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