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Happily Stung in Thailand

On the crowded streets outside Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station one morning, I was accosted by a stranger offering to show me a good time. Nothing unusual in that, of course: already that day I’d been approached by perhaps a dozen others touting everything from hotel rooms and tuk-tuk rides to the kind of diversions many associate with the infamous Thai capital. As I slipped into the routine of exchanging pleasantries with my latest perfectly plausible “friend”, I wondered momentarily what had become of my former trusting nature; at one time, I would have stopped and talked without hesitation; now, after four months traipsing around southeast Asia, I merely wondered what the sting would be this time.

But something about my present companion was different. Introducing himself as Arthit, former Bangkok resident and now history teacher in Chiang Mai, he told me he was there to deposit his luggage at the station before catching the overnight train home following a conference; well, that seemed to fit. And rather than steer the conversation around to a sales pitch, he let me tell him how I was loving Thailand but had little hope of experiencing traditional Thai life in this vast, chaotic city. “So you haven’t been out to the khlong?” he asked. “If we’re both at a loose end, why don’t I take you there?”

I still feared this encounter would end up in yet another jewellery shop or (worse) draw me into a rigged card game, but suddenly I couldn’t summon the energy for another quarrel. The man must have been in his sixties – could he really be such a threat? And besides, I had not the faintest idea what a khlong might be, and now I was curious.

We boarded a bus and headed out through the Chinatown and Banglamphu districts, with Arthit knowledgeably describing the Thai school system; if this was a scam, it was certainly an elaborate one. Alighting the bus at the Tha Chang pier on the Chao Phraya river, he ushered me into a long-tailed river boat and instructed the driver to make for the Khlong Bangkok Noi – an area of canals, I realised at last. Minutes later, the persistent voice of doubt in my head (were these two in on it together?) was silenced by the sheer beauty of what was unfolding around me.

A Bangkok canal..

This simply could not be the same city. High-rise blocks were nowhere to be seen, replaced by traditional wooden stilt houses; traffic noise softened to birdsong; floating markets materialised where shopping centres had been; people wore smiles, not pollution masks. Coconut and mango trees stood everywhere; rambutans, mangosteens and jackfruit grew wild. Washing hung alongside Thai flags and royal emblems, marking the birthday of the King. The people paddling by in kayaks were clearly living just as generations of their ancestors had lived. Why hadn’t my guidebook mentioned this dreamlike place?

Gliding under stone bridges, I noticed that women would wait for us to pass under, while men carried on walking. Arthit explained how they were obliged to do this, since we might be Buddhist monks. He himself, in common with many Thai males, had spent time as a Hinayana monk at one of the country’s 32,000 monasteries. Here, life was dedicated to the study and application of hundreds of commandments in an effort to reach nirvana and break the cycle of birth and rebirth. Arthit himself couldn’t say how many times he had lived through the cycle before, or how close he was to his ultimate destination.

He did, however, know plenty about the 400 or so wat (temples) that line the canals. The main sanctuary of Wat Suwannaram, a royal monastery built during the reign of Rama I, houses fine 19th century mural paintings of Buddhist deities. Wat Chi Pakhao was once home to a celebrated poet. Then there was the ancient Wat Kaeo Fa, constructed in the Ayuthaya style, and Wat Amphawan, with its ornate wooden scripture hall in the middle of a pond.

All too soon, our driver turned us back towards the new city; but an afternoon with the teacher had indeed been an education, and what’s more had restored my faith in human nature. We parted with promises to keep in touch. Seconds later, a beaming man appeared and offered to take me to his brother’s shop. I went without hesitation, and left with a small wooden canal boat as a souvenir of an unforgettable place.

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