An Unexpected Call
Working at a desk in Golden, Colorado, I rarely get phone calls from female reporters in Thailand. Apparently one was on the line.
“Her name’s Susan Cunningham,” explained the phone receptionist. “She’s an American reporter calling from Bangkok, and is asking if she can speak with you.”
I took the call.
She was doing a report on Thai Gems—the big etailer of colored stones in Thailand—and was looking for outside perspectives on their pricing model. That had brought her to Polygon, and to me. After the call, plus a series of follow-up emails, she had her story. “Look me up if you ever come to Bangkok!” she’d offered, breezily.
I thought no more about it, not having any plans for visiting Thailand. But a few weeks later CIBJO (think: UN, for the jewelry industry) announced their annual Congress would be in Bangkok. Several years ago Polygon had built and hosted the CIBJO website, so we had strong connections with the group. More importantly, the heads of all the national jewelry associations attend CIBJO, making it a target-rich environment from a marketing standpoint. I hadn’t missed one for seven years. So apparently I did have plans for visiting Thailand.
I decided to find out more about Susan Cunningham. Google had her bio. It was both eclectic and impressive: a series of free lance and editorial positions at niche trade and news publications mostly in the Far East: Hong Kong, Tokyo, Vietnam, and now obviously Bangkok. All well and good, but I found these items of greater interest.
Co-author of Insight Guide: Thailand, Insight Guide: Bangkok and Insight Guide: Vietnam. All published by Apa/Langenscheidt (Singapore and London).
Languages: Decent French and Spanish; indecent Thai and Japanese.
She wrote travel guides. And her specialty was Thailand. And even “indecent Thai” put her far ahead of me. An idea began growing. I’d only been to Thailand once before, during the World Diamond Federation meeting in 1998. Three days, and I’d barely left the hotel. And everyone says Bangkok is the worst part of the country anyway. So I hadn’t really “done” Thailand. And there were more stars aligning. A few nights earlier I’d watched the old WWII movie on TV: “Bridge Over The River Kwai,” with William Holden and Alec Guinness. It takes place in the jungles of Thailand, and involves glorious scenery, mountainous landscapes, a pristine river, and…a really cool railroad bridge made entirely out of bamboo and teak.
A little more Googling and I had the information I needed. The Bridge Over The River Kwai was still there. Not the fairytale one from the movie, but a more modern version. It was near the town of Kanchanaburi, which apparently had become a bit of a tourist attraction because of its famous bridge.
A trip to an isolated, remote part of the country, one where I didn’t speak even one word of the language, sounded difficult. But it wouldn’t be difficult at all if I could bring along my own tour guide.
Some more emailing and I was back in touch with Susan. Yes, she’d love a day trip to Kanchanaburi, after my business event. We’d work out the details later.
Sex And The City
It was my third night at the CIBJO Congress and I was having dinner with Jerry Buckley, a fundraiser for the GIA, and Cecilia Gardner, an attorney, and head of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee in New York. We were taking a break from the heavy schedule of meetings during the day, and soirees at night.
“Do you believe this place?” said Jerry. “I’ve never had so many solicitations for sex in my life.”
“Really, what do you mean?” I knew Bangkok was one of the sex tourism capitals of the world, but I hadn’t received any solicitations. Well, except for that weird incident at check-in, which I was still trying to figure out. But now I was suddenly annoyed. Jerry was an average looking, middle-aged, white guy, like me. And he was being solicited for sex constantly? What was I, chopped liver or something? Not that I was in the market for a prostitute, but, well, what did they see in Jerry?
“OK, I guess I’m exaggerating,” he confessed. “The other night in the hotel elevator a guy got on and hanging on his arm was a gorgeous woman, attired about as conservatively as Janet Jackson after her wardrobe malfunction. She was giving me the eye the whole way up, like “I’ll be finished with this guy in thirty minutes. Want me to come to your room next?”
“Oh, right, Jerry, like she wanted you so bad. That’s not exactly a solicitation.”
“Yeah, well how about last night, with those naked women on the river cruise?”
“Naked women? What are you talking about?”
“You know, the topless dancers.”
The prior night the entire CIBJO Congress had been hosted by Premier Gems, a Bangkok colored-stone company, on a luxury river cruise boat. The top deck, under the stars, had been converted for dancing, and an ongoing show had been provided as well: lovely Thai women in native costume performing exotic dances to the music. I’d videotaped the whole thing, although it had been pretty dark.
“They weren’t topless!”
“Yes,” said Cecilia. “They were definitely topless. I was watching the show thinking ‘What am I doing here, on a river cruise in Bangkok, watching naked women?” In a prior life, Cecilia had been a Federal Prosecutor in Brooklyn, NY. Elegant Thai models dancing under the moon on a river cruise-boat in Bangkok were not exactly her thing.
“I didn’t realize they were topless!”
“Well you were looking through the viewfinder. No wonder!” explained Jerry. “And they had very lavish outfits. It was very subtle. But, bottom line, bare nipples.”
I resolved in my mind to go back and study all the video tape I’d taken, to see if he was correct.
“Anyway,” continued Jerry. “After one performance one of them came up to me and touched my arm and said ‘You have mah-nay? You give me mah-nay? I go with you.”
“No kidding? OK, that sounds like a solicitation. Hey, I just remembered, at one point I was coming up the stairs and the dancers were going down and one of them touched my arm and whispered something in my ear, too. I couldn’t understand her, and she had to keep repeating herself but with all the music I had no idea what she was saying. She finally gave up, and I felt really bad that I hadn’t understood, because of her accent and the music and everything.”
“I bet it was ‘You have mah-nay?’” said Jerry.
But my mind was already drifting to that other encounter, something I hadn’t understood at the time, yet perhaps was now coming into focus.
It had been the morning I’d arrived at the CIBJO Congress. I was checking in at the elegant and lavish front desk of the Marriott Bangkok Resort & Spa. Staffing this desk were half a dozen utterly lovely, young Thai women, busily checking in the guests, handing out room keys, swiping credit cards and the like. Very business-like yet gracious and charming even so. Their floor-length, form-fitting Thai gowns—in every color imaginable—were alluring with one shoulder bare, and the other chastely covered by a gold and embroidered sash. They were delicately made-up, and when they looked at you and smiled, eyelashes fluttering, well, it made one wish the check-in process at this hotel would drag on forever.
Yet they were very quick and efficient, and it didn’t take long. When it was time to hand me a room card, the receptionist called another of the women over—actually the loveliest of them all, someone who might easily have won the Miss Universe crown for Thailand—and gave my card to her instead. This was curious. The woman came out from behind the desk, placed her hands together, fingers pointing up in the ritual Thai greeting, bowed down, closed her eyes, and spoke softly: “Sawaadee kaaah…,” she said.
My taxi driver had already taught me, earlier in the day, that the equivalent of “hello,” in Thai, or “greetings,” or perhaps “aloha,” is the multi-purpose word: “Sawaadee.” When it’s spoken by a man, it ends with “kop” Rhymes with top, and is spoken sharply, as if one is impatient with the encounter, and tired of all this fooling around with greetings and such. “Sawadee kop!” says a man, demonstrating his authority. Yet when a woman says it, explained the driver, it ends with “kaaaah….”, which is a very languorous, sensual word, that deliberately trails off into an unknown and mysterious ending—inferring that the one speaking it is enjoying the encounter and wishes to prolong it as long as possible. The taxi driver hadn’t phrased it that way, exactly, but that was how it seemed to me, every time I heard the word.
Now this lovely young Thai hostess was giving me the “kaaah….” treatment, and it was spoken with such dreamless ecstasy that one might imagine she would follow it up by lying back and smoking a cigarette, afterwards.
OK, whatever. This was Thai culture and I was knowingly out of my element and needing to make allowances. It would be too easy to imagine that these desirable women were engaging in flirtatious come-ons, which of course was ridiculous at the check-in desk of a 5-star Marriott Hotel. Miss Thailand, or whatever her day job was, proceeded to escort me through the hotel’s lush, resort-like environment of gardens, palm trees, rivers flowing daintily over rock gardens, and eventually up an elevator to my room. There was nothing enclosed here. Even this hallway was bordered on one side by an enchanting central atrium, most of which was consumed with a lush forest of bamboo trees. The hostess inserted the key-card in the lock, and stepped inside.
I was surprised at this, assuming she would merely bow, and gesture me in, and then hurry off to help other guests. I probably had needed a guide to find the room, given the sprawling nature of the resort. But she wasn’t serving as a bell-hop. I had only the slightest of luggage, and was carrying it myself.
But not only did she step into my room, she took off her shoes, as if doing so was the most natural and expected thing on earth. I was stunned. She walks into my room and takes off her shoes? What was coming off next? Years ago when I’d been single, most dates had never progressed so far, so fast.
A wiser man would have gone with the flow, but I was too puzzled, and could only blurt out stupidly: “Excuse me, why are you taking off your shoes?”
She looked up at me (those eyelashes again) and smiled. “Thai custom, to take off shoes when entering room.”
I wasn’t so sure. I’d been to business hotels in Thailand before, and I didn’t recall any shoe removal ceremonies at any of them. Taking off shoes is tradition when entering a private home in Japan, for example, or even when entering a “ryokan,” a traditional Japanese inn. But at a business hotel, in bustling Bangkok? Hmmm….
OK, fine. If she was going to take off her shoes, so was I. Soon I was following her into the room, equally un-shod. It was a large room. There was more than enough space here for the lavish sofa, two arm chairs, a desk and chair, a lavish home entertainment center with television, CD player, DVD player, etc., and finally—one of the largest king sized beds I’ve ever seen. My young escort turned on a few subtle lights, and then—with practiced fingers, adjusted the controls of the entertainment console such that the room was now filled with soft, romantic music. It wasn’t Thai music. This was candle-light and wine, American soft-rock. It was very low-volume, subtle, like a hint of perfume. With the curtains fully closed, the room was quite dark. If she was trying to set a mood, it was working. I wasn’t sure what came next.
“May we sit for awhile?” she asked. “Perhaps on the balcony?”
Was I dreaming this? She wanted to go out on the balcony with me. And…sit?
I did not object, and soon the two of us were sitting on a very private, utterly-lovely balcony almost overhanging the broad Chao Phraya river. The thick warmth of Asian humidity enveloped us, and the indolent aroma of flowers and tropical vegetation was so intense we seemed to be not merely breathing it, but touching it like satin.
She stared out at the scene, quite content—apparently—to just enjoy the moment. Not a word of conversation. Few enough things on earth could have distracted me from this pretty girl sitting on the balcony, but those that could were right in front of us: boats. Cruising up and down the river was a plethora of water-craft, everything from industrial-strength tugs and barges filled with gravel, to those elegant, signature-Thai “long-tail boats” once featured in the James Bond film “Man With The Golden Gun.”
Finally she turned to business. She’d brought with her some information about the hotel, a map, a card that explained which restaurants were on site and their hours, an engraved envelope with a welcome letter from the hotel manager and, finally, a lovely flower blossom which she gave to me in ceremonial fashion, eyes twinkling as she placed it ritually in my outstretched palm.
“Do you have any questions,” she asked demurely, as she stared again out at the lovely garden-like setting. Gone was the brisk efficiency so evident at the check-in desk. She seemed to have all the time in the world. I feared that if I had no questions, she might leave.
“May we talk about boats?” I asked, choosing to stay on familiar ground.
“Of course,” she replied, suddenly intrigued, and curious. She was smiling again.
Tied up at the hotel dock, less than fifty yards away, were two very odd craft. Totally made of wood—almost certainly teak (as a former boat-builder I can recognize that most sinister of material even from a distance; many of my drill bits had fallen victim to teak’s steel-like properties), these boats resembled Chinese “junks,” perhaps 70 feet in length, extremely high freeboard, and what appeared to be two covered decks—possibly implying staterooms from the presence of cute little windows peeking out, each with its own set of shutters.
“What are those?” I asked, pointing at the strange vessels.
“Ah, they are traditional Thai rice barges. But now they have been converted to cruise boats. They go up the river for cruises. Three-day cruises.”
“So do you sleep on them?”
“Oh, yes, they have private rooms in them. You go all the way to Ayutthaya and back. I understand it is a wonderful trip.”
Somehow, caught up in the moment, intoxicated by the young woman out here on the balcony with me, I said something way too flirtatious, and inappropriate. Of course I was kidding, but I shouldn’t have said it, even if I was kidding.
“So, if I go on the boat, up to Ayutthaya, will you go with me?”
As soon as I’d said the words, I knew I’d broken the mood, crossed a line, and earned a sharp rebuke. “I’m sorry, I think I need to return to the reception desk,” was what she would now say, and then leave swiftly. On the other hand if she were gracious, and very adept at dealing with boors such as me, she’d merely laugh it off as if I’d made a joke, and then change the subject quickly, and soon we’d back into business-like dialogue about when the swimming pool was opened for guests and which restaurants required reservations.
“Yes, I will go with you on the boat to Ayutthaya,” she said, “if you want me to.”
She wasn’t looking at me now. She was looking out over the water. No doubt I’d misunderstood. Problems with English as a second language. Cultural miscommunication. Whatever. Yet it had sounded like she’d said: “Yes, I will go with you on the boat, if you want me to.”
I must have misunderstood, right? She couldn’t really have said that.
And now she had turned back and was looking at me so intently and disarmingly I was—probably for the first time in my life—speechless. I’d thought I was flirting harmlessly—the situation had almost required it—and had gone too far. She seemed to think the journey was just beginning.
