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Heat with a Cool Heart

The river, fetid but liberating, offers the best way to travel within Bangkok. Water taxis, virtually free, make scheduled runs, and the more expensive "long-tail boats"--gondola-like craft fitted precariously, ingeniously with automobile engines-- roar up and down the river at will, direct to your destination. Much of the business district lies well inland, but you can get to desirable shopping by boat--particularly to the huge River City complex, a bazaar of jewelry, Asian antiques and silk in wild abundance. And happily many of the city's great ancient monuments--the Temple of the Dawn, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and Wat Po, home of the "Reclining Buddha"--are also reachable by water.

These monuments are the glory of Bangkok. The blinding display of gold leaf and glass-encrusted mosaic, the stalagmite spires, the mondops and chedis--they baffle as well as dazzle, and in a curious way the sense of exclusion you feel is part of the aesthetic pleasure.

Inside the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, though, one begins to understand something, to have a glimmer of what participation in this tradition might mean. Without hesitation you do as others do and sit on the floor, and no matter where you direct your gaze in the golden room it travels up the levels of the symmetrical altar, to the little green Buddha that seems to float in air. You can't look elsewhere for long, nor will you want to stand up very soon.

You can spend a lot of time in Bangkok looking at Buddhas, and Buddha becomes no less mysterious in his placidity, his androgynous might, his infinity of cryptic smiles. The smiles--thin- and full-lipped, smug and humble, lascivious and chaste--must be the fount of all the smiles of Thailand. In Wat Po, the leviathan Reclining Buddha stretches his length out for some 150 feet of gold-leafed splendor, the figure seeming to threaten to lift the very roof off the building. Visitors find a favorite spot at the base of his massive feet, from which you can look the whole length of the glowing body. People inevitably pose for a photograph here, and most start out by mugging, but by the time the shutter snaps they have settled into mild, bemused smiles uncannily like the smile that looms over their shoulders.

Crave nothing! Follow the middle way! Walk the Eightfold Path! No less than the other great world religions, Buddhism makes impossible demands on human frailty in its instruction that all suffering begins in desire. From this self-abnegating system of thought stems much that is gentle and reflective about the culture. But, as many have pointed out, its code of respect has for centuries also been exploited by the politically powerful--and by the keepers of the patriarchy that still dominates Thai society.

The role of women in Thailand poses a conundrum all its own. You do not have to be here very long to sense that in some way the women--many of them exploited and most, by western standards, oppressed--nonetheless preserve the values that are most dearly held by all. In their smooth-skinned beauty and floating carriage, they embody the grace of the culture, and they serve as enforcers, too. (Men, no matter how worldly, dare not disappoint their mothers by failing to serve their time in a Buddhist monastery.) I said as much to a westerner living here, who replied, "Without their women and their king they would be lost." (Thailand is perhaps the world's most reverent constitutional monarchy; it has little tolerance for King and I jokes.)

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