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$18.95True Stories of Life on the Road

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By James O’Reilly and 1
February 2002
ISBN 1-885211-75-9 488 pages
ThailandLowell Thomas Award Winner – Best Travel Book
Thailand is one of the most intriguing travel destinations today, satisfying just about any traveler’s hunger for the exotic, the beautiful, and the thrillingly different. Notable authors include: Pico Iyer, Norman Lewis, Diane Summers, Simon Winchester, Jeff Greenwald, and Thurston Clarke to name just a few.



Thailand should satisfy just about any traveler’s hunger for the exotic, the beautiful, the thrillingly different. But it is a country whose very lure for the foreigner threatens to make it a parody of itself.

It is a country with a deep respect for family and monarchy, and a country with a huge prostitution industry and a corrupt military. It is a thriving place for business, but has serious problems with international copyright and trademark piracy. It is a physically lovely country that is, like many others, being degraded by logging, wildlife exploitation, and overdevelopment. It is a microcosm of all that is right and wrong with tourism, and the traveler’s special role as pilgrim, adventurer, and consumer.

But above all Thailand is Buddhist. You’ll see evidence of it everywhere, in cities, towns, remote villages, deep in the forest. It influences all segments of society and cuts across all economic levels. Anyone who hopes to gain an understanding of Thailand must understand this. Failure to do so would be like going to Ireland with no appreciation of Catholicism, going to Saudi Arabia thinking Muhammad was just a boxer.

This doesn’t mean the country is inaccessible to non-Buddhists. On the contrary, one of the Thais’ singular traits is that they don’t let religion disturb their lightheartedness and love of life. If eating meat conflicts with the Buddhist tenet proscribing the killing of any creature, never mind, the animal is already dead when the Thai obtains it. Likewise, the killing of insects such as mosquitoes cannot be helped, and the good Thai Buddhist balances such transgressions by “making merit,” giving donations of food to monks or gifts to temples. When things go haywire you’ll hear the expression mai pen rai, or never mind, it doesn’t matter. Letting petty matters get in the way of enjoying life just isn’t acceptable.

At the same time, Thais take Buddhism seriously. Almost every male spends time as a monk, whether it be a few days or several years. Donning the saffron robe, for whatever period of time, is a highly respected endeavor. Monks are supported by the public, receiving donations of food each day as they wander the streets and byways. This tradition not only provides sustenance for the monks, but also offers a simple way for all to make merit, to learn compassion and generosity, and to enhance their progress with reincarnation.

Thailand, the only country in Southeast Asia never to be colonized, has a long tradition of outsiders in its midst. There is a word to describe foreigners from Europe, America, or Australia:farang. It is widely used, often without negative connotation, but some descriptions are indeed unflattering. One states that farang are “exceedingly tall, hairy, and evil-smelling.” The slang word kee-nok likens them to bird dung, something that falls out of the sky. Thais are perplexed by farang obsession with time and the future and their apparent disregard for the present. They do not understand Westerners, but for the most part they take us in stride and welcome us with a unique warmth, as we should them, should we have the good fortune to go to this marvelous place.

A Note on Spelling, Meaning, Exchange Rates,
and a Warning on Other Matters that Affect the Traveler
As with any tonal language, there are many different ways to spell transliterated Thai words, some of them more correct or less misleading than others. But for the most part we have not tried to be the arbiters of Thai-English spelling, and in most cases have used the spelling our authors chose.

All Thai words are italicized. They are only translated the first time they appear in the text, so for those who dip in and out of the book instead of reading cover to cover, we suggest you turn to the glossary or the index for meaning.

This is not a travel guide in the traditional sense, in which prices and accuracy of exchange rates figure prominently. Consequently, we have not tried to convert figures used by authors to current exchange rates as long as they are in a ballpark with admittedly ill-defined borders.

We are not endorsing products used, trips made, or anything featured in the stories in this book. We urge every traveler to consult not just one, but two or three guidebooks on Thailand, and make careful inquiries about the safety of travel to remote areas. Check with your physician about any health issues that you might face. When in doubt about anything, be a good ambassador.

Above all, talk to people who’ve been where you want to go or who’ve done the things you want to do. There is no better source, no travel habit more worth cultivating.

