Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Healing Power of Water

Millions of Thais headed toward the waters Monday night to let their troubles and cares float away, symbolically that is, as they celebrated Loy Krathong. Nan and I braved a crush of people on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, stopping to observe the festivities and eat at Phra Arthit Park in Banglamphu (with cotton candy for desert), before attempting, unsuccessfully, to cross the Rama VIII Bridge to attend the huge celebration there. The crowds had complete jammed the stairway and sidewalk, making movement impossible. So we returned to the river bank under the Pinklao Bridge closer to home and floated our krathongs there. I took the further step towards forgiveness by freeing not only a small snake but a turtle into the waters.

Loy Krathong is one of the two mostly secular national holidays in Thailand, which occur as well in Cambodia and Laos. Along with Songkran in April, both involve water. Songkran coincides with the New Year in many Asian countries, at the end of the dry season in Thailand, and it was originally celebrated by cleaning house and washing Buddha images. Now, however, it's the occasion for a joyous three-day water fight. Loy Krathong may owe something to Diwali, the Festival of Lights in India which pays respect to the waters of the Ganges. In Thailand it is celebrated on the full moon of the 12th lunar month of the year and honors the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha. Thais make or buy a small boat or raft (krathong) built on a slice of banana tree trunk and decorated with intricately folded banana leaves, flowers, candles, and incense sticks. They range from the simple to the very elaborate. By launching their krathong on the water, Thais give thanks for the rainy season just ending and let go of any lingering anger, grudges and resentments. This was a challenge for me.

While any body of water will do (streams, lakes, ponds, canals, even condominium swimming pools), in Bangkok most people try to find a toehold on the edge of the Chao Phraya River, a magnificent but quite polluted waterway which could use a little healing (the sludge of millions of soggy krathongs today will entail a massive clean-up). For my first Loy Krathong five years ago, I accompanied Jerry and Lamyai to a party in a penthouse across the river from the Continental and Shangri-La hotels. At midnight the hotels held a fireworks contest that was quite impressive. For my first Loy Krathong as a resident three years ago, I accompanied Pim to Rama VIII Park where more people than I'd ever seen up that close celebrated the holiday in festive style. Last year I walked by myself to the park in Banglamphu not far from Khao San Road (still hungover from Halloween) and later put my krathong in the water under the Pinklao Bridge.

Nan had never floated a krathong in Bangkok. At home in her village in Phayao they used the irrigation canal. In the afternoon yesterday, residents gathered in the lobby of Lumpini Place to make their krathongs. Later they would launch them into the swimming pool. We took a bus to the river and walked across the Pinklao Bridge, stopping to marvel at the parade of colorful boats decorated with lights, some featuring music and spotlights that swept the sky. We walked along the river bank to Phra Arthit Park where the crowd was full of farangs trying on the new holiday for size (and why wouldn't it go over in America or Europe?). In addition to putting their krathongs in the river, we saw some people letting birds out of cages to gain merit. At the park, we sat on the grass and ate grilled pork, sticky rice and something resembling baloney balls on a stick, and topped it off with white cotton candy that revived for me memories of carnivals back in the U.S. After getting turned away by the bodily traffic jam at Rama VIII Bridge, we returned by bus to Pinklao and comparison shopped for the nicest krathongs.

We paid top price, 50 baht each, for two lovely krathongs. And after lighting the candles and incense, turned them over to a couple of children at the river's edge who took them further out into the river, paying them each 20 baht for the service. Later we thought we saw our krathongs in a bucket collected for resale. Also on sale were birds, snakes, turtles and what looked like snails, all gathered by the clever vendors as offerings, for a price, to the river goddess. Since my grudges have been hard to give up this year, I felt a surge of generosity and decided to liberate a snake in order to make merit and hopefully receive a little forgiveness (that I had a nightmare recently about a snake biting me had something to do with it). The small viper was only 20 baht and I dumped him out into the water. Immediately a couple of the little opportunists tried to catch it for resale. The snake seemed too small to do much good, so I next decided to release one of the turtles from bondage; not the little one but a medium-sized bugger for 70 baht who I observed trying to crawl out of his bucket. I walked away from the main action and flung the turtle to freedom, hoping none of the children would see him. Nan said that freeing a turtle gained very good merit because it had such a long life, and would transfer that attribute to me. I watched him swim out into the stream. Soon there were children in hot pursuit. I don't know if he was caught or not, but I hope any short-lived freedom would not be deducted from my merits. Then we went home and were fast asleep before the fireworks show began.

