preferred color for klong merchants), flailing paddles and big blue umbrellas.
"This is best market," my driver enthuses. My original intent had been to visit the famed Klong Dao Kanong floating market in south Thon Buri, but apparently the crush of tourist boats has now outnumbered the local sampans, obliterating the very thing they had come to enjoy. All that is left now of the original is a very clogged klong and a sad straggle of touristy trinket shops selling vastly overpriced, underquality souvenirs to hordes of hot, disappointed tourists.
But this market I seem to have to myself, as I relish half an hour of splashing and bobbing and nibbling and drinking and laughing and colliding with the other boats. "Mai pen rai" is the ritual forgiveness for all bumpings and bangings -- "it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter," reflecting true Buddhist attitudes toward the vagaries of life.
I buy a bowl of thick Siamese noodles tossed in a fiery green chili sauce for 10 cents from a boat vendor, followed by a barbecued banana bronzed with burnt sugar, then strips of toasted fish in a sweet soy sauce, little pungent rice-balls wrapped in white flower petals, slivers of chicken in a wonderful lemon and mango curry, tiny spring rolls that melt in my mouth, dipped in a fish sauce laced with fresh coriander and lemon grass -- all washed down with Thai beer and cheers of "Chaiyo!" And all for less than the price of a Whopper and Coke back home.
Every couple of minutes we pause at another boat and sample aromatic wares, then nudge on up the klong in search of new tastes. It seems crowded but orderly. Beneath all the apparent congestion, confusion and noise I notice the constants of Thai etiquette: the avoidance of touching the head, which is considered the most sacred part of the body; the constant raising of hands in the wai greeting; the hiding of feet (it is considered rude to point your feet at anyone); the meticulous neatness of dress, no matter how tattered the garments (one of the worst insults in Thailand is to refer to someone as mai riebroi -- "not neat").
My driver is always smiling. Every time we collide with another boat he giggles; someone drops an overripe melon on his ornate painted prow and the incident is immediately resolved in an exchange of wai gestures and more laughter. As we leave the market for the open klong again we are sideswiped by yet one more speed-mad hang yao driver, and my guide almost chokes on his chortlings. Tears of laughter stream down his face as he grins in the hot morning sun. I've never seen anyone so utterly delighted by the myriad accidents and misfortunes of the average day.
"Sanuk!" He explains it all in a single word. "You can make things 'mai sanuk' " (dehumanized and overserious) "or you can make things 'sanuk.' " He nods and giggles. "I like sanuk best!" We laugh until the boat almost overturns; and then we laugh again. And after that it's all "mai pen rai" for the rest of that ridiculous day, lost among the klongs of Thon Buri and loving every minute of it. David Yeadon, author-illustrator of many travel books, is currently traveling around the world preparing a series of articles and a book titled "Time Out: Wanderings in the Wild Places."