Wong Wen Pu, Taiwan
For Phitsinee Jitprasert
I have known many great rivers in this world. I have known the Tigris and the Euphrates, fallopian cradle to human civilisation. I have traversed the vertiginous lengths of the Iguazu and the Parana, as they discharge the untamed heart of South America into frigid waste seas at the end of the world. With open palms I have scooped the iridescent waters of sacred Ganga, that familiar river of life and death, samsara and continuity, ohm and shantih, into my dust-clad hair and onto my browned pilgrim’s back. Standing atop the bare pinnacle of the Alps, I have witnessed the singular destruction to life wrought by the Vajont. And my father’s people continue to live along the banks of Pearl River, from which stupefying flora vapours of opium from the last century still rise, in voluminous violet plumes, by night. These rivers I have known are as ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
But I am not here to tell you about these rivers millennials rich in romance and history and memories. This time, I want to tell you a story about the Chao Phraya and the River Ping. The most practical amongst rivers, they ply not in myth or lore, but oil and spermatozoa and waterborne diseases.
Tiratep was a boy who had, until recently, lived in a raised hut by a khlong in the district of Thonburi, Bangkok. For a living, Tiratep offered tourists rides along the Khlong Bangkok Noi in his motorised longboat. He would find them at Wat Arun in the morning, and ferry them to the various attractions nestled along Thonburi’s intricate waterways: the colourful floating market of Taling Chan, Orchid Garden, Snake Farm. On the days when business was slow, he would take them out to a floating restaurant on the Tha Chin, where white dolphins, drawn by food scraps swept into the river, could occasionally be seen. At the end of each tour, Tiratep would drop his charges off at the Wang Lang pier, where they could visit the nearby forensic museum or evening railway market. It was good business, and the tips were often generous.
But when the rain had started falling, and continued to fall interminably for several months, the tourists stopped coming. They were unable to come, as flights into the city were cancelled, following the subsiding of Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi’s runways into the surrounding marshlands. And neither did they want to: Thermae Bar had closed for good after the water overran its basement premises, fresh food was increasingly scarce, and fighting between the Avalanche militants and the Royal Thai Army had spilled into the full length of Sukhumvit Road. One morning, Tiratep had taken his boat around to Wat Arun, only to find many other boat-tour operators like himself milling about the sacred grounds, some eating their breakfast of steamed bananas and sunflower seeds, others engaged in desultory conversations about the rain, but no tourist anywhere in sight. After several days without work, he had stopped making the morning trip to the temple. Instead, he stayed home and fished, casting his lines and fishing pots into the khlong behind his house in the morning, and sitting by them as they dangled limply in the brackish water all day. While waiting, he would lie under the slow ceiling fan in his hut and follow the languid turns of the blades, or watch ripples wrought by rain unmade by the river’s flow. Rarely would his lines snare any fish; when he hauled in his fishing pots in the evenings, however, they would be swarming with bloated riverbed scavengers: sapphire-blue prawns, marble-white shrimps, and the occasional golden crab.
At the beginning of fall, the rains flooded the power plants in the southern provinces, and the city’s critical infrastructure began to fail. Streetlights no longer worked, hospitals evicted their patients, and fires from electrical short circuits broke out sporadically in parts of the city. The day after the city’s grid was crippled, the men from Tiratep’s village had watched, from the mouth of the Khlong Mon, the golden spirals of the Grand Palace burning across the black waters. The streets were dark by late evening. On the first night the power had went out, Tiratep had laid on the corrugated metal roof of his hut, transfixed by the stars, visible even through the rain clouds for the first time in centuries.
The military government had then abandoned the city and moved its headquarters and garrisons to the cities in the hilly north, taking with them the royal family and the Emerald Buddha. In the following days, the victorious Avalanches overran the Shinra Sarthon Unique Tower. They shot the vagrants loitering about the building’s dry areas and draped a tarpaulin banner bearing their symbol, a black and white panda, over the old Coca-Cola advertisement. They then started a perpetual conflagration at the summit of the tower in angry defiance of the ceaseless rain. Snipers, stationed on the higher floors, opened fire indiscriminately at people who approached the tower.
