“What are the flowers for?”
“An offering to Buddha.”
Thus commenced the first activity of my adventure tour from Bangkok to Koh Phangan, a nine-day package aimed at twenty-somethings abroad in Asia for the first time. I had booked it partly from curiosity, partly to benefit from professional guidance in the wilds beyond Japan. The prospect of a restful trip had allured me, spiced with excursions I might have chosen for myself, without any of the logistical effort.
I hadn’t anticipated an enthusiastic welcome to the religion of Thailand.
The rest of the tour offered up their lotus blossoms, lit incense candles, pasted gold foil on their foreheads, presented gifts to the orange-clad monk in return for his blessing, and genuflected to the large-scale Buddha erected inside. I observed from a polite distance, meditating on how the Bible’s injunctions against idol worship had suddenly shed all their patina of ancient times.
As we exited Wat Chanasongkram, a vendor dished out a kaleido scope of ice cream flavors: Neapolitan, with coconut, lime, and everything else thrown in for good measure.
Our group departed the temple by boat. Cruising down Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River Canal, we scattered hunks of bread into the cloudy waters for giant catfish to claim. Our local guide serenaded us in Thai, then demanded recompense from each country. My single compatriot and I delivered a rousing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Wat Pho, the second temple, impressed with even more elaborate decor and ranks of Buddha statues – each posed according to one day of the week. Inside, a gargantuan representative of Sunday reclined. His whorled feet displayed an intricate mosaic of animals and other symbols. At his back waited 128 bowls, catching coins for 128 wishes, should a tourist make the donation.
We piled into a tuk tuk for a breezy ride to lunch. The cafe served a superb mango lassi (yogurt drink), fragrant with the inimitable ripeness of local fruit. It rivaled even the best that Tokunoshima had to offer.
We rounded off the day with a foray into Bangkok nightlife. The open air cafes sang with lights and sweet drinks. Our group sidled into an Indian restaurant, which served a fabulous chai. We laughed and clapped our way through karaoke songs (“I Need a Hero”, “Party in the USA”, “Limón y sal” for me), then I peeled off early – opting for sleep over clubbing.
Today my roommate and I celebrated a late start to our itinerary by slipping out to a breakfast cafe. I could have happily spent the day there: tucked into an urban garden, opening onto a dockyard, it achieved a European grandeur with touches of 20th century art nouveau. As for the menu, I was longing for the mango and coconut crepe, if not the smoked salmon. Mindful of the time, we settled for iced drinks and hotfooted it back for check-out.
Then we processed through the streets of Bangkok to our cooking class: a three-course exploration of popular Thai dishes, sweetened with a helping of mango sticky rice. We all exclaimed at the coconut milk soup – made delicious in minutes by dropping in bowls of vegetables and spices. If only a band of Thai ladies would provide the ingredients pre-chopped, we’d eat nothing else for lunch.
Tuckered out, we meandered back to the hotel for billiards and errands. Then we lugged our bags to the station and boarded the all-night sleeper cars — our chariots to tomorrow’s promised land of floating bungalows.