Two Surprises on the River Bus


The river buses which run up and down the Chao Praya river are a splendid institution and one which the Thames, the Seine and the Potomac might well emulate and which Venice most notably does. Every 20 minutes in both directions, and much more frequently in rush hours, a long boat looking and behaving much like a bus (including a driver behind a steering wheel at the front and a conductor) but with a pointed front and an open, blunt end at the back (I suppose we must call them prow and stern) comes roaring up to the pier near my house and disgorges and imbibes large quantities of people. These boats are so fast the passengers must have their wits about them to clamber off or on, lest they are left in imminent danger of doing the splits and sinking into the none-too-healthy waters below. All this is guided by a third, youthful and athletic employee who must, I suppose, be termed the boatswain. With furiously loud coded whistles from his bo's'n's pipe he leaps from the moving boat onto the pier, instructs the driver to stop, reverse a bit, OK, STOP! Now forward a bit, stop engines! and peremptorily flicks a rope round a capstan with an undisguised contempt for safety regulations. The boat bounces on old tyres roped to the floating pier, barely stops before the whistle blows again and with the throaty cough of enormous marine diesel engines we take off along the wide river. It takes me at least an hour to get to downtown Bangkok by bus and Skytrain. The boat takes 30 minutes.

These river buses are always crowded. They seat 100 passengers and many more stand in the aisle and on the back platform. All of Bangkok life is here. Right at the back there are four seats with a sign I regret you will never see in any bus in England or America: ''Reserved for Monks'. It is also customary for adults to give up their seats to young children; the reverse of the custom once common in Britain. I seem to have missed out: when I was a child I had to stand for an adult; now I am an adult I have to stand for the child. I travel on these boats almost every day for one reason or another. Yesterday was unexceptional but for the young couple who stood clinging on to the ceiling hand rail next to the seat in which I sat watching the world go by.

They were very young. She was no more than 15 but noticeable because she was rather sassily dressed in tight hipster blue-jeans and a lime green top fixed round her neck by a tape tied in a bow, which left her arms and shoulders bare and did not meet the jeans; the gap exposed a bejewelled navel to all onlookers. She was very pretty indeed. Her pale, oval face had little make-up except for a hint of lipstick. Her hair was dyed brunette and pulled back into a 50's pony tail tied with a ribbon - all very retro. Her boyfriend was not much older - maybe 17 or 18 - and he too was up to the minute with brunette-dyed hair gelled into an electric shock of spikes. His white T-shirt was very clean and neat and his sandalled feet poked out from under very wide, loose-fitting cotton pants printed with black and white whirligigs. They were the very model of a modern Thai couple.

They were a bit too modern for Thailand. Thai girls are usually very demure, so I was interested and a little surprised to see the open way in which they displayed their affection for each other. There was a lot of touchy-feely stuff going on between them in the middle of this crowded boat. The boy, perhaps solicitously, perhaps naughtily, even undid the bow which held up the girls top and then did it up again a little tighter. He let his hands drift over her shoulders down to her breasts, but she was sufficiently demure and self-conscious wordlessly to guide them in another direction. He was not discouraged and let the rocking of the boat propel him forward to gain a very slurpy kiss on her slender neck. We other passengers couldn't help but notice. Backpack-toting tourists are infamous for it and get glared at by Thais for their lewd behaviour, but public displays of sensuality between Thai couples are simply never seen.

At a pier halfway on our journey both the aisle seat next to mine and the one in front became vacant and the two charming young lovers occupied them. The boy sat next to me and took advantage of his position behind his girlfriend to massage her bare shoulders and that very lovely neck. She squirmed in delight. Sitting next to her, this was too much for the prim besom in front of me who obviously thought this outrage to feminine modesty was simply too much, and she glared sideways. But the girl was a very sassy young thing indeed, and rounded on her neighbour with a stream of Thai invective which I, knowing little Thai, confidently translate as: "And who do you think you're staring at, you stuck-up bitch?"

