Excuse Me, Sir


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It was only ten in the morning, but already the Bangkok sun was blistering. After two days here, all the warnings I'd heard about Bangkok were coming true-the heat, pollution, traffic. I wondered why it was known as the 'City of Angels.'

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.