Detail Map


Sixth Sense—Robert Sam Anson

Monk for a Month—Timothy Fall

Love in a Duty-free Zone—Pico Iyer

The Secrets of Tham Krabok—Michael Buckley

Moonsong and Martin Luther—Charles Nicholl

“To Eat” Means to Eat Rice—Alan Rabinowitz

The Reverend Goes to Dinner—Kukrit Pramoj

Ghosts of Siam—Norman Lewis

Elephant Scream—Alan Rabinowitz

Meditation in a Thai Forest—John Calderazzo

Island Entrepreneur—Joe Cummings

Echo of the Forest—Alan Rabinowitz

Who Was Anna Leonowens?—William Warren

Where the Footnotes Went—Carol Hollinger


Lure of the Chao Phraya—Thurston Clarke

Siriraj Hospital Museum—Gena Reisner

Bite-sized Buddhas—Jeff Greenwald

A Cooking School in Bangkok—Kemp M. Minifie

Wat Massage—Anthony Weller

Paradise Found, Paradise Lost—Pico Iyer

The Alms Bowl Village—John Hoskin

Take to the Hills—Sophia Dembling

In the Andaman Sea—Jeff Greenwald

Relics of Old Siam—Simon Winchester

Highland Carnival—John Rember

Cycling Rural Thailand—Morris Dye

The Burning Hills—Jeff Greenwald

Slime and Punishment—Betty Mclain

Sport in the Land of Sanuk—E. M. Swift


Mein Gott, Miss Siripan—Susan Fulop Kepner

Farang for a Day—Karen L. Larsen

Bridge to Yesterday—Kevin Mc Auliffe

The Spirit Likes a Little Blood—Tim Ward

Roaches and Redheads—Karen Swenson

Flying Kites—Steven M. Newman

Farang Correspondent—Michael Mcrae

In the Dark—Joel Simon

Tapir Tracks—Alan Rabinowitz

A Meditator’s Initiation—Jane Hamilton-Merritt

In the Akha Village—Thalia Zepatos

Sin, the Buffalo Man—Steve Van Beek

Could This Really Be the End?—Barbara Savage

A German Monk—Alan Rabinowitz

Thai and Dry—Gayle Detweiler

Under the Golden Triangle—John Spies

Mekong Days—Charles Nicholl


Wildlife Abuse—Alan Rabinowitz

Dark World of Gourmet Soup—Diane Summers

Fooling Yourself for Fun—Ian Buruma

After the Night of the Generals—Pratya Sawetvimon

Walking South—Steven M. Newman

Poppy Fields—Charles Nicholl


By the Sea—Vatcharin Bhumichitr

What You Need to Know
Weather, visas, health, the works
Cultural Considerations
Local customs
Events & holidays
Important Contacts
Embassies & tourist offices
Fifteen fun things to do
National parks
Additional Resources
Thailand online
Giving back
Recommended Reading
Index of Contributors

Sin, The Buffalo Man

by Steve Van Beek

On a two-month journey down Thailand’s largest river,
the author finds refuge with an isolated tribesman.

In the dusk light, the half-naked man stood in silhouette, blocking the trail through thick vegetation. The moment I said a tentative “Sawasdee, Khrap?” (hello), he pulled a longknife and set his feet in a defensive stance.

It was a logical reaction for an old man deep in the jungle where few strangers set foot, but it caught me by surprise. In the pale evening light, the longknife, freed from its bamboo sheath, glowed with deadly intent as its owner barked in Thai, “What do you want?” I quickly explained that a border patrol soldier upstream had told me I might find a night’s accommodation in the old buffalo herder’s hut.

“Why’d he tell you that?” he muttered in an agitated voice. “He had no right saying that. Go away. Get out of here.”

The sight of the knife should have compelled me to “get” but I had nowhere to go. High in the hills along the Burmese border, night held many threats, most of them two-legged since hill tribesmen had long ago hunted out the tigers and other beasts that had once stalked the tangled forests. To calm him down, I explained quietly in Thai that I was on my way down the Ping River and had gotten soaked trying to wrestle my way over a five-meter-high weir. I had paddled this far in search of shelter and the herder’s hut was the only thing I’d encountered.

His fierceness wavered a moment at the words “paddled.” “Paddled? Paddled what?” he demanded.

“A boat. Paddled a boat,” I said, repeating the words pai rua (paddled).

“Nobody paddles a boat in this jungle,” he said, scoffingly. “Where is this boat?”

“Down at the riverbank,” I said, pointing down the thickly treed slope.

