Malarial Muddle

Worldwide distribution of malaria: green is malaria-free, blue is eliminating malaria, red is controlling malaria. Image source: thelancet.com

 

 

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might be inspired to think about travelling to destinations like Thailand, Cambodia, Ecuador, or South Africa. All wonderful places to visit, but all home turf for malaria.

Malaria is nothing to take lightly; the World Health Organization estimates that in 2016 there were 216 million new cases of malaria worldwide resulting in 445,000 deaths. Thank you, Wikipedia, for those uplifting statistics. I got to witness the effects of this disease first-hand in 1972, when my mother was infected somewhere along the journey from Lebanon to Yemen. Luckily, she contracted a non-recurring form of malaria and recovered.

So when we travel to places where malaria hangs out, we always err on the side of caution. We get the best anti-malarial prophylactics we can buy and we take them religiously, even in zones where there is minimal risk. Any risk, I say, is too much.

In the early 1980s, Mark, my husband, travelled to South America. He planned to visit the Amazon and consulted a doctor here at home about malaria prevention. The doctor told him that the medication was much cheaper if you bought it in South America, and recommended he pick it up in one of the cities before he ventured into the jungle. When Mark arrived in Lima, Peru, he went to a number of pharmacies to buy the pills, but none of them had even heard of the drug, either by its common name or by its chemical name. He ended up cancelling the Amazon portion of his trip because he couldn’t get the necessary malarial protection.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago, when we went to a specialty travel medical clinic to get a prescription for Malarone, the current drug of choice for preventing malaria. We each needed 13 days of pills to cover the time we’d be in the Amazon region, plus a week afterward (as prescribed). When we arrived in Quito and prepared to take the first dose, we discovered that we had only 13 pills in total; either the doctor ordered the wrong amount or the pharmacy dispensed the wrong amount. In my busyness before departure, I hadn’t bothered to count the pills in the bottle. My mistake.

Well, we figure, no big deal, we can just go to a local pharmacy and buy more. Surely, people go in and out of the Amazon through Quito every day, so they must sell Malarone. Nope. Once again, the pharmacists looked completely baffled when we asked for Malarone. We tried the chemical name. Nada. We explained where we were going and that we needed something against malaria and they just shook their heads. We used the Web to try to find a source for Malarone in Quito and discovered to our dismay that the drug is not sold in many countries, particularly the countries where malaria is common. What the heck?? Apparently, the company that makes Malarone is restricting where they sell it in order to stave off drug-resistance and keep the medicine effective for as long as possible.

Whatever. The hard fact remained that we were in a pickle. Only enough pills to protect one person, no way to get any more. Options: travel unprotected or cancel our jungle excursion. After discussing it, we decided to proceed. The area we would be visiting wasn’t high risk and we both had waited a long time to visit the Amazon.

So who got the pills? Well, with half my internal organs either missing or severely diminished and a depressed immune system, I could not chance being infected, whereas, we reasoned, Mark’s more robust constitution should see him through in the unlikely event he did get malaria. Not a happy choice but one that seems to have worked out: a month after returning from our trip now, we are both feeling fine, and, in fact, we didn’t run into a lot of mosquitos in the Amazon.

Lesson learned: always buy your travel health prescriptions before you leave home and count your pills!

Afterword: Now I read that counterfeit antimalarial drugs are commonly sold in some Asian countries, including Thailand and Cambodia. Yet another reason to buy at home.

What would you have done in our shoes? Take the risk or cancel? Let me know in a comment.

Snorkeling Cruise on the Reggae Queen Part 2

Sunset from aboard the MV Reggae Queen.

Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the boat’s name, the Reggae Queen. Being the naïve person that I am, I merely thought, Oh, reggae music. How nice! The connection between reggae and smoking slipped my mind completely. I should not have been, but was, surprised to see that the guide was a chain-smoker and six of the 15 passengers smoked as well. The dining area was frequently filled with smoke. Thank goodness it was open air or it would have been intolerable.

They didn’t smoke during meals, but as soon as they finished eating, they would all light up, so we would flee. As a result, we missed some of the social chitchat and the guide’s information. The passengers quickly sorted into two unspoken camps: puffers and non-puffers. The puffers mainly stayed on the dining deck and the non-smokers hung out on the top (sun) deck. There was no animosity, we were all very friendly, but since the guide was in the other camp, we did miss out on some stuff.

