Saturday, September 22, 2007

You've Got Mail!

My cup of joy overflowed yesterday when I found a letter in the mailbox on the second floor of Siam Court where I live from my dear mentor and friend, Noel Q. King. Not only was it a welcome gift, but it was the first mail I've received here (hint, hint, distant friends) and it helped to certify my legitimacy as a Bangkok resident. While I've never much cared for chatting at length on the phone, I have always loved receiving mail. Even junk mail means that someone, somewhere, cares about you. When I was laid up in bed for four months with a broken femur in the late 1950s, I used to send away for college catalogs and travel brochures, and the mail poured in like a cornucopia. Noel writes that he remembers attending Sikh services at the gurdwara near the Flower Market, "so I can imagine something of your surroundings." The other day I passed the market while riding on the Chao Praya River boat taxi. Now I can close my eyes and remember Noel in his study, surrounded by the clutter of papers and books. It's nice to hear from you, my friend.

For the past two days I have been busily making new friends and renewing old acquaintances. On Thursday I spent the afternoon with Marcus who is finishing up a position teaching English at a school here and will leave for another similar job in Seoul, Korea, next week. We met in a discussion of Buddhism on the internet and have been attending the talks by Pandit at the Baan Aree Library. We had lunch at Ricky's Coffeeshop in Banglamphu, the district where Khao San Road, the backpacker's ghetto is located. At the end of our long conversation about the need for more this-worldly passion in the dhamma, as well as talk about wives, children and girlfriends, Marcus took off his shirt to show me his magnificent tattoo. It incorporates two old tattoos, a Winnie the Pooh on his left shoulder and a red star commemorating his Communist upbringing in England on the right. The new design incorporates magical combinations of numbers and Siamese symbols from Buddhist temple architecture. I was jealous and am now contemplating a suitable design to mark my 70th birthday. Ideas anyone?

From Ricky's, Marcus and I took a tuk tuk to Wat Suthat not far away. I wanted to see the Giant Swing (Sao Ching-Cha) in front of the temple which had been rededicated by the King last week. It was originally constructed in 1784 during the reign of Rama I for the ceremony of Tri-yampawai or the Swing Ceremony. The first thing you notice is that there is a huge red frame made out of a number of large teak logs but there is no swing. The ceremony was based on a Hindu legend. According to Wikipedia:
After Brahma created the world he sent Shiva to look after it. When Shiva descended to the earth, Naga serpents wrapped around the mountains in order to keep the earth in place. When Shiva found the earth solid, the Nagas moved to the seas in celebration. The Swing Ceremony is a re-enactment of this story. The pillars of the Giant Swing represent the mountains, while the circular base of the swing represents the earth and the seas. In the ceremony monks swing, trying to grab a bag of coins placed on one of the pillars.
But too many monks were killed during the ceremony when they fell off the swing, so it was discontinued in 1935 and the swing removed from the frame. The swing, considered an important Bangkok landmark, has been rebuilt several times and the latest incarnation was rededicated with much pomp and cirumstance last week. I caught a glimpse of it on the TV in the salon where Nong was giving me a haircut.

Inside Wat Suthat, Marcus and I admired the collection of Buddhas (pictured here, along with someone taking a nap), and sat before the large central Buddha. Young Marcus is able to bend his legs correctly while my knees gave me grief. He pointed out the pillow under one elbow of the Buddha which can only be seen from the side. Daily the monks gather for chanting and I hope to come back soon to hear them, remembering the pleasure of early morning chanting with the monks at Wat Pah Nanachat. From the temple we walked past the swing and crossed the large square in front of the Bangkok city hall to a tent where a brisk sale of amulets was taking place. I bought one with the Suthat Buddha on one side and the swing on the other. Marcus bought a couple more to add to his collection of dozens. Amulets make great gifts and I recall handing out a number of them to my friends at Everyday Dharma Sangha back in Santa Cruz after my first trip here in 2004.

