Within a short drive from the hurley burley of busy downtown Bangkok there is a gateway to paradise. A trip across the spectacular suspended Bhumibol Bridge that flies over the majestic Chao Phraya river led me to something I knew was there, but hadn’t considered in it’s entirety because of the scarcity of direct transportation options. My friends and I accepted an invitation from a long term Bangkok resident to lunch at the seaside village of Baan Goong Thian, and I hope that’s spelled correctly because nothing is indicated in English there and I was taught to pronounce the name of the village phonetically in the accent of a waitress of the third kind with perfectly tweazed eyebrows and very cultured gestures. The district of Thonburi lays at sea level on the west side of the river between Bangkok and the Gulf of Thailand.
After bustling down the busy Rama II expressway ring road through perpetually heavy traffic , we passed over the languid waters of the heavenly Chao Phraya. The molasses coloured river is thick with ships under power and those already resting at anchor. These tough looking boats are those of the ‘tramp steamer’ variety, small freighters can access the inland waters due to a shallow draft , perfect for trading goods overnight from port to port. They are working craft, all cranes and hatches, seemingly held together by tangled lashings and wire cable. There must be some organization to the marine activity I spy below but it isn’t readily apparent. The bucket freighters , wooden bum boats , junks, barges and log booms from the inland forests crowd the bends and jetties of this serpentine river. It’s a scene you’d expect from an Oriental waterway. The ancient and the modern ages clash in a symbiotic chaos that is rushing towards a flawed modernity on the back of something essentially timeless.
I immediately began to notice palm trees leaping out of the fertile earth and lush agricultural plots blooming with produce as soon as we’d crossed over. It’s customary to see canals in use in Bangkok but there are far more at work here. This reminded me of what I knew about ‘Old Bangkok’ being virtually road free and transited solely by canal boats. Behind us was the high rise jungle , open country was ahead, low rise buildings with shop fronts attached lined the road. As the traffic volume had abated I felt free to look around instead of being concentrated by the heart stopping dare devil antics of other drivers weaving in and out of traffic as is the case in Bangkok. There, the intensity of the driving experience is riveting and quite tense. Sometimes one seat belt doesn’t seem like enough . I may have caught my first whiff of salt air insinuating through the air conditioner vents.
Just as suddenly, we were on a flat elevated paved road hemmed by water. The asphalt might have been renewed recently because of the floods that ravaged low lying area in the Chao Phraya estuary only months before. We noticed that the green median separating the lanes was punctuated by sculptures of sea creature . There was every sort of native fish native to the waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Whales, Dolphins, Manta, Crab, Shrimp, Hammerhead Shark, ribbon strewn Lion fish and others stood in the middle of the road as a testament to the local industry., They were brightly painted in unnatural colors, but the effect suggested promise as we were headed out to a famous seafood restaurant which our host assured us was ‘on the sea’. We didn’t know that his description was going to turn out entirely correct.
Coconut palms were replaced by thick mangrove as we neared the ocean that lay in the encroaching distance. There was brackish seawater standing in tidal lagoons . I was told that there were a series of ponds that could be enclosed by ingenious dykes from which a popular salt left behind after evaporation could be harvested. We were traveling towards the sea on a raised jetty reclaimed from the ebb and flow. It was like being on an airport runway and we were bound by Newtonian Law to take off at the speed we were traveling . People in Thailand are fatalistic, they drive far to fast for my comfort . We were passing crude huts with thatch roofs, seafood markets along the roadside and they were blurred by a visual parallax . I was lost in a swirl of memories of all the similar scenes like this I had witnessed. Fortunately our host knew exactly where he was going. A weather faded sign with an odd collage of seafood characters appeared above a sudden driveway telling us we’d arrived. The car dove off the highway into a gravel parking lot like a silver fish into a coral head.
Going from glaring sun to the cool interior of the eclectic collection of corrugated tin roofed buildings, my eyes took a minute to adjust. This was an interior straight out of Somerset Maugham . When our host had said that the restaurant was ‘on the sea’ I had imagined something whereby the building was by the seaside, fronting the water, this was not the case . We were walking on a raised platform inches above the water. I let my hand rest in the tepid water where I sat to get my bearings and saw that tiny fish had taken refuge in the roots of an aquatic plant there. A collection of stilted piers had been thrust out into the water so that individual settings sat like tiny houses separate from every other and were each covered by an arching Thai style thatched roof. Seating was traditional, pillows on the slat board floor, as so many Asian cultures prefer. Thai families had taken up residence within the structures, pools of shoes, slippers and flip flops rested at random outside the entrance to the table area, as if they were at home. I envied this perfect setting that I would have liked to enjoy for a lifetime instead of a brief visitation.
The five of us sat in reverential awe for a few minutes, drinking up the atmosphere in silence. A soft breeze was sweeping through our pavilion, I saw schools of fish leaping out of the shallow water into the air as if some larger hidden predator was chasing them from beneath. The mangrove garden spiced the air with that indescribable smell of wet rot mixed with brine unique to these muddy estuaries. This is the kind of a place where the soul of an artist can fly, mea culpa. I had to walk around and photograph the scene so that I had proof to show when I might wake up in disbelief and this may have all been a dream.
With his perfect command of Thai our Japanese host began ordering from the menu, from memory and in consultation with an attentive waitress who detailed the fresh catch of the day. We had passed many air infused tanks on the way in that held the fisherman’s prize. I had seen that there were crab, snapper and shells, I was struck by the variety of prawn that was on display, and later on my plate, half lobster half shrimp with long blue arms attached to a heavy red shell. What a beautiful experience it was when the food began to arrive at the table. In the true Japanese manner of open generosity, our host had ordered up a feast of magnificent proportion.
Our table was soon laden to overflowing with platters of huge prawns pink from the steamer, whole snapper deep fried crispy and glazed with honey and herbs. Bowls and dishes of seafood concoctions both hot and cold came and went as we passed around the teaming selection. Somehow my host had guessed at my unabated love for fresh Thai salads and had ordered two styles, green papaya and glass noodle, both crazy hot with liberal lacings of fresh cut chili’s.
We ate until we were sated but none could leave the table. A second round of icy watermelon juice held the conversation going for another hour after we had picked the last plates clean. Time became ‘someone elses’ concern. We were in a beautiful environment surrounded by the sound of happy families doing what Thai people do best, relax and enjoy. It was a great time for new friends to get to know about each other a little better. I had chosen a very interesting mixture of people to enjoy a lunch with. All of us knew Thailand from a long term perspective. All of us had profound stories to tell of our experiences living as expatriates in the Thai Kingdom, both from the perspective of recency and of decades past when ‘things’ had seemed much simpler. ‘Was it better way back then?’ Perhaps not, but what did it matter?. Nothing could have improved on the tradition of dining al fresco in this sea side village amid the salty mangrove.