It was when the water rose past the silts to begin lapping at the wooden floorboards of their raised huts, and the rain showing no sign of letting up, that Tiratep’s village headman decided it was time for the villagers to move to higher grounds. Plans for the evacuation were drawn up, and there was a flurry of activity in the village in the following days, as everyone loaded their boats with dried food and replenished the fuel tank of their rickety engines. Tiratep had finished his preparations early, and went around the village helping his neighbours mend canvas roofs and chase fowls into floating pens. When all the preparations were completed, they set off in good cheer, sortieing orderly, longboats on longboats, like the royal barge procession Tiratep had seen during the coronation of Rama XIII, onto the Chao Phraya. However, the angry storm on the second day scuttled many of the boats in their convoy. Tiratep had narrowly avoided being swept downstream in the river surge, but he was separated from the other villagers. When the storm abated, he found himself having to make the long journey north alone.
In the following days, Tiratep made brisk pace chugging along the river, till the engine ran out of diesel. He had then retrieved the oars from beneath the thwarts and began rowing. He would sit on the stern of the boat in the light rain, pushing against the current with the weight of his body. At first, Tiratep ached deeply, his body unused to the physical exertion. But he soon grew accustomed to the dull throbbing in his arms and chest and back.
When he had rowed past the militant monastic enclave of Ayutthaya, glowing embers were flaring skywards within the walls of the city, drenching the night sky vermillion. Gone were the saffron-clad monks, chanting Buddhist suttas on the walls at daybreak, gone were the men who visited to whisper secret loves to the city’s weathered rocks. The granite prangs of the ancient temples had all toppled over. The cool breeze bore the acrid tang of burning sulphur. Tiratep quickly put Ayutthaya behind him.
Further upstream in Chai Nat, where the river arched and bowed like a green dragon, he rowed past the pangasius farms, cultivated for export to all over the world. These farms, like most bankside dwellings he had come across, were abandoned; the iridescent-scaled fishes had all drowned in the freshwater surge and were rotting by the thousands in their enclosures. Tiratep again quickly put Chai Nat behind him.
In the early days he met many other refugees like himself. Entire villages, plagued by the rain and malarial mosquitoes, had set out in droves for the hilly provinces of Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. These floating affairs always had the festive spirit of a Bangkok weekend market. Chang Beer poured noisily from tin drums, bananas and river prawns grilled on racks of glowing charcoal, pans of sticky rice were passed from stern to stern of the longboats. They would share the news with him: Pattaya was burning and all of Bangkok, only five feet above sea level, was now swamped with half a meter of rain and polar melt. The Victory Monument was now a fountain sculpture, and Memorial Bridge had been bombed into the Chao Phraya by the Avalanche terrorists in the night. Whenever he encountered these other refugees, Tiratep was comforted by a sense of normalcy, as if the world they all lived in had not entirely fallen apart. However, after each meeting, each celebration, they always left him behind.
The last time he was abandoned, Tiratep had spent a particularly raucous evening with one such mobile carnival, singing last summer’s pop songs and trading stories late into the night. This group from the southern district of Bang Nam had been displaced by the fighting between the militants and the government forces, and were rowing towards the ancient city of Zanarkand, not too far from Chiang Mai. When Tiratep learnt of their destination, he had tentatively expressed hopes of making part of his journey with them, and they had cheerfully, drunkenly, agreed. However, the movable feast had disengaged his boat from their convoy some time during the night, and quietly departed while he was asleep. By the time he awoke the next morning, his unmoored boat had drifted some distance downriver, and he was alone again. Tiratep missed the company of people for the next few days.
His loneliness was cured out of an encounter with the Avalanche militants one quiet afternoon. A well-supplied convoy of motorised lifeboats had sped by, panda insignia pennants flapping violently in the slipstream. Stay away, the men aboard had roared at him through battery-powered loudhailers. They strafed him with their mounted machine-guns without waiting for his reply. Tiratep had hurled himself onto the bilge as the screeching bullets tore through the blue and red tarp of the canopy and punctured the wooden hull of the boat. There he laid for a long time, arms wrapped about his head and neck, blood shaking his heart. When he eventually picked himself up, hours later, the lifeboats were no longer in sight. He spent the remainder of the day moored against the riverbank, mending the leaking holes in his boat with wax, and afterwards discovered that he no longer craved the company of others.