What else to say about the tour leader? One online review read: “R who runs the trip is…a great character.”  A “character” is a good way to put it. You either enjoy his style and think he’s a barrel of laughs or you find him brusque and annoying. Let’s look at a couple of other online comments.

“The snorkeling tour…was very disappointed [sic]….We believe that in this island the only one that enjoy were Mr R and those who spent the time drinking with him. Instead of making the guests happy, he spent his time drinking and smoking a lot of reggae style.”

Another customer complained:

“The German owner smoked and drank beer the whole day long (even started before breakfast and smoked at the same time the guests were having breakfast).”

Our most generous interpretation of his behaviour was that he has probably been doing this tour too long and is simply burnt out. He didn’t seem to care much whether we had a good time or not and he certainly wasn’t going out of his way to ensure that we did.

When we all had to cram ourselves into a small zodiac, he literally screamed at people to move, even though we were already packed in like sardines and the boat was madly tossing about on the waves. As we climbed into the zodiac, instead of telling us the safest way to get down, he waited until after several people slipped and nearly injured themselves before yelling at us not to do it “that way.”

The Thai crew, on the other hand, were very solicitous and helped everyone on and off the boats as much as they could, and we passengers helped each other as necessary. R never once bothered to help anyone (as far as I saw).

Although there was a white board on the ship for him to leave notes on each day’s schedule, he didn’t bother doing this, so we never knew when to show up for lunch or dinner.

Brahminy kite off Koh Bon island.

This was all in contrast to a couple of other guides that we had in Thailand and Cambodia, who went out of their way to make sure we enjoyed ourselves and couldn’t have been more polite and helpful. We aren’t looking to have someone hold our hands, but we expect clear information, courtesy, and concern for safety.

Having some mobility issues (I have a total knee replacement with some limits on range of motion and my other knee is also not 100%), I inquired prior to booking about the ladder for climbing out of the water onto the boat after snorkeling. I have encountered many boat ladders that are impossible for me, as they are too short or angle away, requiring the skills of a rappelling rockclimber to scale. The person who answered my inquiry sent me photos and a description of the boat ladder which reassured me. In fact, I had no trouble with that ladder. However, she did not mention that half the time we would not be using that ladder, but would be climbing from the water into a small zodiac instead, one with a very different kind of ladder. In the end, I was able to manage—awkwardly and with help—but it would have been nice to know in advance.

Transferring between the boat and the zodiac was another challenge. Two vessels leaping and plunging in the waves on separate schedules x slippery decks on both sides + two shaky knees = disaster waiting to happen. Again, I have to thank the Thai crew for their steady hands always ready to aid. I got the definite feeling these young men viewed me with the respect they would give to their infirm and slightly dotty grannie.

Our final run to the harbor was fairly short, disembarkation was quick, and we were all loaded into various vehicles for transfer to our next destinations. I think we had the longest journey and we were at our hotel in time for dinner.

In summary, there were a lot of great things about this trip, but those who book should go into it with their eyes open. This not a mini cruise ship. You can expect hard beds, rough and ready conditions, and lots of smoke. Don’t expect clear information or much concern for your comfort. You must take things as they come, stay on top of what’s going on so you don’t miss out (i.e., don’t relax and expect to be taken care of), and adapt to the conditions on board, especially the moods of the guide. If you have any mobility challenges, be doubly cautious about booking.

Have you done any small-boat cruises? Share your experience in a comment.

 

Snorkeling Cruise on the Reggae Queen

The MV Reggae Queen. Image source: http://andamansnorkeldiscovery.com/

Three days and nights cruising the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea off the coast of Thailand. A dream come true, right? Fun snorkeling, lovely laid-back times resting, reading, chatting on the sundeck, living in my swimsuit, not setting foot on land for the duration. The weather was perfect. I managed to dodge seasickness (I get motion sickness pretty easily). Saw masses of amazing fish and coral, a couple of turtles, and one shark. Visited uninhabited spots far off the coast where our little group of 15 was often alone. Watched the sun rise each morning over the ocean. Marveled at schools of small flying fish skipping across the water as we slipped through the calm water.

That is the side of Andaman Snorkel Discovery that makes it into the brochure and onto the website. Our experience was not exactly what you see in postcards, however.

We were picked up at our hotel in Khao Lak around 1:00 pm  and had a drive of several hours to the departure point, picking up other passengers along the way.

