NONTHABURI, Thailand — In the eyes of Sulak Sivaraksa, Thailand’s most caustic social critic, Bangkok has become “a third-rate Western city.” Monster malls, condos, fast-food franchises, discos and billboards for Western clothes and appliances have gradually eroded the city’s Asian look and atmosphere.
So where can a visitor to Bangkok find the real Thailand? Easy: Nonthaburi.
For a very modest fare you can board a boat at one of the piers on the Chao Phraya River and, in less than an hour, be in Nonthaburi, only 10 km north of the nation’s capital. From the main pier, travelers can head off to catch a traditional hun lakorn lek puppet show or charter a long-tail boat to explore Koh Kret, an isle of artisans and home to a thriving community of Mon people, and the scenic, history-drenched waterway called Klong Om.
Puppet theater is an old tradition in Thailand, and the Joe Louis Theatre is helping to keep the art alive. The beautiful puppets used in performances of hun lakorn lek, like those of bunraku in Japan, are so big that it takes three people to animate them. One puppeteer controls the arms and another the feet, while the third one controls the facial expressions. Again, as in bunraku, the puppet masters stand onstage with their charges, moving and dancing with them during the show.
The performances, which begin at 9:30 a.m. daily, are from the Indian epic called “Ramakien” in Thai. The puppeteers work magic: Their movements are as graceful as those of classical Thai dance, and in their sure hands the puppets seem less wooden than Keanu Reeves.
The 600-baht (1 baht = 2.8 yen) entrance fee for the show includes a demonstration of how they make the puppets and masks. Puppets are for sale at prices from 100 baht to 9,000 baht for a full-size one.
To explore Koh Kret and Klong Om, you should charter a long-tail boat at the Nonthaburi Pier. Haggling is essential, or you may end up getting soaked on the trip in more ways than one. Generally, the price is about 150 baht per person, if you’ve got a group of four or five people, and the tour takes 21/2 to three hours.
Going up the Chao Phraya River in a long-tail boat is an adventure in itself. These watercraft, propelled by eight-cylinder diesel engines, skim over the waves like birds of prey. En route to Koh Khret, you’ll pass by ornate temples glittering in the sunlight, rice barges, houseboats and the occasional jet-ski.
The island of Koh Kret has around 4,000 inhabitants, many of whom are Mon. Originally from China, the Mon migrated to the Chao Phraya River valley from around the first century B.C. and, influenced by Indian culture, established the kingdom of Dvaravati (sixth to 11th centuries). Dvaravati was finally subjugated by the expanding Thai, moving south in their turn from the southwest of China, but the Thai absorbed much of the high culture of the Mon, from religion to music to art to architecture.
Today the remaining Mon maintain a niche as fine earthenware potters. Their special style can be seen in some of the shops that line the narrow street near the pier, with distinctive patterns such as teen jok (lizard’s feet). Some of the bigger, celadon-glazed Buddhas cost around 3,500 baht. A reddish-brown earthenware sculpture of Singh, the snarling lion of legend and myth who guards the front of Buddhist temples and is also the mascot for the Thai beer named after him, can be had for a reasonable 350 baht.
You can watch the potters at work sculpting and painting their wares; one good spot is the Kokred Artist Pottery Shop.
A few stalls have novelty items and gag gifts. The stall nearest to the pier sells caps made out of Foremost milk containers and fish mobiles made out of Leo beer cans. Environmentalists may applaud their innovative efforts at recycling, though some may laugh at these aesthetic atrocities.
The next boat stop is the Homemade Dessert Center. A traditional wooden house on stilts, refurbished as a restaurant, it has an extensive menu of local dishes. The real specialty, though, is sugary desserts, such as tago, a coconut-flavored treat that comes wrapped in banana leaves, and khao niao gao, sweetened sticky rice that has been shaped into flower petals of pink, green and purple. A scaled-down classical Thai orchestra provides entertainment.
In the back of the restaurant, a couple of older women in florid sarongs demonstrate how the desserts are prepared. To make foy tong, for instance, one of them drips egg yolk from a funnel onto the surface of the boiling, sugar-sweetened water. Then, using chopsticks, she swirls the strands around until they coalesce into a stringy circle. With one chopstick, she picks it up and deposits it on a tray. The desserts are priced from 30-100 baht.
The last leg of the tour is a cruise down the historic canal, Klong Om, passing old-fashioned wooden houses, Buddhist temples, floating shops, spirit shrines, fuel stations for boats and flowers everywhere.
Cruising Klong Om is a nostalgic flashback to old Bangkok, once called “the Venice of the East.” Families and friends gather to gossip and eat in the covered sala at the end of the little private piers in front of their houses; old women in conical hats paddle by in dugout canoes, selling noodles from steaming vats; children swim in the canal and wave at passersby, while some women still do their laundry in it.
If you still have some time before heading back to Bangkok (the last river taxi departs around 6:15 p.m.), try the restaurant called Rim Fun, right beside the Nonthaburi Pier.
On the way back, as Bangkok’s skyline of tombstone office towers and condos looms in the distance, a Western couple on the river taxi show off some of their purchases from Koh Kret: a sandstone Buddha image, a terra-cotta lamp, a flower-holder in the shape of a fish.
“Shopping for handicrafts in Southeast Asia has been a bit disappointing,” says the man, who is wearing a baseball cap made out of Chang Beer labels. “It seems that most shops are selling stuff that’s been made in factories. It’s the same stuff in every place. That’s part of the reason why Koh Kret is so different. Besides the Handicraft Highway outside Chiang Mai, it’s the only place where I’ve actually seen the artists making their wares.”