Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bangkok, How Do I Love Thee?

Let me count the ways:

The cry of the koel bird (that sounds like its name) in the cool morning before the day's heat descends.  Toothpicks on the restaurant table and straws for every bottle and glass.  Pastel-colored taxis, and buses painted in blue, red, orange and pink (the green ones were decommissioned).  Gold roofs of Buddhist temples reaching for the sky at night with tiny mirrors reflecting light like diamonds.  Giant photos of the King and Queen, everywhere.  Laundry hanging on balconies of apartment houses.  The absence of angry horns beeping in the controlled chaos of massive traffic jams.  Ladyboys, hips swaying down the street, more feminine than their female opposites.  Sidewalks packed with vendors selling everything: all kinds of edibles on a stick, clothing brand and jewelry knockoffs, incredible fruit, counterfeit DVDs and pornography, flowers and mobile phone accessories.  Tall spirit houses and shrines outside condos, businesses and luxury malls with icons of Buddha, Brahma and Kwan Yin, and covered in offerings of flowers and incense along with red drinks and fruit.  Whitening creams and lotions hawked to anxious Thai ladies who fear their tan skin is too "black,"  Do-it-yourself outdoor barbecue restaurants where raw meat and veggies are distributed cafeteria style and table-top charcoal braziers raise the evening's heat.  Sacred tattoos glimpsed on the necks of women as well as men.  Hoses and water buckets next to European and squat toilets where paper is missing (or, if present, tossed but never flushed).  And ...

Last night Nan and I went to Chinatown where the Gin Jae (eat vegetarian) festival was in full swing.  We've been eating vegetables, tofu, mushrooms, sprouts and fake flesh for a couple of days and vowed to last for five, the minimum commitment.  Stores, shops and stalls feature strings of yellow triangle pennants advertising the absence of meat, even over tables of what are clearly candies and sweets.  It rained much of yesterday and the sidewalk restaurants were covered with tarps that dribbled water at the edges.  We ordered a couple of dishes and one was so good that we ordered another.  A parade of umbrellas passed by in the street as a loudspeaker blared what Nan said was a game with prizes.  Of all the crowded areas of Bangkok, Chinatown is king, but the rain had thinned the ranks of the evening's vegetarians.  In the orange bus on the way home the driver played Isaan music at full blast, the singer's voice bending the notes heart-breakingly in a way that seemed impossible.

This week in a rescue that bordered on the miraculous, 33 miners in Chile buried for two months over 2000 feet underground after a cave-in were pulled up a narrow shaft drilled through the rock to freedom.   I watched some of it online via streaming video from CNN Chile and couldn't stop the tears.  It was a living metaphor for liberation and salvation, made more real by the children, spouses and friends (and politicians) greeting their exodus from the earth with hugs and cheers.  No matter that it became a media event, a reality show par excellence, the whole world was watching like the World Cup or Michael Jackson's posthumous performance.  This is the the direction that defines time, progress and the spirit's path, the movement from dark to light, from entombment to new life.  I identified with those miners because of the cave-in of my life and the current struggle to climb out of the pit into the light. 

Which makes my imminent departure from Bangkok and Thailand all that more poignant.  As I look out my 9th floor window or travel through the city's streets now, I recall the past three years of my life here and marvel at how much I love this place.  My friend Janet, who wrote eloquently of a similar love affair in Tone Deaf in Bangkok, has recently abandoned the city she thought she would live in forever for another love, Penang in Malaysia.  She cites changes in what she loved since her first visit in 1997 and says the recent violence frightened her into thinking it would not end.  I hope she finds peace and permanence in Penang.  My departure is under protest and I promise Krung Thep (the capital's Thai name) that I will return as soon as possible.

Let me count some additional reasons for why I love this sprawling Southeast Asian metropolis: Charity trees festooned with money that no one would think of stealing. White string blessed by monks around wrists and around whole buildings to insure protection. Shoes outside the entrance to temples, schools and apartments.  Slow-moving people on sidewalks and crowded Skytrain cars where no one every jostles another.  Reserved seats at all cinemas and standing for the King's anthem before the show (and also at 8 am and 6 pm at Skytrain stations).  The ubiquitous hot weather fashion of shorts, tee shirt and flip-flops worn by both men and women.  Dramatic monsoon displays of thunder and lightning.  Monks in orange and mae chees (women renunciants but not nuns) in white, all with saved heads.  The graceful and all-but-unreadable Thai script on signs that mean nothing to a visitor from another country.  Flashy karaoke parlors for Thai men and the "entertainment" palaces of Nana, Soi Cowboy and Patpong for sex tourists from abroad.  Amulets, sometimes dozens, around the necks of devout Buddhist animists.  And ...

