Stan­ley Ste­wart

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

ner­vously lash­ing and un­lash­ing ropes. The tugs that pull them are the char­ac­ter ac­tors of the Chao Phraya: cav­a­lier craft painted in jaunty colours. Like the barges, they are home to boat­men and their fam­i­lies. The awnings are be­decked with laun­dry, the cabin walls with cook­ing pots and fam­ily por­traits, and the win­dowsills with gera­ni­ums.

Un­til re­cently our cap­tain had been one of this fra­ter­nity. While he smiles and waves to the other tug­boat pi­lots from the decks of the Mekhala, he makes dis­parag­ing asides to his crew about their sea­man­ship and their pri­vate lives. The river is a hap­pily in­ces­tu­ous world, riven by rogue cur­rents and gos­sip.

We moor for the night at the Tem­ple of the Short Chicken. Monks flap about the tem­ple grounds in or­ange robes while tribes of pariah dogs howl from the edge of a vil­lage just up­river. On the bank, a large Bud­dha statue, wear­ing a long Isadora Dun­can scarf, smiles de­murely at pass­ing sailors. In the tem­ple I have a go at the shak­ing sticks. This is a rather use­ful wheeze by which the faith­ful can dis­cover their fate. Kneel­ing be­fore a Bud­dha, you shake a lit­tle vase of num­bered sticks un­til one drops out. This stick cor­re­sponds to a prophecy. I shake 74. An el­derly monk hands me my fate, No 74, printed on a pink slip of pa­per. The stew­ard on the boat trans­lates: You shall be ill and find sad sto­ries. You have made sin in for­mer lives.’’

He pours me a stiff drink. It is a trou­bling idea, dis­rep­utable past lives; I’m not too happy about hav­ing them sud­denly foisted on me. Who were th­ese peo­ple, th­ese past lives? They could be any­body: se­rial killers, child pornog­ra­phers, es­tate agents. God knows what they got up to.

Din­ner con­soles me. It is a splen­did af­fair, taken at a ta­ble in the bow by can­dle­light. The del­i­cacy of the dishes is in di­rect pro­por­tion to the un­pro­nounce­abil­ity

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