I laughed it off, as if she’d made a joke, and changed the subject quickly, asking a very specific question about which restaurants required reservations. Eventually we left the balcony and were back in the room. The radio was now playing “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill, an extremely romantic song, perfect for slow-dancing at a high-school sock hop. She stopped in the middle of the room, hesitated, and closed her eyes dreamily for an instant. Then she opened them and looked up at me.
“I’m sorry. It’s just…well, that is one of my favorite songs. It’s just…. Oh, I can’t explain….” She drifted off into her own fantasy world for a moment, and then—as if coming back to reality with effort, she stared back up at me.
I am not that experienced a person, when it comes to women, but if any woman, anywhere in the world, was ever giving off signals that she wanted to be held—to be touched, it was this young Thai beauty, barefoot in her nylons and sensuous in her elegant gown, standing near me in the middle of a darkened hotel room, mere inches from the king-size bed, and with romantic music playing softly. She was apparently waiting for me to make the next move.
What the hell was going on? This was a social situation I’d have found it hard to handle even if I wasn’t jet-lagged from flying half way around the world. Touching her was unthinkable. Not touching her seemed almost rude. She was clearly asking to be touched.
Or was she? To my Western perceptions it seemed she was inviting me to reach out and take her in my arms. But of course she wasn’t. I was in Thailand. The rules were different. I had to recognize that what would seem like one thing at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, was utterly different in the relaxed, graciousness of a resort hotel in Bangkok. This was no doubt merely normal behavior—dutiful attentiveness and friendliness from a female hotel employee, towards a male guest—and I was expected to be polite in return, and not think it meant more than it did. Anyway, I was married. Very happily married. It wasn’t an option no matter what was going on.
Although I was kicking myself for never having visited this country in my twenties.
She eventually returned to her shoes, and stepped outside my room. “If you need or want anything, anything at all, I hope you’ll come ask for me personally at the front desk,” she said. “My name is Neena…” She gave me a final, parting look, sizzling enough to melt wax off a candle. And then she was gone.
Utterly confused about what had just happened, I showered, changed into my suit, straightened my tie, and headed down to the registration desk of the 2004 CIBJO Congress. By the time I’d collected my conference materials and entered the first seminar room, I was certain I must have dreamed the whole thing.
“Wow,” said Jerry, after I finished telling the story.
“Wow,” said Cecilia.
“So do you think she was serious?” I asked.
“You bet!” said Jerry. “This is Thailand.”
“I think I need to get back to New York…” said Cecilia.
Bangkok by Boat
I was at the CIBJO congress to network with important jewelry industry people, yet the meetings themselves generally didn’t concern me. CIBJO exists to agree on standards such as “Can a .99999 ct. diamond be counted as 1.00 carat, or does it need to be .999999. Such can consume a CIBJO meeting for hours. So when the meetings themselves began, I generally went back to my room and got work done. This had been going on for three days and I needed a break.
Susan had suggested I hire a long tail boat and get a tour of the canals around Thonburi, the Bangkok suburb where the hotel was located, and also an area known for its canals or “thongs” as they are called in Thai.
Cecilia joined me, since the meetings which concerned her were already over. The hotel concierge arranged it, but I had a special request.
“”I will pay extra if I can drive the long-tail boat myself—at least some of the time,” I explained.
“You want to drive the boat?”
“Yes. I want to learn how to do it.”
I’d been fascinated with these Thai long-tail boats ever since seeing them in the James Bond movie: “Man With A Golden Gun,” which included a duel between Bond and the bad guys out to get him, on the Thai canals, via long-tail boats.
They are very odd craft, and their propulsion and steering system is even odder. Shaped like an elongated canoe, they are about thirty feet in length and perhaps four feet at their widest spot. Tiny wooden seats, just barely able to seat two westerners side by side, are set directly into this long hull, attached athwartship to the gunwales on either side. The boats are so long that there can be as many as eight of these seats. Sixteen people could ride in a long-tail boat, yet rarely does one see more than two or three in them. Perhaps it wasn’t tourist season, or perhaps the Avian Flu scare—a deadly chicken-borne disease which had recently given the world news media something new to cluck about—had frightened everyone away.
These boats would be very unstable in any kind of lateral wave action, I suspected, yet no doubt they were adequate for river work. Otherwise, certainly, the world news media would have inundated us with stories like this:
Another Thai long-tail boat overturned in the Chao Phraya river today, killing eighteen people and a driver. This brings the death toll to 146 for the month, in terms of such accidents. Local government officials have been quoted as saying that perhaps the time has come to broaden the beam of such vessels, and maybe add some ballast…
But instead the media gives us non-stop stories of third-world ferries overturning. It’s always interesting about those third-world ferries. You never hear:
The ferry in Bangladesh which overturned yesterday had a design-capacity of 312 and was at the time carrying 137, one-third of whom are missing and feared dead…
No, the story always goes:
The ferry in Bangladesh which overturned yesterday had a design-capacity of 312 and at the time was carrying 1,641 people, one third of whom are missing and feared dead…
Furthermore one never sees what should be a nearby, or follow up story, concerning the government probe into why the ferry had been filled so far above its capacity, what government official was responsible for such a thing, and how many years in prison the corrupt bureaucrat would now receive. No, it’s almost as if third world countries have seized upon deliberately-overloaded ferries as their sole means of population control—having tried and failed with every other method.
I digress. We met our driver at the hotel dock and soon were skimming over the waves. Oh, yes, the reason we were skimming, and not ploughing doggedly, was because of the other odd nature of the long-tail boat: its long-tail. Long-tail boats propel themselves via a fifteen-foot long crankshaft that runs from the engine, directly through a flexible casing, and all the way aft to the propeller—which is simply attached to the crankshaft. The only value in having the “tail” be so long, that I could imagine, was that it was necessary to balance the weight of the engine itself, which was both huge (resembling an automobile engine open to the world) and stuck at the forward end of this long shaft, in the same way that the propeller was stuck at the other end. The engine, being near the pivot point, was thus balanced by the 15 foot long tail, much as the business end of a kangaroo can be balanced over its feet by a lavish appendage sticking out far behind.
Being so exposed to the world, the engine could probably air-cool itself, and by having the crankshaft extend all the way to the propeller, one neatly avoided the need for gears, further simplifying the concept. Having taken such a one-dimensional, ultra-simplistic approach to propulsion, the designers saw no reason to complicate matters with a steering wheel or rudder. No, the driver merely held on to the engine through another pole extending forward, and moved it back and forth like a sailboat tiller, thus exerting a powerful turning force by virtue of the propeller’s direction. The driver could move that propeller all over the place: deep under the water, or entirely out of the water, and could swing it in broad arcs, side to side. It was this ability to maneuver the spinning propeller entirely out of the water that apparently had fascinated the producers of “Man With a Golden Gun.” Two opposing long-tail boats could inflict massive destruction on each other, through their vicious dueling propellers, used like adeadly scimitars.
The driver made us understand that we would tour the canals first and then we’d come back to the Chao Phraya river and he’d let me drive. I understood this completely. When the crazy American took control of the vessel, the captain wanted plenty of sea room.
Shortly downstream of the Marriott we turned away from river and entered the labyrinthine world of Thonburi’s canals. The weather was clear, at least if the muggy, smoggy atmosphere of Greater Bangkok, cooking in the afternoon sun, could ever be considered “clear.” The water in the canals made not even a pretense of clear-ness. A charitable observer might call it muddy, yet I suspected that mud was not the only reason for its color. Certainly in India they consider all waterways merely sewage treatment plants, and while Thailand is not at that level of filth, I absolutely had no desire to go swimming here.
The canal itself was much larger than its Venetian counterpart. A long-tail boat and a gondola are similar in width, yet two gondolas have just barely enough room to pass on most Venetian waterways, while a dozen or more long-tails could have cruised side-by-side here in Bangkok.
In addition to the long-tails, of which there were many, both cruising the canal and tied up to the banks, we also observed hand-powered boats piled high with marketable wares: produce, manufactured goods, or even—in one case—souvenirs. These were the Thai equivalent, it seemed, of a convenience store, and in size and shape, could perhaps be called “micro-sampans;” canoe-length, yet of broad beam, and utterly flat-bottomed. This design would be very desirable for shallow, sheltered water, and where a large array of visible space was essential. Our own driver shut down the engine and we drifted gracefully over to the side of the canal where one of these was waiting.
It was, of course, a setup. This was a floating souvenir store, and neither Cecilia nor I had any desire to spend money on all the hideous trinkets that third-world vendors are convinced tourists wish to buy. We waved to the driver to not stop here, but to continue the tour, and he did so—much to the disappointment of the souvenir-boat lady I’m sure.
On the banks, adorning the canals, was an eclectic array of structures—an odd juxtaposition of the old and the new.
The new were invariably made of cement and plaster—the favorite building materials of third-world countries in the 21st century—and what had been built apparently as private residences: one or two story structures often with tiny, well-manicured yards and invariably with a fresh coat of paint on the homes themselves. The architecture was hard to pin down—kind of a cross between Florida beach-front bungalow and Swiss chalet—yet somehow they pulled it off. Truly these were upper-middle-class dwellings, given their waterfront location; assuming we can call the dubious liquid in the canal “water.”
The old was always wooden. These were what an American would call shacks, with the wood itself unpainted, and weathered by the sun to a dull and rustic brown. There were rectangular openings in the walls, for doors and windows, but of course they were never shuttered, or even had shutters. It was too hot in Bangkok to ever close a window or a doorway—hence the shack windows didn’t have such things. So as our boat passed swiftly, cruising down the waterway at about 20 miles per hour, we could catch glimpses into the blackness within the shacks, which is to say we could see nothing inside at all. Occasionally a Thai person—man, woman, or child—would be standing in the doorway, or looking out of one of the windows. Often they would smile and sometimes they would smile and wave. One young man jumped off his deck and into the canal water itself, either for a swim or too bathe. I could only hope he’d been inoculated against Hepatitis A, and Hepatitis B, and every Hepatitis down through Z and beyond for that matter. Probably this canal was filled with entirely new, undiscovered strains of Hepatitis.
As mentioned, Thailand at the time was in the midst of the Avian Flu scare, so much so that the nicer restaurants weren’t even serving chicken. Yet it was certain some of those flu-ridden hens had died and fallen into these canals, where they were now decomposing at a frantic pace, spreading their flu-virus throughout the waterways of Bangkok. As the boat crossed the wake of another, and water splashed into my face, I kept my lips pressed tightly together—utterly unwilling to allow any of that fetid liquid inside my body.
Next stop on this tour—and we had no say in this as the driver spoke almost no English—was a reptile farm. The reptile farm caretaker extracted 50 baht apiece from us (about twenty-five cents) and in we went. Celia and I exchanged looks, which clearly said: “There is perhaps nothing on Earth I’m less interested in doing than visiting a reptile farm right now, but we’re kind of trapped here so best get on with it…”
We strolled around the grounds a bit—untidy, uncared for grounds—and spotted a lizard in a cage here, an iguana in another cage over there. I even condescended to use up some of my video tape on them, knowing video tape can be erased and recorded over and finding in the act of taping lizards a more interesting occupation than is afforded by merely looking at them.
Yet soon we and few other tourists were ushured into a tiny amphitheater, about twenty-five yards in diameter, where a sort of master-of-ceremonies person was welcoming us. We didn’t like this guy. He smiled continuously, in a false-flattery, sneering kind of way. And his heavy accent was a combination of oily, artificial, and effeminate. The show itself was worse.
Cobras were brought out, and the snake handlers enjoyed tormenting them with sticks, until they’d lunge and try to strike—always unsuccessfully because the handlers were very good at this. It seemed to us a form of snake torture and we found nothing entertaining about it. Then one of the cobras was carefully picked up—being held just behind the head—and we were treated to a demonstration of how one “milks” the venom from a cobra. Squeezing the beast’s head in just the right way produced a trickle of loathsome liquid into a dirty, stained glass jar…
Cecilia and I looked at each other again, nodded, and climbed out of the amphitheater by escaping over the back row.
“Wait! Wait!” said oily man. “Show not over.”
“Our boat is leaving!” I yelled back, and we raced swiftly away before he could protest further, or send the snakes after us, or whatever. Our departure had only thinned the audience by about a third, so the show could certainly go on.
Back aboard our long-tail craft, we escaped not just the lizard place but also the thongs themselves, and were once more back on the broad Chao Phraya river. Finally it was my turn to drive the boat, and I eagerly exchanged places with our guide. As noted, the long pole coming off the engine functioned like a tiller, and the engine itself was so perfectly balanced on its universal-joint that I could easily-enough move the propeller in and out of the water, and sweep it back and forth. A tiny lever on the tiller itself was a throttle, and pushing it forward increased the RPMs of the engine. It was spring-loaded, so letting go or easing back would reduce the speed.
All well and good, except for the “P-Factor.” The P-Factor is an aviation term, and refers to the twisting motion inflicted on an airplane by the rotation of its propeller. At high power settings (such as on takeoff) the P-factor will force an airplane’s nose to the right. This is remedied by pressing on the left rudder pedal—which brings the nose back where it’s supposed to be. The p-factor varies in strength, based on the type of aircraft.
On a long tail boat, I discovered, the p-factor becomes one of the most powerful forces in nature. But it does not force the nose of the boat to the right. No, for some reason the p-factor forces the propeller up out of the water. And this pushes the long pole-like tiller-arm which you use to control everything, downwards.
So as you increase the speed of the engine, the tiller tries to pull itself out of your hands in a downwards direction. I found my strength ebbing after only a few seconds, and wondered how the driver managed it. Then I realized he was gesturing to me, and showing me the proper technique. Long-tail drivers apparently drive with one leg up on the seat, with the knee bent 90 degrees. The upper part of the leg thus forms a platform, against which the tiller arm can be set. Once set against a bent leg in such fashion, it’s much easier to keep the tiller-arm up where it needs to be, and the propeller safely and properly down in the water.
