Monday, September 10, 2007

Not a Toy

The Lingam Shrine in Bangkok is not easy to find. You have to be either a dedicated connoisseur of the strange and weird, or a young woman seeking help from the supernatural to get pregnant. To get there, one hot and humid morning (is there any other?) I trudged up Wireless Road from the Ploen Chit Skytrain station, past the fortress-like British Embassy, to the Raffles-owned Swissotel Bangkok. Then, following Lonely Planet's directions, I walked into the hotel's underground parking garage and out the other side where the employees do their secret work (I saw a melting ice sculpture, probably the centerpiece of the previous night's banquet). At the end of the drive is a shady grove on the banks of a khlong (canal) filled with stone and wood carvings of the male sexual organ.

The shrine was originally built by Nai Lert, a millionaire businessman, to honor Chao Mae Tuptim, a female goddess believed to reside in an old tree. Someone who made an offering soon found herself pregnant and the shrine began to attract other women hoping to become fertile and bear fruit. According to a sign:
The origins of Chao Mae Tuptim are obscure. It can only be recalled that a spirit house was built by Nai Lert for the spirit who was believed to reside in the large Sai (Ficus) tree.

The basic offerings are fragrant wreaths of snow-white jasmine flowers, incense sticks, pink and white lotus buds. Chao Mae Tuptim has received yet another, rather unconventional kind of gift, phallic in shape, both small and large, stylised and highly realistic. Over the years they have been brought by the thousands and today fill the area around the shrine. Confronted by the extraordinary display the shrine has automatically been concluded to be dedicated to fertility.

The grove was empty the morning I visited but fresh food and drink had been put on the porch of the spirit house. They seem to favor red bottles of soda, complete with straw, along with rice, eggs and various goodies (last night I saw a large rat at Nana trying to get at the spirit's food).

It seems incorrect to me to call the carved phallic object a "lingam." This is the Sanskrit word for the symbol of the Hindu god Shiva. In every Shivaite temple in India you will find at the center a black pillar to represent the holy of holies. I was told it was not explicitly phallic, although procreation in the spiritual sense was one of its meanings. Shiva is the Preserver as well as the Destroyer. The term in Thai for a carved phallus is palad khik, which means "honorable surrogate penis," and you can find them on sale at stalls on Sukhumvit Road alongside carvings of the Buddha and other nicknacks for tourists. On my first trip here I bought several, made of wood and brass, as gifts for friends. I assumed that they were designed to promote fertility or pleasure, but have since learned that they are designed for men, not women. From the Lucky website:

These small charms, averaging less than 2' in length, are worn by boys and men on a waist-string under the clothes, off-center from the real penis, in the hope that they will attract and absorb any magical injury directed toward the generative organs. It is not uncommon for a man to wear several palad khiks at one time, one to increase gambling luck, for instance, another to attract women, and a third for invulnerability from bullets and knives.
The palad khik amulet is believed to have originated with Shiva worshippers in India and was brought to Thailand by Cambodian monks in the 8th century. Early styles contained inscriptions to Shiva; later ones contain invocations and praises to Buddha. But the belief in the amulet's effectiveness for fertility is less Buddhist and more an element in animism which seems to pervade all aspects of popular piety here in Thailand. Jerry pointed out to me last night that most of the spirit houses contain images of Hindu gods, but the average Thai thinks she is paying respects to Buddha when bowing before the shrine and donating a half-drunk bottle of red soda, straw intact.

I've been in Bangkok now for a month and I'm beginning to have a sense of place. Except yesterday. I was in search of a secret route from Holy Redeemer Church (above) to my apartment at Siam Court. They are quite close, separated only by an expressway. But streets, or sois, which run off major roads are mostly self-contained entities. To get from one soi to another you have to walk up to main road, in my case Sukhumvit. On Google Maps I found what appeared to be a walkway over the expressway. After mass, I looked for and found it. I was the only pedestrian, which was a bit worrisome. It did indeed bring me close to soi 4 where I live, but the walkway was surrounded by a fence and there was no convenient exit. So I backtracked, and got off on a road surrounded by high walls and locked gates. I could see my building but could not get to it. Some of the houses along the road were quite poor, shacks really, perhaps lived in by servants of the wealth nearby. When I asked for directions at one house, the residents let me pass through to the enclosed soi on the other side. My building was a short walk away. I can not understand the penchant here for fences, walls and locked gates. Free access does not seem to be a high Thai priority.

Last week I paid the rent for September, and now I feel like a legitimate resident of Bangkok. Since I wasn't using the cable, I canceled it. Rooms and furnishings are rented separately: the room is 5,000 bath and the bed, TV, refrigerator, microwave, etc., rent for 7,000 baht, for a total of 12,000 (about $400). In addition, I pay 1,200 baht for the internet hook-up, 600 bath for water, and my electricity bill may be as high as 1,500 baht a month. It's expensive for a studio apartment but the location is very convenient and the swimming pool is a blessing on hot and humid days (all of them).

My neighborhood is infinitely fascinating. Soi 4 is lined with various kinds of temporary and movable food stalls, selling everything from baked eggs, boiled corn, chicken satay, veggies and fruit, to full meals with noodles or rice, cooked on woks heated with butane. Last night one sidewalk bistro even had candles on the folding tables for diners. Pastel-colored taxis line up in front of the Woriburi Hotel next door. And in the next block there is always a collection of motorbike taxis, their drivers in tell-tale orange vests, ready to provide a scary ride up the soi to Nana and Sukhumvit for 10 baht. At the massage parlor not far up the soi the girls always wave hello to me, and there are at least five bars, each quite different, owned by someone named Swan. One features "coyote dancing" on tables which I've yet to see, although I know from the girls at the door that the costumes are vaguely western, and coyote bars are the newest trend in sleazy nightlife. Many of the beggars now recognize me. Up near the Nana Entertainment Complex, there are usually a couple of elephants to entertain the drinkers. And at night the stalls selling fried insects of various draw a heft crowd of Thais with the munchies.

Back in Santa Cruz I was the master of the $5 meal, finding cheap eats for lunch and dinner when I wasn't eating ready-mades from Trader Joes. You could get a good pizza, felafel or a burrito for that price, and maybe even the cafeteria lunch at Shanghai. Here in Bangkok I look for the 100 baht meal ($2.50) and frequently I find one for half that price, at the counter in Foodland or at the little no-name place behind the newspaper stand between soi 8 and soi 10. When I want to splurge I go to the food court at one of the malls and look for something under 200 baht. A dinner for two has cost me as much as 500 baht but that includes wine or beer. Then there are the frozen dinners from 7-11 at about a buck apiece. And they are aroi maak (very tasty). One of these days I'll learn how to order from the food stalls without being poisoned or set on fire by the tiny red chili peppers. and then I'll be able to drop my daily food bill down to about $3-4.

That's what this pilgrimage is all about: frugality in all things. With a little bit of excess on weekends.

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