He peered for a long moment in the direction my finger pointed but obviously could see nothing. His attitude had changed, however. The knife was still up but now he was shifting from leg to leg, his curiosity piqued.

“Let’s go see,” he said, finally. “You first, I’ll follow.” The wariness was still there but he sheathed his knife and I breathed a little easier.

We stood on the bank of the rushing river as he ran a gnarled hand over the hull of the teak skiff. Nodding approvingly, he said, “Nice boat. Don’t see any this far north.” Straightening up, he said, “Stuck, huh? I don’t have much out here. This is the jungle. You’ll have to sleep in a lean-to. I only have curry and rice, but you can have some of it.” Home free.

On the way back up the hill, he said “You startled me. Nobody comes out here except to make trouble. I have nine water buffalo and they are worth a lot of money.” He said it, not in apology for his actions, but as a statement of fact about a hard life.

For most of the year, Sin Phoma, a Shan tribesman, lived with his wife and three grown sons in the village of Muang Ngai, two valleys away. While the garlic ripened, he spent the three months in the jungle letting his buffalo fatten on the luxuriant grass that grew amidst underbrush made lush by monsoon rains. His eldest son often stayed with him but had gone out hunting the day before and was not expected back until the next morning.

Like many hillmen, Sin Phoma was short and sinewy, browned by years in the sun and used to taking care of himself. In a small patch he had cleared among the tall trees, he had erected bamboo thatch walls on posts one and a half meters off the ground and capped with a thatch roof. Access to the porch was by a log notched with steps. It was obvious from his exertions in climbing it that he was no longer young.

“Sixty-three,” he said with a smile when I asked him. “Old already. That’s why I have to be careful of strangers. There are black-hearted people in these hills,” he said, sweeping his arm across the silhouettes of the ridges. “They wouldn’t hesitate to kill me to steal my water buffalo.”

Down in the Central Plains, water buffalo were rapidly disappearing, replaced by small tractors that didn’t get sick and could power irrigation pumps and small farm trucks. Here in the north, buffalo were still valuable as draft animals, and sources of milk and meat.

Across the yard from his hut was a wooden platform raised 50 centimeters off the ground, enclosed on three sides by thatched walls and covered, like the house, by a thatched roof. It was just big enough for two people to sleep in cramped comfort. Like a manger, its floor was covered in straw which softened the hard wooden floor and covered the cracks between the planks. It would not keep out the cold but would shelter a sleeper from the dew. It was here that Sin indicated I would sleep for the night.

On the hard dirt yard a small fire was burning. Sin brought more wood to build it up and I began unpacking my gear, hanging the sleeping bag over the front of the shed opening to dry. Tomorrow, it would stink of wood smoke but I didn’t care; dry beat smelly. Sin fingered its material and asked what I used it for. He was intrigued by my reply. “That would be useful in the hills,” he said. “Wouldn’t have to worry about the blanket slipping off in the middle of the night and exposing you.” I noticed that he adjudged everything in terms of how it would serve in a jungle situation and concluded that he had spent many years there.

“When we came up here years ago, it was all jungle,” he said. “It was a long time before we had enough land cleared to grow enough crops to feed us. In the meantime, we had to forage for everything. In the old days, it was easy; the forests were full of game. Today…” he looked wistfully into the blackness, “…there’s not much. You can still find the kinds of fruits we ate when we didn’t have anything else, but the animals…I guess most of them have been shot.”

A northern January night, even in tropical Thailand, can be bitterly cold. The fire was warm and I huddled close to it to dry myself. Sin squatted by it for a long time. Then, unhinging his legs and sighing, he got up. “I guess we should have some dinner. I don’t have much…. Can you eat Thai food?” I’d already told him I’d lived in Thailand for eighteen years so it seemed an odd question but I said, yes. “Phet? (spicy).” “Can,” I said.

Hidden by the bamboo lattice that enclosed the porch, Sin puttered about with some pans, lighting a cooking fire in a firepit. “Sticky rice?” he shouted from the depths, assuming I bowed to the Central Plains abhorrence of anything—sticky, brown, scented—other than polished, fluffy white rice which the northerners believed was wholly lacking in nutrition or substance. “Can,” I answered.

I knew it was going to be a meager meal but I didn’t care. It had been a tough day and I was very hungry. While he was making dinner, I recorded the day’s events in my journal.

