I was at seventy-five feet below sea level, in the warm evening Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Kona, in my sixth dive since 10 am the previous morning.
In front of me was a school of a hundred silver goat fish lying aligned toward the current running in from the west. I moved forward in gradual inches until my mask was 24 inchs from the closest one. Their yellow rimmed eyes watched me but showed no fear. Two feet above us several hundred more hung in the warm water, a canopy of reflected light. The small tentacles on the fishes chins were mesmerizing as they churned the sand for food. I lay with them for several minutes, gently rocking in the soft surge. I decided then and there that if reincarnated I no longer wanted to return as a bird – I wanted to be a sea creature. I slowly moved through; they gradually split to allow me passage and I made a slow ascending left curve to the bottom of a huge, green wall stretching up fifty feet towards light. Oscillating in the smooth back and forth of the Pacific, my breath stopped for a dozen seconds as I beheld a marvelous and unexpected treasure. A massive, coral architected structure, climbing from an eel strewn gray sand bottom to the west, was lighted with soft, diffused ray-glow coming from the late afternoon sun, still about 25 degrees off the horizon. The wall was very steep and regular with a slight receding bow in the middle so one could lie at the bottom and look at a semicircle reaching up about 50 feet towards the surface. It was covered with massive, irregular rows of rounded, coral billows..like the clouds had been frozen and then plastered on the rock face, then dyed in every shade of green and brown found in a Japanese imperial garden. No rock could be seen through the coral, thick and mutilayered. Tables of rusted brown, dark ochre, and leather hues in great colonies and neighborhoods. Mounds and peaks, hillocks and enormous, irregular waves in emerald and umber. Surfaces of textured galaxies: warts and polyps, tiny lines, ridges, and crevices; lobes and fingers; minute hexogonal and pentagonal patterns, broccoli crowns. Words cannot describe how beautiful this wall is – plates of rich coral cantilevered out from the wall their undersides flat as steel rules; coral mountains hanging out; dozen of different geometric shapes – flat bottoms cut knife-like, It resembled nothing as much as a Chinese mountain village reaching into the clouds. Liiving there were several thousand floating animals, in dozens of schools of varied and contrasting reef fish..their colors purples, silvers, golden, scarlet, varied greens, creams, spotted, striped, a tropical pallet of pale hues of blue and emerald. They all move together in the soft swells, hanging off the village clusters, navigating among the burnt orange and rusty maze. I lost myself in this scene, floating together in the sway of the evening. I realized that I would be happy to live hanging here forever in the never ending play of color, light and motion and when I awoke from my daydream found I had one minute before i would go into decompression dive phase and zipped up from 37 feet to 20 feet and the top of the wall where strewn before me was a coral plain stretching as far as the light allowed me to see. And at that point I felt, to the core of my being, like I was alongside the Chao Phraya River running through the khlongs and villages of Bangkok. I later realized that, after 6 dives in just over 30 hours, that I must be experiencing the “Rapture of the Deep” – I think I was narc’d.
Many of us have unforgettable memories of a quiet day or two in the countryside next to a special country river. To me these must include the valleys of the Kosi, Bitterroot, Roanoke, Yellowstone, Lamar, Loire, Deschutes, Madison, Gallatin and Beaverhead; then the southern marshes of the Ashley, Warwick, York, and the headwaters of the Columbia, as well as its mouth, on the Youngs River estuary; and the wiilderness jungle and lonely inns of the Rio Pacuare. These memories are indeed sweet ones.
And then there are the majestic cities of Europe where the river banks have been tamed into lovely parks like The Seine, The Thames, The Main, The Saone, Isar, Salzach, Ill, Tiber, Elbe, Moldau, Spree. In these, in many ways, the ebb and flow of a special river life will soon gone, now replaced with container terminals, hotel palaces, strip malls, skyscraper office parks, concrete embankments. Strangled by dams, they are now, or may soon be, only good for shipping, electricity, tourism and an occasional casual fisherman. Not that this is all bad necessarily – one cannot imagine London without The Thames or Manhattan without the Hudson and East Rivers. But to find a river which is the heart and soul of several million people, whose lives are inextricably linked together, in the quotidian chores and pace of their family life – ah that is a fine, and soon to be lost, thing.
In many parts of the more primitive edges of what used to be called civilization, massive rivers are barely tamed and bursting with a crush of man – alive with life and death. The sun makes its daily run and clocks the rise and fall of the breasts of its people, all in the edges and murmur of the mighty water flow. The river is the life. In the sense that the gradual movement of the seasons is life now in sunlit valleys of the mountain forests, but, soon to be frozen death lands when winter arrives.
Those whose passion is ambling through empty back country or the seamy underbelly of the world know these places. The flower market and ghats of Calcutta on the banks of the Ganges; the cross river ferries and markets on the Saigon and Mekong; the parks and fields of the high Indus in Ladakh; the cremation temples of the Bagmati and the Kathmandu Valley; the masses of animal life on the banks of the mighty Zambezi; trash strewn banks of the Nile; the ancient cities of the Irrawaddy. Or we have read our papers and websites as the Brahmaputra deals tragedy in Bangladesh or the Mississippi in Louisiana. This is where the river is life and life is the river, still.
