Monday, October 01, 2007

Accentuating the Negative

Monks in Thailand go out from their monastery or temple every morning on pindabat to beg, and in this way receive all their food and support from the community. I've seen them do this up country but not in Bangkok before last Friday when I walked up Soi 4 at 8 in the morning and witnessed this scene outside of a tailor shop next door to Nana. I was surprised to see the saffron-robed monks in my neighborhood because as far as I know there is no Buddhist establishment within walking distance. But there they were, waiting patiently, bowls in hand for a donation of warm sticky rice or freshly fried fish, or maybe a few baht to help with expenses, while the denizens of Nana slipped past, some to go home and sleep after a busy night of pleasure seeking.

A few days before, but not quite so early, I'd walked up the soi to Sukhumvit and was stopped by the sound of chanting across the road from the above picture. There, in the Melody UK Bar, surrounded by kneeling girls, were four monks next to an altar with candles and lotus blossoms. One of the monks held a Bodhi leaf-shaped fan in front of his face, sure sign of his teaching authority. It was such an unusual sight in the entertainment district that I stopped and listened for a few minutes. It was too dark to take a photo and I suspected it would be impolite. My guess is that it was a funeral service for a co-worker. Later I saw the implements of the ceremony piled high on the street-side bar to be picked up by whomever had supplied them. The other day Jerry took a look at the saffron-colored shoulder bag I'd purchased at MBK and said that Lamyai his wife would not allow it in her house, because it identified me as a monk and I was not one. One of the girls at the massage parlor up the street from my apartment told me yesterday that she wanted to give me the oil treatment because I was a monk and she wanted to see what was in my heart, "maybe magic." The bag's color immediately gives me an identity, for good or ill. I haven't taken it to the Baan Aree Library talks for fear of confusing the troups. Only Pandit and Phra Mick are fully authorized to wear that color. At home I wear a saffron-colored dhoti from India which has drawn comments, rude or otherwise, from my house guests.

Next to the bag in the photo above is a copy of A Woman of Bangkok by Jack Reynolds. It has been called one of the finest novels written about Asia. But today, fifty years after it was first published in England as A Sort of Beauty by Jack Jones, this classic is out of print and used copies are almost impossible to find. There is strangely little information about Reynolds/Jones on the internet. He was either a Welshman or Scottish, and perhaps drove an ambulance in China during the war. Supposedly his missionary parents were scandalized by the book, hence the name change. Maybe he wrote nothing else. Bangkok novelist Christopher G. Moore compares Woman with The World of Suzie Wong and The Quiet America, two other novels written in the 1950s about Asia, and says Reynolds' achievement is unequaled. What he captured was "the authentic atmosphere of Bangkok in the 1950s and created a prototype novel about the western male who falls head over heels in love with a ruthless bargirl." A whole school of fiction has followed and the shelves here are full of this genre. I'm only half-way through and find it well-written and absorbing. The author shifts perspectives between an Englishman new to the city and the bar girl he loves. Here is one of her observations:
By and large she preferred Americans to all the rest...the Americans knew how to treat a girl like her. They had plenty of money and were free with it when out to enjoy themselves. They never fell in love: they hated personal involvements like that. They took their women as they took their drinks and cigarettes: women were just one more pleasure to which they were addicted but which they didn't get emotional about. The world was scattered with girls they'd had as it was with the bottles and cigarette packets they'd emptied. And often, in fact usually, they were drunker than the English or the French (but not the Dutch), so they soon rolled over to snore.
Sort of like American foreign policy. We fuck the world, then forget about it.
You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

The morning I saw the monks I was on my way early to Bumrungrad International Hospital for an HIV test, my first, one of the new rites of passage. It's a huge facility tucked between Sukhumvit sois 1 and 3 in the Middle Eastern ghetto. More than 60 per cent of its patients are non-Thai and the sick and the cosmetically-challenged from all over the world come for their relatively cheap services. No less than three lovely Thai ladies with "Registrar" tags helped pave the way through paperwork, took my photo, and issued me a card. Fully authorized, I found the general medical clinic, and after being passed along to several other desks by friendly faces, and having my vital signs taken ("Normal," the nurse said of my blood pressure), I waited briefly in the huge but almost empty lobby. Complimentary water, coffee or tea was available and the numerous TVs broadcast Thai news channels. This hospital could easily handle a major epidemic. After my blood was drawn painlessly, I had an hour to kill over a cappuccino and the Bangkok Post at the nearby Starbucks. I won't say I wasn't worried. Though I've been for the most part careful and protected, you never really know. When the female doctor finally said: "Negative," I was just a bit joyful.

In Santa Cruz before I left I took photos of street musicians, hundreds of them, from solo instrumentalists to a variety of groups and bands (the home-made marimba band was the best). Some of the singers could even carry a tune. Here in Bangkok I watch for street musicians playing unfamiliar instruments. This blind man near the river dock is playing a khene. It looks like Peruvian pipes but the sound it makes is haunting, more like bagpipes. This old man, not from down the soi from Nana, is playing a Thai violin. The melody it made was raw but beautiful. Every evening I can see a blind singer or two being led along the crowded sidewalk, singing traditional Thai folk songs, probably from Isan, through a portable speaker. Some of the street musicians are bad, imitations of their pitiful counterparts in the west. Yesterday I heard a blind singer and guitarist outside the entrance to the Asoke subway station, and their music would make a dog howl. The smart ones had run for cover. Still, Jerry gave them a few baht as it was important, he said, to support musicians wherever they can be found. I think there should be standards, here as well as in Santa Cruz where there is a woman who played that banjo so badly and sang so poorly that I think she made the flowers wilt in the cupola in front of the bookshop, and forced Tom Scribner, whose statue she desecrated, to turn over in his grave.