When I arrived in Bangkok in August 2007, I had few plans other than to see the country, study its history, steep myself in the culture, and perhaps find someone who would share my life.  A long-time spiritual seeker, I hoped to learn about how Buddhism is lived by devotees rather than written about by western intellectual converts.  I joined an English-speaking Buddhist group and helped organize retreats and discussion events.  Within six months I had a job teaching English to monks and loved it with a passion.  I hung out with expats and listened to interesting speakers at the Foreign Correspondents club, and I joined the National Museum Volunteers to learn more about the arts and archeology of Siam.  With friends of like mind, I participated in a study and discussion group to better understand our adopted country.  I followed the red and yellow politics of Thailand and formed strong opinions about the trajectories of recent history.  I attended massive gatherings for the King's birthday, the Loi Krathong water festival, and the red shirt anti-government demonstration, and I watched from my window both fireworks displays and smoke from destructive fires after the military crackdown of May 19th.

Bangkok is the center, and during the last three years I've also traveled to the various peripheries of Thailand, to Udon Ratchatani and Nong Khai in the northeast (including two visits to Laos), Chiang Mai and Pai, and Chiang Rai and Mai Sai in the north, to Ubon Ratchatani in the west for 10 days at a monastery, and to Phuket, Krabi and Ko Samui in the south, not to mention the "sin city" of Pattaya and the little island of Ko Samed closer to home that has become my favorite getaway destination.  I've seen natural beauty galore side-by-side with the tragedy of poverty, and also have witnessed headlong development that threatens to overwhelm the attractiveness of the scenery to tourists.  I've traveled by bus, train, tuk tuk motorbike and song-tao.  Thai culture is much more complex than the label "Land of Smiles" would indicate.  A smile can communicate anger and sadness as well as sanuk, the Thai word for fun and enjoyment.  As an outsider, I can observe but will never fully understand.  Even that unknowingness is a part of the attraction to Thailand. 

I've been writing about Thailand in this blog and posting photos I've taken here since my first trip in February of 2004.  Yet I've always felt like grasping at straws when I try to describe or sum up what it is about this place that entirely captivates me.  Sometimes it seems it's the excitement I like of living daily in a mystery wrapped in an enigma that is Thai culture.  I cannot fathom the language or the motivations of the people.  Why do they love uniforms so much and submit to authoritarian hierarchies that take away their power?  At other times it's the vibrant street life that I love, so similar to that in other developing countries like Mexico, contrasted with the sanitized order of America where people are perpetually encased in homes, offices or cars and the sidewalks are clean and empty.  It's also the strange loud noises and odd smells that send some visitors fleeing for the exits, not to mention the poverty of the beggars and illegal construction workers, and the school girls who play "Mary had a little lamb" on their recorders for donations.  And it's the jarring contrasts, the luxurious supermalls, palaces of consumption for the rich, which are entered along pathways occupied by buskers, Burmese mothers nursing babies, blind musicians and a leper without arms holding a cup in his mouth. 

Bangkok, I will miss your department store food courts, rides down the Chao Phraya River listening to "Democracy Now" podcasts on my iPod Touch, shrubs along the highway sculpted in the shape of animals, soap opera lakorn on TV featuring dramatic Hi-So feuds and romance with drinking and smoking blurred out by the censor, the respectful wai in the place of shaking hands, Thais plucking facial or underarm hair with tweezers in public, flower sellers with their hand-made garlands for Wan Phra (Monk Day, each of the four phases of the moon), cement pedestrian overpasses without which crossing streets would be impossible, soi dogs desperately in need of attention from a vet and cats with genetically crooked tails, and, finally, a mobile phone at every ear.

I don't know what comes next.  It's all a matter of chance, fate or luck, or perhaps unknown conditions that have already determined future events.  Friends are saying prayers for me and I do not discount their effect.  Perhaps all this is a tempest in a teapot and this blog which occasionally rattles a few cages will continue with new insights from a California sojourn or memories recounted after the fact.  I have put my affairs in order and almost packed my bags.  Nan and I cling to each other with an unexpected ferocity, as if we can imprint our souls like a tattoo.  I prefer advanced planning, heavy on the details, but sometimes events conspire to prevent it.  My bets are hedged with photographs, thousands of them, which will never let us forget even if the memory weakens.  I have loved you, Bangkok, and I love thee, Nan,

 to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, --- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! --- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
--Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Today would have been the 43rd birthday of my son, Luke.  He died last December from causes related to many years of alcoholism.  Despite his demons, he was a loving and compassionate son.  I miss him.  R.I.P., Lucas Tempel Yaryan.


Anonymous said...

Good Luck ! I wish you the best and hope all works in your favour. You put a smile on a strangers face.

Janet Brown said...

Will, this is lovely and poignant and makes me remember the sadness with which I have always left Bangkok--even this time. Your catalog of the things you love in this city echoes my own private one. I am sure you will return. I wish that for you with all of my heart. America is "no country for old men"--or old women either.
I'm returning for a quick visit in November and hope Nan will have time for dinner when I'm there. I love you, my brother!

Anonymous said...

Return soon Mr Will.