Eventually, Sin invited me inside to eat. It was now dark and the dingy interior was lit only by the glowing embers of the cooking fire and a single wick stuck into half a tin can filled with kerosene, a sooty, smoky lamp that served as the sole form of illumination in the rural areas. In the darkness, two ragged cats prowled, the firelight occasionally illuminating a broken tail or glinting eye.

As I suspected, dinner was an unidentifiable mass of vegetables and something which crunched and from which I had to extract bones. Perhaps the dim lamp had its benefits after all. Uncertain of what to do with the bones, I set them on the floor. Sin put down his spoon, picked up the bones and, without looking, threw them in the general vicinity of the cats who immediately pounced on them, each growling at the other to keep clear. Some of the sticky rice that was left over was also dumped on the floor for the cats to eat. The rest was left in the pan which was set beside the fire.

After dinner, we returned to squat by the outside fire. Sin threw a large mai daeng log onto the fire, angling it so it would reflect its heat into my lean-to. The cats, which had been wandering around the fire, jumping nervously each time the burning log popped, curled up on my now-dry sleeping bag and seemed determined to spend the night there.

Over the next hour, in a leisurely manner, Sin questioned me about my journey and my time in Thailand. Listening but seldom looking directly at me, he paused after each question to absorb the answer, like his water buffalo ruminating before digesting a fact. He said nothing for a while. A few hard crickets provided music in the cool night.

Then, as to himself, he said: “Farang women,” directing his comment at the fire. What? “Farang women. They’re so big.” I’d heard this before; Thai men intimidated by the height and bulk of foreign women. As in much of Asia, there was a fascination with the blondness and the—as perceived from movies—seeming sexual promiscuity of foreign women; their willingness to jump into bed in a flash. The concept was intriguing to Thais but there was a hesitation about what to do with all that mass of flesh. Sin must have shared that same awe and that same curiosity.

“Thai women.” Ah, here we go, I thought. Thai women were best, didn’t I agree? “Thai women,” he repeated. “Too small, too thin,” he snorted dismissively. “Farang women. That’s the size women should be,” he said chuckling to himself. Hello? What a switch! Here was a man who knew no bounds, for whom size was a challenge, not a defeat. I had to smile at the intensity and certainty with which he said it. Not obscenely, not lecherously. Just plain fact. We lapsed into silence.

A moment later, Sin spoke to the fire. “Jai rai (evil hearts).” He pointed with his chin to the riverbank. “When you get farther down the river, there are black people, especially around Chiang Mai. Plains people. You’ll have to be on your guard.”

As in most countries, there is a natural antipathy between hill and plains people. As a foreigner, I fit into a third category. These hill people didn’t know exactly how to deal with me but assumed that I posed no real danger, even if they couldn’t figure out what would compel someone to paddle down a river, and alone, for God’s sake. That I was traveling alone made me even less of a threat. Almost. I noted as we prepared for bed, that unlike the Lahu tribesman who had invited me to sleep in his house, Sin had placed me outside. He climbed the notched log, bade me good night, closed the door firmly behind him, and shot the bolt. He wasn’t taking any chances.

My journey down the Ping River had started years before on the banks of the Chao Phraya river which the Ping feeds. A chance encounter with friends had given me possession of a house in Bangkok past whose door the Chao Phraya flowed. Indeed, because the house was perched on stilts, the river flowed under it and, during two years of particularly bad floods, through it as well.

It sat on the river bank opposite the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and just upriver from Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, and for eleven years afforded me some of the best moments of my life. There are few pleasures greater than sitting on a porch in a wicker rocking chair, rocking in rhythm with the earth and watching the world roll by.

It was a simple four-room wooden house covered by a tile roof, under which the rats scampered and fought, all with great din, the few periods of silence indicating that a green pit-viper had slithered down from the mango or bottle-brush trees and was dining among them.

When I moved in, the bedroom facing the river had a small window in a high wall. I tore out the entire wall and replaced it with glass panels. Then, I cut a hole in the floor and put in a window so I could watch the waves wash back and forth under the house. Finally, I built a small bay window with a glass floor. When it rained, I could pull up the floor and drop in a fishing line without getting a drop of rain on me.