Yet even doing this was difficult. The p-factor was so powerful, the tiller was digging furiously into my leg. The force wasn’t quite strong enough to break the bone, but very much strong enough to leave a painful bruise that I knew would be heavily discolored by morning.
Well, this was a small price to pay to drive a long-tail boat at high speed down the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. Or so it seemed for the first minute or two. Soon I began to realize how much more fun it would be to not be holding this evil tiller-from-hell device that was still desperate to break through my flesh and seek freedom on the other side. I smiled to the driver, handed him the tiller after cutting the throttle, and took my place again beside Cecilia—who’d dutifully videotaped the entire event. Understanding how painful and difficult the p-factor had been, the driver gestured to me, and held up a pair of jeans from a locker. Using hand signals, he called my attention to the fact that on both pant legs, the fabric was totally worn thru and holes now existed where once there had been jeans. But he also showed me the real technique which makes it all bearable. His legs were positioned differently, such that both were bent, and thus both could serve as a platform for holding the tiller.
I wondered how much longer it would require before long-tail boat technology evolved to a system that did not require a driver’s jeans to get continually worn through, as the price to operate the boat. Here was an idea: They could mount the engine inside the boat, run the shaft out through a bearing below waterline, and then steer the craft with a traditional rudder. In other words, they could copy what the rest of the world had been doing for the last hundred years. But no, then Thailand would lose all of its delightfully-dysfunctional long-tail boats, and the world would thereafter be a slightly less interesting place. Anyway, holes in jeans can be repaired.
Grand Palace/Simple House
In Paris you visit the Eiffel Tower. In New York, the Statue of Liberty. The quintessential tourist attraction in Bangkok, the one you have to see before you’re allowed to leave the country, is the Grand Palace. After more meetings, Cecilia and I set off the next day for this obligatory tour of the Grand Palace.
It was a thirty-minute boat ride from our hotel dock, upstream on the Chao Phraya river to the dock which serviced the Grand Palace. The wife of yesterday’s long-tail boat driver took us there, in a different boat. They were quite the couple: each with their own boat, ferrying tourists about, and being able to ply their trade in the midst of the only cool and pleasant environment n Bangkok: the river itself. Before handing us over to his wife, the long-tail driver explained admonished us not to go to the first entryway to the palace. Apparently this was where the tourists went, and a higher-than-normal admission fee was charged. We were go to the second gate. Also, we were warned to avoid the “guides” who would try to insist we were required to hire them in order to see the palace.
I’d lived eight years in New York, and knew I could blow past these “guides” with the determination of a jaded Manhattanite. And I was with Cecilia, a 6’ 2” former federal prosecutor from Brooklyn. She would eat any pathetic shake-down artists for lunch, chew them up, and spit them back out in the canals. No, it would take more than such transparent tourist rip-offs to separate us from our hard earned baht.
“25 baht” said the man, as we exited the pier, or rather as we tried to exit it.
“In your dreams,” said Cecilia, ready to charge on past.
An arm came down swiftly. “25 baht.”
“What for? 25 baht.”
“Use pier. 25 baht.”
“But there are no signs. No ‘25 baht to use the pier’ signs,” protested Cecilia, thinking legally, which was probably a silly thing to do in Thailand.
“Use pier. 25 baht.”
Eventually we caved. We’d been prepared for the beggars and touts. It hadn’t occurred to us that some quasi-official entity would try to extract 25 baht for pier use. Well, it was only 50 cents. It was either a legitimate fee, or a scam, but it was simply too hot and humid to argue about it.
The Grand Palace was the kind of thing a Southeast Asian potentate builds if he has more money than he knows what to do with. Gaudy? The word doesn’t begin to describe it. Excessively opulent? Better. Over the top, whacked out, temples-gone-berserk-everything-gold-plated-and oppressively-ornate? That would come close. Thinking back a couple of hundred years to when all this was built, one could imagine easily that the king had been determined to prove how rich he was by building these temples and shrines and whatevers. Yet despite the obscene wealth lavished on the Grand Palace and its buildings, the king had not found a cure for the one thing that would have been worthy of resources: finding a way to defeat the heat and humidity.
The three hottest places I’ve ever been:
#1: The Yucatan peninsula, in August.
#2: The Fiji islands in February (their summer).
#3: The Grand Palace in Bangkok in February (their winter).
Yet even though it was the heart of winter, sweat was pouring off me, and—worse—was not able to evaporate since the humidity of the air was already at 100%. This Grand Palace didn’t need any more gem-encrusted shrines and buildings. It needed shade.
And we’d just come upon something that might give it to us. Our map indicated this was the Chapel Royal of the Emerald Buddha. You could go into this chapel, apparently—many people were doing so—and we could see through the doorway that once in, you sat down cross-legged on the tile floor. And you then looked towards the front of the chapel where, presumably, was found the Emerald Buddha.
Cecilia had wanted to see this Emerald Buddha. And I wanted shade and (hopefully) cool tile floors to sit on. It all sounded much better than being out in the hot sun. We dutifully removed our shoes—removing shoes at a temple was definitely a Thai custom—and stepped inside. My legs are built in such a way that I can’t sit cross-legged and I was pleased when Cecilia whispered to me: “I can’t sit cross legged, my legs don’t bend that way.”
So we sat with our legs out to the side, which perhaps violated chapel etiquette, but it suited boht of us. Perhaps fifty other people were arrayed on the tile floor, and all of us were now staring towards the front of the room, where stood the Emerald Buddha.
Buddha’s, I was discovering, come in many flavors, much like Barbies. Thus you have “Skiing Barbie,” “Nurse Barbie,” “Prom Barbie,” “Kick-boxing Barbie,” and so forth. In Thailand you have “Kneeling Buddha,” “Standing Buddha,” “Thin Buddha,” “Fat Buddha,” (I’m not kidding, that one’s quite popular), “Happy Buddha,” “Sad Buddha,” etc. Here, it seemed, we had “Emerald Buddha.” It was the crowning object atop a lavish and opulent shrine of marble and gold. Perhaps eighteen inches high, it depicted Buddha in a standing position, and very slim. Maybe this could also have served as “South Beach Diet Buddha.”
While enjoying the shade, I read the information from our guidebook:
The Chapel Royal of the Emerald Buddha houses a beautiful statue of Buddha that is the object of national veneration. The statue attracts huge crowds who come to pay their respects to the memory of Buddha and His Teachings on those days of the week it is open. The main building consists of all the features of a monastery except living quarters. Monks do not live within the chapel as they do in others. The Emerald Buddha was first discovered in 1464 and brought to Lampan where it remained until King Tilok of Lannatai brought it to Chienmai, the ancient capital. Power eventually passed to King Jayajettha of Luan Praban, whose mother was a Chienmai Princess, and he took the statue with him back to Luan Praban. King Jayajettha moved the capital to Wiencand and took the Emerald Buddha with him. It remained there until the King of Dhonburi sent an expedition to Wiencand which brought the effigy back with them. When King Rama I built the city of Bangkok and the chapel royal and grand palace the Emerald Buddha was installed in the chapel. There is only one other effigy that the Thai people hold with as much veneration as the Emerald Buddha. That is the Sambuddhabarni Buddha cast by King Monkut, Rama IV. The building contains murals depicting the life of Buddha, a painted middle-aged conception of the universe, birth stories and nursery rhymes. Some of the door panels contain beautiful inlaid work in mother-of-pearl. The Chapel Royal of the Emerald Buddha is, perhaps, the most beautiful of the buildings at the Grand Palace. It is so elaborately decorated on its outside walls with hundreds, if not thousands, of small golden statues of mystical figures. Pictures inside the chapel are not allowed, but the real beauty (besides the statue of Buddha) is outside.
While I was reading about the Emerald Buddha, Cecilia was staring at the object. Finally, reaching a decision, she whispered to me: “I don’t think it’s emerald. I think it’s jade.” As Executive Director of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, Cecilia is charged with putting a stop to fraudulent gem and jewelry advertising, wherever she finds it. If she’d found this Emerald Buddha in a U.S. jewelry store, she’d have called in the cops and shut them down.
I kept reading and discovered, far down the page, this line:
The Emerald Buddha is actually made of jade, not emerald…
I showed this disclaimer to Cecilia and she nodded, appreciating the full disclosure.
After one tours the Grand Palace the next required stop for tourists is the Jim Thompson House. I’d read about this place last time I’d been in Bangkok, or at least I’d read the first sentence in the guidebook, before getting bored.
Jim Thompson was an American who was born in Greenville, Delaware, in 1906.
That sentence was sufficiently sleep-inducing to not incline one to read further. I was in exotic Bangkok, Thailand and I was supposed to go see some American’s…house? A lizard museum sounded more exciting. But Cecilia was quite certain it was a must-see attraction, so this time I kept reading—out of curiosity if nothing else.
A practicing architect prior to World War II, he volunteered for service in the U.S. Army, campaigned in Europe, and came to Asia as part of the force that planned to liberate Thailand. However, the war ended before the operation. He arrived in Bangkok a short time later as a military intelligence officer attached to the O.S.S. (predecessor to the CIA). After leaving the service, he decided to return and live in Thailand permanently.
The hand weaving of silk, a long-neglected cottage industry, captured Jim Thompson’s attention, and he devoted himself to reviving the craft. Highly gifted as a designer and textile colorist, he contributed substantially to the industry’s growth and to the worldwide recognition accorded to Thai silk.
He gained further renown through the construction of his house combining six teak buildings which represented the best of traditional Thai architecture. Most of the houses were at least two centuries old and were easily dismantled and brought to the present site, some from as far away as the old capital of Ayutthaya.
Ah, yes, Ayutthaya, where the rice barges go on their three-day cruise. I found myself momentarily distracted by impure thoughts, and then, still bored by the text, kept reading.
In his quest for authenticity, Jim Thompson adhered to the customs of the early builders in most respects. The houses were elevated a full story above the ground, a practical Thai precaution to avoid flooding during the rainy season, and the roof tiles were fired in Ayutthaya employing a design common centuries ago but rarely used today. The red paint on the outside walls is a preservative commonly found on many old Thai buildings. The chandeliers were electrified as a concession to modern convenience, but even they belong to a past era, having come from 18th and 19th century Bangkok palaces.
All the traditional religious procedures were followed during construction of the house, and on a date in the spring of 1959, decreed as being auspicious by astrologers, Jim Thompson moved in. The house and the art collection soon became such a point of interest that he decided to open it to the public with proceeds donated to Thai charities and to projects directed at the preservation of Thailand’s rich cultural heritage.
On March 27th 1967, Jim Thompson disappeared while on a visit to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Not a single valid clue has turned up in the ensuing years as to what might have happened to him. His famous Thai house, however, remains as a lasting reminder of his creative ability and his deep love of Thailand.
We took a cab, an air-conditioned cab, to the Jim Thompson house, and immediately discovered why it was so popular. The several acre space, adjoining one of the smaller thongs (canals), was heavily treed and thus utterly shaded. Perhaps there was a house somewhere in that forest, I didn’t really care. I was attracted to the park-like setting and the cool air it provided. I realized that King Mama 1 or whatever his name was should have invested his resources planting trees for the Grand Palace, and not worried so much about the gold and the gems and the Buddha’s.
We paid a slight admission fee, and were taken on an hour-long tour of the house, in company with about eight other tourists. The tours were conducted in several languages, and we, obviously, had signed up for the English-speaking tour. Yet the others in our group weren’t Americans or even Brits. They were all Asians, generally twenty-something’s. I heard Japanese spoken, and also Chinese. It was another reminder of how English was rapidly becoming the world language. Tours were not available in Japanese or Chinese but most people in those countries—especially young people—were fluent in English.
One couple caught my interest. The guy was a little overweight, somewhat homely, and had those dark, heavy glasses so ubiquitous among nerdy Asians. His female companion, by contrast, was utterly striking, at least in a red-light-district kind of way. She was very young (perhaps 17 going on 37), very thin, and very beautiful—although not in Neena’s league. She was heavily made up as if ready for a hot date on a Saturday night. Her dress was borderline scandalous: high slits up the legs, plunging neckline, very tight-fitting. High heels and gold earrings completed the picture. I noticed that throughout the tour, she was constantly touching the guy, always holding his arm, caressing him slightly when the opportunity existed, and basically just hanging all over him—as if she couldn’t wait to get back to their hotel room. Touring the Jim Thompson house, it seemed, was apparently getting her just so…aroused.
Whatever. It was another reminder of how Bangkok wasn’t about temples, or long-tail boats, or silk-merchant’s houses, or even lizard museums. It was about sex. I really was curious how much it cost for this kind of escort service. Two dollars a day? Two thousand a day? I had no clue, but felt it would have been slightly rude to have asked her outright, while we walked from one Jim Thompson room to another.
Actually, the house was worth the visit. Think of it not as an American silk merchant’s house, but as an exquisite example of truly-beautiful, traditional Thai architecture. The rooms were connected by delightful little wooden stairways and wooden passages. The tables, chairs, cupboards and so forth were made of elegantly-carved teak. Artwork on the walls looked both expensive and tasteful, often highlighting hand-painted Thai silks, in beautiful gold frames. The doorways between the rooms included an awkward, foot-high barrier that one had to carefully step over. These, we were told, were “spirit traps.” Evil spirits, as is well known, slither along the floor. Place enough spirit traps around and they can’t get past the doorways.
Well that didn’t exactly make me feel better. That just meant the bad spirits were stuck in here with us! Jeesh, how ignorant can you get?
Another guidebook had this to say about the house.