The first challenge was getting aboard. As we waited on the dock, I eyed the boat beside us. There was no gangway. Boarding required half-leaping from the side of the wharf over an open gap of water of several feet onto the boat’s thin metal railing, teetering precariously, then stepping to a life ring hanging on the side of the boat, and from there onto a ladder. I went first, and with the help of several crew, I managed, but it was a close thing and I noticed several of the other passengers looking askance at the proposed route.

Standard cabin.

We next checked out our cabin, which was clean and in good repair. It consisted of bunk beds: one wooden shelf built into the wall at chest height, the other “bed” directly on the floor underneath. The beds are reasonably long (says my six-foot companion) and wide (says wide me), but the mattresses are thin (2-inch), mainly useless. There are fans and the windows open to allow in cool breezes from the sea. The only good part about sleeping in the cabin was laying with my face next to the open window, just a short distance from the open water, watching the waves moving gently below and (craning my neck) the stars above. There is air-con in the cabins, but we didn’t use it, as we preferred the fresh air circulating.

Size-wise, the cabins are just big enough to stand next to the bed. Two people inside would have trouble getting changed at the same time. From my bunk, I could easily reach out and touch the wall on the far side of the cabin. The cabin has some useful hooks for hanging stuff out of the way and one small shelf built into a corner, but no ladder or steps for accessing the top bunk. I suppose that taller, younger, and/or spryer folk might use their arms to haul themselves up through sheer strength. I resorted to standing my small suitcase on end and, while my companion did his best to hold it steady, I clambered precariously up, and hurled myself desperately across the bunk like a salmon migrating up a rocky stream. Another passenger admitted to me that she had found an ingenious solution: she put her back to the bunk, braced her feet against the opposing wall, and “walked” up the wall. I did try this, but couldn’t quite get the knack of it.

We actually spent quite a lot of time sleeping on the top deck at night under the stars, as it was cooler, there were few biting bugs, and the bean bag “chairs” could be molded into more comfortable beds. Lying up there with the boat gently rocking, watching the full moon rise over Koh Bon island was magical.

There are four toilets (heads) on board, which seemed to be fine for 15 passengers. While not up to the standard of a decent hotel, the heads are about as good as one can expect on a small boat; I actually expected worse. The heads double as showers; however, I never used them as such, preferring to simply rinse down with fresh water on the aft deck after snorkeling and taking my frequent plunges into the salt sea and a generally piratical lifestyle as a convenient excuse not to shower.

One of the online reviews complained that the food was monotonous, but, really, it was standard Thai fare, with rice plus various veg, fish, and meat dishes that changed each day. It was not gourmet, but it was decent, hearty food and there was plenty of it. I considered it a miracle that the cook produced such meals from the miniscule galley.

More next week.

 

Khon: A Fascinating Find

Khon performance in Bangkok. Image source: asianitinerary.com

 

 

In a quiet corner of the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, rarely noticed by the streams of tourists focused on golden stupas and kinnaris, we stumbled into the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. It’s a cool, dignified space staffed by serious people who welcome you with a polite smile and guide you firmly through an appropriate visit. Appropriate, in the case of this royally sponsored institution, meaning quiet, properly dressed (no bare arms or legs), and, above all, respectful.

The museum was founded by the Thai queen in 1976 to promote the appreciation of traditional Thai handcrafts, especially the creation and use of silk. As the queen is also a champion of khon (variously spelled as kohn), the museum includes a small display of the elaborate costumes worn for this traditional masked dance (“Dressing Gods and Demons”). Constructed of silk heavily embroidered with gold/silver and “jewels” of colored glass and beetle wing, the costumes are based on research conducted in conjunction with a 2007 revival performance of the ancient art.

After viewing the exhibition, I was eager to check out a performance, and through considerable digging around, we discovered shows played at the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre. Our efforts to see one, however, turned into a comedy of errors.

On the evening of the show, after an excellent meal in the tiny hole-in-the-wall Café 511, we asked the taxi driver to take us to the Sala Chalermkrung Theatre. We showed him the tickets, which had on them the name and address in Thai. We told him we were going to see kohn. None of these references worked. He consulted with his taxi colleagues. Nope, none of them had a clue. Finally, we said “Old Siam Centre,” which is in the same block as the theatre. Ah! Yes, now he knew! Off we sped, only to arrive at the Siam Paragon, a luxury shopping centre. Try again. Next stop: Siam Discovery, another mall. The poor guy obviously only understood “Siam” and was doing his best based on what the bulk of tourists wanted to find. On the other hand, this is the royal theatre, for gawd’s sake, surely someone must have heard of it? By a process of elimination only, I believe, he finally brought us to the Old Siam Centre.

