Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

BrLtBgCty III-Places and People

 Once our minister had studied his bible sufficiently, we again headed into the metropolis to see some of the most well-known of Bangkok's cultural offerings. It started with a crossing of the nearby park where this smaller version of the swimmer was sprinting across the lawn.
 There are temples in nearly every village, and in Nakhon Phanom there are three or four very large and elaborate ones, so you can imagine the scale and ornateness of the temples in Bangkok. Or perhaps you cannot. The three of us were taken aback by their sprawling size and grandeur. Most of the larger temples are built around some sacred object be it from the Buddha himself or one of the Thai kings. The most famous of them is the Emerald Buddha which is also where the Grand Palace is located. This covers a vast area and is the most popular with tourists. It also costs 350 bht. We chose to visit the smaller and cheaper Wat Pho next door, site of the largest reclining Buddha. We did so partly on the recommendation of Jes, Nok, Rita, and Heater who visited earlier in the year. This was plenty of temple for me, and the courtyards and smaller Buddhas in the back areas were nearly vacant and we had them mostly to ourselves.

 Some university students approached us for an interview project, but of course what they really wanted was Zach and Bens' wisdom, so they moved off without asking me anything at all! And here I thought in Thailand they looked to old crab apples for the answers...
 There was a crush to tour the prone Buddha when we first arrived so we went into all the other structures we could find. Some of them had really beautiful smaller icons such as this room.
Here I am getting very holy with a Buddha who is the "teaching" Buddha. Very appropriate. And stop laughing at the way I am holding my hands! I know it looks dorky. I can't help that I am white! It is a disability I was born with. Speaking of teaching and disabilities, here is a remarkable piece of research I somehow missed which explains so much about the state of education today. It made me feel badly for putting down all those colleagues over the years...
Hey- if students get them why not us?
When we went back to the Prone Buddha things had calmed down somewhat. We took off our shoes and went in.  Super cool. And the look on his face was just the right beatific calm for the pose. The giant bottoms of his feet had intricate inlays and you could walk around the back side and see that too. Not often one gets to contemplate the butt of Buddha, or Jesus for that matter. Not really sure about Mohammad... On that side there was a long series of pots and you could exchange our large bills forvery small fractional bht pieces and drop one in each to make merit and say prayers for everyone you knew.
I am pretty sure whatever merit we made we lost when we were imitating the stock Thai pose next to the Buddha's face...Honestly, every time you point a camera at a student in Isan this is the pose they strike. Well, maybe not so idiotic.

Outside the temple there were endless street vendors plying everything from the very popular small icons they sell for necklaces to random second hand goods. Thais are very intense in their scavenging through these cluttered piles, and supposedly some are very collectible and valuable. I wish I knew what the desirable features were. Sigh.
 I found this mother and daughter, and the daughter's attempt to give rest and protection, very moving, especially in light of the truly paltry "goods" they were trying to sell. I couldn't help but think back to the Mall and all its indulgence, to all my spoiled students back home, to the college students I saw moving truckloads into their dorm rooms at UMass Amherst this past fall including their widescreen tvs, Macbook Pros, and x-boxes- and of course of my own frivolous spending through the years...
Other than our one Mall burger and our hoity-toity coffee, our finances required we dine with the hoi polloi. Ben, of course, required his twice daily saparrot  and he also turned me on to a really nice version of the guava fruit soaked in some kind of cool sweet juice.

Along the river there were these snaking narrow walk ways that were surrounded by small restaurants. We had a great meal in the green one behind the boys there which opened out over the water. 3 bucks for an excellent lunch.

We visited two museums in the city. The first one was recommended by Gen's stepmother, who came to Nakhom and took all the volunteers out to dinner. It was a perfect fit for my tastes. Small and private, it was the former residence of a Thai princess and her husband, and the collection was personal and perfect for a few hours. There was an important collection of pottery from Isan which a young Hravard Graduate student stumbled on in the 50s which with subsequent digging changed the entire understanding of the area and its inhabitants, pushing it much farther back than previously thought. It also housed this exquisite royal barge  and attendant  longboat, both restored by the museum.