Despite the name, Jim Thompson’s House is one of the best-preserved examples of the traditional Thai house in the city. This remarkable house-cum-museum accommodates Thompson’s vast collection of antiques and artworks from all over the Southeast Asian region. Notable items include priceless examples of blue and white Ming porcelain and 19th century jataka paintings, which cover the walls of the rooms. Don’t miss the headless Buddha figure in the garden, which dates from the 6th century. This early Dvaravati image is one of the oldest surviving Buddha statues in the world.
Our young guide made much of this headless Buddha. Or course it wasn’t meant to be headless. It wasn’t “Headless Buddha” like “Headless Barbie.” The head had simply broken off at some time in the last 1,500 years. I continued reading the guidebook.
Perhaps even more fascinating than the house itself is the tale of the mysterious owner, American Jim Thompson. A former member of the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, Thompson revived the flagging silk weaving industry at the end of the Second World War. His marketing skills helped turn the fortunes of the ailing Thai silk industry around, and Jim Thompson is to this day regarded as the very finest brand of Thai silk. As his business grew, Jim Thompson became a well-known Bangkok socialite, dedicated to reviving Thai crafts and arts. Much of his art collection is still on display at his Ayutthayan house in Bangkok’s Rama I Road area.
Jim Thompson disappeared under mysterious circumstances whilst on a walk in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia in 1967. Many theories have been put forward to explain his disappearance but the truth remains a mystery. Suggestions of a conspiracy involving his CIA connections have been proposed in explanation, but so too have jungle tigers, and Communist insurgents.
We took the SkyTrain—Bangkok’s high-tech elevated monorail—back to the river terminal, where a free shuttle-boat from the Marriot carried us across the river and back to the hotel. Both of us were thinking about Jim Thompson and his mysterious disappearance.
“It had to be the communists,” suggested Cecilia. “He was a CIA agent. That was at the height of the cold war. Communist insurgents were thick as flies in Southeast Asia and the CIA was trying to stop them. Why would the guy have been in the jungles of Malaysia anyway?”
“Hey, wait a minute,” I said. “I know what’s going on here. How likely is it that some American—a CIA agent for heaven’s sake—would just happen to end up in Bangkok and launch a thriving silk business? His “marketing skills helped turn the fortunes of the Thai silk industry around?” Give me a break. Where did he get those fabulous marketing skills? I bet the whole thing was a CIA front operation.”
“Of course!” agreed Cecilia. As a liberal Democrat she was always willing to buy into conspiracy theories about the CIA. “What a great cover. A silk merchant in Bangkok! The whole thing was obviously funded by the CIA. It has CIA written all over it.”
“And the house was just a foil,” I noted, continuing down the logical path. “All his touring around Thailand to find artwork and headless Buddha’s and such for the house, were just opportunities to make forays up-country and meet with his network of agents.”
“But the communists caught up with him in Malaysia,” observed Cecilia. “They knew what was going on, and they weren’t buying into this silk-merchant story. Probably the whole Vietnam war was connected to what Jim Thompson was doing here in Bangkok…”
Well, I wasn’t willing to go that far, but “CIA agent cum silk merchant” seemed a little too convenient. In any case, the whole thing had a branding problem. I was originally put off by the very name Jim Thompson. It’s just so boringly…American. You don’t name a line of Thai silks “Jim Thompson.” That’s like naming the brand “Bob Smith Silks.” How much could a Bob Smith know about silk? A Jim Thompson would know even less.
Hmmm. They needed a new name. Something that would captivate the modern market, yet still be evocative of traditional Thai culture. Finally it came to me. They should rename the Jim Thompson Company the “Headless Buddha Silk Factory.” Now that had cachet. And the logo? Well, it was so obvious…
Cecilia left that night for New York, and tomorrow I would be able to leave Bangkok myself. I had a full day off, and it was time to see the real Thailand.
Desperately Seeking Susan
Susan and I had never met and in such cases it’s tricky making plans for a rendezvous. One is tempted to ask: “So, what kind of person are you? Are you fat or skinny? Short or tall? Young or old? Tell me about your hair…” Answers to those questions would be valuable. But one can’t ask such things, so instead one talks about clothes.
“I’ll be wearing blue jeans and a lightweight, blue shirt,” I told Susan on the phone the day before. “And I’ll have a small, tan daypack.”
The plan was to meet in the lobby of the Imperial Hotel, a very elegant 5-star affair a mile upstream of the Marriott. It was close to Susan’s apartment and a convenient cab ride to the bus terminal. We’d reluctantly decided to take the bus to Kanchanaburi, instead of the train, because the train went there at night and came back in the morning. Difficult to make a day trip out of that.
I was quite pleased to have Susan as a guide. As an Experienced World Traveller, I could obviously have planned such a trip on my own, organized the necessary transportation, communicated via multiple languages to the natives, and in general navigated effortlessly anywhere I wished in this country, or any country. Or I could have screwed it up completely. I had memories of being stranded once in the rice-fields of Japan, utterly clueless how to get back to civilization; of locking my bicycle to a fence in Zambia, losing the key, and having no idea how to return to Zimbabwe and my hotel 20 miles away without a bike; of leaving my suitcases on a train in Yugoslavia, running into the station to get a snack, and then having the train—and my suitcases—leave before I got back.
By contrast, touring Thailand with Susan sounded so relaxing. Judging by graduation dates on her resume, I guessed she was in her early forties, perhaps ten years my junior. I arrived at the hotel fifteen minutes before our 7 a.m. rendezvous, and took the opportunity to explore the grounds. Tall skyscrapers have grown up almost randomly around Bangkok, it seems, like mushrooms after a rain. They aren’t clustered in any central business district, as one would find in Dallas or Seattle or most cities. As a result, these tall buildings really do look tall. Everything around them is one or two stories. And the Imperial Hotel was one of the tallest in Thailand. Towering over the banks of the Chao Phraya river, it looks, well, Imperial. King Rama I would have lusted after it, and might have traded his entire Grand Palace—Emerald Buddha and all—just for the penthouse suite. While exploring the hotel I lost track of time, suddenly looked at my watch, rushed back to the lobby, and discovered Susan was desperately seeking me.
She was going up to middle age white guys randomly and asking if they were “Jacques.” Noticing the types of men she was approaching, who were apparently candidates for being me, I was appalled. They were all fat and boring-looking. Was that really how I’d come across on the phone? I intervened quickly and introduced myself.
Susan was much as I’d imagined her: very slender, medium height, wearing only a little makeup, and light brown hair pulled back in a pony tail. She was cute, in a no-nonsense kind of way, with clothing right out of the L.L. Bean Traveller catalog: khaki-colored slacks, and a matching lightweight jacket with plenty of pockets, covering perhaps a sleeveless t-shirt. She accessorized with a sun-hat and a small daypack. It was a very chic outfit, and perfect for an American journalist in a third-world country. Sensible white sneakers completed the attire, but I wondered if they’d stay white given where we were going.
Actually, I wasn’t quite sure where we were going. An avid consumer of maps, I somehow had failed to obtain one for Thailand.
“So where is Kanchanaburi?” I asked, after we’d hopped in a cab and headed for the bus station.
“It’s directly west of here, near the border with Burma.”
“We’re going near Burma?”
“Close to it, yes.”
I was delighted. Burma is one of those names like Timbuktu, Zanzibar, and Tibet that is irresistible to adventure travelers. We don’t care about the places, we just like the names. You can’t get any more exotic than Burma, and I was going to be impressed with myself for even getting near the place. True, the corrupt bureaucrats now running the country had recently changed its name to Myanmar, which sounds like a cat trying to cough up a hairball. No matter. A powerful backlash against third-world countries changing their place names is finally occurring. Ho Chi Minh City is called Saigon by everyone who lives there. When native Chinese refer to their capital, they make a sound much more like Peking than Beijing. Congo—the best name of all—got changed by the communists to Zaire. Doesn’t’ that sound like something a socialist bureaucrat would do. But the country recently changed it back to Congo, and I’m sure their tourist revenue began climbing immediately. Bombay became Mumbai, officially, but no one calls it that. Indians consider the name Mumbai abominable and most won’t let it cross their lips. And I was certain that sometime in the future, the idiotic decision to name the combined countries of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, “Tanzania,” would eventually be reversed. The mesmerizing name Zanganyika would takes its place as a gift to the world map. Every self-respecting World Traveller would flock to the place, just to get “Zaganyika” stamped on their passport. Certainly I would.
Against this background, would Myanmar stand? Not likely. And if international journalists like Susan were still calling it Burma, then Burma it would stay.
Bus To Burma (Almost)
The bus station was a shock to my western-trained senses. As a westerner, I’ve seen all those movies like Romancing the Stone, that feature third world bus stations, so I knew what to expect before I got here. You know: pigs running loose, everyone screaming and yelling, crates of chickens lashed to the top of the buses. Astonishingly, this suburban bus station in Bangkok had none of these elements. It was just a modern building, with modern buses out front. Calm, civilized people were buying tickets at—get this—ticket windows, and then they were getting on the buses. Where were the pigs, the chickens, the disorderly third-world hoards?
Probably in Burma, I reasoned. This country had become too civilized for them. I felt cheated.
There were plenty of seats, Susan and I sat together near the back, and soon we were rolling across rural Thailand in a modern, air-conditioned bus. Whatever happened now, at least I’d accomplished my goal of leaving Bangkok and heading out to see the real Thailand. And no matter what the deal was, or wasn’t, with Neena back at the hotel, I felt on secure, solid ground with Susan. There were no cultural or communication problems here, at least. Susan was pure American, charming, and quite the intellectual. Soon we were deep into conversations about the Palestinian refugees, the state of the office-space market in Bangkok, how AIDS is being handled in Africa, and—in recent news— New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff and his ill-planned effort to rescue a Cambodian girl from prostitution by buying her freedom and re-uniting her with family.
“The idiot!” fumed Susan. “I’m so furious with the man I almost can’t talk about it. He returned her to her parents! I mean, how stupid is that? Here’s a high-flying American journalist swooping in to rescue one of these young women, and he’s so arrogant he doesn’t even bother to check with the experts. He didn’t consult with anyone about what’s really going on – how the system works.”
“OK, so what should he have done, exactly?” I asked.
“It depends on the goal. If he was merely trying to create an interesting story and boost his readership, he probably accomplished that. But if his goal was to help her, he should have started by asking the people who understand the cultural situation.”
“And who are they?”
“Oh, it varies. But generally it’s the NGO’s and groups like Unicef who have a handle on the problem, and who are sensitive to local norms. He could have interviewed some of them and then either made a donation to their cause, or asked their advice on how one individual girl might be rescued from such a lifestyle.”
“And what would they have said?”
“Probably it would have involved finding her a new life with which to begin fresh. That would mean a new location—far from her own village and most of all far from her parents, who would of course have disowned her already. That’s very Asian by the way. It would be extremely unusual for an Asian family to welcome back a daughter who’d been a prostitute. Her value in marriage would be zip, so she’d have no value at all. Plus she’d have disgraced the family.”
“It’s hard to believe her family would not be happy to see her again.”
“They wouldn’t be happy at all. Hard as it is for Americans to understand, a former prostitute would need to start over completely. If a new job could be found for her, maybe in a shop or restaurant or factory, then she might have a chance. But Kristoff, that ignorant fool, was just trying to make headlines, which is why I’m so furious…”
I was reluctant to see her vent anew, so changed the subject slightly.
“Susan, I don’t mean to dwell on this, but I’m a bit confused here. I understand a brothel—or at least as best a person can understand who’s never seen one. But back in Bangkok there seemed to be women offering sex in a more relaxed and casual way.”
I mentioned the dancers on the river cruise, asking for money and presumably willing to do something in return, and the scantily-clad young beauties accompanying men old enugh to be their grandfathers. I even told her the story of Neena at the hotel.
“No female could act the way she did in my room, and not expect a man to interpret it as a strong invitation,” I said. “Are they all ‘prostitutes’ in the same way as the ones working in the brothel? Would their families not take them back either? Neena has a good job working in a five-star international business hotel. She probably makes more money than her parents ever did.”
“I admit, the girl at the hotel is a mystery. But one thing I noticed in Vietnam was that there were definite classes among the prostitutes. There were the obvious hookers, who hung around the bars and did nothing but try to get tricks. The waitresses and barmaids, on the other hand, had real jobs and earned regular money. Yet apparently they could be purchased as well, if you offered enough. The line starts to blur between who is and who isn’t.
“Maybe the girl back in your hotel room was simply a hotel employee, period. Maybe that’s all she’d ever been. But if you offered her five hundred dollars to go off with you for three days on a river cruise, she’d not have turned it down. If she said she’d go with you, she would have. I think that’s obvious. There’s so much demand for sex, in Thailand, and so much money involved, that it can be real hard for some of these girls to say no.”
“I guess my point is that the plight of the brothel-girl that Kristoff tried to rescue seems very different from these free-spirited women in Bangkok. They don’t seem to need ‘rescuing’ from anything. They seem to be enjoying themselves.” I was remembering the glamorous young thing back at Jim Thompson’s house.
“Quite likely. And you can draw another parallel to women back in the States who are happy to sleep with a guy on a first date, if he shows them a good time and spends a lot of money on them. Is that really any different?”
“Well, yeah, that point’s been made before. But you know this whole sex-tourism thing is going to get much more intense, given that the Chinese are killing off all their girl babies. In another generation, Chinese guys will have to come to places like Bangkok because the few women left in China will all be married.”
“You’re right. Women in China may be on the edge of a golden age—they’ll become extremely valuable. Wouldn’t that be ironic?”
