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The Best 19 Cents You'll Ever Spend
Rating : (4.3 stars)

Bangkok, Thailand
Jul 27, 2003 13:03

Pros: interesting and inexpensive place, alot to see and do
Cons: none

It takes a bit of effort to think of something that nineteen cents can procure these days. In the produce aisle, a few grapes. At the parking meter, ten minutes of time (five if you're in San Francisco). At the post office, enough postage to send a postcard. Maybe.

Things are a bit different in Bangkok.

In this city where things are bought and sold for pennies on the dollar--most of them illegal or at least immoral in the west--I offer up that nineteen cents, in the form of eight baht, for a ticket to one of the greatest shows on earth. It is not the girly shows up on the Patpong, nor the frenetic Muay Thai matches down at Lumphini. It is the Chao Phraya, as seen from the decks of one of the crowded river taxis incessantly motoring north and south along the river's serpentine course.

Snaking south through the center of Krung Thep (as the locals refer to Bangkok), the Chao Phraya is the central artery of the city, a muddy confluence swarming with barges, fishing boats, the odd dug-out canoe.

This is Natalie's first visit to Bangkok, my fourth. Every time I roll into town after that grueling Trans-Atlantic flight, whizzing from the airport into the heart of the city in a taxi atop that elevated tollway that seems reserved for farang, cops, and very rich Thais (sometimes, interestingly, the same thing), my first instinct is to hit the river.

And so it is that the following morning, shortly after sun-up, we find ourselves winding through the narrow streets by the venerable Oriental Hotel (a place well noted for the short-term residences of such luminaries as Graham Greene, Someret Maughm, and Jim Thompson, the expat teak king who disappeared mysteriously in the jungles near Chiang Mai in the late seventies), until we find the sagging planks of the river taxi's jetty.

It doesn't take much time for the taxi to appear, a white needle-nosed steel-hulled boat, as identifiable by its color and shape as by the swirling exhaust cloud its twin twelve-cylinder engines leave hovering over its churning brown wake.

As it nears, the riverman on the back is whistling, nodding. The taxi tethers for hardly a moment--the boat absorbs and disgorges passengers simultaneously--and within seconds we are off, churning northward aboard the Greatest 19 Cent Show On Earth.

It's standing room only, of course, a hodgepodge of Bangkok's citizens--Buddhist monks in saffron robes, business men on cell phones, stoop-backed women with buckets of dried fish and squid, and the rivermen, leathery faced, the perpetual unfiltered cigarette dangling from their lips, last night's Sang Som whiskey spiderwebbing their jaundiced eyes in red. The river is filled with boats of every conceivable size--from the single man in the dugout fantail to the tug towing four massive barges of iron ore pellets. The only thing common in their bearing is that it is either upriver or downriver; otherwise every bearing is unique, a thousand boats zigzagging, tacking or jibing if they are beneath sail, the motorized ones rumbling or whining. The rivermen's faces are what interest me: in this hornet's nest of activity, they are serene as the Buddha, unflinching, unconcerned, elbows resting on cabin sills, eyes glazed, while we farangs grip the hand rails with white knuckles as impact after impact is narrowly averted. Around us there is no neat dividing line between city and river; the buildings spill over the banks, everything's on pilings. There are high rises and hovels, hardly a block apart, upscale shopping malls and decaying shacks, their uneven floors sagging a few feet over the muddy water, the day's laundry languidly in the breezeless air. One moment we are passing upper-class women--local and farang alike--toting bulging plastic shopping backs laden with designer goods; hardly a moment later, we are looking at what might be termed the trailer trash of Krung Thep, the disenfranchised river people--men visible beneath the pilings, clad only in sagging briefs, bathing themselves while another urinates upstream; a floor above, men and women laze away the morning in hammocks, rocking idly, a bottle of Sang Som never too far away.

It's information overload, the whole of Bangkok condensed into a twenty-minute ride. Being a farang, I will never fully grasp the entirety of it. Instead, I furtively steal glances at those saffron-robed monks beside me, try to read their faces, divine what it is they're thinking as all this parades past.

Their countenances never change.
Their lips faintly suggest a smile, their eyes a resignation. Go figure.

A moment later they are stepping off at the Tha Thien jetty, site of the Buddhist University. And suddenly we are stepping off, too, caprice for a moment getting the better of us. Our feet have hardly left the deck of the river taxi and already it is roaring off again, upriver, absorbing and disgorging people into the streets north of here. Forgive me, I cannot leave the artery metaphor--the Chao Phraya seems so much the aorta, the people the blood cells, the streets the arteries. It's only in this way that I can possibly get my mind around the chaotic paradoxical beast that is Bangkok. Trite, perhaps. But mind-expanding nevertheless.

Not a bad way to spend nineteen cents, hey?