Beside the main house were five traditional Thai houses, wooden and up on posts. In one was this ornate meditation house with detailed stories told in gold inlay.
 The other museum we just happened to drift into. I am still not sure how we went it. Just one of those moments where a random stranger says something and then you take a step and suddenly we were in this very long building dedicated to Rama V, Chulalongkorn, an important king of Thailand who helped end serfdom, bring Thailand into the modern age, and avoid the colonization of Thailand. His story really was compelling- took the throne at a very young age, visited all the European capitals, not to mention he had 4 spouses and 164 consorts and concubines and fathered  44 daughters and 32 sons (1 miscarry)- remember- there was no facebook then and no Call of Duty, so kings needed distraction. Yet the museum was not too hot. Just a lot of big graphics and rooms with videos of people talking in hushed and comforting tones, telling the story. There really wasn't much to see in an edifice a full city block long. Two aspects made the visit important. One- Free air conditioning as there was no admission fee. Two- we met Lek who was there working as an English speaking tour guide. The place was deserted and Lek was clearly bored (reading a fat book in English). He followed us room to room and a few of his comments I found curious- they revealed someone of far greater complexity than a museum guide. We left and went to lunch and to see another part of BKK. Then, by coincidence or destiny depending on one's viewpoint, we stumbled across his path in the street as he was heading home. In that amazing Thai manner, Lek  deviated from his path to take us all around the area and show us the sights. It turned out he was a graduate student in anthropology, doing the museum gig to make ends meet. He had grown up very poor and without a family, but he was a very good student and a patron agreed to pay his university fees, but only if he studied anthropology. Lek took the offer, though it was not his major of choice, which if I remember was political science. Anyhow, there is much more to the story, including a professor who bilked Lek out of his stipend and Lek's work in Isaan tracking nearly extinct tribe and language here. He was phenomenally smart and generous in equal measure, and the obstacles he had already overcome, as well as those he was still facing, filled me with awe. Lek's insights into the corruption in Thailand as well as his thoughts on the political future of the country were fascinating, and because his English was so accomplished he was able to share them.