I Meet The Chao Phraya and Awan
I first saw the Chao Phraya River when I had my “R&R” week in Thailand in June ’67, after nine months in Vietnam, running convoys from the South China Sea to the Cambodian border.
Flying from Qui Nhon, through Danang, took only a long day until we landed at the old airport of Bangkok. We taxi’d to a remote side of the field..large militrary buses pulled up; as we climbed on board a quart of cool beer were thrust into our hands. I chatted with a few of the other officers as to at what hotels they were staying. I decided to stay at a smaller hotel that was mainly frequented by enlisted men. I had grown tired of the officer talk – and also they didn’t listen to the good rock and roll that I loved. In Binh Dinh province we got little of the latest 60’s music that was sweeping the rest of the world – I had scored a Jefferson Airplane album and Cream and spent a hour or two many evenings with “the heads” smoking weed and listening to Otis, Smokey and The Temptations. I checked into the hotel, dropped my pack, and hit the pool. as the night deepened I grabbed a taxi and headed to the bars of New Pethchaburi Road and into Thai Heaven. I won’t go into much about the bar scene. The attached link from “Stickman” does a much better job that I could on how the scene worked.
As he says the relationships between tens of thousands of american young men and the lovely ladies for hire was often more than a physical quick roll in the hay. My memories of that first evening were hazy at best – many beers, a taxi ride, a warm bath with my back getting scrubbed , a late morning swim in the pool, and a beautiful, nut brown gal in my room about sums it up. But I realized that rather than heading out into the night again the next evening, that I’d rather get to know this woman; so we talked about staying together for the week. I called her “Awan” which meets “Sweet”. She said she’d enjoy being together all the week. She said she knew a taxi driver named “Di” who we could hire who’d take us to see the sights. When asked about getting some Thai sticks she said Di,could provide all I wanted. She said she had a baby at home so would like to go home most nights – that was fine with me. So later that day she returned, we hooked up with Di the driver, and began my first of many visits to the magnificent temples and museums along the Chao Phraya. As we drove through the dusty, crowded roads of the city, Awan said that we were going to the river. It was far and away the best way to move through the city center, and we would go along it to see some of the temples of Buddha. I was interested that the temples would be on the river banks and, loving water, I thought that would be very nice, to say nothing of cooler in the mid day heat. When we got there I realized we were in for a bit of an adventure!
What Is The Chao Praya?
Di dropped Awan and me on the river bank past the zoo. The bank was a warren of food stalls, small shops, fruit carts, with small alleys every 30 feet that went down to rickety piers out over the brown flow. The smells of frying donuts, satay’s broiling over charcoal, fresh melons and tropical fruit split and skewered on bamboo spears, were everywhere. Well, then I saw the river – a flooding mass of coffee, moving in waves of tree and brush laden streams, all pushing and shoving to rush ahead and outrace each other. The rains up in the hills on the Burma border had collapsed mud walls, and tumbled teak and tea trees into the river’s wash, breaking them as they tangle with the shores and rocks of the burgeoning streams. It was a massive, tumbling, confusing, horizontal waterfall – rushing by the rotten wooden dock, which teetered out for us to get into a narrow, rocking boat with a 327 Chevy V-8 engine and an enormously long, long prop.
The boats rocked with the wakes of a dozen craft zooming by, out in the deeper water. Awan jumped in the big, supercharged canoe and turned with a smile and said “Come on GI”. I jumped and off we sped – my first trip on the mighty artery of Bangkok.
So that introduction was many, years ago. In the twenty or so visits I have made since then I have almost always stayed on the riverbank. It takes many forms depending on the weather – it can be smooth and quiet, occasionally blueish green, once I saw whitecaps in a gale. Sometimes in the rainy season the floats tangle up and it begins to seem as if a woven bridge will form that might be used to cross. In a strong rising ocean tide or as the southeastern monsoon roils the salt water bay just 15 miles down stream, the river might turn and the thickened, leafed branches can move upriver lending visual confusion to the bizarre chocolate flow. It is endlessly interesting to watch.
The Chao Phraya is alive with boats of all types moving at all speeds and in all directions – a kenetic stack of pickup sticks. Large and small public water buses, ferry’s stuffed with passengers hanging on beneath the canvas rain covers, independent water taxis all rocking in the wakes of dozens of crafts lumbering or zooming by. This is one of several characteristics of Bangkok life that make it unique in Asia. Its streets when I first was there were largely dirt and filled with buffalo and horse carts, multi-rider bicyles, mopeds, tuk-tuks, fume spewing buses; while today they often are jammed to inertia, it was not much different forty years ago. Buddhism is everywhere! In shops, under trees, around trees, at the end of alleys, in windows – everywhere. The people are legendary in their outward gentleness and friendliness. And finally Bangkok itself was and still is, to a lesser extent, laced with hundreds of canals that are the veins of life, with houses and transport abounding on, in, and around them. What this means is that the Chao Phraya is the trunk of the vines of water that make the city go. These cappilaries are called “Khlongs”, the “streets” of Bangkok’s villages. The thousands of stick houses hang out over the, bamboo porches and plywood walls hammered & tied together over wet and dark pilings; the strings of huts are connected with small wooded bridges merely a couple of tree trunks wide.
