In Kanchanaburi, I rented a little pink bike, the kind I might have dreamed of when I was five years old and learning to ride on a too-big bike borrowed from Ronan MacMahon. I crossed the river and left the town behind. The countryside was vivid under the clouds rolling in for the evening light show, and the bicycle breeze was a relief in the sultry afternoon. Low blue hills ring Kanchanaburi, and in the distance you can see the famous Kwai bridge. It is modest for the suffering it cost.
A snake slithered in front of my wheel and I shrieked but soon calmed down. I’ve also got over my fear of the stray dogs that roam everywhere. For the most part, they are as placid as the Thai people, at least the ones that aren’t out of their brains on speed. Roosters stepped fussily around every house, and here and there were knots of zebus, cow-like creatures I’ve only ever seen in pictures of Africa before. A bull made a half-hearted, shambling run at me, but was tugged back by his tether.
I left the main road. I was hungry. In Bangkok, I’d developed a taste for madeleine-shaped rice-porridge cakes, which are cooked in a special griddle so that the outside is crisp as communion wafer and the inside holds a spoonful of sweet porridge, sometimes flavored with sweetcorn or scallions. They’re addictive, and I was disappointed not to find them in Kanchanaburi. Then, like a mirage, I passed a single foodstand in a tiny village. A woman was making my finger-porridge discs. I came to a wobbly stop and turned back to her. We said grinning hellos. Three small boys came tearing down the path.
‘Falang! Fa-lang!‘ they screamed with joy.
‘Sawat dii kha. Hel-lo.’ I said. They were beside themselves.
‘Falang! Falang!’ they hooted again. The oldest might have been four. They lined up in a row, pointed at me and cracked up.
‘Falang,’ I observed to the adults, who laughed that I knew how foreign I was. I felt like a stray Gulliver.
The woman gave me my porridge cakes, a dozen in a banana-leaf basket for a quarter. I burned my tongue on the first one but kept smiling and nodding through my tears. A small crowd gathered to watch me eat.
To each other: ‘Falang!’
The little boys raced around and climbed on my pink bike. There was some debate as to which direction I should take to get back to the cave temple I showed them on my map. Eventually, shrugs. I could go left or right. I would find it eventually, no?
I finished my cakes and with nods and wais all round, wobbled off again. On these backroads, everyone smiled and waved at me, the pale falang on the pink bike.
‘Hal-lo! What your name?’
Drivers honked. Toddlers found me hilarious. I felt like a visiting celebrity, dogding chickens and grinning ear to ear.
Back on the main road, I sweated up a hill on my toy bicycle. The cave temple was at the top. It was close to sunset, and I could hear the rumble of chanting monks in another building, so the temple itself was empty. A nun in white robes sat at the entrance gate.
‘Pay what you like. Temple one-way only.’
I climbed down the steps into the belly of the hill. The temple was a series of caves, 300 meters long. In the first, a gaudy Buddha sat surrounded by other statues, some Hindu. Vishnu stood bodyguard. Among the offerings was a waterfall scene done in luminous paint, like those Painter of Light (TM) efforts that sell so well. The goldleaf sheets that worshippers stick on statues of the Buddha were peeling off.
The enchantment grew deeper in. These caves were a wonder, intimate and magnificent all at once. In some chambers, the vaulted ceilings were more intricate than any Gothic cathedral. I could see Gaudi in others, where the walls sloped and curved in crazy organic shapes. I am a city chick for sure; I see nature and it represents human art to me every time.
In some passages I had to stoop and twist through while bats flitted past, and I felt like a Buddhist Lara Croft. The strip lighting gave a Sixth Street grotto feel, and there were small shrines everywhere. In the innermost chamber, dead silence. I thought I might hear the earth pant if I stayed still enough. Instead, there was just the occasional batwing and the flicker of a fluorescent light. ‘This Way’ said the signs in red paint on the walls; polite temple graffiti.
Close to the exit, I could hear a deep heartbeat. Maybe the earth really was panting. I climbed out into a steel cage that guarded the exit hole. The heartbeat turned out to be a booming bass-line from the karaoke barges a mile below on the river.
The evening chanting was finished, and I greeted the tattooed young monk who was singing Thai pop-songs with his pals. I pedalled back to town in time to sip beer on a river deck and watch the daily thunderstorm.