by Sue Nilsson © 2003

Published by Wild Child Publishing ( {Author Note: website is no longer active.})

When Ken, my partner, and I hired a guide in mostly English-speaking Bangkok, we saw a side of the city most tourists will never see. At 11am, we met Mr. Tee, our tour guide for the day, in the lobby of our hotel, ready for an exciting day in the city known as the Venice of the east.

Mr. Tee took us to the water taxi, a wide boat with benches. I’d never seen anything quite like this. The ferry I take in New York is an enclosed boat that seats over one hundred people. We found three spaces and sat down. The taxi driver, who stood at one end behind the wheel, took off across the canal. We grabbed onto the bench as we bounced across the choppy water at a faster speed than I thought the boat could go. A few, who were not hanging on, almost lost their seat. I felt sorry for those who stood.

On the opposite side of the canal, we disembarked with our guide, along with a few others. We headed down a narrow blacktopped street lined with two and three story brick and wooden buildings until we arrived at a Buddhist temple. After ten days in Thailand we’d learned that Thais were very eager to share their Buddhist religion and show us their temples. Thanks to hiring Mr. Tee, we were able to experience one uniquely empty of tourists. Without all the foreigners, we felt a much greater sense of peace while we watched others worship the Buddha, and give offerings.

Baskets of daily toiletries, food, light bulbs, and candles were offered, just as we had seen at the temples frequented by tourists, yet we felt as though we’d glimpsed a special part of Thai culture.

Tranquility surrounded us as we sat on the floor, with feet pointing away from the Buddha. The feet are considered the most unclean part of the body and thus should not face the Buddha. While others knelt in prayer, Mr. Tee told us he had spent two years as a monk. We learned you could be a monk for as little as one day, or for as long as you live. Whatever period of time a boy or man chose, reflected well on his family.

In Buddhism, there are five pillars, or levels of wisdom, based on the Lotus flower. The roots mean a person will take a long time to learn as they are in the dark, underwater where the stem is, a person will take a little less time, at water level one can understand, but the concepts need to be explained more than once, leaf level means you catch on pretty quick, and the flower represents you need no explanation, you understand immediately. In addition to the pillars of knowledge there are two hundred fifty rules a monk must follow, the foremost being that he cannot lie. Realizing his dedication, our respect for our guide increased.

As part of each monk’s service to the temple, he goes out into the streets every morning and collects the daily offerings. Whatever they receive, is what they have for the day; supplies, food, and anything else they might need. This explained why people donated light bulbs at many of the temples. No monk is allowed to have money and cannot buy anything. I couldn’t imagine being unable to buy my own necessities.

Outside the temple grounds just before the water taxi stop, we encountered an old woman standing behind a table, selling loaves of bread. Mr. Tee instructed us to buy one each. Neither Ken nor I were hungry, so we asked what they were for. He told us we’d see soon enough. Part way down the two-person-wide walkway to the water taxi, he instructed us to throw a piece of the bread into the water. We obeyed and were astounded by the multitudes of catfish scrambling through the muddy water to grab a bite to eat. It is forbidden to fish in the area, the Thais consider the catfish a blessing. A donation of bread to feed them is a normal activity after visiting the temple. It is another form of offering to Buddha. It was hysterical to watch these crazy fish jump and swim all over each other to get at a morsel of bread.

After the fish ate our loaves, we boarded a water taxi and traveled down the river for a short distance. This time the boat was filled with people of all ages and sizes. Surprisingly, even the very old men and women easily hopped up the three feet from the boat to the dock at the next stop.

At the top of the walkway, we stepped across a street wide enough for two trucks to pass, bringing us to a building housing a part of the vegetable market. Even viewing that little bit, we could not believe the quantity, and vibrant colors.

We walked through, looking at basket after basket filled with every kind of imaginable vegetable. There were so many scents, they all blended, confusing me until I sneezed. Men scurried back and forth with carts and hand trucks. One yelled to another and I had to jump out of the way as he pulled his cart stacked high with vegetable baskets past me. For the most part, business was conducted in the quiet and subdued manner we’d come to know as the Thai way.

