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.
I am desperate to go into the inner cloister to find out what's inside, but Sam and I didn't count on coming here. We're both wearing shorts, which are inappropriate at a Buddhist sacred place--besides which it's about 85 degrees, and the mosquitoes are angrily circling our ankles already. We come across a group of older men doing t'ai chi. I'm slightly comforted by the fact that one of them is wearing long shorts. Several Thais take off their shoes and go through the tall white doors. But Sam tells me no, that my shorts would be offensive. And I know he's right.
"According to local legend, this place was built as an act of atonement by the son of a Mon king who committed patricide," I whisper to Sam, recalling my guidebook. "After he killed his parents, the monks advised him to build something 'as high as the wild pigeon flies.'" I'm
grateful for these books, but I'm getting tired of referring to them as my primary source. I need some new information.
> We feel like outsiders here. It feels wrong to be mere tourists at a place that clearly has profound spiritual meaning to so many people, so we leave reluctantly. "But I want to take a picture," I say crankily, frustrated that I can't explore the chedi more because of my exposed legs. I want to remember all of this: the eerie walk through dawn, the magnificent Buddha statues, the requisite ginger and orange cat prancing past the relics.
"I changed my mind," I say, and we walk out the gate as the sky lightens.
At the police station, a 10-foot-by-10-foot box, we knock on the glass, wanting to ask about the bus to Kanchanaburi. No answer. A man who has been watching us from about 10 feet away calls out. He's got a thin pile of white hair, few teeth, and a samlor--a 10-speed with a two-seater cart attached. Soon, another woman joins Sam and the guy with the samlor and starts talking in Thai. She's trying to work the deal for her friend so that he can take us to Kanchanaburi and earn his five baht. I would be happy to oblige, but there's the small issue that Kanchanaburi is a good 40 miles away.
I walk over to the police box and knock with abandon. Someone briefly pokes his head through the curtain, sees us, and then disappears. The part of me that has no faith in goodness has us ripped off, mistreated, conned, pickpocketed, or--worse--ignored because we're tourists.Half a minute later, the policeman appears, bleary-eyed from sleep. He gives us directions with a lot of hand waving, and we still have no idea where the bus stop is. But the old man, who's still right behind us, knows.
We reluctantly get into the back of the samlor--barely wide enough for the two of us--and the man, my grandfather's age, begins to peddle. After two miles of weaving in and out of moped riders on their way to work, the bus station comes into view. I start to laugh. How will this trip ever be as absurd and wonderful as it is now? Fifteen minutes later, we unjam our hips from the samlor, and I point to my camera, then to him. He nods, and I snap. I am leaving Nakhom Pathon without photos of the famous chedi or the golden Buddha. But I've taken away a lesson in what Buddha, and travel, is all about: letting go.