We were drinking teeth-numbing cold Cokes in the shade when the long-tail boats roared up to the restaurant dock. Of all the traffic on Bangkok's Chao Phraya River, the long-tails are the fastest and most consciously stylish. They are bright yellow enameled hot rods, extravagantly trimmed in red and blue, subtle as a teenager's daydream.
Our pilot smoked nonchalantly, his arms a maze of blue-black tattooed demons. An eight-cylinder unmuffled automobile engine powered the boat, mounted at waist height on a swiveling bracket, the prop attached to a lengthy drive shaft (the "long tail"), which was set obliquely to avoid the hedges of waterweed and detritus that float southward to the Gulf of Thailand. We made ourselves comfortable on the hard narrow seats as the engine rumbled awake and accelerated to full cry, beginning our journey to Thon Buri.
We knew we'd found a treasure a few days earlier when we walked onto the grounds of the Siam Society on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok. The society is a must visit for anyone seriously interested in Thailand. A scholarly organization sponsored by the royal family (Queen Sirikit in particular), the Siam Society is home to an excellent reference library and an exhibit of traditional Thai houses and folk art, and also publishes a renowned journal and a host of books on Thai culture, history and natural history.
Besides the research facility, the society offers reasonably priced day tours led by members of the society and professors at Chulalongkorn University. Tired of the tourist (farang) hordes we'd encountered at Bangkok's more "important" wats (temples), we signed up for a tour of the wats of Thon Buri, the area west across the river from central Bangkok.
Our guide, the administrative secretary of the Siam Society, sat in the bow of our long-tail as we moved swiftly across the Chao Phraya. It's easy enough to forget Bangkok's horrendous traffic when you travel on the river. The dense crowds of motorcycles, buses and noisy, three-wheeled tuk-tuks are replaced by river barges, water taxis and long-tail boats. Cool breezes provide relief from the heat.
Bangkok is a city built on the water, a Venice or Amsterdam of the East, where over a million of its inhabitants have direct water access. In addition to the Chao Phraya, the city is crisscrossed by an enormous system of klongs (canals) crowded with homes and businesses -- a wonderful place for the visitor curious about Thai domestic life.
Clothing hung on scores of rods and lines at a klong-side laundry. Workers loaded huge clay pots onto an aging, listing barge. Laughing kids paused in their play to wave delightedly as our wake lapped up around their bellies. Adults were at their afternoon baths, shampooing hair and brushing teeth in the dark water as the long-tails moved in single file past thatched huts and suburban homes, handyman shacks and villas, concrete block walls topped with barbed wire and broken glass. Thais are a sensible people. Though the spirit of the Buddha is reflected everywhere, human capriciousness does not necessarily respect compassion.
Many of the homes were graced with "spirit houses," lavishly ornate shrines shaped like miniature Thai-style houses, perched atop pedestals like exotic birds. Offerings of food and flowers and incense cluttered their miniature verandas.
As we walked across the grounds of Wat Hongsa, our first stop, our guide discussed the Thon Buri dynasty. Siam's original capital was at Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok. The capital was relocated in 1767 to Thon Buri by King Taksin, whose belief that he was the next Buddha did little to endear him to either the military or the Buddhist hierarchy. After Taksin was deposed and executed in 1782, King Rama I, first in line of the current Chakri dynasty, moved the capital across the river to Bangkok, where the klong system provided a natural line of defense that made the city virtually immune to invasion. Thon Buri is now a slow-paced suburb, with old neighborhoods and village centers punctuated by dozens of wats and monasteries.
Leaving our shoes at the Wat Hongsa entrance, we stepped into the cool, dim chapel, where the seated, gold-leafed Buddha glowed with implacable calm, surrounded by flickering candles and intricate floral offerings.
A Buddhist temple is a shrine to evolution. Nothing is static. Everything is in flux, everything a reflection of temporary concern or gesture except the figure of the Buddha, the statement of the eternal that underlies and punctuates the temporal. As our guide's illumination of the chapel's wall murals and their symbolism brought the wondrous figures to life, I listened dreamily, lulled by the warm breeze and incense-heavy air.
Movement caught my attention -- faces at one of the windows. Outside, I found a group of girls, the oldest no more than 8 or 9, engaged in a spirited round of Let's Giggle at the Farangs, Thailand's national children's sport. Most wanted to touch my camera, the bolder ones my arm. With my red hair and pale skin, I must have looked like an orangutan in Top Siders. One girl asked in solemn, perfect English where I came from.
