Most people who have traveled to Thailand (and many who haven’t!) know about the River Kwai, and the role that it played in World War II history. Some have even ventured to the Death Railway, riding on the rickety train up to a shanty town made up almost entirely of souvenir stands before eventually picking their way back on foot along the rotting wooden tracks perched precariously over the water. They may even have seen the handsome young monk in sunglasses, happy to pose for photos during his daily perambulations along the train tracks.
But have they braved the current of the River Kwai itself? I have. It’s fast — shockingly, surprisingly fast — flowing swiftly enough to make you dizzy as you attempt to read on your hotel bed with its riverside view of the rushing current. So fast, indeed, that crocodiles dare not haunt its banks. Or so I was told, right before I screwed up the courage to jump into the jade waters from the relative safety of my raft.
Our trip to Kanchanaburi was intended to be long enough to cram in everything that everyone wanted to see while short enough to allow people to go on it. This meant a series of unspoken negotiations and compromises that omitted anything extraneous, like my desire to try a mee krob sot, or fresh mee krob with the dressing slathered on top instead of mixed in. It was totally OK, it’s not like we were starving. Instead, we dined in spots gorgeous enough to inspire customers to hold their very own photo shoots, clad in their best all-white finery to contrast with the deep emerald hue of their surrounds (a go-to image for any Thai worth their Instagram account).
Keeree Mantra boasted a wide expanse of green lawn bordered by a man-made lake with a Bellagio-style fountain, well-tended lavender fields beckoning just beyond; Keeree Tara overlooked the rushing river itself with an enviable view of the nearby bridge done up in lights. Both served the kind of traditional Thai food to be expected in an upper-tier provincial hotel: well-made, to a middle-of-the-road palate, with no surprises (except for a chu chee of a local river fish that, when steamed, has the consistency of raw pork fat. It’s no wonder why we usually deep fry our freshwater fish). I was fine with easing myself into the views. Why would I complain about wasted mealtimes? It was fun just to go with the flow.
So there I was with my sister and my nephew, floating along the current, rushing pell-mell into every branch and cockroach-looking leaf that the river could see fit to send me. If you struggled too much, you could veer off course, and crash into the muddy banks on either side. But if you relaxed into the water and let the river carry you, arms and legs suspended as if you, too, were some sort of branch or cockroach-like leaf, it would take care of you, and reward your trust with as quick a trip downriver as possible.
In that jade water, I learned to relax into the current in a way I’m never capable of when I’m on land, when some part of my body is always twitching or braced or locked in anticipation of a future impact that will inevitably rock my world. In the water, I learned how to go with the flow, even as that meant accepting that there are grave mistakes that I can never rectify, that time will only heal some wounds, that I will never beat the current, and that it’s sometimes easier to steer your way around the detritus in your path rather than crashing into it head-on. That, once in the current, the best direction you can look in is forward, trusting that someone will be there to haul you out of the water when you reach your stop.
And if that voice at the back in your mind now says GET OUT OF THE WATER, YOU WON’T LIKE WHERE THIS GOES, you might be correct; the truth is, I could not bear to write about food today. That is because I believe in an American woman’s right to her own body, just as Americans have a right to decide whether to get vaccinated, and corpses have a right to keep their organs.
As I write this, people all over the United States are positioning themselves in a current that seems overwhelmingly fierce, hurtling towards a destination that a minority of the population wants. While it is tempting to struggle and flail in the water, looking back at the raft we’ve left behind, it seems far more constructive to look ahead, and to plan. Will we always be the dead leaves and muck held captive in the current? Or will we find enough footing to help haul others out of the water when they need it?
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