I marveled at the destinations marked on each container: Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, and Singapore. I wanted to buy something, but Mr. Tee said everything was sold by the container or basket.

We exited the long building on the opposite end, and took a ferry, a narrower boat than the taxi, through canals to a neighborhood called Thoneburi. The ferry resembled a long-tail boat with its upturned bow, but was wider and flat, and could hold more people.

Ancient homes built of teak stood side by side, their intricate designs setting each one apart. Further along, cement and simple wood homes replaced the much older ones. People walked along the narrow alleys going about their daily routine. During the day, they opened the shutters on their houses, creating a welcome atmosphere by making us a part of their lives in a vicarious way. What would it be like to live here with no land to call your own, except the one room in which your family lived? I recalled the backyard behind my parents’ house. What would Thais think of the space I had and of the tree I climbed in all summer long? Perhaps it was the Thai way of inner calm that created an atmosphere of peace, making the lack of land and personal space more desirable than the hectic American, impersonal way of life.

We passed house after house until Mr. Tee stopped and showed us a two-story building. He pointed out two schoolrooms. We peered through windows with no glass, down into two small rooms partially below ground. Old wooden school-desks, their open compartments waiting for books, stood in six rows of six. Pictures of animals and maps adorned the walls, but I couldn’t shake the claustrophobic feeling. Mr. Tee informed us he had gone to elementary school here. Ken and I were shocked to discover that this was a private school. I wondered what the public schools looked like. After Mr. Tee finished in this institution, his parents managed to afford another modestly priced private school, also in the neighborhood. He said he knew he was fortunate. Without private education, most kids end up going to work and supporting their families instead of completing high school. I felt humbled and very fortunate to have received a good education at a well-lit, modern public school, where I had many opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities, even though my parents did not earn a lot of money.

He led us on until we arrived at a different taxi ferry stop that took us to another part of the vegetable market.

Huge baskets, each labeled with a destination, were filled with either lettuce, bok choy, peppers, garlic, cabbage and others, and were either stacked or sitting side-by side. One building filled with these baskets and Styrofoam containers led to another, creating a sense we’d entered the storage area in “Raiders of the Lost Arc.”


We watched more men load baskets onto carts or hand trucks, and wheel them out to trucks waiting at the curb. I asked how much they were paid, and Mr. Tee told us they were paid as little as five baht ($0.08US) per load. If the deliveryman is strong, he can haul enough to feed a family. If he is not, then it is much harder to earn a living. No wonder people come to America believing the streets are paved with gold. An average American carries more money with them on a vacation than some Thais see in a lifetime.

Further into the market we discovered the source of the spectacular colors; peppers, red and green filled basket after basket. We found a group of women de-stemming them for two baht per kilo ($0.02 US per kilo). Past more baskets, we saw another group of women shucking garlic for one baht per kilo (less than one cent per kilo).

Further down rows of Styrofoam containers, filled with peppers, were marked for Japan or Vietnam. Mr. Tee told us Vietnam cannot produce enough crops to feed their own people. Thais are very lucky, their crops grow year round in good soil.

Mr. Tee ushered us on to the flower market where we walked past flower stand after flower stand. Blossoms filled baskets, and flowers on stems hung from ropes strung above our heads. Orchids, roses, lilies, bird of paradise and many I didn’t recognize, were for wholesale, many of them going to vendors in the same city. Their strong scent delighted our noses. We watched as people constructed intricate arrangements that looked like mosaics when completed. Mr. Tee did not know how much each worker earned, but I guessed it was not enough for the beauty they created.

Across the street from the wholesale flower market, along a narrow sidewalk we found vendor after vendor selling different arrangements of flowers for all kinds of occasions, from temple donations, to museum and hotel lobby displays. I saw roses for as little as ten-twenty baht (about $0.60 US) for a dozen.

At first I wondered how flowers could be sold so cheap, compared to New York prices ($12-20 for a dozen roses). On reflection, I realized that in the hot humid climate, many flowers we consider rare, like bird of paradise, and orchids, grew like weeds here.