He took us to the more famous areas of Bangkok, the places all the idiot falangs talk about going to. Here is the Ko something road- for the life of me I cannot remember its name. I do remember one of the other volunteers saying you had to see it. Why? I cannot say why. It was chock full of all the same white dipshits you expect to see on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, or Haight Ashbury Street in San Francisco or any other supposedly "wild" street, which is code for- drunk tourists, prostitutes, and t-shirt shops. And for the same reason I don't ever frequent downtown Camden, Maine (well, it is a Christian village so there aren't prostitutes- unless you count some of the socialites who marry for money), I had exactly zero interest in this street or its inhabitants. We didn't even bother to walk up the street since we all felt the same sense of ugh!
Instead Lek took us back and helped us find our way to a water taxi stop and we headed back to look for Ben's Canal boat.
That was when we came across a large Red Shirt Rally. You may recall last year when Thailand was considered newsworthy because enough social unrest had resulted in a large enough pile of bodies. The political picture here is quite complicated. The former prime minister, Thaksin, is living in exile and wanted on charges. He was a billionaire cell phone company owner and gave out lots of government money, especially in poor farming areas like Isaan. He did many other things such as shooting drug offenders and strong arming opposing groups. I would not pretend to know the full story but anyway, the Red Shirts are the politically left group and the Yellow Shirts are the conservative faction. It all came to bloodshed last year and though it calmed down thanks in part to the King, there is still much tension and unfinished business between the two. We were a bit nervous when we saw the hoards of them gathering. Though they were eager for us to join them we politely refrained. In the end when we walked through the demonstration's center, it all seemed jovial and focused on the usual Thai aspects of food and friendship. It made the news that night, but only for the numbers and not for any incidents. Lek wasn't the only person we met who was cautionary about Thailand's future. I suppose it is just a more raw version of the same troubles my own country is facing, albeit with certain conditions and habits which diverge, such as the Buddhist roots and the existence of the king. I can't fathom the culture wars now raging in the US and the intense concentration of wealth in such a small percentage of American families. There are unresolved issues here just as there are in America: what do we owe the poor? What is an acceptable standard of living? What environmental degradation are we willing to endure to promote a rising standard of living?
The other fascinating person we met was a former student at the primary school where Zach teaches. This village lad, Arun, is now grown up, living and teaching political science at a university in Bangkok and on his way to Cambridge to get his Ph'd in the fall. Amazing. A young man who probably had one pair of government shoes and slept on the floor in his village.
He helped us navigate our way back to the bus station and to buy our tickets home. For some reason they were a third less with the company he took us to, making me nervous that we were going to be on a karaeoke special with stops every 15 yards, but not to worry.
And that is what I will remember in the long run about Bangkok- a few incredible individuals we met. I should mention that I did go out the second night with Dan and his friends. We ended up in a very strange section of town- a street populated entirely by Arab men and Thai women and ladyboys, many clearly for sale. I am sorry I did not bring my camera, though I am not sure I would have had the chutzpa to take photos. we spent most of the night at a relatively bland disco playing the usual Lady Gaga type gobshite. When I couldn't take it anymore I went and wandered about, taking it in. It struck me that that particular street would make an excellent photography collage- a Thai massage parlor stuffed with Arab and Nigerian men getting their feet massaged at 1 AM, the headlights and the hookers and the hot steam rising from the food stalls- it was pretty clear one could assuage whatever fetish or fantasy had they money. If I had any sense of titillation or ironic distance, it instantly evaporated when I came across a lipsticked, up-haired prostitute, not more than 12 or 13,  sitting on a blue plastic chair at a tin table, eating a bowl of rice while her drunken collegues ranted and gambled. Then I thought of my beautiful students back at Nong Ya Sai and Thai Samkee and my heart broke, and all the denizens of the night, of all ages and tribes and genders, appeared to me forlorn and desperate and alone and lost and I only wanted to get back to my village to see the smiles of the friends I missed. And that wish came true after a 12 hour bus ride. We three travelers got off at the Ka Pra Yot army base and walked down the hill to my house to sleep as the sun rose over the rice fields, Bangkok already just a set of clothes to wash and pictures to download.


  1. Fascinating! Whats up with the vandalized waste of a building in that picture up there? Were there a lot of places like that in Bangkok?

    Also, that photo of you in the temple is perfect for inserting comical speech bubbles.

  2. Thanks to my friend Lek who corrected my numbers on the King's offspring! Good old Wikipedia! Wrong again!

  3. Hey Peter! Its your long lost tennis bud (guru whatever you want to call me). We're still playing and missing you a lot. Been readinig the blog occasionally as has Steve....
    Listen, the Medomak Head Job became available and I'd like to do it, but the application process is a little more formal than Jimmy's over at RDHS (or should I say (Oceanside Mariners- sounds like a Nickelodian teen show High School). Anyway, what email are you using? Would you be able to write for me (in good conscience?) a short recommendation letter via email to an address I would provide you? The deadline is American Monday. Also wanted to ask if you know how to contact Ian Ellis, because I think former players recommends would also be persuasive... (perhaps-- "Drops the F-bomb frequently and tries to harrass players on opposite teams while taking pictures at the net, and coaches between points!)

    Bye and thanks, I'll check in here...

  4. Thanks for the details about Bangkok. Now I can feel better about not going. I realize there are a few bright spots, but I'd rather feret those out in a more rural setting.

    I did chuckle aloud at the "standard Thai peace sign pose" I've started doing that too. I wonder if it started during the Vietman war when so many troups did R&R in Thailand.

    Khoon me chohk dee mak mak to run into Lek. Did you happen to ask what his name means? As far as I know lek is the Thai word for steel; sounds like it would fit him.