Thailand 1985

The stranger looked more surprised than threatened I think. It was just his body, and especially his beard, which made us approach him.

He was on a boat taxi which was leaving central Bangkok, and we encouraged him to get off before he wanted to, to see our monastery. He genuinely seemed interested, despite the walkway from the canal boat being nearly a foot underwater.

As you may know, we Thais often take our holidays by retiring to a monastery for a few weeks. Its more relaxing than queuing at Chinese tourist sites or joining the sun-worshippers on Bali. From childhood we know the ways of a monastery and to wear the saffron or orange robes for a while every year serves to rejuvenate the spirit - and it gains us ‘merit’.

So we showed him round our temple, Wat Mahatat, part university and part meditation centre. We squeezed past the Hong Kongers putting their 25-satang coins into the small bowls on long stands. We headed past the rows of Buddhas to the courtyard garden where we sat to drink some tea. None of us three had met a foreigner before although we’d seen them of course. And this bearded one was of particular interest to us even though we had no language in common.

In fact he started it, by staring at my tattoo. Tattoos are quite common on men here but I’d always been proud of mine: a snake up the back with two heads, one down each upper arm. I took off my upper robe to show him and then signed that he should take off his shirt. His mouth fell open in surprise. I touched his beard and pointed down to his chest. He understood.  We Thais have almost no body hair and his hairiness was as fascinating to us as my tattoo was to him.