by Kate Bird
In the hotel lobby, instead of a tour guide surrounded by a gaggle of tourists, with the hum of introductions, the where are you from, when did you arrive, and where are you headed, there was only a young woman seated on a sofa checking her phone. I inquired if she was the guide for the tuktuk tour of Bangkok. She was. Her name was Wawa. I was the only person signed up.
I was still jetlagged and weary from the sensory overload of the previous day. I’d toured the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, taken a longboat ride through the city’s complex system of canals, or khlongs, and meandered through the massive Chatuchak weekend market. In the evening I’d visited Khao San Road, an infamous backpacker street lined with raucous bars, where you could pay to eat a scorpion, party with a ladyboy, or get a massage with a “happy ending.”
We settled into the tuktuk, a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw ornately decorated with a colourful jumble of religious offerings, flowers, strings of beads, and twinkle lights. It had rained overnight, and the Sunday morning sky was overcast, the air cool. I remarked on the sharp change in weather after yesterday’s hot sunshine. Wawa told me that heavy rains were predicted, that she was concerned about potential flooding in the village south of Chiang Mai where her family lived.
The usually bustling streets were devoid of traffic and most shops were shuttered closed. When I asked if Sunday was a day off, Wawa told me that for many people Sunday was their day to spend with family and to visit the temple. I asked what a temple visit entailed. And thus began a gentle back and forth, of my questions and Wawa’s patient and thoughtful answers, about daily life, about Buddhism, a slow constant river of information and observations that gently flowed from her to me.
Our first stop was Phra Sumen Fort, built in 1783 to defend the city from river invasion. From the octagonal watchtower, the Chao Phraya, the River of Kings, a major artery that flows through the heart of Bangkok, was busy with longtail boats, tourist cruises, and ferries. At Wat Saket, the Temple of the Golden Mount, we slowly ascended the three hundred steps that coil like a snake around the temple’s golden chedi. From the top, the city stretched for miles, a skyline of modern skyscrapers and the golden spires of four hundred temples. Bells with hanging hearts inscribed with private messages tinkled in the breeze, and ornate metal gongs awaited the strike of a leather-padded mallet, for the deep complex sound to reverberate in sonorous waves in the misty haze.
As we crossed Phra Pinklao bridge, Wawa told me how she helped her family financially and spoke to them frequently on the telephone. She wished that she could visit home more often, but she worked so much, and it was hard to get away.
Wat Arun, known as the Temple of Dawn, its central prang decorated with shards of Chinese porcelain, was under renovation and swathed in scaffolding. In a small temple nearby, clusters of family groups waited in the quiet hush to speak with the monk, their arms laden with offerings of lotus flowers and pre-packaged parcels. Wawa explained that the packaged offerings for the monks included a saffron-coloured robe and day-to-day necessities such as toilet paper, laundry soap, and razors. When it was their turn, each person bowed their head and listened to the words, the blessing, whispered into their ear. I sat at the back as Wawa knelt gracefully and prayed.
Wawa wore a crisp white blouse and blue flowered slacks, and her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. It was only when she removed her ballet flats that I noticed her feet. How they were larger, less delicate, than those of most Thai women. Just as this gloomy Sunday morning was revealing a quieter, more sedate, Bangkok, so Wawa represented a transgendered woman worlds apart from the outrageously camp ladyboys I’d encountered on Khao San Road. She finished her prayers and smiled widely for the first time.
“Thanks for waiting,” she said. “I don’t often have the opportunity.”
I imagined her on other tour days, with a big group to herd.
The Thanon Phra Chan amulet market was part of the tour, but the set of Wawa’s mouth signaled her disapproval. Ninety-five percent of Thai people are Buddhist, she explained, and while amulets were originally worn to remind people of Buddha and his teachings, they were now used as good luck charms to ward off illness, superstition, and witchcraft.
“Amulets are about luck, but if you are a true Buddhist you don’t need luck,” Wawa said. “Instead, your luck is earned from the fruits of your actions in life.”
When I asked Wawa about what looked to me like voodoo dolls, she said that the figures, in combination with spells, could be used either to hurt people or to make them love you.
“But I would never want to make someone love me who didn’t love me for myself,” she said.
At Pak Khlong Talat, the twenty-four-hour flower market, stalls were jam-packed with vibrant-hued orchids, elaborate floral arrangements, temple offerings of golden marigolds and elegant lotus buds, and wedding garlands strung with white jasmine and red roses. One of the vendors asked to photograph me for a campaign to keep the market open, and I happily posed with the owner and her wares.
Wawa asked if I’d mind stopping at Phahurat textile market in Little India.
“I’d like to find a present for my niece,” she said. “It’s her birthday.”
By then, the tour itinerary had gone by the wayside, and with the day so dreary, I’d stopped taking photographs. All I really wanted was to follow where Wawa was leading, to live in her world for a few hours and see where it would take me.
“No problem” I said. “Take your time.”
In a warren of narrow alleyways crammed with stalls of brightly coloured clothing and bolts of fabric, Wawa stopped to look through a pile of fancy dresses. After a spirited negotiation with the vendor, she held up a tiny pink frilly dress.
“She’ll look so cute!” she said.
Nearby was a street lined with shops specializing in wedding finery. Displayed in many windows were Thai silk wedding outfits embellished with intricate patterns of gold embroidery, the woman’s dress a slim-fitted sheath, the man’s a Mandarin-collared suit. There were jewelry shops laden with ornate gold jewelry, and shops with mannequins wearing princess-style white wedding dresses.
“It’s common these days for couples to be married in traditional Thai wedding clothes,” Wawa said. “Then the bride changes into a Western wedding dress like this.”
I told her how elegant and beautiful I found the traditional wedding clothing.
“I like both,” Wawa said. She paused, then spoke quietly. “I wish that one day I could wear this.”
I looked her in the eyes and nodded.
“I wish this for you, too,” I said.
And then, suddenly, our day together was over. When the tuktuk driver dropped me off at the National Gallery, the skies opened, unleashing a torrential downpour. Big fat raindrops bounced off the pavement so hard they splashed my knees. I stood on the side of the road for a moment, anxious to hurry inside but reluctant to say goodbye. I shook Wawa’s hand, then placed my palms together in an awkward wai.
“Thank you,” I said. “For everything.”
About the author:
Kate Bird’s work was published in the February 2022 issue of The Sun Magazine, is forthcoming in the April issue of The Sun, appeared in The Walrus and Montecristo, and was shortlisted for The Malahat Review’s 2021 Creative Nonfiction Prize and The Phare’s WriteWords22. A Vancouver, British Columbia librarian and photographer, and a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, Kate is the author of Vancouver in the Seventies and other books. You can find her at katebird.ca