We walked around the place several times, thinking, How can they possibly hide a theatre here? Is it underground? Is it on the roof? We began to question our mental competence: Could a Thai theatre look so very different from what we’re used to that we’re just walking past it? We commenced staring suspiciously at young Thai women selling Hello Kitty merchandise in the market: perhaps one of their booths concealed a hidden entrance to the theatre?

Finally, we asked the crisp information officer by showing her the tickets and she sent us off with a series of hand gestures. Tickets in hand, we walked out of the mall, following her instructions as best we could, only to be accosted by a sincere-looking old man who pointed to the tickets, shook his head vigorously, and sent us back into the mall. How were we to know that he was not a kind citizen but a critic who was warning us away from the show? At least, that had to be the explanation, because having slogged around the block yet another time, we ultimately discovered that we had literally been on the theatre’s doorstep when he intercepted us and sent us away.

Fortunately—having had much experience of losing our way in Bangkok—we had allowed lots of time. We were finally seated in the vintage-1933 theatre along with a dozen giggling schoolchildren and a handful of other patrons. This in a theatre that holds well over 450. My companion suggested that the rows of emptiness probably belonged to scores of confused ticket-holders wandering the streets outside after being turned away by the helpful old man.

After all our misadventures, I can happily report that the show was worth the effort. Although khon has been compared to classical ballet, they are similar only in that their movements are formal and stylized, and the dancers use mime. Where ballet dancers balance on their toes, khon dancers stomp down heavily on their heels. Where ballet calls for airy lightness, khon favors strong, deliberate movements. Khon is mostly quite slow and often involves balancing on one foot, moving the feet and hands very precisely, and sometimes posing in tableaux-like formations. There’s also a dash of acrobatics thrown in.

The stories are drawn from the Hindu epic of Ramayana and feature gods, demons, and monkeys. Despite wearing rigid masks that cover the entire head, the principle dancers were able to convey character and humor through hand gestures and subtle body and head motions. To make the performance comprehensible to foreigners, the theatre has LED surtitles above the stage (in English only; tough luck to other non-Thais).

The onstage costumes were similar to those I had seen close-up in the museum, and it was wonderful to see the silk, dazzling metallic embroidery, and “jewels” move under the stage lights. (Okay, you may need to be a costume geek to get excited by this, but I did.) At the same time, the background information I had picked up from the exhibition enhanced my appreciation for the performance.

The two experiences made a perfect pairing I’d recommend to anyone visiting Bangkok. Just leave generous amounts of time to find the theatre and beware of that kindly man who wants to give you directions.

This excellent video shows khon both in performance and behind the scenes.

Currently, khon performances run on Thursday and Friday nights. Tickets available from thaiticketmajor.com and their outlets; 800-1200 Baht (US$23-35). The Queen Sirikit Museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm; admission is included when you purchase a ticket for the Grand Palace complex.

Have you experienced a piece of traditional culture in a places where you’ve traveled? Tell us about it in a comment.

Calidris Reads: Bangkok

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels and nonfiction written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Tone Deaf in Bangkok

Janet Brown

First sentence: “I have spent most of my life searching for a home.”

A series of essays by an ex-pat on Thai (mostly Bangkok) food, language, culture, aging, relationships, home, and exploration, with a dash of Cambodia thrown in for good measure. The writing is excellent, the analysis and self-examination, astute.

The title is in reference to the tonality of the Thai language, where a slight mistake in the tone you use can make the difference between “water buffalo” and an unmentionable part of the anatomy.

Reading this before my trip, I was struck by some of her observations and looked forward to seeing for myself if they held true.

  • “It’s such a filthy place that I’ve scraped dirt from my skin while sitting in an apartment fifteen minutes after having taken a shower, and I’ve had to pick my way down neighborhood thoroughfares to avoid stepping in dog shit.”

Yes and no: the air pollution is palpable and visible at sunset as a thick haze over the city. However, I didn’t find the streets particularly filthy. Of course, you always have to watch where you step, but that’s true in my home town, too. In some neighbourhoods, there are actually people who spend their days sweeping the sidewalks with palm brooms, so things are kept pretty tidy.

  • “The air tastes like a cigarette and frequently smells far worse.”

Let’s just say the air is noticeable, whether tinged with the pong of sewage and garbage or perfumed by blossoming trees.

  • “It is unusual to see a Thai girl who isn’t beautiful, and it is rare to see a woman over forty who is.”

Not true at all. I saw lots of both.