On Saturday I visited Lumpini Park for the first time. What a fabulous place, in the same category with Central, Hyde and Golden Gate parks. It's named after Buddha's birthplace in Nepal. I got there late, about 9, but the action starts at dawn when the fitness fanatics congregate in this lung of the city. The lanes winding around the artificial lake were still filled with joggers, tai chi and aerobics exercisers, strolling grand dames under umbrellas to protect from the sun, and a variety of bikers and even a roller skater. The picnic areas were full, some with groups wearing similar colored shirts (pink was a favorite, though on Saturday the official color is violet). A good percentage of the people were my age or older, and I judged the largest number to be Chinese. Outside each park entrance were a conglomeration of stalls selling all manner of food. I didn't see anyone selling snake's blood, a specialty at Lumpini I have been told, nor did I see any of the aggressive ladyboys who apparently prowl the park at night. On the lake teenagers and families rowed and pedaled various kinds of boats. I walked back on the nearly deserted pedestrian overpass to Benjakiti Park near my apartment. But, as on a previous weekend, found it nearly deserted despite its spacious walkways, lawn and large lake. I don't understand the popularity of Lumpini and the emptiness of Benjakiti, but I was told that the latter is more popular in the evenings when lovers stroll the paths and snuggle on the grass.

At the end of my long walk through the parks on Saturday, I passed through Chuvit Park on Sukhumvit where I saw this magnificent reproduction of a traditional Thai wooden house. Unfortunately it was not open but could only be viewed from the outside against a backdrop of skyscrapers. The beautiful little pocket park was built by Chuvit Kamolvisit, the owner of a string of massage parlors, and is "dedicated to the Lord Jesus Christ." At 4 a.m. one night a couple of years ago, accompanied by soldiers, his workers bulldozed the houses and shops of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people to clear the land (which he owned) for grass, benches and fountains. Needless to say, Chuvit is not loved in these parts.

Tomorrow I leave for my two-week adventure in Nong Khai and Laos. I'm not sure how easy it will be to blog there, so I am trying to use up all my notes here before I go.

I haven't said much about traveling on the Chao Praya River (Larry, who lived here 18 years ago, pronounced it incorrectly as "Choppia") but it is a pleasure taken whenever I visit the other side of the city. The Skytrain from Nana, with one transfer, takes me easily to the pier at Saphan Taksin, and a ride on the river taxi, usually packed with Thais, tourists and monks, is only 13 baht. Occasionally, as here, you see kids swimming in the brown soupy water, their immune systems more powerful than mine. The river doesn't smell as bad as the canals but it's clearly polluted and clogged with hardy vegetation. River traffic is heavy with dozens of barges passing in either direction, usually in groups of three pulled by tugboats, carrying cargo for the port to the south and river points north. There are cross-river ferries and a variety of large ships carrying tourists on a lunch or dinner cruise. The river is lined with raggedy shacks which seem about to fall into the water, luxury hotels like the Oriental and Shangri-La, tall skyscrapers filled with expensive condos, and Catholic churches as well as Buddhist temples. It's cooler on the river where a breeze always blows away the humidity. Departures and arrivals are a little scary. The taxi captains are adept at sliding up to the docks where you must jump on or off quickly. I haven't seen anyone fall in the brink yet.

Rather than ramble on forever, I had better end this before losing the patience of any reader who has made it this far. Unfortunately, I have not said anything about the tweezers which you see employed everywhere, hairless Thai men plucking their few chin whisker and women their eyebrows. I even accompanied a lady who purchased a pair at a major mall. And I haven't mentioned the census takers who accost tourists on every corner to compile statistics for some government ministry ("Where are you from? Where do you live? Do you like Bangkok?"). I wanted to write about the prostitutes and ladyboys who stand in front of the Sukhumvit Starbucks to put on their makeup. Out front of Nana every night you can see a food cart selling insects, vendors carrying huge pandas and teddy bears as gifts presumably for the ladies, and frequently you must avoid the elephants lumbering along the soi.

I've seen three movies in the last three weeks, all of them in French with English and Thai subtitles. Last weekend I saw the delightful Belgian film "L'Iceberg," a screwball comedy about a woman who finds herself in the freezer of a fast food restaurant. And in my desire to understand the sleazy and seamier side of Bangkok life, I've visited the bars where freelancers hang out in the daytime and late at night after Nana closes, the cavernous Beer Garden on Soi 7, and the depressing basement bar Thermae on Sukhumvit between sois 13 and 15. One night I ventured to Soi 33 where the bars are named after artists, like Gaugin, Van Gough, Goya, Dali, Degas, Renoir and Manet. No one seems to know how it started, but the girls here dress up and the beer prices are double what you pay elsewhere.

As I write this, a beautiful day with a pale blue sky and puffy white clouds, the saffron revolution in nextdoor Burma seems to have ended, not with a bang but a whimper. The people are cowed once again by a brutal military dictorship. Even though the UN envoy is visiting with jailed leader Aung San Suu Kri, the streets are apparently quiet. The government reports nine dead, but activists suspect many hundreds were killed and thousands are in jail. It remains to be seen how the people will react to their monks being so badly treated by the soldiers. One account I read says that the military is divided and that this disarray may bode well for future attempts at bringing the government down. At the end of the meeting at Baan Aree Library last week, Pandit led us in a metta meditation for the monks. And I received an email from Everyday Dharma in Santa Cruz saying that the merit from last weekend's retreat would be dedicated to the monks and the well-being of the people in Burma. Let us do whatever we can, meditate, pray, or just think good thoughts. And wish me well, please, on my visit to Laos.

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