As we continued these conversations the Bangkok suburbs thinned away to nothing, and finally we were in the countryside. There are three components of the Thai countryside: forests, cropland, and Buddhist temples.
As the bus reached its cruising speed of about 60 miles per hour, these elements began rushing past our window with predictable certainty.
Forest…swoosh, and it was gone.
Cropland…swoosh, and it was gone.
Buddhist temple…swoosh, it was gone too.
“You know what they say about Buddhist temples,” noted Susan.
“If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”
“It’s also true with cropland. I grew up in Iowa and don’t need to see any more fields of growing vegetables or grains—ever again.”
“Speaking of which,” she asked, “what do you think is growing in these fields?”
“Corn,” I said with confidence. “You see, I grew up in…”
“Yeah, I get it. You grew up in Iowa and you recognize corn.”
“The forests are kind of interesting though. Are they ‘rainforests’ do you suppose?”
“Well, it certainly rains here a lot. And we’re deep in the tropics…”
“Sounds like rainforest to me. Hey, that’s another example!”
“Words that have died out and been replaced by others—more politically correct or whatever. Like when was the last time you heard someone say ‘aimed’? Now it’s always ‘targeted’. We used to have jungles. Now we have rainforests.”
“That’s a good point. I’m not sure what the difference is between jungle and rainforest.”
“Oh, it’s easy. If you want to make it sound untamed, out of control, and kind of scary, you say ‘jungle.’ If you want to make it sound politically-correct, and a critical and important part of our ecosystem, you call it a rain-forest.”
“Interesting…” said Susan, weighing the words as a journalist.
“Burning the rainforests sounds like a crime against civilization, doesn’t it? But someone clearing out a jungle sounds like something that probably should have been done earlier, but no one got around to it.”
After a couple of hours, the rainforest-cropland-temple routine began yielding to the outskirts of a town. Finally the bus came to a stop in what appeared to be the center of Kanchanaburi, and the passengers were discharged out onto the street.
“Hmmm…” said Susan, looking around.
“It’s great having a guide here. I’m so glad you know your way around.”
“Well, it’s just…”
“You do know your way around, right?”
Susan had been here many years ago, and was happy to visit again. As a travel writer, she needed an update on the area and explained she had a professional interest in our trip today; it was not merely vacation.
“This place is completely different,” said Susan, hesitatingly. “It looks nothing like Kanchanaburi. In fact, I wonder….”
She called over to the bus driver, speaking indecent Thai apparently, and he responded with his own torrent of words, and a vigorous nodding of the head.
“Well, he says it is Kanchanaburi. I had to make sure.”
Another man, a young Thai, was trying to get our attention, and was pushing something into our face. It was a large piece of cardboard. And on this cardboard had been taped a large map of Kanchanaburi and the surrounding area, along with insets on the various attractions—foremost among them being, presumably, the Bridge Over the River Kwai itself.
You have to love the free market. The Japanese commit atrocities in WWII at a particular bridge in the jungle. Someone writes a book about it, and the bridge becomes famous. The book is made into a movie, Alec Guiness stars, and the bridge becomes even more renowned. Fast forward to the present. The place is now a tourist destination, because everyone’s heard of the Bridge Over The River Kwai.
It’s like other classic place names that have become novels and movies: “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” is released, so everyone wants to see Cherbourg. Humphrey Bogart stars in “Casablanca,” so that becomes a big tourist draw. The film “The Maltese Falcon,” puts Malta on the map—although the Maltese might say it had always been there. In fact, Bogart seems to have caused more than his share of geographical place names becoming tourist destinations. Who hasn’t heard of Key Largo, for example? I’m embarrassed to admit I traveled there myself just over a year ago—and drove from my hotel room to a nearby Blockbuster where I rented…yeah, you guessed it.
Songs can produce this effect as well. “London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down….” So the first thing tourists want to see in London is the Bridge—or rather its ruins.
All well and good, but this creates a market opportunity in many places, and one of those was—it seemed—Kanchanaburi. The Kwai River Bridge—at least its modern version—is just a railway bridge. Tourists won’t tolerate coming all this way, determined to see The Bridge Over the River Kwai, only to have served up to them merely…a bridge. And this is where the free market comes in.
If tourists are making a pilgrimage to Kanchanaburi, says the free market, by God when they get here they’re going to find plenty of things to see, and find plenty of ways to be entertained. The man with the cardboard was very much part of this industry, and was now determined to show us all the things that were designed to separate Susan and me from our baht.
The conversation was conducted with a mixture of Susan’s indecent Thai, and the guide’s indecent English, plus hand signals, gesticulations, and plenty of nodding and shaking of heads.
The cardboarded map had little inset drawings and photographs of the attractions themselves, and one of these jumped out at me. “Reptile Farm” said the caption, underneath the representation of a hissing cobra.
“No lizard museums,” I declared to Susan.
“OK, well, where do you think we should go?”
“The Bridge Over the River Kwai, of course.”
I noticed the map seemed to show long-tail boats cruising up and down the Kwai river. “Can we get to the Bridge by boat?”
Susan queried the promoter who nodded eagerly.
After a few minutes of frenzied discussion we’d narrowed the list considerably and planned the attack. We would take a pedicab from here in the center of town to something called the War Museum. It was a couple of miles away, on the banks of the river. From there we’d hire a long-tail boat which would take us up one of the arms of the river to the Kwai Caves. That sounded interesting—as long as there were no lizards in them. Then the boat would take us back to the main river, and upstream to the famous bridge itself. We could have lunch there, see the Bridge, visit the surrounding area, and be returned back here to the center of town. Buses ran every hour back to Bangkok, so the timing was flexible.
Just before heading out, we noticed one more thing on the map. There was a picture of what seemed a fully clothed woman, floating on her back, apparently in the river itself. “Floating Nun” said the caption.
Susan and I were captivated, and she asked the man what this was.
“Ah, Floating Nun,” he nodded sagely. “Want to see Floating Nun?”
“Well, what does she do, exactly?” asked Susan.
“That is who she is: the Floating Nun. Very religious person, Floating Nun. She able to float, because she is so religious.”
We were curious about this phenomenon, neither of us ever having seen a floating nun before, but the location was far outside town—in the opposite direction from the bridge. Well, that made sense. If you have a bridge you don’t need to float. Duh.
We decided to keep it in mind, but it was really too far away to fit into the present pedicab/boat plan.
Cardboard-man hailed a bicycle rickshaw, explained to the driver where he was to take us, and we were off. A bicycle rickshaw provides seating for one and a half people. Perhaps the little wooden bench is sufficient for two complete Asians, given that they are generally smaller than Americans. But two normal sized people, even with one of them being slender Susan, could only ride in the rickshaw if they were tightly squished together. Well, the ride would only take ten or fifteen minutes, and soon we were jolting along the paved street heading south out of town.
We seemed to be heading south on a main boulevard. It was park-like in many ways, with the median being planted artistically with grass, and trees and many types of flowers. Along the side of the road were homes or small buildings. The homes had broad lawns and were not small. Yet most kept with the traditional Thai architecture of steeply gabled roofs and decorative figurines on the corners. They were generally made of wood.
The streets were clean. This was a major difference from what one would find in India. There was no trash here, and likewise there were no discarded human beings—no beggars waiting forlornly for a handout, or homeless people stretched out asleep on the dirt. Yet the jungle was always waiting to intrude. Occasionally we’d pass a vacant lot, and could see that trees and vines had swiftly taken it over.
Voices From The Past
We came at last to the banks of a broad river, which was presumably the Kwai. The town had apparently been built on a plateau above this river, and on this plateau was something called “War Museum.” It was a primitive affair, constructed of bamboo walls, palm frond roofs, and dirt floors, and was designed to replicate the actual shacks that the POW’s had lived in. The museum was filled with a vast collection of war memorabilia: rusty rifles and bayonets from that time period, samples of writing from prisoners’ logbooks, paintings and drawings that recorded the torturous lifestyle inflicted by the Japanese on the POW’s. It was a very depressing museum, yet also very revealing of an important time and place in world history.
It was a reminder not just of the horrors of war, but specifically the unusual cruelty of the Japanese in World War II. I’ve traveled widely in Japan, admire the Japanese, love their culture, and have even learned to speak a little of their language. It was hard for me to grasp that the same culture which displays itself through, extreme politeness, the ‘Noh’ performances, constant striving for excellence, sushi, and dutiful reverence for ones parents, can also produce such vicious evil. It’s almost as if the Japanese culture can only operate in extremes.
I remembered how important alcohol is in the Japanese lifestyle. Japanese are required to behave perfectly, throughout the day. Then, when they get drunk, they are both allowed and expected to completely lose it. The women in the ‘yakitori’ bars, for example, are totally out of control—making up, no doubt, for the rest of the time when they are demure and shy and perfectly behaved. All or nothing, it seems, for the Japanese.
So when they go to war, arguably the greatest hell on earth, they take the barbarity and cruelty of war to an extreme, and metamorphose from loving fathers and brothers and sons, to evil sadists. At least that’s what it seemed this War Museum was demonstrating. How else does one explain, for example, the routine beating of the prisoners: not for disciplinary reasons or as punishment, but for no reason at all?
Susan and I drifted apart as we explored the exhibits, which is something I always do in museums. There is so much to absorb, appreciate, and internalize, that it is not a social activity. It’s a private intellectual and emotional exercise, whether it’s appreciating the genius of Michelangelo, absorbing the majesty of a Kodiak bear in a diorama, or internalizing the barbarity of the Japanese in warfare. Three Buddhist monks walked about among the exhibits, their bright orange robs adding a touch of color to an otherwise dismal environment. I wondered what their religion had to teach about what they were seeing.
Two old men were in this museum as well, both with white hair, bent over, and walking a bit feebly. They were looking with interest at all the exhibits. They were Asian. Were they Japanese? As they approached where I was standing, I walked past in the other direction, bowed briefly, and muttered “Konichiwa!” (Hello). Automatically they did the same thing. Yes, they were Japanese. Given their age, it was certain they were veterans of the war. Had they been stationed here? Many American men are returning to Vietnam today as tourists, in part to help heal their own wounds, and chase out or at least try to resolve their own demons; a cathartic experience, no doubt. Possibly these men were here for the same reason. Possibly they’d even served in this area, and had personal experience with everything being displayed. If language, culture, and a thousand other impediments had not made it impossible, I would have loved to discuss all this with them. How would Japanese veterans explain what had happened? Perhaps they were asking themselves that same question—and almost certainly finding no answer.
Susan and I exited the tent museum, and walked casually past the little sidewalk shops in the area—themselves mostly tents, or in some cases vendors with their offerings spread out on carpets on the ground. These shops were catering to the tourist trade, and were selling everything from books about Thailand in the war, to River Kwai t-shirts, to cheap sunglasses and Coca-Cola.
Free markets, as with time, heal all wounds. Where once captives suffered in misery, tourists now roamed and drank Coca-Cola. How would the British and Australian prisoners feel about that, if they could have jumped forward sixty years and seen this future? Probably quite good, I reasoned. World War II, unlike so many other wars, had been fought for a clear and compelling reason. It was a classic “Good vs. Evil” war. “Good” had won. That’s why tourists were now wandering around with River Kwai t-shirts and silly sunglasses. In my mind, I gave a mental nod of thanks to those who had fought in that war. “Mission accomplished, guys,” I wanted to say, reaching back across the years. “Thank you.”
And in my imagination, I could almost hear one of the Aussie P.O.W’s look up, give a weary smile, and say: “No worries, mate!”
Pimping The Long-tail Boats
The free market was in full force down at the pier. There was a long-tail boat here, just perfect for our needs, and in the back sat a driver, eager for customers. Susan opened the negotiations, but almost immediately someone else appeared. She was a very plump, middle-aged, Chinese woman. And she was determined to take charge of the bargaining.
With our own copy of the Kanchanaburi-area map, Susan explained about visiting the caves, and then going upstream to the bridge.
“It should require about 200 baht,” Susan whispered to me. (About $4.) “Although often they try to rip off the tourists.”
“3,000 baht!” said fat lady, and eagerly begin ushering us onto the boat.
Susan almost dropped her purse. “No way!” she said, utterly shocked. “200 baht, not 3,000 baht. Are you crazy?” Susan was offering $4 to a woman who was asking $60.
Fat lady laughed, as if a compelling joke had just been made. “3,000 baht! 3,000 baht!” She tried again to maneuver me into the boat, perhaps thinking that once I was in, Susan would have to follow.
Susan pulled 200 baht out of her purse and showed it to the driver. Then she said something to him in Thai, which I assumed was: “Are you OK with 200 baht?”
The man looked at the bills hungrily, but then motioned to the fat lady, as if it were her decision, not his.
“3,000 baht,” said the lady. “3,000 baht!”
Susan turned to me. “What’s going on here? Who is this woman? She’s dreadful…”
“I think she’s, like, his pimp.”
“I don’t want to deal with her. I want to deal with the driver!” She turned again to the driver and proposed 200 baht, but it wasn’t working.
Having some experience with third-world bargaining, I knew that tactically we now needed to make it clear we weren’t interested, and were leaving.
“Susan,” I said, somewhat loudly. “Let’s get out of here. We don’t need a boat ride. Let’s check out that floating dock over there.”
There was a floating dock, 50 yards downstream, connected to shore by a wide board. It contained no boats but there was a vendor selling something from a tent-like booth on this dock. Souvenirs or something. Susan and I headed towards it.
“OK, 2,500 baht!” said fat lady, but Susan waved her away dismissively, now that we’d lost all interest in going in the boat at all, or at least had to pretend so. We walked to the other pier, the whole thing being of course just an act, and feigned extreme interest in whatever was being sold by the vendor in the tent.