  • “Western toilets abound in Bangkok, although the stalls all too often come without a supply of toilet paper.”

Yup. However, you have to remember that toilet paper is not part of Thai culture; they traditionally use water to cleanse. You may find a toilet that has no toilet paper but does have the ubiquitous spray hose. Besides, the number one rule of travel is “Always carry TP on your person.”

  • “On the Skytrain, it is possible to explore the city without getting lost….It’s convenient, it’s clean, it’s scam-free, and it keeps culture shock at bay.”

I am pleased to report that this is basically true. We criss-crossed the city on the Skytrain and the only issue we faced was trying to figure out the correct platform.  In one case, a young man noticed our hesitation and took the trouble to speak to us and give us directions to our platform. As we followed his directions, we found that he had mistakenly told us to go right instead of left, but we figured it out. A few moments later, while we waited for the train, he came running up to us: he had realized his mistake and tracked us down to make sure we hadn’t gone astray. Now, that’s a kind and thoughtful stranger.

4 knots (Recommended)

What do you read when you travel? I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

 

 

 

 

 

A is for Apsaras

The following is a whimsical summary of my recent trip to Thailand and Cambodia, in the form of rhyming couplets and photos. Any groans elicited at improbable rhymes or tortured scansion are purely intentional.

A is for apsaras carved in the rock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B for buffet where we ate lots of choc

 

 

 

 

 

 

C is for clown fish we saw in the sea

 

 

 

 

 

 

D is for dog, her name is Mutley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

E is for eagle with imperial eye

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

F is for food we loved, especially Pad Thai!

 

 

 

 

 

 

G is for guards (we saw quite a few)

 

 

 

 

 

 

H is hotel rooms with fabulous views

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I is for idols in black and white stripes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

J is for journeys on boats of all types

 

 

 

 

 

 

K is for kohn dancers covered with jewels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

L is for lounge chairs close by the pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

M is the mist on Cambodian fields

 

 

 

 

 

 

N is for nightfall with sunset revealed

 

 

 

 

 

 

O is for owls with gazes serene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

P is for pitta—the first one we’ve seen!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q is for quiet walks down on the beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

R is for tree roots that ancient walls breach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

S is for stupas, gleaming and gold

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

T is for temples with faces so old

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U is for up, where we see hornbills pass

 

 

 

 

 

 

V is for village with walls made of grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

W for waters with colour sublime

 

 

 

 

 

 

X is xpensive but worth every dime

 

 

 

 

 

 

Y is for yawning in elephant style

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zzzz is for sleeping while earning air miles

 

Spending Wisely

Not the moderate $80-per-night lodging I chose in Phuket.

As you begin to plan a trip, one of your first considerations may be budget. Unless you’re a part of the lucky elite who live and travel without a thought for money, you’ll likely have to work within some kind of limit. Does this mean you can’t have fun and enjoy travel? Not at all. One of the keys is choosing where to spend your money—and where not to spend it.

On a recent trip, I had a two-night layover on the resort island of Phuket in Thailand. I had to find accommodations, not a small task, as Phuket has upwards of 5,000 hotels/guesthouses/rentals. I was dreaming of an ultra-luxury resort, the kind you see in ads, with poolside teak bungalows, uniformed waiters delivering drinks to cabanas on a private beach, Thai massage in sublime surrounding, and lotus blossoms floating in the toilet. Thailand is—relatively speaking—cheap, so I could afford the kind of place I could never visit otherwise. Besides, I was only there for two nights, so why not splurge?

But on further thought, I realized this was not a good use of money. I would be arriving late on the first day, so wouldn’t have a chance to really enjoy the place. Maybe the lotus blossoms in the toilet, but not much else. I would be leaving early on the last day, so, again, not much time to play. That left me with one full day. Whatever luxury I enjoyed on that one day, would it be worth the hundreds of dollars it would cost me to book two nights?

Would I really have a massage? Would I want a cabana on the beach? Would I order drinks? Would it be significantly less pleasurable to walk a few metres to the pool instead of jumping in from the bedroom door?

Other factors came into play: were there other, comfortable and clean, if not luxurious, places to stay that offered facilities I really would use? Yup. These were the final two nights of a long trip through Thailand. I knew I would be tired and want to be away from crowds and noise. For convenience, I wanted to be fairly close to the airport.

In the end, I chose a small, locally-owned guesthouse for under $80 that had good reviews and everything I needed for a pleasant two-night stay. I figured I could buy a lotus blossom and throw it in the toilet if the mood hit me.