I did a double take. The light baritone of her voice was unmistakable. I looked closer: yes, the wrists were little too thick for such a slip of a girl, the throat betrayed a distinct Adam's apple and on even closer inspection I could just discern her upper lip was crowned by a hint of the shadow of a moustache. This very pretty 15 year old girl was a very pretty 15 year old boy.

This is not uncommon in Thailand; I have written about Khatoey (Thai transvestites) before, though for one so young to be so brazen is perhaps more unusual, and I now understood the matron's disapproving glare. I was more interested in the boyfriend. Had they got so far in their private heavy petting for him to know his girlfriend was a boy? Did he know those pert young breasts he had so recently tried to feel were nothing more than crumpled tissue paper? Even in Thailand where the surgeons and psychiatrists are world leaders in this sort of thing, I doubted she had started hormone treatment and certainly had not yet had 'the op'. Carefree Thailand may be, but the doctors are cautious enough not to embark upon this irreversible process unless the patient is old enough to be absolutely sure in changing the body there will be no change of heart. So where did this leave the boyfriend? I doubted he was gay. At his tender, confused age he would have wanted a boyfriend, not something in between. And in any case he did not seem 'gay' - if you know what I mean. He was a reg'lar guy. You develop an instinct for these things, don't you?

The more I took side-long glances in his direction, the more I watched them both billing and cooing, the more I was convinced he knew exactly what his girlfriend was - and he just didn't care. That he loved her was plainly evident to all who cared to see, and that was enough for him. His was a perfect example of the Asian lack of gender stereotyping.

Unlike in the West where children are pressured by both their peers and their guardians to conform to certain traits befitting only their gender, Asian children are not burdened with these heavy labels round their necks. As a result both men and women unconsciously display characteristics of the opposite sex and care less about their public persona as expressed in gender stereotypes. All Thai men spend hours in front of mirrors preening themselves and many walk with a distinctly camp swish. Some women wear trousers, sweep the streets and do labouring work. However, marriage in order to have children - especially in rural areas - is almost obligatory, which possibly explains in part the enormous numbers of celibate monks and nuns who find themselves 'not of the marrying kind' and who conveniently take refuge in the monastic haven in order to thwart family pressure. Because of the real need for children, same-sex activity is discouraged, but that did not stop 31.5% of army recruits (as reported in an AIDS survey) in Thailand's central region having sexual liaisons with same-sex partners. Almost none of those recruits in the survey described themselves as 'homosexual'. It is salutary for Western minds to realise that what Thais 'do' in the privacy of their lives does not define who they 'are'. We might like to learn something from that.

I got off before the couple did and the boy very politely stood up to let me pass. I smiled a thanks at him, and tried to send him a message in that smile which I hoped he would interpret as "Good on yer, kiddo!".


Where the Vaporetti of Bangkok narrow towards the prow, two seats are arranged lengthways on either side just behind the driver. It was in one of these seats I found myself on the return journey. In the first two seats facing the front and to my left sat a couple. The woman seemed a little older than her boyfriend - she maybe in her early thirties, tall and svelte; he perhaps ten years younger and rather stocky with a square head and schoolboy haircut. Both were dressed formally in business suits, carried briefcases and were obviously returning home after work. With both hers, she held his hand firmly in her lap but they didn't talk at all for the first part of the journey. They were old lovers safely entwined in an unshakeable relationship. They were past the small-talk phase and content to gaze at the passing tugs and barges, and the mish-mash of houses, markets, wharves and offices blocks which front onto the Chao Praya river and which make it always fascinating.

Then, above the noise of the engines and the hiss of the bow-wave, the young businesswoman turned and said something to her partner which made him throw back his head in uproarious laughter. His mouth displayed discoloured, misshapen, smoker's teeth too long to be those of a twenty year old, and the laughter was high-pitched, piping and shrill. Her twenty-something boyfriend was not what she seemed but a woman of riper years.

This is Thailand. And I don't make any of this up, you know...