Actually, I was interested. While Susan stood on the pier and fumed about the thousands-of-baht extortion scheme, I discovered that the vendor was selling little bags of fish food. In the calm water between the dock and the shore, I noticed there were dozens of large fish, swimming without conviction or purpose, as if waiting for something more interesting to happen. Well, it was about to.
I’ve always enjoyed sending fish into a feeding frenzy, and also I wanted to entertain Susan. For ten baht I had a bag of fish food.
“Susan, check this out,” I said, and then tossed a handful of the little fish-food pellets into the middle of where the fish were swimming.
It was as if a bomb had gone off. The water exploded violently and became a maelstrom as the frenzied fish went nuts chasing the pellets. A carpet of silvery, slippery, fast-moving bodies had replaced the calm surface of the water, and Susan screamed in delight.
We spent several minutes tossing fish food to the fish, and they entertained us lavishly in return. The Fish Under The River Kwai. They were adorable.
“OK, let’s wander back to the first pier,” I suggested.
We did so, still assuming an air of leisure and indifference – all the time in the world. Somehow we found ourselves back at the boat, but that was just a coincidence. We weren’t especially interested in boats.
“OK, 500 baht?,” I said casually to the driver, and the Chinese woman magically appeared again, rushed up, and immediately intercepted this naked attempt to cut the pimp out of the loop.
“2,500 baht!” she screamed at us, now angry and realizing our entire excursion to feed the fish had been a ploy. She wasn’t falling for it.
“I think we should go to 700,” I mentioned in a low voice to Susan.
“700? That’s still too much!”
“That’s only $14.00. I’m thinking about the fuel cost. They’re going to burn up a lot of gasoline driving all over this river. 700 baht’s reasonable.” I didn’t confess that Cecilia and I had paid 2,000 baht for the long tail boat in Bangkok. She’d have lost all respect for me.
Susan spoke to the driver again, in Thai, deliberately ignoring pimp-lady, and this time he seemed to cave. He nodded his head and Susan and I started climbing into the boat. Pimp-lady, seeing the handwriting on the wall, immediately changed her tune.
“OK, OK. 700 baht. You give to me now. 700 baht.”
Susan looked up at her. “No! I’m not giving it to you. I’m giving it to the driver—after the trip!”
“You give me now! Give 700 baht. No give driver. Give me now!”
Susan looked back at the driver, and he sheepishly gestured up towards his pimp. But there was no way Susan was giving the money up front, and in this I supported her. Once the payment had been made, there would be all manner of reasons why more money was required in the future—like we hadn’t understood that this was only the one-way fare, or whatever.
Susan lost it. “I’m not talking to you anymore,” she said to fat lady. “I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I don’t like you. Go away!”
And then Susan turned and spoke softly in Thai to the driver who was finally convinced. He started up the engine and the screaming pimp lady from hell was soon left far behind, shaking her fist at us angrily from the dock.
“What a nasty person!” said Susan. “I’ve never had to deal with a situation like that before. Usually you just negotiate with the driver and that’s all there is to it.”
“I think the Chinese entrepreneurs are trying to take over the long-tail rental market,” I suggested. “They’re forcing themselves in as middle-men, and jacking up the price.”
“Well, I won’t put up with it!” said Susan, both of us still a little shaken.
Cruising The River Kwai
We didn’t stay shaken for long. The seat we were sitting on was scarcely wider than the one on the bicycle rickshaw, but somehow it didn’t matter out here on the water. It was an utterly-lovely day, temperature about 70 degrees, not a cloud in the sky, and we had this beautiful jungle-lined river—and it seemed all Thailand—completely to ourselves. Our rickshaw had taken us a couple of miles downstream of the city, and our long-tail boat took us even farther downstream and away from civilization, heading towards the Kwai River caves.
We were passing through wilderness, and the beauty of the Thai countryside revealed itself at last. No cornfields or temples out here. The broad Kwai river was cutting through mountainous country: very high, rugged mountains, but somehow made soft by the thick vegetation which from a distance made them all looked as if they’d been carefully draped in a moss blanket. Wilderness or not, occasionally we’d see a wooden hut, generally up on stilts above the water, or placed sufficiently high on the bank to not need the stilts. These were very rustic affairs, and some were in advanced stages of ruin. They were never painted, and in fact the wood seemed to have no preservative on it at all. I wondered how the wood could survive, so untreated. Then I remembered they were probably all made of teak. Teak laughs at the weather. Teak would be offended at the notion that it needed a preservative. If teak could talk it would say: “Paint? On ‘moi’? Please, save it for a lesser wood…”
The teak huts generally were covered in roofs made of palm fronds, and these also seemed untreated. But of course that was the beauty of a palm-frond hut in the jungle. There was an endless supply of replacement fronds everywhere you looked, and a new roof could be had daily, if one wished. There was little wind, and our long-tail boat cruised gracefully over the smooth water.
“I feel like I’m on a vacation,” I said to Susan.
“Yes,” she agreed. “It’s totally relaxing. It’s so beautiful out here. So peaceful.”
I’d bought a map back at the War Museum and could see that we were on the flanks of the Ta-Nao-Si mountain range. If we went upstream and followed the Kwai to its source and then crossed over into the next watershed, we’d be in Burma. It was only about ten miles away.
The contrast with noisy, polluted Bangkok was striking. It was a good reminder of what an ecological disaster a city—any city—actually is. All Thailand looked like this once, I realized. Beautiful, peaceful, and lush. Would mankind ever be able to truly co-exist in harmony with the planet? Could we find a way to preserve this natural beauty, while still meeting our own economic needs? There were plenty of reasons to be pessimistic, but I still had hope. Air quality was improving each year now in the United States. As rivers became more polluted in third world countries, they were becoming increasingly clean in the developed world. Reduced population growth, combined with vibrant economic activity, could ultimately make scenes like we were seeing here the norm. Certainly this was now occurring in Hawaii, where the high-end resorts were increasing their draw by returning the land to it’s original state. Even the 5-Star Marriot back in Bangkok was an oasis of gardens and bamboo trees, re-claimed from the surrounding urban blight.
As we cruised down the river I tried to implant the visual images in my mind, and hoped they would utterly displace the memories of filthy Bangkok. In the future, when I thought of Thailand, I wanted these scenes of forested mountains and peaceful rivers to flow into my head, not scenes of over-decorated temples, or crowded streets, or hepatitis-laden canals. The pocket-sized video camera, which had been getting a good workout on this trip, would help help me preserve all this.
After about thirty minutes of working our way down the mountainous river valley, our driver cut the engine and pulled in at a little dock. A sign, displaying its information in about six different languages and writing systems, said in English: “Caves.” I helped the driver secure our little craft with a bow and stern line tied to the dock, and then Susan and I set out up the path towards…exactly what we did not know.
The Underground Buddha Forest
A young boy appeared, as we climbed the stone steps up the steep embankment. I expected he would try to be our guide, and ask for money, but he seemed to assume more the role of an eager puppy. He was following us, tagging at our heels, curious to see where the foreign tourists would go and what they would do.
Of course it was obvious where we were going at the moment: up the stairs. They continued steeply for perhaps 30 yards before ending at a path which sloped upwards almost, but not quite as steeply. This path was sandwiched between long rows of vendor stalls, and all of it covered with some kind of tarp, or netting which provided shade. Here, spread out in pathetic decadence, were all those same things that natives in third world countries believe tourists wish to buy: ugly wood carvings of giraffes and elephants, cheap t-shirts guaranteed to lose their image at the first washing, beads, uninspired jewelry, and many things I couldn’t even recognize. It was the same stuff they tried to sell from that boat, back in the Thonburi canals
It would have been reasonable for one or two of these vendors to locate here at the walkway leading from the Kwai river dock to the caves the dock had been built to serve. But there were fifty or sixty. The owners would starve! There was not enough tourist traffic at this location to warrant this. Observing more closely, it seemed the owners already had starved. The owners were gone. Most of the stalls—apparently open for business in terms of wares being displayed—had no one tending them. Only about ten percent of the stalls were even staffed.
Most native markets built for tourists have a single marketing strategy which is for the salespeople to continuously cry out: “low price, low price!” to the tourists as they walk past. Someone has trained these people to believe that saying “low price” is the best way to ensure a sale. But at this market the price wasn’t low. It was free. We could have scooped up whole bags of this junk and there was no one to stop us. The fact that we didn’t was the clearest proof possible that there was no elasticity to the demand curve here. In other words, even at a price level of zero, neither Susan nor I were interested. And this, of course, illustrates the problem the vendors have. They’re trying to sell things no one wants.
By contrast, back at the floating dock where we’d started, I’d been thrilled to pay twenty baht for a bag of fish food. With the right approach on the part of the salesperson, I might have been enticed into paying 200 baht ($4.00). I really wanted that fish food, and the fish gave us at least $10 worth of entertainment.
The point was that someone needed to come along and do some real market research for these native market people. Someone needed to be conducting spot checks of the tourists, asking them for a few minutes of their time to determine what kinds of things they would have paid money for, or the particular reasons why they didn’t wish to buy the goods that were displayed. In my case, for example, I might have bought original, yet inexpensive, artwork that I could easily carry home with me: water-colors, perhaps, of scenes from the River Kwai and the beautiful mountains. I might have spent $50 or $100 for something like that, if properly presented.
But there was no consumer research being conducted at all, and that’s why apparently nine out of ten of the vendors had died off. Darwin at work. Inability to adapt. Those few who were still here had lost all their spirit. They would look at us, with resigned, despairing expressions, and mumble softly—almost in a whisper—“low price, low price…” But you could tell their heart wasn’t in it.
What had killed off all the vendors? Probably the Avian flu. Tourists and tour companies panic easily. A little civil unrest, some cases of an exotic disease showing up on the evening news, and thousands of tour groups cancel their plans and go elsewhere. I’d seen this same thing in Nairobi after the Embassy bombing in ’98, and a year ago in Nepal, with the communist insurgents running about. Both places were tourist ghost-towns, and the natives who sold the tourist trinkets were literally starving. It was very sad.
This provided some insight into why the young, half-naked boy was following us so dutifully. We were perhaps the most exciting thing to happen here at the caves in a couple of days. We were certainly the only tourists. We crested the top of the hill the little stalls came to an end, and now it was a simple dirt path through the forest. But the forest didn’t last long. Soon it gave way, in turn, to what seemed a hub of religious activity at what was presumably the entrance to the caves.
In America we put hot dog and lemonade stands at the entrance to caves. In Thailand they’re always looking for an excuse for a Buddhist shrine. The entrance to these caves rated about six shrines. A dozen men were hanging about this area, in various stages of relaxation. One was lighting incense at a shrine. A few were playing cards. One was on the ground asleep, his straw hat pulled over his eyes for shade. The shrines were gaudy little affairs, mostly built into the rock of the terrain. Each showcased a Buddha, and each had an area in front to place offerings. In addition to burning incense, Buddha’s are quite liberal in terms of what they can be offered. Usually it involved food—such as a head of lettuce or some rolls of bread. In a society living so close to the earth, food equated to wealth, and was typically the only wealth they had. It was less about what Buddha probably wanted, I imagined, and more about what the humas had available.
It was almost noon, and the sun was high overhead, although only a little filtered down through the branches of the rainforest. There was no wind, and there was no activity. The men playing cards looked up at us and smiled, but that’s about all the energy they could muster. At the entrance to the cave was a young woman who accepted some baht. This was not the fee for admission to the cave. No, that was free. However, it was suggested that tourists visiting the cave—which was free, did we mention that?— consider making a donation to the temple or shrine or whatever religious deal was going on here. We paid about $2.00 each, which seemed to please the woman greatly. She called out and another man appeared from somewhere, and proceeded to guide us into the caves.
I’ve never tried to describe caves before. What does one say? They were dark? Well, these weren’t too dark. Electric lighting had been strung—not up to code, certainly—but with roughly draped overhanging wires that were sufficient for a bare lightbulb to shine about every thirty feet. They were breathtakingly magnificent? No, these were kind of bland caves—no exciting stalactites or stalagmites or beautiful crystals or underground rivers or anything that could make a cave worth getting stirred up about.
The underground passageways were quite cramped, actually, and there was a great deal of climbing involved: down little wooden ladders; up through holes where we had to get on our arms and legs and pull ourselves through; across and through small openings and so forth. Ten minutes of this were quite enough, and I would have been happy to formally mark the Kwai Caves as “officially seen” and head back to town in search of some good lizard museums. But I pressed on, not wanting Susan to think I couldn’t keep up.
Finally Susan stopped so abruptly I almost ran into her. She was standing fully upright now, no need to bend down, and I realized we’d come to a large opening—an underground cavern of some dimension. And then I realized we were not alone. There were others down here, tourists no doubt, although it was too dark to see much. As I moved out of the tunnel and stood upright next to Susan, I realized there were many, many people down here. And animals. Dogs, water buffalo, elephants—wait a minute…
My eyes adjusted and suddenly I realized what I was seeing: statues. Dozens of them, hundreds of them. Many of them were carved from unadorned, grey stone, yet others had been hand painted, and a few were lavishly decorated in the kind of gold and gems I’d seen back at the Grand Palace. Not that opulent, of course, but the artistry was the same.
There was more here than statues of people and animals. There were little houses, miniature replicas of Thai cottages, most with little candles or incense inside, often lit and burning. These cottages were generally perched atop poles about six feet high, like hummingbird feeders or something. It was a very eerie scene. A science fiction writer with a vivid imagination would see here an ancient civilization somehow destroyed by an electromagnetic pulse from a space ship perhaps, or intense radiation from a nuclear accident. Everyone still frozen where they’d stood at the moment of apocalypse—their bodies and everything about them preserved perfectly by the lethal electro-chemical agent which had killed them.