I can better justify spending big bucks on accommodations that offer something I can’t get anywhere else, or are situated in remote locales. The year we visited Namibia’s Etosha National Park—one of my bucket-list destinations—the park opened up a vast new area previously closed to tourists. The only way to visit this area was to book at their exclusive camp, Dolomite. The camp offers accommodations in permanent safari tents and has a small pool and restaurant. Comfy but not nearly worth the high price tag. I booked because I really wanted to experience that part of the park. As they say: location, location, location.

I feel the same about food and drink when I travel. Generally, I don’t seek out expensive or gourmet food because I just don’t appreciate it enough.* I’m happy to eat simpler fare in humble surroundings. I know this about myself. But when circumstances demand it—like I’m stuck in a lodge with only one, overpriced, restaurant, or I’m thirsty and the only drinks available are selling for three or four times the retail value—I don’t deny myself to economize.

My point is that sometimes you do have to make hard choices about money when you travel. Maybe you just can’t swing the cost of both the deluxe hotel and front-row tickets to that hot Broadway show, and you have to choose. Many times, though, if you examine the options closely, you might find that what you think you want is based more on glossy advertising and other people’s fantasies than your own preferences. Know yourself and understand what truly makes you travel-happy and you’ll be able to dole out your hard-earned cash when and where it counts most.

*Chocolate excepted, of course.

Where do you choose to spend your travel dollar? Luxury resorts with 5-star service? Remote locations? Unusual activities? All-inclusives? First-class airline tickets? Expensive souvenirs? Stupendous food? I’d love to hear about it, so leave a comment.

Morning Has Broken

Image source: easybackpacker.com

From my sixth-floor picture window in the Sheraton Royal Orchid, I am watching dawn come to the Chao Phraya river.

Late into the night, it was filled with brightly lit party cruises, neon pink, electric blue, sunlit wat gold, decks given over to the ultimate hedonism of dancing “The YMCA” upon a waterway both ancient and venerable. Some things are just universal in time and space.

The dockside was crammed with tourists and locals seeking food, fun, or friends–usually all three.

Then, for a few hours, it was dark and quiet, except for the occasional tug and barges on a stealth run.

As the faintest of light arrives, the first commuter ferry departs from the dock below. I hear piercing marmot-like whistles that I take for the calls of magpies, but which I later discover are the code the aft boatmen use to call instructions to the steersmen.

Sounding a bit like a white-crowned sparrow, the earliest bird commences its song.

Boats of diverse types begin to ply the water. The infamous longtails, narrow, painted in vivid colours, dart here and there like cormorants. The local ferries, plump ovoids of yellow or red-orange, bob their way back and forth. The fast ferries, larger, sleeker, and assertively pointed, cut through the water purposefully. Their destinations are indicated with coloured flags, an ingenious solution for a system where many of the users can neither read nor understand Thai. “Does this boat go to …?” The conductor meets all inquiries from confused foreigners the same way: “Go inside! Go inside!” she shrieks impatiently. Clearly, if the boat doesn’t go where you’re going, it’s no concern of hers.

Working ships of indeterminate industry chug by. Tiny bright orange speedboats–Safety vessels? River police?–buzz among the busyness.

In one boat, a woman wearing a broad-brimmed bamboo hat wields a net. Ah, a picturesque Thai fisher, no doubt following centuries of family tradition. No: look again. She’s scooping up garbage from the never-ending supply that rides the brown water. Is she paid by the city to do this, or does she do it to sell what she can: bottles, plastics, who knows what else she finds? The river travels a long way and encounters many things before it arrives here in Bangkok.

Above, a flock of cattle egrets, their white bodies reflecting the strengthening sun, fly by on their way to feed. Over the city buildings, a few wat spires and one church tower compete with electronic aerials for extreme verticality.

As the morning warms, swifts dodge and twist in pursuit of insects.

I reflect on how many people, both today and for centuries past, live or have lived most of their days on and around this river. Locals still fish off hidden piers and between the giant luxury hotels, tumbledown shacks cling to their piece of the shore, drying laundry sharing space with family shrines on the soggy, rotted porches. Well-used canals branch off to other residential areas, to painted wats with steps washed by the water, to still spaces filled with mats of floating lilies.

But none of that can I see from my exalted tower; I am a newcomer here and until I climb down, my view is limited.

My first day in Bangkok beckons.

Do you have a favorite first impression of a place? Let me know in a comment.