: (4.3 stars)
Jul 27, 2003 13:03
and inexpensive place, alot to see and do
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
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
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
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?