Rather than traipsing through more sites and temples (impressive as they were), I decided to visit a Thai astronomer who lived in Nonthaburi, a suburb north of the city. A colleague of mine had given me the names and addresses of various Asian astronomers and suggested I contact some of them to discuss their research and investigate possible collaborations. This would also be a good chance to get a local perspective on Bangkok and Thailand.
On the advice of a woman at my guest house, I took a boat up the Chao Phraya River, a wide, brown waterway bordered by office buildings, wooden houses and shacks built on poles, and the occasional wing-tipped Buddhist temple. The river had its own commotion of noisy longtail boats and water taxis, but it was an efficient alternative to the chaotic and slow Bangkok roads. As we zigzagged up the river, picking up and dropping off passengers, I thought of Nonthaburi and how quiet and cool it sounded. I imagined it as an innocuous hamlet where the two of us could sip iced drinks on a bamboo-shaded veranda and discuss the ways of the universe. Even without a map-or the astronomer's phone number-I figured her address would be easy enough to find in this quiet backwater.
I got off at the boat pier and walked up the steps to the street. People milled about on the sidewalk, taxis honked up and down a four-lane road, and lumbering green buses roared out their own clouds of black smoke. This was no innocuous hamlet-it was just like central Bangkok, maybe even busier. Shops crammed side by side on the street sold jewelry, electronics and cheap clothing, and there were soup kitchens full of people hunched over their ceramic bowls, clinking their spoons, while large pots steamed and spiced the heavy air.
I stumbled along in a daze for a few blocks before finally asking a young Thai man for directions.
Yes, I can speak English for you,' he said. 'Because you are a farang (foreigner), I will help you. Do not worry.' I introduced myself, and he said his name was Suna and this was his day off.
He looked at the address closely. 'Yes, I can help you,' he repeated, wiping his forehead. I waited to hear the address was a few blocks away. The sun was beating relentlessly.
'One moment,' he said, moving out of the parade of pedestrians. Carefully he rewrote the address into Thai script, making it look like a beautiful, secret code, and again he studied it closely. Then he stopped a smartly dressed Thai woman and conferred with her. As she smiled and walked away, he announced 'We will take the bus' and continued to examine the paper for hidden clues.
'Oh, I don't want to trouble you,' I said. 'You can just tell me which bus, and I'm sure I'll find it.''
'Do not worry, I will help you. It is my day off.'
We got on a bus heading east, and when the young ticket collector came down the aisle, shaking his metal canister like a Thai percussion instrument, Suna paid for both our tickets. Though we sat together, he looked straight ahead, passive as the Buddha in meditation. The bus soon took a turn south across a large overpass, and I laughed at how naive I'd been for expecting to find this address on my own. Suna ignored my laugh and continued to look straight ahead. He seemed reluctant to be on this expedition, patiently and disinterestedly waiting until we found my destination. He was a young guy with short black hair, in jeans and a button-down shirt. A handkerchief hung loosely around his neck. I told him his English was good and asked about his job.
'I work as a computer monitor,' he said. I nodded.
Then he said, 'Excuse me, sir, may I ask what is your job?'
This display of formality surprised me. Hadn't we already been having a conversation? How did I suddenly merit 'Excuse me, sir'?
I told him I had finished university and was traveling before looking for work. We rode on in silence for a while. Then Suna conferred with the ticket collector and told me we had to get off.
'I'm very sorry,' he said, as we stepped back into the heat. 'We have gone too far.'
'It's okay. Is it far from here?'
'We must take an air-conditioned bus. I'm very sorry.'
As the sun poured down, this didn't seem such a bad prospect.
'It is too hot,' he said.The bus came, Suna paid my way again-against my protestations-and once more we were crossing enormous highway overpasses. We got off at a shopping center next to a pedestrian overpass. Food stalls sizzled nearby. I had no idea where we were, but figured we must be near. Suna showed the paper to some bystanders, then asked a tuk-tuk driver. I wondered if all of Thailand would soon be involved.
'This place shows that we are close,' he said confidently as he led me down a side street. I nodded.
The street was wide, with a dozen motorcycles buzzing up and down. Suna waved at one to stop. They spoke for a few minutes; the paper was shown, and the motorcyclist nodded. Suna turned to me, indicating I should get on.
'On that?!' I exclaimed. It was hardly bigger than a dirt bike.
'Yes, he will take us.'
'But are you sure?' I asked. It seemed crazy. 'Couldn't we walk?'
'No, he will take us.'
There seemed to be no other choice. Suna got on behind the driver, I got on behind him, and off we went. The three of us blazed up and down streets and roared through alleys. I held on tight, suddenly grateful I had purchased extra health insurance.
The house and building numbers changed without any order. Numbers on one side of the street whizzed past, unrelated to those on the other. We stopped to ask a toothless old man, a young woman on a bicycle and a security guard at a fancy residence. Each time we set off with renewed hope. Yes, we must have missed it back there. . . . This must be right. . . . Yes, we haven't gone up this alley yet. But we still wound up going in circles. After passing them for the second time, I said, 'It's okay. I can send a letter to my friend.' There was no reply. If my visit wasn't a matter of international security, then it was still a matter of pride to overcome the confusion of the Thai address system and deliver this farang successfully.
'We do not know,' Suna finally admitted, as we passed the security guard for the third time. 'There is old numbers and new numbers. It should be here but it is not. We do not know.'
It was clear the labyrinth had gotten the better of us. Our moto-taxi took us back to the main road, and we gave him 50 baht (two dollars) for gas.
We moved into the shade of the pedestrian overpass. The moto-taxi man came back and suggested he try once more, alone. I bought us sodas. We drank them down and waited.
'Excuse me, sir,' Suna said, turning to me, 'but are you married?'
I laughed. He asked it as if he had been waiting for the proper moment.
'No, I'm looking for the right person,' I said. This didn't seem to register.
'Maybe you are too old,' he said.
He was frank, that's for sure. After a short pause he said, 'Excuse me, sir, may I ask how old you are?'
Okay, I thought, enough of the 'excuse me, sir.' I didn't mind the checklist of questions, but hadn't we come far enough together to establish some sort of rapport? Perhaps he was letting me know that a formal distance still existed between us. I told him-32-and then I asked his age.
'Twenty-four,' he said, with a smile.
Just then the motorcyclist returned and handed back the all-important paper. If the address existed, it was not to be found today. Suna and I got on another bus-this time I paid the fares-and made our way back to the meeting point. I offered to buy him lunch, but he was happy to be off.
'Good luck,' he smiled.
Walking back to the pier, I wondered what exactly he meant.
FromEscape(Aug. 1999). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.