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.