Of all the intelligent, probing questions a journalist could ask about Bangkok's canals – their history, underwater life, symbolism in the Buddhist tradition – there's one thing I just can't get out of my mind.
Why is the pot-bellied guy painted orange?
I'm hanging out at the Artist's House, a series of adjoining wooden houses built on top of Klong Bang Luong, one of the many canals that criss-cross the city. To say the waterways are important to Bangkok life would be an understatement. In many ways, they are Bangkok life.
For centuries, Thais have used them as a way of getting around. Unlike roads, which break down and buckle from excessive use, the canals – known as Klongs in Thai – have pretty much stayed the same for years, slicing in, around, and through many parts of the city. They are, and have historically been, the lifeblood of the city. As a result, many shops, temples, and museums can all be accessed directly by the water. To this day, even with Bangkok's condos and skyscrapers pushing higher into the sky, in some areas, you still only need a boat to get around.
As we pass through a loch regulating the flow of water from the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok's main water artery, into the Klongs, it's easy to see why.
Most houses here are built on stilts, with wooden steps leading down directly into the water. Fishermen and local merchants offering everything from pancakes to noodles to handyman tools ride up and down the canals, selling their goods from home to home – or in some cases, boat to boat. Nearly all the boats here are longtails – thin, wooden, and elongated. They look like giant canoes, stretched out just enough for five rows of seating, with enough space for two adults to sit side by side.
"We call him the ambassador of the canal," Khun Peter jokes, pointing to a dark, rocky area underneath a nearby home. He slows down our longtail for a closer look.
Because of the shadow, I can't see anything. Not at first. Then – wait – is that, no, is that rock moving? Can't be. But, ummm, it is. There it goes again. What is it? A turtle? A snake? A scuba diver?
A blink of the eye, and there it is. A tongue. Not just any tongue, a slithery, forked tongue. Turns out it's an Asian monitor lizard, stretching out well over a metre long, one of a small handful we'd see over the next few hours.
"Don't worry," Peter jokes, "he won't bother us."
Easy for him to say. Peter's as laid back and affable as they come – equal parts Gilligan and Skipper, down to earth and approachable, but serious enough to know you're in good hands.
He steers our crew to a temple. By this point, I have no idea where we are. The canals have started to look the same, each one with wooden, sometimes dilapidated houses, lining the canal side. Peter explains he's brought us to the Wat Ratcha Orot, unique in Bangkok for its mixed Thai-Chinese architecture. Unlike other tours that focus on tourist areas, Peter prefers a more authentic route. As we step out on to the temple grounds, it's clear: The tourists stay away for a reason. This is a real temple, with monks taking classes and performing meditation.
Walking around the grounds, we see streams of Buddhist monks, heads shaved and in saffron robes, studying religious texts. None of them say a word. Most don't even notice we're there. In a large section in the back, ornamented with the near-mandatory reclining Buddha statue, another Monk stands on a red carpeted floor, microphone in hand, teaching the day's lessons to a group of young initiates.
As we leave, a lone monk straggles in. Poor guy must be late. Reminds me of me during university.
On our way out, Peter hands us a few bags filled with what look like multicolored cheetos. I was getting kind of hungry.
"Not for you!" Peter explains. "For the fish."
Feeding fish is a common practice in Bangkok. It's a way of signifying respect and care for all living things. By the time my bag is empty, there are hundreds of fish surrounding out boat, each one about a foot long. The feeding frenzy is enough to cause small ripples along the water's surface.
Later, at the Artists House, the last place on our itinerary, Peter takes us to a puppet show. Not a single westerner in sight. Each puppet is so big it takes three puppeteers to control it. The play is about Hanuman, a magical white monkey, though this puppet version is clearly more mischievous. None of the show is in English, but that's ok. By the time Hanuman starts performing Gangnam Style, we're laughing off our seats.
Outside, over a lunch of fresh pad Thai, Peter explains why he scheduled the stops the way he did.
"I like natural," he says. "See the people living style, the local people. I don't tourist areas."
As we leave, I notice the sculpture of a naked man painted orange, his pot belly bulging out while his feet dangle over the wooden platforms edge into the water.
He's smiling. Just like me.
JUST THE FACTS
Booking it: The Klong Guru tour can be booked through the Anantara Riverside Resort and Spa (anantara.com). Each group consists of no more than six adults, and lasts for approximately four hours.
What to wear: Most longtail boats are covered, but hats, sunscreen, and mosquito repellant are recommended.
Etiquette: When entering temples, it is recommended to dress modestly and not speak in a loud voice. Shoes are removed before entering any carpeted area.