A fantasy writer would see something similar, but would attribute it to a curse placed on this cave by the Druidic spirits which jealously guarded their ancient habitat, and would suffer no mortals to take it for their own.
A chronicler of religious miracles might blame it on a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah event in which the ruling deity had become angered at the mortals who had sinned so grievously…
Liberal democrats—not quite sure what had happened here—would nonetheless try to blame it on George Bush and his failure to work things out in the Security Council and in negotiations with the French.
Right-wingers, in turn, would immediately sense that Hillary Clinton was somehow involved in the cataclysm.
I didn’t know what to think. I was staring out over this forest of human and animal forms, utterly perplexed at what they were, or why they were here.
“My God,” said Susan. “They’re Buddha’s. They’re all Buddha’s.” She began walking around the open cavern, looking at statues, becoming excited. “Look, here’s a kneeling Buddha. Here’s a Walking Buddha. This is a Laotian Buddha. Look, see the shape of the head, and the distinctive way its holdings its arms. That’s what you see in Laos; or perhaps in Northern Thailand which is similar to Laos. She went around the room, identifying the Buddha’s. One was prone on the floor, elbow on the ground, head in his hand. I wondered if this was “Opium Den Buddha.” Another had a crazed, deranged smile and wild eyes, and I fancied this could be “Insane/Mass-Murderer Buddha.”
“Susan, what’s with these little houses on poles?” I asked. “Do they have a hummingbird problem down here, do you think?”
“Jacques, those are Spirit Houses. You see them everywhere in Thailand. I’ve just never seen so many!”
“What’s a spirit house?”
“It’s a Buddhist tradition. Well actually it predates Buddhism considerably. It’s from the ancient religion, some kind of animism, where everyone was scared of spirits, because the sprits were always causing mischief. If you built a house, you’d also build a little spirit house out front, or in the backyard or wherever.”
“Don’t tell me. The little houses are for the spirits to live in, right?”
“Exactly. The Buddhists believe that if you don’t keep the spirits happy, they’ll cause no end of trouble. So they give them cute little houses to live in, and light candles in the house, and provide little bits of food and water and so forth, and this keeps the spirits happy and in harmony with the residents of the main house.”
“Does it work?” I was thinking of the fact that a few months ago, all four bathrooms in my own house had started falling apart simultaneously, with water leaks, drywall rotting away, floors coming unsealed, etc. We were already thousands of dollars into it, and Derry was freaking out at how it was all happening at the same time. It seemed almost supernatural. So… if a little spirit house with a candle and a few pieces of broccoli would make a difference, I was willing to consider it.
“I think the jury’s out on whether it works,” continued Susan. “But that’s what they are. Spirit houses and Buddha’s galore. Wow. Some civilization went into a religious frenzy down here.”
Our guide would have been happy to explain it all, no doubt, but he didn’t really speak English. Susan, speaking Thai, extracted some information from him but it ultimately came down to the fact that an ancient civilization had gone into a religious frenzy down here. The whole thing was a Buddhist temple (yeah, I kinda guessed it was connected with Buddhism) and it was still a place that was honored by the monks, who performed rituals and so forth here. A very holy place, certainly.
“But why so many Buddha’s?” I asked. “Most temples have, like, one Buddha. Here there are, what, maybe fifty or sixty?”
“Hey, wait a minute,” said Susan, confused.
“How did they get them in here? How’d they get them in through these passages?”
Now that was a good question, and it hadn’t occurred to me. The average Buddha was maybe five or six feet high, when standing. Some were larger than that. Many were, let’s say, not thin. We stared at the Buddha’s, and then we realized how they’d done it.
“They’re carved right out of the stone of the cave!” deduced Susan. “They weren’t brought here. They were always here.”
“I guess the ancient sculptors came into the cave and just chipped away everything that didn’t look like a Buddha.”
“That would explain why there are so many Buddha’s. Once they got started, they couldn’t stop.”
Our guide was able to lead us out of the cave without retracing our steps, although this required climbing almost vertically out of a particularly high shaft, and finally back in to the blinding sunlight. The little Thai boy who had joined up with us right at the dock had never left our side. I’ve known dogs less loyal and obedient.
But we said goodbye to our cave-guide, and our young companion. I hoped we’d added at least a small measure of excitement to his day. A sign over the dock said:
We glad when you come to visit. We sad when you leave.
The boy looked up and it was easy to imagine that he was thinking those very thoughts.
For us, climbing in the cave had been tiring, and we were content to lie back in our seat on the long-tail boat as it headed back up river in search, now of our next stop: the famous Bridge Over The River Kwai.
Bridges, for some reason, hold a special place in our imagination. I think we find them engaging on several levels. First, of course, they often are beautiful. One thinks of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Tower Bridge in London, and the Bridge of Sighs in Venice.
They can be inspiring feats of engineering, such as the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York
By contrast a poet might note their metaphorical implications—a “reaching out and connecting” theme, if you will.
For my part, I simply consider bridges cool. And I was very excited to see this one. How often does one read an entire book about a bridge, and then watch the movie, and then get to see it?
It was a long boat-ride from the caves to the bridge, yet nothing could have been more delightful than cruising on this peaceful river through this jungle-covered mountain valley. As we approached the outskirts of Kanchanaburi again, river traffic increased, and the wilderness gave way to something very different. Where before, along the banks, there had been the occasional primitive hut, now we were seeing lavish vacation homes. The designs varied, but they tended to stay true to their Thai origins, with steeply-gabled roofs, and those little “s-shaped” decorative extensions which were a trademark of Thai architecture, and which always reminded me of the artificially-elongated finger-nails on Thai dancers. In other words, you would know you were in Thailand, merely by looking at these homes. Further along, the riverside homes gave way to another phenomenon: party barges. We didn’t know they were party barges at first. They were merely large pontoon craft, with high pipe-and-canvas sunshades, and a broad floor space. There were dozens of them, all tied up along shore, and to each other, like Kanchanaburi was some vast shipping port for container ships. Then we saw a few actually on the water, being towed by motor vessels. Fifty or sixty people were on each barge, and they were all in party mode. As our little long-tail boat passed them (we were much faster), they would wave and yell to us. One barge was filled with school-children, no doubt on some kind of river-cruise field trip—and they were even more excited to wave to us than the adults. Although the adults were pretty into it as well, and one might guess that in their case there was plenty of alcohol on board. A very sad thought flashed into my head: it often takes alcohol to give back to adults their child-like enthusiasm. Then I had a counter-thought: “Thank God something can do it!”
“I don’t believe this,” said Susan. “Kanchanaburi has turned into a resort area!”
She was right. The free market had gone beyond merely finding ways to entertain tourists when they came to see the Bridge. Kanchanaburi, with its beautiful Kwai River and pristine valleys, was now a major tourist destination in its own right. It was no longer the Bridge that was important. It was the River! The poets might be annoyed, but the school children, and the adult revelers, were loving it.
Now here at last was the bridge itself, coming into view. We’d been warned that the River Kwai bridge, like “London Bridge” had been built and destroyed and re-built so many times it was now on iteration number 12 or something. From what I’d read, the foundations had been re-built after the war, but the curved steel sections holding up the track, and supported by the foundations were from the original “Death Railway.”
As is probably true of most bridges, there is no better way to see the River Kwai bridge than to approach it from the water, as we were doing. OK, it was certainly a bridge. It clearly connected the right bank with the left. Seven concrete foundations rose up from the water and supported the black steel of the bridge itself. But…that was about it. As interesting bridges go, this one ranked about a 3 on any 1 to 10 scale. In the movie, by contrast, it was a very artistic and intriguing bridge, made of an infinity of logs, and spanning a steep valley with a substantial fast-rushing stream at its base. Yet here in Kanchanaburi the banks were not that high, the river was slow and peaceful, and it was just kind of a low, boring railway bridge.
But I hadn’t expected more and was not disappointed. On the left bank, I could see a few structures, but mostly it was forest and cropland on that side. On the right, however, was Kanchanaburi itself, and, not surprisingly, a great deal of commercial activity had grown up around the famous bridge. Most intriguing of all was a beautiful little floating restaurant, tied up almost directly below the bridge—but just enough upstream that the diners could stare up at the bridge while they ate. The barge-restaurant was made of wood, with colorful awnings keeping the sun off the tables, and with lush potted plants and flowers set about. Thai waitresses in elegant gowns scurried around serving the customers.
“Well, at least we know where we’re going to have lunch!” I said to Susan.
“Fine, but first we have to see the bridge.”
Our boat docked beside the floating restaurant, and we scurried up the bank to the point where the bridge began.
Tourists, most of them Asian, wandered about, and many were walking across the bridge. A sign said:
Caution! Walking on the River Kwai bridge can be dangerous. Please stay away from the train when it comes.
That sounded like excellent advice, although it was unclear how one achieves that if you’re in the middle of the bridge at the time. There wasn’t enough room for both pedestrian and train, although in a final extremity you could simply jump into the river. Walking the bridge was itself a little tricky since it was meant for trains, not pedestrians. A walk-way of boards had been secured between the rails, and this was simple enough. But when passing others, it was necessary to step off this board, and onto the railway ties themselves. Regardless, Susan and I were up to the challenge and set forth across the Bridge.
Why were we crossing it? Well, what else does one do with a bridge, exactly? Also, everyone else was crossing it. There must be something on the other side.
Actually, there hadn’t been something on the other side until the Free Market realized the problem: all those tourists heading across? They needed something to spend money on when they got there. So on the far side of the River Kwai bridge has grown up (completely predictably when you think about it) a whole village of little shops. These were open air affairs, often with tarps providing sun and rain protection. Most everything a tourist might want was available for sale, including Thai dresses in ornamental colors, jewelry, photo supplies, t-shirts, refreshments, and so forth. The merchandise was more upscale than the schlocky stuff down at the caves. And, in the midst of all of it, the piece de resistance: an elephant! Actually two elephants, a mother and baby. And what was the revenue model for this elephant? The tourists bought bananas from the elephant owner and had fun feeding these to the elephants.
Both elephants had chains around their left front leg, and these were secured to a post in the ground. Thus the elephants couldn’t escape, although why they’d want to when tourists were in a frenzy to supply them with bananas was unclear. I’d fed fish earlier in the day, and fancied myself an experienced animal feeder by this point. This was a bit trickier though.
Here’s how it works. You buy a clump of bananas from the vendor. Then you approach the elephant cautiously. During this part of the maneuver, the elephant tries to give off positive body language, encouraging you on, although that’s not something elephants are known for and they don’t do it well. Then, when the elephant realizes that this is as close as the nervous tourist is going to come, it gently (not abruptly, this would scare the tourist), reachs out with its long trunk, curls its tip around the clump of bananas, slowly retrieves them, and finally places the entire clump into its mouth where they are chewed like jelly beans.
I noticed that the other vendors were doing very little business, and that most all of us tourists were surrounding the elephants, and having fun feeding them. I hoped the Free Market was taking note of this important lesson: Tourists are more willing to spend money on experiences, than on merchandise. In other words, tourists don’t fly half way around the world to buy a wooden carving of an elephant. They fly half way around the world to be able to experience an elephant. Same thing with a bridge.
We walked back across and soon were sitting at an elegant table by the water, the floating restaurant swaying slightly each time a river-craft passed us. We were surrounded by flowers and potted trees, the river was flowing past beneath us, the waitresses were beautifully-attired and gracious, and the tablecloth and furnishings looked expensive. The Bridge Over the River Kwai towered above us, providing the perfect backdrop.
“All those prisoners complained about it being so harsh, but this is utterly lovely,” I said to Susan.
“Lunch at the River Kwai,” she laughed. “How decadent!”
But what the lunch would actually be had me concerned. Not surprisingly, almost every item on the menu was fish—entirely appropriate for a floating restaurant. But these were like no fish I’d ever heard of. We’d been given a Thai/English menu, and here were some of the choices, in English:
Mud carp fish
River kwai carp fish.
River kwai great white sheat fish.
Soldier barb fish.
Armed spiny eel fish.
Spotted feather black fish.
“What are you going to have?” asked Susan.
“I’m leaning towards the fish…”
I figured that only at a place of vast military significance could you find “Armed Fish” and “Soldier Fish,” but they both sounded kind of scary. I went for the Great White River Kwai Fish. OK so maybe I couldn’t claim that I’d ‘gotten the t-shirt,’ as far as this tourist destination was concerned, but I’d certainly gotten the fish. At a river, that was more important.
We went to two more museums, after lunch. But before doing this we tried to find our long-tail boat driver, and see if he minded waiting for us a bit longer. Apparently he did. He’d already left. We felt terrible. We’d never paid him his 700 baht! Maybe the pimp-lady finally caught up with him, and was whipping him at this very moment. There were other long-tail drivers here, standing around the boats, but we didn’t know how to ask if they knew where our driver went. We didn’t even know his name. Then I remembered my camera. As we were pulling away from the river-dock by the cave, I’d aimed the camera at the driver. His face was already captured on tape! Rewinding to the right spot, I showed the LCD screen to the other drivers, while Susan explained to them in Thai the problem. They knew him! After some rapid conversation, one of them hurried off and returned in a moment with another driver. This one wasn’t ours, but apparently he was an acquaintance. He explained to Susan that he’d been charged with receiving the baht, if we ever returned. So we paid him in full, along with a generous tip. It was impossible to know whether this payment would ever make it into the right hands, but at least our own conscience was assuaged.