When one rocks back and forth for so many years, one begins to get curious about where all that flowing water is coming from. I asked many Thai friends about the river but got only rudimentary answers about a river system that was so vital to their lives. The Chao Phraya drained the northern and central regions of Thailand and was fed by four tributaries, the Ping, Wang, Yom, and Nan that began at the Burmese and Laotian borders and flowed south to the sea, a journey of about 1,200 kilometers. More than that, few people could tell me and books were even less helpful. It began to dawn on me that no one had ever run the river for its complete length. One day, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to find out. I picked the Ping because it was the westernmost. It begins on the border with Burma about 150 kilometers above Chiang Mai and runs south along the Tenasserim Range that forms the border with Burma, flowing through Chiang Mai and Tak where it is joined by the Wang. It then heads southwest to combine with the Nan-Yom at Nakhon Sawan and drops south again as the Chao Phraya through Ayutthaya and Bangkok to the Gulf of Thailand.

After exploring the headwaters with Lahu hunters, I had a small teak boat built in a village near Tak and set off on a journey that would end 58 days later in the sea. Eventually, I would paddle the other three tributaries, spending five months in all, sleeping in villages, Buddhist monasteries, the jungles, and occasionally in the boat when no other alternatives were available. It was after several days in the jungles, and bamboo forests that I had reached Sin’s hut.

The difference between Sin’s initial reception and his greeting the next morning was markedly different. It had been a cold, crisp night and a beautiful dawn with a clear yellowish sky. When I awoke, I could hear the water buffalo stamping their feet and someone making clucking sounds as he fed them.

When he saw I was awake, he came up to squat and warm his hands by the embers of themai daeng log. Barefoot, he wore short pants and a flimsy cotton shirt yet, aside from his hands, did not seem to feel the cold. With straw beneath me, I had slept quite warmly, awakening only once in the night when I had difficulty breathing. In my half-coma I was aware of fur covering my face and slowly realized that both cats had snuggled up next to my head. They were probably covered in vermin and I groggily tried to push them away. Half asleep yet alert, they responded by growling menacingly, a deep-throated warning that I thought it best to defer to. When I awoke in the morning, however, they were gone, stalking something in the darkness under the house.

We talked for a few minutes and then he went inside to prepare breakfast. Finding it too cold for a shower, I shaved and began packing my gear. It was a beautiful morning and I wanted to get an early start.

Sin had other ideas, however. “I want you to meet my son when he gets here. He should be here soon,” he said, peering into the jungle hopefully.

In Thailand, “soon” can mean anything up to half a day. As Sin had not had a very clear idea the evening before of his son’s expected arrival time, I could see myself sitting impatiently for a long while.

It was apparent that Sin had been living as a bachelor for some time because his idea of fixing breakfast was to warm up the sticky rice of the night before. The cold air had congealed it to a hard mass, the grains nearly as firm as they had been before they had been boiled. To give it some flavor, he stacked a few slabs of salted fish the thickness of crepes on the plate along with two fresh young bananas, and handed it to me. I had only sipped the water he had given me the night before because I was not sure of its purity but with this mass, it was going to take a great deal of liquid just to get the food to chewing consistency let alone to swallow it. As usual, I smiled as I accepted the glass which looked as though it had last held a paint brush and thinner.

During breakfast, he kept telling me of his son’s imminent arrival as if his words might lure the phantom to quicken his pace. By the end of the meal, the sun was just beginning to clear the hill and we were still alone. It was apparent that this man who couldn’t wait to get rid of me the night before, had decided I was O.K. and now could not bear to have me leave. I’m sure that he didn’t get many visitors and certainly none as exotic as a foreigner, paddling a boat.

“Come look at my garden,” he said. In the clearing, he had planted papaya and a half-dozen other fruit trees, as well as a small garden which fed him. Most of the area was given over to a pen made of bamboo poles set horizontally in rough-hewn wooden-slab fence posts. Behind it, nine black, bulky water buffalo with scimitar horns sweeping back over their broad backs sniffled and shot blasts of steam from their nostrils as they stamped to keep warm. Beside the pen, the garden began.

I trudged behind him as he gave me a botany test. “What’s that?” he asked, walking by a tree, not even stopping to look at it. “Jackfruit,” I dutifully answered. “Um, um,” he said, pleased. “And that?” “Teak.” “Um, um. Geng (clever).” We must have gone through 15 plants and still had not exhausted the possibilities. In a Thai jungle there can be 300 varieties of plants, creepers, trees, bushes, vines, in addition to everything he’d planted in his garden and I could see my legs being walked off before we’d catalogued even half of them. Where in the hell was that son?