In the past, all that drifted past his hut by the khlong were spent condoms, plastic Coke bottles, and diseased tilapias. Now, it was corpses that would float by his boat amidst the debris of driftwood and broken clumps of water hyacinth. The freshly deceased would pass face-down, their trailing arms and legs making soft wimples in the water. The longer dead, convulsed into deep knots by putrefaction, would bob along more reluctantly. In the day, Tiratep would steer the boat away from them when he could, and nudge them aside with his oar when he couldn’t. Night-time, when he tossed sleeplessly on the waxy-paper lined floor of the boat, he would feel the occasional body bump scrape gently against the boat’s hull, right next to him, as it continued on its long journey towards the Gulf of Thailand.
One afternoon, he encountered a familiar longboat snagged against liana in the river. He had immediately recognised the weathered garuda figurehead on the prow of the boat. Not so long ago, tourists had posed for photos against its gaudy grimace as the headman plowed his longboat noisily through the quiet khlongs on his way to Taling Chan or Orchard Garden or Snake Farm. Now, as his longboat drew closer, Tiratep could see into the other boat’s dim interior. The headman and his two sons, slumped heavily against the lacquered hull, the wife, sprawled face down across the small gilded buddhist altar. Their faces were black from malarial fever. Tiratep pressed his palms together and offered a quick wai and prayer, then rowed on.
Now that the rain was lighter, the wind fairer, Tiratep fashioned a mast and sail for the longboat. When the sail filled with wind, the boat skimmed lightly over the waters. Tiratep would perch at the stern of the boat and feel the autumnal wind stream gently through the long furrows of his hair.
Towards the last days of fall, Tiratep found himself in the heart of Siam. The alluvial plains of old, famed for its silvery rice paddies and windswept fields of red sorghum, had turned into floodplains, as the river spilled over into the land: a vast expanse of wastewater, golden-red and shimmering when the sun set. When the wind blew lightly across the surface of the water, ripples scattered molten light in every direction. Here, when Tiratep strayed from the deep natural course of the river into the flooded fields, he would quickly find his oars scraping against the shallows. Here, too, he noticed that everything had become very quiet. There was no chirping of birds or buzzing of insects. Only the sound of waves lapping against his boat, the sound of his oar meeting the water, the sound of his own deep breathing. It was as if all other noise has been sucked out of the world, and that he was the only thing still living, the only heart still beating.
In Nakhon Sawan, a thousand kilometres upriver from Bangkok, the churning Chao Phraya diverged into the green Ping and the red Nan. Follow the jade serpent, Tiratep had as a child heard his people say, would lead to the city of the first Siamese kings. So he had beat on against the placid current of the Ping, past the ruined gray ramparts of Bhumibol Dam, past the limpid blue waters of Lake Doi Tao, past the washed-out, ochre slopes of Doi Inthanon, till Doi Suthep, with its still-green hillside, still dotted with white ceramic pagodas, came into view.
And in the last month of the lunar year, as Tiratep arrived in Chiang Mai, the weather turned cold. That night, the moon was supposed to be at its fullest, but the rain clouds had blotted it entirely from the sky. When Tiratep rowed past the line of whitestone cairns that marked the water boundary to the ancient capital, he rowed into the heart of an inky night. His frail candle, muted by its shade of thin rice paper, was the only weak light on the black river.
The Thai people are a people of water. Venice of the East, their ancient dynasties prospered on trade with the Dutch and Chinese and Burmese on the rivers of Indochina. During the Songkran, they would throw water and rice at each other, for luck and health in the coming year. Their markets were floating, as were their gardens, and their lives pulsed to the rhythm of their riverine hearts.
In a previous age, not too long ago, the Thais would give thanks to Phra Mae Khongkha for the gift of water during the Loi Krathong. Young lovers, hand in hand, would set candlelit krathongs into the Ping River, as they prayed for shared felicity in this life and the next. If you stood by the riverside with your feet in the water, you would see these krathongs lingering serenely above the moonlit water, like fireflies, as they slowly begin their long journey into the night.
But that was the world of a happier time, a happier age. A world irrevocably lost, never to be regained. Somewhere deep in the mysterious mountains, an aquifer springs forth, to join streams and tributaries and rain, and wipe clean the slate of this late world.
Wong Wen Pu is a Taiwanese pilgrim. He is presently artist-in-residence in an Argentinean lighthouse.