You would walk through a number of neighbors porches to get to dry land. Kids were swimming, jumping, and playing in the water. Boats with vegetables, rice sacks, flowers, and all types of dry goods ply their trade through the tangle of waterways.
Out on the main stem are the delicious sites and sights, along the banks of the river itself, which are some of the best of what the city can offer a tourist-explorer. All of these can be reached by public water bus and most have their own stop. Awan and I would go each day and ride the water buses to new. colorful excursions.
A good start of our first day, in the warm late morning, was the Pak Klong flower market – cavernous rows of stalls and warehouses with every scent and color of Asia, it seems to go on forever; a photographer’s paradise.
Then I was awed when the ferry boat later dropped us at Wat Pho – the temple of the reclining Buddha – massive in size we were spellbound by the magnificent finger print swirls of the big golden God. Now there is a Thai Massage school in the shady alcoves around the walls. You can sign up and get a good 30 minute for about $5. This style bends your body and streches out the muscles and is properly done on a floor mat. I don’t recall if it was there in 1967 but certainly a popular stop today
Almost every day we’d see a new temples. The second day across the Chao Phraya, on the west side, Wat Arun is the sleeping charmer of all the many temples.
It is the “Temple of Dawn” which sneaks up on it from across the water. It is a place to wander slowly looking at the details of the mosaic adornments of the towers. This temple is never crowded – that and its lovely spires made it, forty years later, Margo’s and my favorite place to escape the craziness of the masses. While we were over in that area we went up a side khlong to a enormous, dusty, old warehouse which housed the ancient barges of the Kings.
The third day of our explorations my lovely tour guide took me to what I believe is the most magnificent building complex in the world. The sacred Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The adornment of the many small temples, pavilions, walls, and terraces surrounding the central shrine cannot adequately be described by me.
One would have to have a bag full of majestic descriptions of gold and silver and jewels and flowers, all the rainbow colors and reflections, all the mix of geometry and fluidity. It is full of lovely statues of gods and acolytes, flowers and animals – all in service to the emerald idol. There are about a dozen ancillary temple buildings – each one in its own magnificent splendor. Then the massive central temple in Lanna style with its enormous, splendid pillars and multichrome shingled roof – the Temple of the Emerald Buddha main hall. I was stunned by its beauty. This building could easily be the subject of a lifetime of study.
The fourth day Di said we wouldn’t go to the river. We saw some of the more exciting sights…first the snake farm, then to a movie, and finally as the evening came to the Thai boxing arena. Under the metal roof the crowd steamed, sweated and growled in anticipation of the upcoming fights. Bets and beer, strange food and warm beer. The crown was in an uproar as the fighters came and went in the yellow roped ring – beneath the Singha beer sign and the flourescent lights. In a sense the movie was the hi-point of the week so far..something so normal and different than the war and the country side. Something truly like home. We ate that night in the food stalls in the marketplace and had a quiet evening back in the hotel room.
I guess now most of the khlongs have been filled in and covered, although, in one of Margo’s and my last trips, we spent at least 2 hours driving around in a hired long-tail and never covered a previously explored canal. But in 1967 they seemed to go on forever. The last full day, Awan asked if I wanted to go to her home and hang out. It sounded right and we headed there. The rough, brown, main river gave way to mirror-smooth, black water. We rode up narrow channels, then wide ones, then narrow ones again – under forested banks and through rafts of barges. Finally we pulled next to a tie-up, climbed out, and up a wood ladder. Her home was a comfortable two or three room spread, open to the air on all sides except where reed curtains moved in the breeze, shading the tatami mats, pillows, and quilts spread throughout. We lay in the cool with her little 8 month old boy crawling between us. Awan’s s eyes were like the dark river, still beneath her bamboo porch; her eye lids were billows of bronze clouds, her lips rolled and soft beneath her lovely small nose. Her mother took the boy and we slept for a hour then ate lightly and drank a cool beer and played with her son again. After we met Di back on the bank by the zoo he and Awan bought me dinner – I was broke by then, but they had most of my cash anyway.
I flew back to Binh Dinh province the next day – my 7 days R&R complete. That was my last look at the Chao Phraya for until 20 years later I stopped in to pick up some codeine pills and a haircut on my way up into Nepal in 1988. I stayed 2 nights at the Oriental Hotel, sat on the balcony of my river front room and smokes a joint – it was beautiful but then the paranoia hit and I had to go in and lie down. When we moved to Singapore in 2003 we started going up there ever few months – just an hour’s flight and corporate discount at the Oriental Hotel. It is on the river – in fact it straddles it with its wonderful spa and Ramayana dance theatre on the west bank and a private ferry plying its crossing every five minutes or so. The staff at the Oriental had a file on us, I think, since they aways greeted Margo with the same line “Well Mrs Greeve would you like your gin and tonic now?” We sit by the river for breakfast and swim in their pool. Then we get a long-tail and begin the ride again. I hope it never ends – sometimes I think I could stay there forever, soaking in the never ending play of the moving waves.