I speak no Thai. None. I’ve been here a day and am thankful that the hotel staff speaks English. More about the hotel later, but I want to relate an extraordinary encounter of friendship across the language barrier.
Due to the delay leaving New York, today was my only full day in Bangkok. As a tourist, you want to see the highlights—but those are always the most crowded. I toured the Royal Palace like everyone else (and I mean everyone), then took the ferry across the river to the famous Wat Arun, with its towering stupa and glittering surfaces. It was still very crowded, because everyone who tours the Royal Palace seemed to want to crowd onto the ferryboats to Wat Arun.
Looking at the map, I saw a few wats (a wat is a Buddhist temple complex, often with resident monks and a school in addition to the temple proper) that weren’t likely to be so mobbed. Transportation: the trusty—and often exhilarating—tuktuk. So I set out into the streets. It was hot, but I had bought extra water—and a plate of wok-fried chicken with basil—outside the palace.
At what looked like a tuk-tuk repair shop, I found a vehicle but no driver. Tuktuks and their drivers are usually inseparable, like elephants and their mahouts. Someone was loudly drilling metal inside a garage bay, so I leaned into the restaurant next door and said the magic word: “Tuktuk?” A woman came outside and began to yell at the man making a racket with the drill. The noise stopped momentarily, and a different man emerged from the shadows.
Next thing I knew, we were on our way, a breeze blowing across my face. (The tuktuk is naturally air-conditioned when underway.) We had negotiated his 400-bhat offer down to 200. Did I say it was hot?
Getting to the point of this story, my motorized mahout took me to Wat Kanlayimit, a large comples of buildings, shrines, bells, and a temple with a large seated Buddha. I bought incense and made my offering, then sat quietly with other worshipers. Outside, a gong was ringing. When I emerged a few minutes later, the tuktuk was waiting. Using the map, I tried to ask the driver if, after Wat Prayoon, he would take me to the ferry dock near the old Portuguese Church of Santa Cruz. I offered another 100 bhat.
My mahout was out of his neighborhood, so we were having trouble coming to an understanding. Just then, the wat school let out for the day, and the yard filled with chattering children.
Several boys came running over to see what I was doing there—likely to try out a few words of the English that many children study here. I showed them my map and asked them to explain to the driver how to get to the ferry dock near Santa Cruz. Ah, Santa Cruz! Knowing looks all around, but not much serviceable English.
The boys chattered away in Thai with the driver, and I kept asking about the ferry dock near the church. One of the boys could actually connect subject and verb, but we weren’t getting anywhere.
A woman approached, the mother of one of the several other children who had gathered gathering about the negotiations like reporters at a press conference. The woman talked with the boys, the boys talked with the mahout,, I pointed at the map, the boys pointed at the map—then suddenly, all three boys jumped into the tuktuk and gestured for me to join them. The woman nodded and smiled; it seemed the negotiations had borne fruit. Our mahout mounted his driving saddle and off we went together—Jeff and his three new best friends, none of them older than 10. One of them was giving directions to the driver.
I had no idea where we were going, but I thought I might as well go along for the ride. The beauty of the boys’ plan finally dawned on me as we pulled up to the ferry dock. They had decided that the only way to get me there was to show me—and the driver—where it was.
But there’s more. There seemed to be no ferry operating at this dock. But a narrow elevated walkway snaked along the riverbank and the boys set out on it, gesturing me to follow. We walked together for about five minutes, and suddenly, there was the Church of Santa Cruz!
Unfortunately, it was closed to visitors, but no matter. We struck out again along river walk, playing a game of “find the tuktuk.” I had not yet paid the mahout, so I was quite sure he would right where we left him. He was waiting at the ferry dock, so in a few more minutes we were all back at Wat Kanlayanimit.
By then, it was getting late and I needed to get back to the hotel. But how? The Siam, which fronts the Chao Phraya River, provides a private river launch service, but I needed to call to get them to pick me up. Having no phone, I gave the hotel number to the boys and asked them to place a call for me. (All three had mobile phones—two of them iPhones.) One of them dialed the number and handed me a phone. The hotel boat could pick me up at Wat Arun in 20 minutes.
We bid goodbye. I had not set foot in Wat Prayoon, but I didn’t care. The tuktuk driver took our picture. I got from one of the boys a gmail address so I could send it to them. Smiles all around.
So, back to square one: Wat Arun. As the tuktuk roared up a busy boulevard toward the towering stupa, I thought about the importance of spontaneity and of the Quaker admonition to “proceed as the way opens.” Life just happens and it can be beautiful if you allow it to unfold naturally.
Language didn’t matter; culture and nationality didn’t matter. Three fifth graders had enriched my day. Maybe I enriched theirs.
Our motorized mahout was delighted too, a big smile on his face from the moment those kids hopped into the tuktuk. He was also pretty happy with the 500 bhat I handed him at Wat Arun.