Khwae Noi River bank in Thong Pha Phum, Thailand (photo by Irina Stelea)

Mornings on the river Khwae

Not many travelers make it to Thong Pha Phum, a sleepy town on the Khwae Noi River (a.k.a. the river Kwai), where I stopped on my way to Northern Thailand. A straight giveaway is the absence of a Latin script to double the Thai one, like in most other places, which is why on the evening of my arrival it took me almost one hour to find something to eat. Without a common language for communication, not even the heart-stopping hospitality of the locals could be of help. When I did find a promising food stall owned by a couple, the woman—the cook—was briefly away, so her husband offered me a newspaper to entertain myself. In Thai. And the only other foreigners I met were a French woman and her son, who had ended up by mistake in Thong Pha Phum while searching for an elephant park.

Thong Pha Phum and the surroundings, Thailand (photo by Irina Stelea)
Thong Pha Phum and the surroundings

I liked the town instantly and the next day I had an early start to explore as much of it as possible. I got breakfast from a market seller who was just setting up, but kindly offered me a handful of doughnuts he had just baked. The town’s main street was empty, save for some people with baskets waiting to offer food to the Buddhist monks (the daily almsgiving ceremony). As I was moving through the town, the orange silhouettes of the monks became visible at the far end. Kids in school uniform having breakfast on the porches waved and smiled at me. I stopped at a small playground to have my own breakfast and moved on to a suspended footbridge over the Khwae River, to have a look at this river known mostly for its tragic past. The bridge led to a temple and to a very tall cliff with a pagoda on it.

Suspension bridge on the Khwae Noi River, Thong Pha Phum, Thailand (photo by Irina Stelea)
Suspension bridge leading to the temple

As soon as I reached the middle of the bridge, a pack of dogs came running towards me from the opposite side. “Not again…”. But I turned around to be treated to an unexpected sight and my caution melted into astonishment within milliseconds: the monks were returning to the temple from their almsround and were welcomed back by the dogs. With lowered heads, they passed by me one by one on the narrow space of the bridge. Only one of them made eye contact and smilingly greeted me. They vanished into the temple before I even took in the serenity of the moment. A gong marked the start of breakfast and the temple with its monks and dogs fell back into silence, no other being in sight.

Monks crossing the suspension bridge, Thong Pha Phum, Thailand (photo by Irina Stelea)
Monks crossing the footbridge

I decided to climb to the hilltop pagoda, which looked just as deserted, and, after a quick ascent, there I was, the only person enjoying the entire view of the valley at that hour of the morning. Smoke from excessive slash-and-burn practiced across the Thai-Burmese border (so they say) shrouded everything in an orange haze, forcing the eyes to focus only on nearby things. Whatever was in the distance got blurred and I felt like in a dream flooded with golden colors. I stood in silence on the towering cliff and listened to the sounds of the awakening town: roosters, motorcycles, the school bell, dogs, builders, chants from the temple. The very idea of morning, and I was witnessing it from the same height as the rising sun.

Such mornings with their timeless spirit should be franchised and recreated in some theme park selling the experience under the generic label ‘Asian mornings.’ Or they should be mass produced in the form of some powder in a factory in China so that anyone in the world can just open up a box and enjoy them. Or better not.

The hills around Thong Pha Phum seen through the smoke from slash-and-burn, Thailand (photo by Irina Stelea)
Hills around Thong Pha Phum seen through the smoke from slash-and-burn

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