The final two museums were worth visiting, but only briefly. The first was called by the unlovely name: “Jeath Museum.” Perhaps “Jeath” was meant to rhyme with “Death,” as in Death Railway, but it was actually an acronym for the countries involved in this theater of WWII: Japan (J), England (E), Australia and America (A), Thailand (T), and Holland (H). It took more of a diorama approach to showing life-size figurines of POW’s laying railroad track, being beaten by the Japanese, suffering in various ways, etc. There were also some interesting pieces of reality here: actual train cars from the original Death Railway, and bomb casings from the bombs actually dropped on the bridge by the British warplanes.
Taking us back to a much earlier time was the nearby Thai Cultural Center—a several story museum that displayed many paintings and tapestries from the last several hundred years. After paying a few baht to enter, I was surprised to find that Susan and I were the only people in this museum. We had it all to ourselves. As I studied the paintings and their historical explanations printed nearby, I realized there was a tremendous amount of history that had occurred, which I’d never given much thought to: specifically the ongoing warfare and border conflicts between Thailand and Burma. It was almost like France and England during the Middle Ages. These paintings and tapestries depicted vast cavalry charges—elephant cavalry, of course, between opposing armies; bloody battles, ceremonies of territorial conquest, etc. Susan was able to explain to me that while the Thais and Burmese were hereditary enemies, the Thais and the Lao’s (from Laos) were generally friendly, and were allies. Ah, so much history, so little time….
As we emerged from the top floor out onto a small deck overlooking the river, I heard a train whistle blow.
“Susan, a train’s coming!” I said excitedly. The people on the bridge had heard the whistle as well, and now all of them were running, in panic-stricken frenzy, in one direction or the other to get off the bridge. The train engineer knew what he was doing, for he blew the whistle a number of times, before the train itself finally rolled into view—and when it did it was going very slowly. No one wanted the Death Railway to claim any more lives.
I wasn’t quite sure why it was important to see the train cross the river, except that it made everything more realistic.
“Now we have ‘The Train Over The River Kwai’” said Susan, approvingly.
“If the British bombers attacked now, they’d do some serious damage,” I noted, remembering that in the movie the bridge had blown up right when a train was crossing. (You gotta love Hollywood.) But this train, no doubt the one from Bangkok arriving late in the day, made it across without incident, and the tourists soon resumed their pilgrimage.
The Floating Nun
“Susan, with our long-tail boat gone, how will we get back to the center of town and the bus station?”
“Let’s hire a pickup truck,” she suggested. “In fact, there’s one right there!”
We’d come back outside the museum, and were standing on a street corner. Susan waved excitedly to the driver of a miniature pickup truck, covered in the back like a micro troop-transport, and he pulled over quickly. We hopped onto the bare floor on the back—no benches even—and soon we were off.
“Is this normal, flagging a pickup truck?” I asked.
“Very much so. That’s what these trucks are. Kind of informal taxies. You can pile tons of people in to the back, and they’re less expensive then real taxies.”
“So where are we going?”
“Back to town, unless there’s some place else you’d prefer.”
“Hey, now that we have a truck, maybe we should go check out the Floating Nun!”
“I’d love to see the Floating Nun. Are you really up for that?”
“It may be my only opportunity, ever, to see a Floating Nun.”
Susan opened the little window to the cab, and gave new instructions to the driver. She showed him our map and he immediately knew where to go. The Floating Nun was famous.
Emerging out the far side of town, we crossed the Kwai yet again, this time on a highway bridge. It was a bit uncomfortable, on the floor of the pickup truck, but the POW’s had it worse so I refused to let it bother me. We were once more deep in the jungle, or the rainforest, or whatever it was. Trees, and plants and growing things were everywhere. It was as if someone had dropped a chlorophyll bomb on the Thai wilderness. Eventually we turned onto a gravel road which we followed for a short distance, before we came to a vast, cleared area. Another Buddhist temple. The truck pulled to a stop and we got out, our legs stretching gratefully, and a bit unsteady on our feet.
“Susan, this isn’t going to work.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re miles from the river. How can a nun float without water?”
“Hmmm, good point. Well, let’s cross that bridge when we get to it…so to speak.”
We wandered around the grounds, and noticed that part of the clearing had been turned over to vendors selling tourist paraphernalia: t-shirts and so forth. I looked for a Floating Nun t-shirt but didn’t see any. These t-shirts were all about the River Kwai Bridge, even though we were no where near the Bridge, let alone the river. A huge, fat, 15-foot-high, horrid bright-yellow Buddha, made of painted cement, faced outwards, welcoming the tourists to this attraction—such as it was. Day-Glow Buddha. I was getting impatient.
I noticed that Susan had disappeared behind a corner of one of the temple’s main buildings, and I quickly caught up with her.
“What the heck– ?” she said, looking at something very strange here. It was either the world’s smallest swimming-pool, or the world’s largest Jacuzzi. About fifteen-feet in diameter, this large, concrete hole in the ground was filled with water—very clear water, I noticed. You could see to the bottom, and it looked quite deep. Small twinkling objects lying on the tiled bottom might have been coins. Encircling this round pool of water were cement bleachers—about four tiers high.
A young Thai woman appeared, and began speaking to Susan. After a moment Susan explained the situation.
“This is where the floating nun floats,” she said.
“I was beginning to sense that, yes,” I replied.
“It costs twenty baht each, but the next performance is not for another two hours, when a large tour bus is arriving.”
“Or, for 200 baht, the Floating Nun will put on a command performance, just for us.
I tried to figure out if that was a reasonable price. 200 baht was about $4.00. Let’s see, what did I normally pay to watch nuns float? I didn’t want to get ripped off. But I couldn’t remember ever paying less than $4.00.
“I think it’s a fair price,” I said to Susan. “And there’s no way I’m going to haggle with a nun. I’d get struck by lightning or something.”
“You’re willing to pay 200 baht to see a nun float?” Susan asked, somewhat surprised, but in no way disapproving. I realized this woman didn’t know me very well. If I left here without seeing the floating nun, it would come to haunt me later in life, such that a day would come when I’d have to fly back to Thailand, return to Kanchanaburi, make my way back out to the Temple of the Floating Nun, and pay the amount anyway. It seemed easier to get it over with.
Susan informed the young acolyte, dressed in blue jeans, that we were going for it, and she hurried off to summon The Floating One. Susan and I took our seats on the third tier up. This gave us a broad view of the 15-foot pool of water. We weren’t going to miss a thing. Anticipation mounted, and its true that the hardest part is waiting. I distracted myself by ensuring that both video and still cameras were primed and loaded for bear—or rather, nun. At last, here she came.
She was a reasonably stout but not fat woman of advanced middle age—perhaps even elderly. She was dressed, or perhaps I should say encumbered, by what seemed several layers of white robe. Her head was bare, and her hair was very short-cropped, like a man. She wore slippers, and she walked slowly—approaching us in ritualistic, ceremonial fashion down the little walkway. Her eyes were downcast, hands together in prayer, and I noticed from the movement of her lips that she must be mumbling words softly.
Arriving at the pool of clear water, she knelt down beside it, and touched it briefly with her hands. Next she bowed down to the water, her hands again held together reverently. As the nun proceeded to remove her sandals, the acolyte joined the proceeding with a very long wooden pole—a holy relic if ever I’d seen one. The acolyte placed the pole all the way down until it was touching the bottom of the pool, and then—looking at us with great seriousness—motioned to the pole with no less ceremony and stage presence than Vanna White exhibiting a vowel. Her job, clearly, was to make it clear to the audience that this was truly what it seemed: a very deep pool. No trickery or sleight-of-nun would occur here. We nodded and then she retired from the scene solemnly, handling the pole with the utmost reverence.
Back to the nun. The woman had removed her sandals and was now sitting with her feet in the water, as if adjusting to the temperature. Every movement, every motion, was highly-ritualized, very practiced, and utterly solemn. With the help of a ladder attached to the side, she carefully and painstakingly let her self down fully into the water. Reaching the lowest rung, she pushed herself out into the middle of the pool. Her hands were still together in prayer, but her feet were dog paddling-away feverishly. This movement of her feet brought her quickly to the center of the pool.
Next she somehow maneuvered onto her back. Her feet and legs, now tightly together, rose up towards the surface of the water, and she let her head fall back slightly. This would have been a classic “back-float” position except that her hands were still together in prayer. Truly, this nun was floating.
She held the position for possibly a full minute, and then—like water ballet in slow motion—she proceeded to maneuver into different positions. She was now vertical in the water—motionless, appearing a bit like a coke bottle floating in a river. Now she was on her back again. Now she was on her back, and arms spread wide. Lying back in this way, robes hanging from her outstretched arms, she resembled a classic snow angel. Of course it was a thousand to one she’d never even seen snow, so I could never have shared the observation.
As she went through her routine Susan and I looked at each other. We were both balanced on a knife edge—between utter awe at the seriousness and reverence of the occasion, vs. losing it and laughing out loud. We both knew that if either of us had so much as let our lips turn up in the beginnings of a smile, we’d both lose control and start laughing hysterically to the point of tears.
The whole thing was utterly ridiculous, of course. We were supposed to think a modern miracle was occurring—that through the sanctity of her prayers and the nobility of her life, Buddha had granted her the power to float magically on the water. The left side of my brain was kicking in big time, ready to start disproving this pseudo-science and nip it in the bud. I let the dialogue rage freely in my mind.
Left Side of Brain: “Geez, where do I begin, with the list of reasons this isn’t impressive?
Right Side: “You’re missing the point.”
Left Side: “OK, I’ll start at the beginning. First, those robes could be filled with foam. Second, the oxygen trapped in the folds of those robes, by itself, could keep her and her friends floating for hours. Third, all you have to do to float is keep a lot of air in your lungs. You can tell from her breathing and the way her lips are held tightly together that she’s as inflated as a Scottish bagpipe in a parade. She’s so buoyant a lead anvil tied to her legs would have a hard time pulling her down. Finally, have you checked the salinity of that water? No, I didn’t think so. They probably poured a whole dump truck of salt in there. Anything would float. Gimme a break!”
Right Side: “You’re still missing the point!”
Left Side: “Well, what’s the point?”
Right Side: “The point is that we’ve just paid 200 baht—which is a lot of money in rural Thailand—to this woman for what amounts to ten minutes of work.”
Left Side: “Yeah, well no one bothered to consult with me about that, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
Right Side: “And not only that, but we’re sitting here mesmerized, staring at her.”
Left Side: “Speak for yourself. I’m not impressed.”
Right Side: “I’m totally impressed. What genius entrepreneur here at the temple dreamed this up! They’re making a fortune here. This is the best entertainment in the whole country! A floating nun! My God, that’s as good as it gets!”
Left Side: “You have a low threshold of being entertained.”
Right Side: “I’m not entertained by the Nun, but by the concept. This is fabulous. University professors should write dissertations on the social phenomenon of people willing to come out in the middle of the jungle and pay money to watch a nun float. It’s utterly brilliant! Remember, tourists pay for unique experiences, not for merchandise. This is probably the only place in the world, in the world, where you can experience this.”
Left Side: “You mean the only place at the moment. OK, if this deal is as cool as you say, and you’re making a good point, someone needs to franchise it and really make a fortune!”
Right Side: “Now you’re talking Left Side. Now you’re talking!”
While this dialogue was playing itself out in my head, the nun was nearing the end of her repertoire. She was now in the Coke-bottle-in-the-river position, hands still together in prayer, as she dog-paddled with her feet back to the ladder. Here came the acolyte, right on cue, and reverently helped the woman out of the pool. Still caught up in religious ecstasy, the nun knelt down again facing the water, and bowed low in prayer. Then, standing up and with a brief yet solemn bow to us (never forget the audience), she ritually squeezed some of the water out of her robes, sloshed slowly off down the path, and soon disappeared from sight.
I turned to Susan. She looked at me, not wanting to be the first to speak.
“That,” I said, “was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life!”
And then we both burst out laughing and soon the tears did come.
“I have to write about this,” said Susan, at last. “I have to write about it. But—my God—what will I say!” And then we dissolved into laughter again.
“You see, Jacques, America has the Flying Nun, but Thailand has the Floating Nun!”
“I think Thailand wins,” I agreed.
The Temple of the Floating Nun held one more surprise for us. As we departed the pool we came across a Buddha shrine specifically built to service the pool. Susan and I both were more than willing to buy the incense sticks and light them in honor of this shrine. We wanted to play the act out completely. As with all Buddha shrines, there were already some offerings here. But I couldn’t’ believe the offerings. Positioned perfectly in front of the Buddha, just behind the glowing incense sticks, were two bottles of Mountain Dew. The tops had been removed, and straws had been inserted. Sodas! For Buddha!!?? Was someone nuts! And what’s with the straws? Buddha didn’t need straws!
I felt my mind could take no more. I now realized why there was such a large array of tourist goods on sale here. Buses arrived. Dozens of tourists got out and paid money to watch a nun float. Then they made offerings to Buddha. Offerings of Mountain Dew!
What a country! I found that the left side of my brain had shut down in paralysis, but the right side was having the time of its life.
* * *
Susan and I returned by pickup to Kanchanaburi, talked non-stop for another two hours on the bus, and then said our goodbyes at the Imperial. I just hoped that she’d had as much fun as I had.
A week later, I received an email from her.
You won’t believe this. I was just telling—or attempting to tell—a friend about the floating nun. “Oh, I saw that,” he says (insert sneer emoticon here). “What was supposed to be so special about that?”
Boy, am I glad I didn’t go with him. And if he can’t be tickled by a Floating Nun … maybe he’s been in Thailand too long!
Yes, I thought. If you can’t enjoy a Floating Nun at the Bridge Over The River Kwai, you really have no business even being in Thailand. You probably wouldn’t enjoy the lizard museums either.