On the Way to the River Kwai

Where better to learn a little about dharma than in the 2,000-year-old home of Thai Buddhism?

BY: Amy Durgan

 

It's 5:00 in the morning on my 20th day in Thailand. I just woke up from a fitful sleep, having sighted a roach crawling by my head hours earlier on the overnight train from Surat Thani. It's dark outside, and I have no idea where I am, not that the feeling is anything new these days.



The train comes to a stop, and I must look anxious, because the young woman who jumps down from her bed across from me whispers, "Ban Pong." All the other passengers, including my boyfriend, Sam, are still tucked away behind their curtains. I clasp my hands and bow slightly, imitating the Thai thank you.

Less than an hour later, we step off the train in Nakhon Pathom, thought to be Thailand's oldest town, where Buddhism entered the country over 2,000 years ago. Our plan is to get on the next bus to Kanchanaburi, the home of the infamous bridge over the River Kwai. But when I look up, there is the Phra Pathom Chedi, the top of its golden dome lighting up the dark sky. A

chedi

is a monument built to house a Buddha relic, and Phra Pathom is the tallest in the world. It stands as high as St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and you can see it no matter where you stand in town.

Sam and I make our way down the street and over the bridge, our cumbersome backpacks stooping us over, even though we expect to hear the place is closed at this hour. As we walk through the beginnings of the day's market, townspeople are setting up their stalls and cooking odd balls of bright pink meat on sticks. A woman walks past with a wheeled cart, in which dumplings are frying as she pushes it. A man with a cigarette stacks football-shaped, spiky shelled durians (their odor is so distinctive that many hotels have shiny plaques in their lobbies that simply state: "No Durian"), pineapples, and hairy red rambutans the size of avocados. Many of them stare when we walk past.

We're so obviously

farangs

(the Thai word for "foreigners"), not only because of our skin color, but also because we're wearing shorts and hiking shoes. I'm also the palest redhead on the planet and have had more than my share of stares in small towns here. Yesterday, an old woman came up to me, pointed at my face, and let out a gaspy laugh. But this attention doesn't offend me. I feel like a celebrity, though nobody wants my autograph.

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