While we talked, a group of monks did their saffron-colored laundry across the courtyard, while a pair of old women relaxed in the shade of an arbor. There was an element here that was absent from all the "important" temples across the river. Every community has its wat, each the center of its community. At every wat we visited in the old capital, we found children playing, elderly folks exchanging gossip, monks involved in mundane pursuits. Though the larger temples in Bangkok are more architecturally significant, more artistically sublime, they are mainly built for show and ceremony. None reflected the continuity of daily life, of necessary tasks that are the deepest expression of any faith, as did the wats we visited in Thon Buri.
Leaving Hongsa, we traveled farther up the klong, wilting a bit in the midday sun. Thais claim the year is divided into three seasons: hot and dry, hot and wet, hot and wetter. They can afford to joke, having apparently evolved beyond the need for sweat glands.
The concrete dock at Wat Nangchi was covered with algae, the footing difficult on the slimy steps. Along the klong bank, a group of impossibly energetic children tended harried flocks of chickens.
Nangchi was the oldest of the wats we visited, surrounded by overgrown gardens and flowering hedges that lent the place an air of genial decay. We were met at the gate by the abbot, who looked us over silently, then led us into the courtyard where his flock had been expecting us. They stood around a table crowded with glasses of iced tea, a blessed gift for their parched visitors.
Most of the chapel murals had been badly damaged by years of rain leakage and humidity, the Buddha and his contemporaries vague outlines, shadows in their own story. Renovation work was underway, the chronicles regaining their form and color, the parishioners justly proud.
Returning to the long-tails, we cruised along the klongs -- first to the Chinese-influenced Wat Raja- orod and its Buddha with a crystal mirror, then to Wat Kampang, whose paintings and wall murals were exceptionally fine. Exotic-looking houses, with high-peaked roofs and wide graceful porches, crowded the klong banks. Families relaxed in the shade as we passed, parents nodding and waving, children giggling and hiding their faces. An old woman and young girl in a small dugout stopped paddling as we approached, clinging to the gunwales of their rocking canoe, then resumed their slow journey against our receding wake.
Wat Nairong, further to the north, was the most beautifully restored of the temples we visited, the chapel newly whitewashed, the inlaid glass and ceramic tiles glittering in the late afternoon sun. Behind the chapel, a small shrine to a beloved monk sat littered with dried flowers and candle wax and the short burned ends of incense sticks.
As we waited to leave, a local resting in the shade of the dockside pavilion offered us a drink of rice whiskey from an unlabeled bottle -- a subtle brew with a bouquet reminiscent of jasmine and kerosene. Across the water, children leaped and dove into the river from an ancient pier.
The sun was low on the horizon when we arrived at a nondescript dock across the Chao Phraya from our original departure point. Our guide led us down a narrow alleyway.
The buildings were packed close, the blare of televisions mingling with the fragrances of frying food. Nearly every service seemed available: Markets jostled with prepared-food vendors, beauty salons shared space with tailors, variety shops stood next to barbers. Our rumpled parade ducked low awnings and loose boards, and I provided the amused residents some comic relief by not ducking low enough.
As we neared the end of the alley, odd music drifted through the air to meet us, the sound growing louder as we walked into the courtyard of Wat Daowa-deung, a complex of buildings set back from the main street. Young monks glanced shyly from the doorways of their dormitory, and youngsters astride motorbikes stared from behind clouds of cigarette smoke.
Stepping into the chapel, we stood quietly while a group of 30 women chanted their evening sutras.
An ancient, toothless nun smiled beautifully and gestured us in.
We sat on the mat-covered floor beside her, the chant rolling over us like a wave, our hostess smiling and rocking to the rhythm of the verses.
Rising finally, we walked quietly back through the alleyway to the river. The sun had set, the pink afterglow pale on the water.
As we pulled away from the dock, the long-tail boats nosing through the loose chop, we looked across the river toward Bangkok. Lights blinked and flickered in the fading dusk, the city seeming more foreign and distant the closer we approached.
For more information on travel to Bangkok, contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand, 5 World Trade Center, Suite 2449, New York, N.Y. 10048, (212) 432-0433. Charles F. King is a writer and photographer living in Hayward, Calif.