By Andrew Biggs
How wonderful to be back in the Land of Smiles after my week-long sojourn to Italy, as documented in this column last week.
Despite my best efforts, on the way back home I did not get an upgrade to business class, nor could I even secure an emergency exit. Thankfully it was an overnighter, so with the help of a little limoncello and half a Xanax the trip was swift.
There is no rest for the wicked, as your correspondent had to embark on a quick turnaround and head straight for the western province of Kanchanaburi for a week-long English boot camp.
Rome and Kanchanaburi are such polar opposites. This is a captivating jungle province on the Burmese border with tourist attractions such as the Erawan waterfall and a meandering river whose serenity is broken each night by floating disco restaurants. There’s nothing like “Ring My Bell” to shatter the serenity of an evening in the jungle, but your correspondent is far from that river.
The big attraction here is the Bridge on the River Kwai. The river is pronounced kwair in Thai but apparently this was too difficult for western POWs to say, hence the bastardization.
I have been here so many times, and incredible as it may seem, there is a tenuous link between my recent trip to Italy and this visit to Kanchanaburi. In Italy I went to visit the Vatican. The first time I visited Kanchanaburi, I went to visit a nun.
The year was 1989; I was a wide-eyed and optimistic backpacker with a desire for adventure off the beaten track. I bought the Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand which ensured everywhere I went was very much on a track well-beaten by tourists.
Thais have a special word for backpackers. They call them farang khee no, or literally “bird shit westerners.” The notion is that of a traveler who ends up all over the place, not dissimilar to a bird whose droppings do the same. And while Thais will tell you that the definition is affectionate, let me be the one to shatter that illusion – it’s cruel and probably right on target.
I was a proud “farang khee nok” staying in guest houses populated by eager young Americans, Europeans and Aussies taking gap years to see the world. Everybody was reading “The Incredible Lightness Of Being” and “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance” except for me – I was into Agatha Christie. Those same guest houses were home to hipsters who sat around smoking dope and strumming guitars. I found them tedious; there are only so many times one can listen to Neil Young’s “Comes A Time” without contemplating suicide.
One night there was a group of hipsters next to me enjoying their fruit shakes while a Thai guide was explaining to them: “While you’re here, you must see the Floating Nun. She is number one!”
I immediately looked up from my copy of Murder on the Orient Express.
“She’s a very old Buddhist nun who has been floating on water for a long, long time,” he said. “Every day at 11 am and 3 pm she goes down to the water. She prays and meditates. It’s truly unique, and she reaches a deep state of meditation by doing it. And she floats! She doesn’t sink! It’s incredible!”
Now I’d heard everything.
I have to admit I am attracted to such attractions. It is probably how I ended up at the Dwarf Restaurant in Manila a number of years ago, or how I am a regular patron of an eatery not far from my Bangkok home called the Flying Chicken Restaurant. Order a chicken and before they serve it to you they set it on fire, ring a bell, turn on disco lights then catapult the flaming chicken through the air onto a spike on a helmet worn by a man riding a unicycle.
A floating nun trumps all that.
In all my life I had only ever heard of the Flying Nun, my favorite TV show as a kid in which Sally Field played a nun who, whenever the wind blew, managed to tilt her headwear and was able to fly through the air. It’s the kind of idea one can only think up after limoncello and Xanax.
That night I consulted the Lonely Planet and was happy to see the Floating Nun mentioned briefly. She performed her ethereal aquatics at a temple called Wat Tham Mangkorn Thong.
The temple was a tourist attraction with sparkling Buddha images but I wasn’t there for those. I’d seen so many temples backpacking I was templed out. I spotted a handwritten sign at the entrance: “THIS WAY TO THE FLAOTING (sic) NUN” accompanied by an outrageous arrow. I followed the sign.
I was led by a temple boy to a stark concrete pool, probably about three or four metres across and about one metre deep. There were another two or three Thais standing around smoking cigarettes. I was the only representative of the western world.
I should have known something was up by the fact the wizened Thai woman dressed in white arrived at 11 am on the dot – no Thai ever comes on time. She climbed into the pool and lay on her back. I leant forward for a better view.
She clasped her hands together, then using her feet pushed herself off from one side and floated across, like a lackadaisical torpedo, to the other side. Then back again. Then out of the pool. Then she was gone.
The temple boy drew out a plastic bag from his trousers and walked around collecting donations.
What … that was it? I was obliged to throw 10 baht into the plastic bag but I did it with a very heavy heart. I quickly made my way back into town, realizing I had witnessed something even blander than “Comes A Time”.
Somewhere in the back of my photo cupboard I still have a picture or two of that famous Floating Nun. It was my first introduction to sham tourist attractions in this country, though certainly not the first in my life.
I grew up not so far away from the Big Pineapple, a monstrosity along the Queensland North Coast highway where you can actually go up inside and witness, via a photographic exhibition, the amazing process of growing and harvesting pineapples – that is providing you can stay awake. On a trip to Brussels I felt underwhelmed at the statue of the urinating little boy – I had travelled halfway across the world to see that? And now here I was in the jungles of South-East Asia, having paid money to see an old lady stay afloat in a concrete play pool …
Not long after that initial trip to Kanchanaburi there was a story in the local papers here about the Floating Nun. She may have been able to escape the rigors of regular day job, but she wasn’t able to escape her mortal coil. She died in 1990.
But the resourceful Wat Tham Mongkol Tong didn’t miss a beat. A week later there was a new Floating Nun in the concrete pool unimpressing tourists.
And, as I have just discovered on YouTube, there is one still there to this day. Only these days you are required to throw money into the concrete pool as she prays. Whoah, this old world keeps spinning round, it’s a wonder tall trees aren’t laying down …