After a moment, however, we’d completed a circuit and he seemed pleased with my knowledge. I’d failed on only one, probably the simplest plant in the world, one I’d seen at least a million times. He pointed at a knee-high plant with two stems reaching up from the ground, each stem fanning out with a broad, pleated leaf. “Uh,” I ventured, baffled. “Is it a kind of banana?”

He seemed surprised by my ignorance and almost scoffed in giving the answer: “Coconut.” My goodness, I really was slipping.

Finally, we arrived at his buffalo pen when he immediately began introducing me to each of the placid beasts. I repeated each of the names as he spoke them, like a good schoolboy.

Sin seemed to have run out of steam. We went back to the shed where my pack lay and he seemed bereft of ideas for conversation. “Where is he?” he said, looking into the pathless jungle. He was so eager to have me stay that I decided, to heck with an early start, I’ll sit and talk with him. He obviously had a lot he could tell me about the jungle and would be a valuable source.

I had slipped the pack onto my shoulder but now laid it down again. When Sin saw that I intended to stay a while longer, he perked up. He left to get me another glass of water and as he came out of the house, we heard sticks crackling among the trees.

A younger version of Sin with a shotgun barrel sticking above his shoulder and shod in rubber boots strode into the yard. In his belt was a hatchet and had I met him in the jungle I might have run. He did not seem in the least bit surprised to see me, even after Sin had explained who I was and what I was doing. The son set the gun down and squatted by the fire. His had been a fruitless hunt; no game to be found, not even edible birds.

He and Sin talked for a few moments. As they conversed, the son walked to the house wall and began looking along it. He stopped at one of the rough teak pillars which had a number of bird feathers stuck into it. Still talking quietly, he selected one, pulled the hatchet from his belt and with one swift blow, chopped the long end from the feather. I was puzzled. Was he about to perform a rite to call game to him? No. He used it to clean his ears, all the while talking with his father.

Sin, in the meantime, pulled out a dried leaf that had been cut into a square. He flattened it with his thumb against the wooden boards of the shed. He saw me watching him and, breaking off his conversation abruptly, held it up for me to see and said, “bai thong gloy,” a leaf I’d seen growing near his garden. From a small tin can he pulled out a few chopped tobacco leaves, also grown in his garden. From a piece of folded paper, he pinched a small amount of lighter-colored tobacco, “It’s called chaiyo (victory). Makes the jungle tobacco burn better.”

Mixing the tobaccos, he spread them along the wrapper and then began rolling, tightening as he went. As the finishing touch, he extracted from his pocket a small pair of rusty scissors and neatly snipped off both ends of the tube. He then made a diagonal cut along one edge of the wrapper and from yet another paper, pulled out a bamboo sliver stuck with a bit of gum which appeared to be wetted with sticky rice. Applying it to the underside of the wrapper, he completed a cheroot. He offered it to me, reaching into the fire for a glowing brand to light it. The chaiyo had done little to refine the taste of what was a very rough tobacco. Down the valley, the Thai farmers grew a fine tobacco that was prized in the U.S. and elsewhere for its mildness. Up here, a straw fire would have produced a smoother smoke. The son borrowed his father’s scissors to complete the same operation, taking a glowing stick from the fire, touching it to the end of the green wrapper and inhaling contentedly. These men obviously had asbestos lungs.

We had no sooner begun smoking than the son stood up, reshouldered the gun and strode off towards the river as unceremoniously as he’d arrived. Even Sin seemed surprised, looking down the trail after him as the underbrush swallowed him up.

“He wanted to get back to Muang Ngai,” he said, almost apologetically. Now, I felt almost duty-bound to stay around for awhile longer. But he surprised me by saying “Well, I guess you want to get on your way as well.”

I had planned to pay each of my hosts for the food they had provided. Sin’s eyes lit up when I handed him a 50-baht ($2) bill. He seemed exceptionally pleased, hoisting my heavy pack to his thin shoulders and almost running down the slope to the river with it. As I lashed the pack to the deck, Sin said: “We met by accident and accidents are usually painful. This was a good accident,” he chuckled. I waved goodbye and pushed off.

Steve Van Beek is a long-time resident of Bangkok who has written dozens of books and films about Thailand, including The Arts of Thailand, The Chao Phya, published by Oxford; andBangkok Then and Now. When not in Bangkok, he is busy pursuing his favorite pastime: paddling a river to explore a remote region of Asia. This story was excerpted from Slithering South, an account of the first complete navigation of the Chao Phya River from source to mouth, published In Bangkok in 2002.


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