Tidewater Traveler - July 2007

Bahts and Boats


George Sellers

   Reflecting on my earlier writings, it occurs to me that I spend a lot of time observing the world from a posture of leaning upon my elbows and forearms supported by railings. Today is not an exception. From the relaxed vantage of the rough-hewn wooden railing – a structure that I dare not test with too much of my weight – I am observing the interchange of primitive commerce in a somewhat remote village of central Thailand.
    It is an area, about two hours by bumpy road, south of Bangkok, where venturesome tourists often come to see the boats and spend the bahts at a local farmers and crafters market. Many of the vendors at this marketplace display their produce and goods from small wooden boats – hence the term floating market.
    The baht (pronounced “bot”) is the official currency of Thailand; at this writing, one baht is worth about three cents in United States dollars.
Bahts, both paper and coinage, are changing hands at a steady pace along the canal that I am observing. Locals sometimes step from boat to boat to reach the products they seek and begin bargaining. Tourists are gaining access to the floating marketeers from the seats of hired taxi boats that pull along side; and from the dock on which I stand.
    The merchants’ boats are similar in design; each is about ten to fourteen feet in length with a beam of about three to four feet. Beam – I think that’s the yachtsman’s term for describing the width of floating vessel. Being a native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, one would think I would know such terminology for sure.
    The wooden boat design is that of a squared-off bow and stern, with bow-shaped gunwales making the boat wide toward the center and narrower, but squared, toward the fore and aft. Without doubt, some native DelMarVan will see fit to correct my nautical terminology. That’s okay – one is never too old to learn!
    The boat’s flat bottom also arches upwards toward each end, so that when an individual is seated at one end, the other end is raised up out of the water. When needed, the craft is propelled with a long pole.
    I am particularly focused on one boat and its sole occupant. I first notice the large thatched hat that closely resembles an inverted lamp shade, flat on the top and sloping symmetrically, like a ski slope, to a circular brim width that serves as both umbrella and sun screen. In the shadow of the brim I see a weathered, thin face. There is no trace of a smile. In fact, the facial expression appears to me to be both worried and determined.
    The well-tanned face belongs to a woman whom I would judge to be in her forties, of small stature and weighing perhaps a hundred pounds. She is not seated in the boat; instead she is in a deep, squatted posture with her knees up to her chest and her rear resting on her heels. She is wearing a long-sleeved, loose-fitting blouse in a subdued purple shade and a colorful full skirt that covers her legs like a tent in her stooped position. She wears no jewelry or other adornments. Leather-strapped sandals provide her with a base.
    From this position she arranges, rearranges and exhibits her produce – several bunches of yellow, banana-like plantains and pieces of fried-something. Beside the plantains is a hand-made sign that says “10 B.” I’m not sure if it is ten baht per fruit, per bunch or per unit of weight. Either way, it is not much money.
    Now to the fried-somethings! It could be fried chicken parts – wings and drumsticks – but I’m not sure. There is a basket in the floor of the boat holding several dozen of the crispy-looking, golden-brown, fried parts. They actually look pretty good, but I am not yet willing to give it a go. Let’s just say I’m not hungry right now!
    In the center of the boat is a large shallow metal wok. The top diameter of the wok is nearly as wide as the boat itself, and beneath it is a heat source with open flames. It looks like it might be a gas burner, but I do not see any evident source of propane or other gas. In the bottom of the wok is a puddle of hot oil about an inch deep, with more mystery parts sizzling toward a crispy finish.
    The lady entrepreneur sells her product to passersby and tends to the cooking simultaneously from her squat-position near the stern of the boat. Two long sticks wielded in the manner of giant chopsticks give her access to the objects in the cooking bowl.
    At her side is a white tupperware-like container that serves as her cash register and behind her is a half-filled blue plastic bucket into which she occasionally dips her fingers and then dries them on her skirt. Lest you think this is a good practice toward culinary hygiene, just wait. Twice while standing here I have seen her dump the bucket into the canal and scoop up a fresh supply of murky brown water. No thanks, I’m really not hungry right now!
    Her frown-expression remains static throughout. As she promotes and sells she chatters in her native tongue – sometimes sounding argumentative. From her business activity she accumulates baht in her plastic container and keeps it well protected. I can only hope that she will pole her boat home at the end of the day believing that she has been productive for her family.

   May all of your travels be happy and safe!

   George Sellers and his wife Priscilla are Certified Travel Counselors and Accredited Cruise Counselors who own Travel Selections by Priscilla and George, Inc. and the popular travel Web site www.sellerstravel.com