From there he hired a Tuk Tuk, a three-wheeled motorized vehicle that plies the road and competes for riders along with taxis. We ducked under the roof and squeezed into the back seat of the narrow vehicle. After a number of blocks, the neighborhood changed from warehouses to smaller businesses adjacent to each other.

We had arrived at the edge of Indiatown.

Neither of us had ever experienced anything quite this crowded, or fragrant. The scent of spices swirled around us as we passed shop after shop. We felt out of place among men from India, even though they were dressed in western clothes. They deftly moved through the crowded narrow streets, darting in and out of shops and talking with each other in what sounded like Hindi. Women in Saris slid past everyone, carrying bags of food and spices.

With vendors spread out along the road, anyone who attempted to drive a car down one of these streets found the going tough. Unlike the main thoroughfares in Bangkok, these side streets had no sidewalk. So vendors, shoppers, and vehicles shared the same space.

Along the way we bought samosas, a small fried turnover filled with seasoned vegetables or meat. The first bite reminded me how spicy Indian food can be. Here, the food wasn’t “Americanized.” I needed water.

Chinatown was just as crowded as Indiatown, with narrower streets. The continuous line of stalls reminded me of Chinatown in New York City where one also finds congestion and widespread commerce. Cars and motorbikes drove down the narrow streets, scattering people in slow waves each time they tried to pass.

The merchants sold everything you could imagine. One sold women’s handbags, while another sold paper and pens. Like the flower market, it too was filled with colors, but the smell was more human and less fragrant. Both Ken and I found this market to be a bit overwhelming, even though we’d visited Chinatown in New York many times. Here everything was covered overhead with a tarp to shield people from the rain, keeping out all sunlight and making it me feel hemmed in.

On the other end of the Chinatown market, Mr. Tee brought us to a Chinese Buddhist Temple. Brilliant red, blue and gold tile and painted wood adorned the buildings. The rooftops were more ornate than any of the Thai temples we’d visited.

The amount of incense and candles in the main entryway to the temple made us cough. None of the other temples had this large an area dedicated to these kinds of offerings.

Inside the complex we found each building housed different Buddhas of various shapes and sizes. As we went from building to building, each group appeared more animated than the last: dancing, laughing, and angry, many with dragon faces.

One Temple in particular, contained Buddhas that looked sinister and angry, with their brows furrows. Some carried swords, something a Thai Buddha would never do. Ken and I cringed and left before their gaze could penetrate our souls, and our western imaginations. Were they war Buddhas? We were too afraid to ask.

Next the three of us took a long-tail taxi, an elongated narrow boat with a propeller shaft that the driver lowers into the water, through the neighborhoods of Bangkok. The boat had canvas along each side to shield passengers from the spray of other boats.

We passed houses on stilts make of teak, cinderblock, and hardwood, each with its own staircase leading down to the water. Some homes had their own, smaller version of the long-tail boat we road in, tied to the bottom of their staircase. Many other long-tail boats passed us as we sped through the canal system.

At one point we were shocked when the roof was lowered and we had to duck down in order to pass under a bridge.

From there we took the Sky Train, Bangkok’s elevated metro, toward the main shopping district. At the second stop, we caught a glimpse of the Shangri la Hotel where each balcony was draped in beautiful green foliage.

When we entered the government sponsored craft shop, we were told there would be no bargaining, unlike with the street vendors. What we discovered was quite different. You can bargain if you speak to the right people, and spend enough money, which turned out not to be a lot. We purchased a wall hanging at a price far lower than the one marked on the tag. Woodcarvings, paintings, handmade clothes, wall hangings and furniture filled three floors, creating a shopper’s paradise with the surety from the King of Thailand, that the items purchased are authentic. If it weren’t, the shop would not sell it. You cannot get that same guarantee on the street. Outside, we watched as some vendors began to set up their stalls for the night market. We promised ourselves to experience it before we left Thailand. Mr. Tee found a Tuk Tuk for the two of us, paid the driver, and after a sad farewell, bid us good-bye.

Bangkok is an experience for all senses. We enjoyed listening to a vibrant city where we tasted new food, smelled everything from flowers, to spices, and overall, saw places we never could have dreamed existed. So if you do go – remember to hire a local guide and enjoy a side of this city few get to experience.