Quick, it’s time to play ‘name that meat’. Can you tell the difference between pork, chicken, and ? Neither could we!
Our first experience in an all Thai restaurant was disappointing, as we were so used to the Thai dishes we knew and loved at home. But when the menu is all in Thai, and the pictures convey little information (oh, that looks like… meat… and noodles… in sauce), you do what you can. We expected little from the small restaurant in the heart of the market district, and were still disappointed. None of us felt comfortable with eating the sloppy and questionable plates that arrived, and seriously started to contemplate vegetarianism as an option. If only we could tell which dishes were vegetarian.
At least we got some ‘nourishment’ from the Coca-Cola. Not that we ever drink Coca-Cola, but the guidebooks said not to drink the tap water, and Coke was all they had. Surprisingly, Coke is a great refresher in the heat, and lifted our spirits beyond the few bites of rice and noodles we ate. At least the meal was cheap. $4 later, we didn’t feel as though we had lost too much to the experience.
Our next stop was at the river’s edge, to take a romantic ride through the canals of Bangkok in an old fashioned longboat. At least, that how it had sounded in the brochure when we booked our tour. I pictured a man with a colourfully adorned vest and a fine mustache, singing love songs while pushing gently through the river with a long pole…
Our driver led us down to the dock, having arranged everything with an as yet unknown man, and we stepped onto a luxurious floating restaurant, complete with live band and waiters. For a moment the Titanic came to my mind. (For the opulence, not the hitting-the-iceberg-and-sinking factor. We had little chance of spotting an iceberg in the 38 degree heat, although we would have welcomed one.) We were led across the boat, straight through to the other side, and down a gang-plank. It was there that our floating chariot awaited.
The style of longboats in Thailand dates back hundreds of years, with ornate carvings along the sides of the boat, and some features, such as the curved prow, reminiscent of Venice. The V8 engine mounted on the back with a propeller shaft coming out of it seemed to be a somewhat modern addition, but, hey, how loud can an engine be?
As it turns out, a V8 diesel engine without a muffler can be pretty damn loud. There is just a pipe coming out of the exhaust manifold, and the coolant lines are fed directly to and from the river. If you have any friends with a truck with no muffler, stand beside them as they rev their engine to about 5000 rpm. You might get an idea of what the sound of the longboat is like. There is little worry of collision, as anybody will hear you coming for miles. The fellow with the long pole singing “That’s Amore” was nowhere to be seen. We were at the point of no return, so we clambered aboard, and found our seats. On a boat that can hold 20 people, it was nice to be the only ones aboard, so we looked forward to some redeeming factors of the trip.
After crossing the wide Chao Phraya River, the boat ducked into one of the many small canals that crisscross the city. It is true that Bangkok is the Venice of Asia, with whole neighborhoods living, eating and shitting on the water. As we gracefully floated noisily careened through the narrow waterways, we were confronted with ramshackle homes, perched on stilts, half falling into the water. We got the sense that this had been the way of it here for hundreds of years, that all of the progress of modern society means little to the lives of these people.
And then there are the spirit houses. Despite the deeply ingrained Buddhist beliefs, Thais hold an older superstition regarding the spirits that dwell throughout the land. They believe that when you move onto a property, you must also make a home for the spirits who dwell there to live in, lest they choose to live in your domicile and haunt you. By this logic, the spirit house must be nicer than yours, leading to an industry in the creation of beautiful miniature temples, which are daily adorned with fresh flowers, food, and incense. In the case of the river houses, they were usually far outstripped by the beauty of the accompanying spirit house. Every so often, a rickety shack would have a temple or a mansion for a neighbor, and then there was no telling what degree of opulence might follow in home or otherwise.
In a city like Bangkok, where 8 million people center on one river, chances are the river is not going to be a very pretty or sanitary thing. We were feeling a little concerned every time the spray from the water hit us, for who knew what lay in it, from feces, to bacteria, to noxious chemicals, or the occasional dead dog, floating belly up. Despite this, swimming in the canals is a popular pastime. I can only image that these people have super human immune systems, from the continual exposure to any number of pollutants and bugs.
At one point, our boat driver slowed down, and we began to notice some large catfish swimming around the boat. At this point, I recalled a story from my youth, on a boat trip up the Mississippi river, where and old man told me of how he had lost several fingers during the great depression by using his digits as bait for the catfish. Careful not to repeat his mistake, I kept my hands well within the confines of the boat, and told the children to do the same.
I noticed that the catfish had turned into a swarm, now creating a thick layer so that the river seemed to be a carpet of fish. As I turned to look at the other side of the boat, I noticed a basket hanging beside the boat just within easy reach. Peering into the basket, I noticed several loaves of bread. How perfect! Something to feed the fish! I started to pull a loaf out to examine it, and once again, the thought crossed my mind that some generous Buddhist had put the bread there to allow people to feed the poor starving river creatures.
My good-willed naiveté was short lived, as the boat driver called out and motioned to the shore. My eyes went from the basket, to the string attached to the basket, to an old toothless woman on the end of the string sitting on the shore beside a pile of bread. Quickly putting two and two together, and remembering my lesson from the pigeons, I asked how much. As the driver was replying (something like 100 Baht, or $3.33), Theresa was shaking her head. I think she was still annoyed at us getting suckered by the pigeon people, and that brought me back to reality.
There is a code of ethics in traveling that warns of corrupting a social or environmental organism by influencing it with your own set of values, and creating new survival paradigms. An example would be beggars in third world countries. Surely our first world affluence can benefit them, and guilt often makes us want to contribute directly. But if you give them money, it will teach them that they can survive on handouts, and they will become dependent on begging for a living. There are obviously situations and circumstances where a person or community might truly need the money due to adverse circumstances, and out of charity or pity, you might give it to them, but oftentimes, you are contributing to or perpetuating a cycle of dependency that is unhealthy to both parties.
There are ‘native’ tribes I have read about who live with fairly modern conveniences, (i.e. electricity, TV’s, PlayStations and blue jeans) who have made their village appear to be quite traditional on the surface. When the tour buses roll through on schedule, the natives shed their blue jeans for their traditional garb, and perform dances, etc and sell their wares to the tourist. Both sides might benefit from this arrangement, as the tourists feel good for supporting the ‘tribe’ and get some great ‘authentic’ souvenirs, and the natives get money to survive and feed their addiction to first world culture. But whether or not that is a healthy addiction, I will leave up to you, dear reader, to decide.
As we watched the bread lady reel her hook back in, bait untouched, I realized even the fish had become dependent in this dance, as the school would otherwise be scrounging the river instead of being condensed in one spot. The problem with dependency, from an evolutionary point of view, is that it creates weakness. You are only as strong as what you depend upon. Diversity breeds resilience.
We walked away from our boat trip wet and shaken, feeling as though we had just had a once in a lifetime experience. We had seen a side of the city that didn’t really care if we were there, and had seen a broad swath of the conditions humans attempt to survive in. Life may flourish in whatever niche it may find, and the tropics seem to bring this out in humans as much as in the flora. We are only as strong as what we depend on…