A week ago a photographer followed by an assistant and a TV cameraman came up to us at the pool in our building and asked if we were willing to let her take our photograph inside our apartment. She said the owners of Lumpini Place (a giant company with condos all over Bangkok) had offered short-term accommodation to artists and designers in exchange for using their work in promotional material. I thought it sounded like an interesting experience. A few days later they came to our small room and took a few photographs au natural (for us that day it meant sitting on the couch with our computers. It only took a few minutes and I didn't expect much. But last Friday night in the lobby her photos were on display and refreshments were served. You can see our photo on the left in the show (double click on the photo to see it full size, as with all the photos in my blog). There were several other Thai-farang couples, and in almost all the photos someone was on the computer, an amazing commentary on modern domestic life. All those attending the "opening" of her photograph show seemed happy to see us in it, including the lovely woman who operates the laundry and some of the cleaning staff. While I was initially worried about being so public, given the disparity in our ages, I felt gratified by this acceptance.

I've never been a big fan of dressing up on Halloween but I appreciate the desire of others to make fools of themselves in public. Thailand has adopted Halloween as their own without the trick or treating. This year I saw fewer displays in stores using the holiday as a sales gimmick, but I thought we'd find costumes in abundance on the Khao San Road where the backpackers gather. I suspect this fellow looks like this everyday, but on Halloween he was somehow funnier. Some of the bars had balloons in orange and black as decoration and many vendors were selling devil's horns which blinked on and off in different colors (predominantly red), but I seemed to be one of the few customers who bought a set and wore them (I'll spare you that photo). Gulliver's, where we went disco dancing a couple of months ago, was advertising itself as "Psycho Hospital" for the evening. Some of the vendors were getting their faces painted to look like ghouls or vampires (Bangkok is counting the days until "New Moon," the latest vampire franchise movie in the Twilight series, opens; I'm more looking forward to the Mayan end of the world saga, "2012"). Ghost stories and horror movies have always been a staple of the Thai film industry. At one bar a couple of kids were wearing masks , much to the delight of the drunk customers. Another bar advertised: "Halloween - Night Day - Very Strong Cocktail." A third hung a welcome sign on a black robbed skeleton. Carved pumpkins, however, were not in evidence. I also missed the crunch and smell of autumn leaves under foot.

Bloggers in Thailand are outraged by the arrest yesterday of a man and a women working in the financial industry for allegedly spreading rumors about the King's ill health in order to influence the stock market which plunged dramatically over a week ago (but rose back up a few days later). Because both had posted notices (one a Thai translation of a Bloomberg report) on web sites, apparently after the market had already dropped according to reports, they have nonetheless been charged under the Computer Crimes Act. Even the more conservative Bangkok Post editorialized today, "The Computer Crimes Act, denounced when it was passed under the military regime, has turned out much like its critics feared - being used as a catch-all law to stifle criticism and to intimidate the media." The annual Press Freedom Index for 2009, released earlier this month by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), ranked Thailand at number 130 out of 175. The Kingdom was up to 66 seven years ago before the Thaksin government's curbs on press freedom and the current use of the computer act and lèse majesté laws to silence dissent.

Another story keeping Thailand in suspense was the extradition to Bangkok several days ago of Indian financier Rakesh Saxena who was accused of embezzlement 15 years ago before fleeing to Canada where he has fought a long-running legal battle to prevent his return. Ultimately the highest court there ruled against him and he was brought back to face questions about his involvement in bad loans to 16 politicians, many of whom are currently in the Abhisit coalition government. As adviser to the president of the Bangkok Bank of Commerce, Saxena's activities brought about the bank's collapse in 1996. The failure of the BBC was one of the first dominoes in a financial crisis that spread across Asia, shaking the world economy in 1997, and the Wall Street Journal described him as the "Mrs. "Leary's cow of the global financial crisis" after the mythical animal that supposedly caused the devastating Chicago fire of 1871. There is much speculation in the press now as to whose political careers Saxena's testimony might destroy, or even if there will be an assassination attempt. But the ever unflappable Abhisit claims he is not worried about any possible revelations. Fat chance. Sometimes it seems here as if I'm stuck inside of a Thai version of a weird haunted house.

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