Turning Turtle in Bangkok

What won't Steve Burgess do just to earn a little karma?

By Steve Burgess 27 Jan 2012 |

Tyee columnist Steve Burgess is traveling in Asia and will be filing dispatches after he's done toweling off. Find his previous articles for The Tyee here.

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Hang on! I'll save you!

No good deed goes unpunished, as the Buddhists say. I'm pretty sure that's the Buddhists. It fits my most recent Buddhist experiences anyway.

On a typically hot weekday afternoon I have decided to pay a visit to Bangkok's Wat Rakhang, a lovely and lesser-seen temple on the west side of the Chao Praya River, just upstream from the more celebrated Wat Arun. Strolling into the grounds I see the usual row of vendors lining the path to the pier. Most are displaying plastic washtubs filled with live fish, turtles, and baby snakes. Bangkok is certainly renowned for the variety of its street cuisine but that's not the story here. In keeping with the temple theme, these are captives waiting to be set free. A baby turtle costs 20 baht -- you pay its bail, spring it from the washtub and release it in the Chao Praya, thus earning good karma (even if you opt for the snakes).

There's something dubious about it all. Everyone knows that paying ransom only encourages more kidnappings. And you have to wonder if the little parolees will even be grateful. The Chao Praya and its canals do not exactly boast the emerald, glacier-fed waters of mountain lakes. Opaque and dotted with oily pools, the waterway is crisscrossed by the wakes of countless exhaust-belching old boats that push floating garbage back and forth. Not for nothing do Bangkok canal boats pull up plastic curtains to protect passengers from being splashed with God knows what. It's true that there are writhing schools of catfish crowding the river piers, competing for the fish food pellets also sold by vendors. But these fish must surely be genetic mutants, with immunity built over generations. I've always assumed that the waters of the Chao Praya would dissolve a mouse carcass within hours.

Nonetheless, I am a sucker for turtles. And with a childhood history of holding the poor things captive until their poor shells fatally softened, I have a karmic debt to repay. I buy two turtles which are then transferred to a smaller bucket. I head proudly toward the water, only a beard and stovepipe hat away from presenting the very image of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.

Man on the edge

A couple of other virtuous souls are dispatching the contents of their buckets by pouring them over the railing, a drop of at least six or seven feet. I want my boys to have a better chance than that. There are steps on the landing and I descend to the waterline, intending to slip the turtles gently into the waves.

It is not turtles who will be doing the slipping. The concrete at the waterline is covered with thick river slime, and my feet fly out from under me. My bucket, my glasses, my shoulder bag, and my sorry ass all land separately on the carpet of slick green goo. Bystanders pull me up. But where are my boys? Have I killed them with kindness? Is there yet more turtle blood on my account?

The two little green discs are lying, well-camouflaged, in the wet, mossy growth. They are fully retracted, with good reason, but alive. I take one, dip it into the water, and off it goes. The other tumbles backward out of my hand, down the step and into the river where it too shoots off. They may be the unluckiest amphibians in all Bangkok, going from a crowded washtub slum to the clutches of perhaps the klutziest would-be rescuer that ever visited a Wat. I hope those little shells are tough.

And me? I am covered, shoulder to feet, in protoplasmic river slime. I have a cut on my elbow -- an epidermic breach that is now admitting whatever organisms thrive in the ooze now coating much of my body. I'm guessing I'll eventually lose the arm. All I wanted was to perform a good deed. Instead I have transformed myself into a one-man metaphor for the entire history of Western colonial interference in Asia.

Fan dance

Shirt off, slime-covered, I walk back down the path to return my empty bucket. People are laughing. The old beggar who sits beside the path with a plastic cup is laughing -- pointing, even. It's nice. Anyone can give a beggar a coin but just try giving one a solid belly laugh.

The turtle vendor tries to wash my shirt in a bucket. It's not enough. She directs me to the temple bathrooms. There I strip down to my briefs and try to scrub the organic contents of the Chao Praya out of my pants. Monks come and go as I grin foolishly, alternately holding shirt and pants in front of the fan. I have now spent enough time in a temple doing laundry that I must be on the road to becoming a novitiate. I'll get a free haircut, a nice clean robe and, I sincerely hope, a pair of non-slip sandals.

It was all for a good cause. God speed, my boys. You've got to believe that for you two, the worst is surely over.  [Tyee]

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