It’s been said that the Chao Phraya River, despite its graceful, sinuous flow through Bangkok, is a veritable bacteriological stew. Its coffee-coloured waters are obliged to carry the refuse and dumpage of a city where sanitation is at best a shrugging afterthought.
All the more perilous (and exciting) to go ‘cowboying’ - riding the currents on river taxis. The term ‘cowboying’ seems particularly appropriate because of the Wild West parallels: the long-tail boats, speedy & multi-horsepowered, throwing up wakes like brahman bulls; the ropes, and the hot-dogger deckhands who leap from deck to dock to lasso a piling at each surging ferry landing; the walk-on (make that ‘jump on’) flat-bottom ferries with their open-rail sterns, where the foreign tourists pack in 4 and 5 abreast, hanging on to any railing or pole they can, thrilled to be shoulder to shoulder with the locals.
I got my chance to go 'cowboying' when my Buddhist friend, Ms G, took a day off to perform her annual turtle-release ritual and invited me to accompany her on this special pilgrimage.
Wat Rakhang, Temple of Bells, lies on the east bank of the mighty Chao Phraya river. You can get there by bus, by taxi, or by tuk-tuk over one of the main bridge spans. Or you can go by riverboat taxi. Of course, the latter was my choice.
True, it seems at first a bit contradictory that a holy place, a Buddhist ‘wat,’ should have so many vendors at its gate, that commerce should encroach upon religion. But perhaps it’s only human nature (and wise enterprise) for a business to offer its wares at the convenience of its customers.
The entrance to Wat Rakhang is no exception. As soon as you climb the stone steps from the wharf, you enter ‘religio-business central,’ a makeshift bazaar of dozens of small side-by-side shops. The pathway leads you through a collection of the usual vendors of noodles, ka-bobs, cold drinks, plus tables piled high with Buddha-related charms, protective amulets, figurines for a home altar.
However, the main feature of this rustic shopping mall happens to be the captive creatures offered for sale.
Along each side of the stone walkway are bucket after bucket, tub after tub, of dark green turtles—from pee-wees, clambering over one another, to grandpapas, one to a tub. And eels, eels, and more eels. Blue and pink plastic basins that are swimming-brimming with black eels. Also in all sizes and price ranges, age adding to value.
And, strangely, buckets of snails. Grey-shelled, fresh-water (well, Chao Phraya fresh) snails, no bigger than a man’s thumbnail, curled into their shells. Resigned. Or just plain fainted.
All these aquatic creatures marketed daily for the temple-goers to buy and to subsequently gain blessings (hopefully) by releasing them into the river.
Further on, out beyond the shade of the trees and canvas tenting, the last creatures offered for sale before one enters the temple grounds, are songbirds. Tiny dust-brown birds, smaller than sparrows, in small rattan cages, maybe five to a cage. These are for the pilgrim who can afford less, yet seeks some merit before going in to beseech the Buddha with his or her prayers. One pays the bird vendor (they’re all women) her fee, opens the cage door, and sets the innocent creatures free.
Did it myself once. Paid to release a cage of little birds from captivity, and had that ‘free-ing’ feeling as they took to the sky. Until Ms Songsan explained to me:
"You feel happy, yes? And the birds are happy. And the bird-seller, she is happy. And in the little park around the corner, her young sons are happy to put birdseed in a set of empty birdcages with cage doors open. Good system, yes, make everybody happy. With your money!"
We both laughed. Which is good. After all, laughter frees the spirit, does it not?
And so it came to pass that we entered Wat Rakhang. Without buying or freeing any creatures (although Ms G did check the going rate for turtles). We paid homage, made offerings of garlands of fresh flowers, lighted incense sticks and saffron-coloured candles.
With sprinkles of water on our heads from an urn of flowing water, we purified ourselves. We walked the circuit to ring all fifty-five bells for good luck. Then we caught a river-taxi, cowboy-ed back across the Chao Phraya, went to an open-air market, and got 19 turtles for half the price the vendors had wanted at the temple.
Have to admit, I’ve heard some unusual cell-phone ‘ringtones’ in some unusual settings during my travels. One was a beep-dada-beep-dada-beepbeepbeep depiction of the William Tell Overture (yes, the Lone Ranger theme song) coming from a business-suited man’s leather briefcase while riding the Star Ferry between Kowloon and Hong Kong. Which actually seemed appropriate—a sort of corporate call to arms.
There was the time in a quiet coffee shop by the Kamo River in Kyoto, classical music playing softly over the speakers, when the mood was rather humorously jostled by a muted Tarzan yodel in digital tones sounding from an embarrassed young lady’s Hello Kitty mobile phone. East meets West—me Tarzan, you Junko.
Then there was that Bangkok afternoon, in the backseat of a taxi with the devoted Buddhist, Ms G; the curious Cowboy follower, me; and 19 pocket-size turtles in two heavy-duty plastic bags on the floor between my feet. In the front seat, on the right, our jocular driver was telling Ms G his personal view of captive creatures as he navigated through a congested, grimy maze of side streets.
It was about this time that the driver’s phone rang. Actually, it was more like a chime—a most incongruent chiming. Ji ji ji, ji ji ji, ji ja ju ja ji. The taxi driver’s cell phone was playing Jingle Bells! I had to chuckle. In an odd way, it suited him.
I had by now stopped trying to remember street corners or landmarks. I had given in to being lost. I was content to know we were going to a secluded lake somewhere in Klong Toey. Ms G knew its name. The driver knew where it was. I was along for the ride. The little turtles in their plastic bags had withdrawn into their shells. To meditate, perhaps.
We left the crush of streets and shops behind and entered a park-like area.
There were speed bumps and big over-hanging tree limbs. Abruptly, our driver pulled into an empty parking lot, stopped at the far side, and pointed beyond the trees. There, framed by not so distant high-rise condos and office complexes, lay the greenest lake I have ever seen. Serene and green, a shimmering wasabi-green lake.
Cutting the engine, the driver got out with us, then shocked me silly by coming over to talk to me in English. His voice was hushed, no laughter this time.
"This lake special place. No one can fishing here. So no one can catch again turtle. If let go by Wat Rakhang temple, boys catch again same day, sell again to temple. Turtle back in bucket. Bucket, river, bucket. Turtle very tired, confused. No good for turtle. Better let go free forever, turtle have peace. Yes?"
I had to agree with him, remembering the buckets and tubs of turtles and eels back at Wat Rakhang. All along the stone walkway, under the shade of trees or vendors’ tents, those rows of containers holding the helpless creatures.
I had to agree it was probably better that they are freed forever from a cycle of capture and release.
That seemed to me a true Buddhist gesture. And that good merit should come to anyone who made the generous gesture of liberating 19 innocent, pee-wee turtles. Yes.
And so I got to see those turtles released, one by one, into a lake rich with emerald algae, while in melodic Thai, Ms G recited this prayerful incantation:
"May this animal not get dangers in its life.
May burdens, bad luck, and illness get release, to be replaced by good safety and comfort.
By doing this good deed, let enemy feelings be washed away and strong soft blessings flow in."
About the writer: Earl Cooper is a Native American writer, a member of the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe in Tokeland, Washington. His writing has appeared in Chapel Hill Press, Kyoto Journal, Hawai'i Review and other literary magazines. He divides his time between the Puget Sound, where he lives, and travelling on the Pacific Rim and Asia. The story of the turtle release is taken from his new book "No Compass Needed: Travel Tales from Asia and the Pacific", published by BlueSky Publishing.