River gods in Bangkok? You wanna know about river gods? I will tell you a story. Many years ago, we knew the girl who married a river god and we called her Mai. She was my thrice-great aunt. I can say this, yes? Thrice? This is her story.
You see, this area here on the bank of the Chao Phraya River has been absorbed by the city of Bangkok, but we’ve been fishing here for centuries. Our houses are different now. So-called modern makes us disconnected from everything that really is. I sleep in my boat.
My children and grandchildren, except one, are modern. He also hears the call of our ancestors. The river is in our blood.
Mai was a good girl. She helped her father fishing and untangled the fishing traps when they got stuck. Because of this, she was a good swimmer. Mai was in the river more than on the land. She loved the river.
They say the river loved her back. You see, then, there were still crocodiles. So, how can this small girl be swimming in the river by herself and not disappear? How can she always know the best places to find the fish? How can she know when the gods had come? The river whispered these things to her, like a lover.
Every year there is a monsoon season that removes all that is bad. The rain that comes in flashes and washes away anything that is not supposed to be there.
This is when the gods come to review how we take care of the land and waterways. The gods enter the bodies of the Irrawaddy dolphins and come far into the rivers and watch us.
Sometimes we knew they were there, sometimes we did not. They swim in pods of 10-12. If they are happy, they do not make a flood. If they are unhappy, there can be a terrible flood so that nature will reset itself.
You’re not supposed to go swimming in the monsoon season. The rains develop quickly here and pour down suddenly. The river can rise and move too fast washing you away. Mai did not mind. She believed in her skills and she believed in the river.
The year that she was 13, Mai went swimming off the side of her father’s boat and the rains came suddenly. The river swelled and pulled her from safety into a fast moving current. Her father came after her and tried to position the boat to take her from the water. She disappeared into the water.
He called her name: Mai! Mai! Mai!
And then she came to the surface. One of the river gods pushed her up so that she could breath air. He had swirls of grey along his flank and was in a pod of 3 dolphins. They pushed her over to the boat. Her father was very grateful to the river gods and thanked them as he pulled Mai to safety. That night he made an alter on his boat for the river gods.
See that on my boat? That’s the same alter. It always protects us.
When they got home the next day, he made a spirit house and welcomed the river gods to live in it whenever they wished to come on land.
Mai continued to swim in the river and help her father with fishing. The dolphins were always with them, watching, for the length of the monsoon season. Then they were gone.
One year later, Mai was to be married to a farmer. She was deeply saddened to leave the river life. Her father could hear her crying every night. He felt sad for her, but it was her duty to the family to marry. One night he heard her speaking to someone on the boat. Her father went to see who she would know in the middle of the river.
An Irrawaddy dolphin swam back and forth along the hull. She leaned over and stroked him as he swam by. In the moonlight, her father could see swirls of grey on the dolphin’s flank.
Can you imagine his shock? Irrawaddy dolphins aren’t like the dolphins you see on TV playing with everyone. They are very secretive because they have a duty. They judge us. They cannot be making friends.
Her father went quietly back into the sleeping area. He mentioned nothing at breakfast, but noticed Mai was humming a tune he had never heard before. He asked her about it and she did not know where the music came from. He knew that the god had put it in her head. He shivered.
After breakfast, Mai slipped into the water at their fishing place. She brought in large amounts of fish with every haul. It was unbelievable. By the mid-morning they had so many fish they left to go home.
Mai’s shoulders tensed when she looked at the river around a half an hour after they left the fishing spot. Her father saw nothing in the river. Mai turned to him and said: “I’m sorry. I must go. My husband waits.” He watched in astonishment as she dove beautifully into the water and was immediately surrounded by dolphins. The water practically boiled as they circled her. Mai’s features began to change. Her neck and body thickened, her eyes moved, and she transformed into a dolphin.
The river god took her and left her father understood the fish were a dowry. He knew she was happy. Now, we only have the Irrawaddy dolphins in a lake to the South. I pray everyday to my alter for their return and a chance to see my ancestors.