From there we walked through a maze of streets (narrow sidewalks, scarey traffic) to the Golden Mount which could be glimpsed briefly between buildings. The artificial hill is the result of a failed attempt during the reign of Rama III (1824-51) to build a large stupa which collapsed because it was too heavy for the soil. Rama IV (1851-68) constructed a small stupa on the rubble, and Rama V (1868-1910) expanded the structure to house a Buddha relic from India given him by the British Government. We walked through the grounds of Wat Saket at the foot of the hill and up a path that wound around the artificial mount. Up at the top, around the dome pictured here, is a platform with a magnificent 360-degree view of the Bangkok cityscape. Although the skies were dark and promised rain, it was possible to see for miles in all directions. There were three large temple compounds below, interspersed with tin-roofed houses, blocks of shops and crowded thoroughfares. It was not possible to see the river, but I could spot the skyscapers of Silom, Siam and Sukhumvit. Marcus showed me in the distance where he lived in a small room a fourth the cost of mine, but an hour and a half bus ride to the north. A small group on the platform were gathered around a monk in an orange robe while a camera filmed them. Tourists walked discretely around them, gazing at the incredible view. Marcus pointed down the hill to a modern building which he said was the Queen's Art Gallery. The coffee shop had great iced coffee. So we walked back down the hill, ringing the bells on the way, and across an unbelievably dangerous intersection, where my life nearly ended several times, to the museum on the other side. There we looked at some wonderful modern renditions of Buddhist-influenced art. One work, in black and white, told the story of the bandit who collected the thumbs of his victims, stringing them around his neck, and who was enlightened by the Buddha. Hidden in the large painting were representations of Osama Bin Laden as well as Van Gough's sunflowers and "Guernica" by Picasso.

After ice coffee, my last adventure of that day was a ride on a khlong (canal) taxi. Because I was far from the river and the Skytrain, and I didn't want to catch a taxi during the traffic-jammed rush hour, Marcus directed me to the Khlong Saen Saep stop. There I jumped on the long boat, paid the helmeted ticket taker 8 baht, and we were off. According to my Lonely Planet guide, this "canal is seriously polluted and passengers typically hold newspapers over their faces to prevent being splashed by the stinky water. Climbing in and out of the boats can be a little tricky and should not be attempted when decked out in heels and pearls." What isn't mentioned is the reckless speed of the boats which stir up the brown waters into a froth. Side curtains must be hoisted up by the passengers to stay dry, making it a little difficult to view the fascinating life of those who live alongside the khlong. I saw a mynah bird in a cage outside one canal bank dwelling. It's also difficult to determine where one is, the stop signs being poorly marked. Luckily a passanger with a indeterminate European accent told me where to get off near the Siam Square malls and the Skytrain station. I must say I found the smell of the water more curious than offensive. Riding the khlong taxi was more of an exhilarating plunge into the unknown than risky business. I'll do it again.

Yesterday I spent several hours trading stories with Holly while sampling Danube Coffee's cappuccino along with muffins, and miniature pineapple pieces that she'd brought for our brunch at Phloenchit Center on the corner of Sukhumvit and Soi 2. I'd met Holly and her husband at their apartment in Haight Ashbury about eight years ago. She, Lee and Durl and grown up in Maryland and we met Lee one summer on the Eastern Shore. Holly, like me, was a late academic bloomer and she got her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. After working in the mental health field in Los Angeles, they moved to Thailand where each found teaching jobs. Most recently Holly has been teaching graduate students at Assumption University. She was a fund of information about Thai mores, and I learned that a different color is associated with each day of the week. The reason Thais wear yellow shirts on Monday to honor the king is because he was born on a Monday and yellow is its color. Holly wore blue because it was Friday, and Friday was the day on which the queen was born. We're both interested in Buddhism, but not exclusively. She is the treasurer of the Baan Aree Library lecture series, and knows a number of the farang spirit seekers in Bangkok. But she has also spent uality time at Auroville in Pondicherry, India, and is interested in the writings and philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. On the subject of Catholicism, we found substantial disagreements. Now separated from her husband who teaches English in China, Holly lives with the cat she brought over from the states in an old house not that far from me. I am certain our paths will cross often.

Besides having my hair cut by Nong at her salon a short distance from Siam Court, I also treated myself to a foot massage from the ladies at Naree next door. I've gotten massages here before, on previous visits to Bangkok and Koh Samui, but it has taken me a month to entrust my sore feet and aching body to the hands of the ladies who wave to me every time I pass by. Some of it was nervousness over the ground rules and boundaries. When is a massage supposed to be sexual and when is it not? There are massage parlors where numbered ladies wait expectantly behind a window to be chosen by customers who are then taken to a private room and washed and massaged by the naked masseuse "all over." I just had tired feet. So I dropped by Naree one afternoon and they were overjoyed to see me. They wanted to know where I was from, and where I walked to every day as I passed their door. While a sturdy lady with gentle hands worked over my feet, ankles and thighs, Ali from Nong Khai sat to my right, held my hand and related the fortune she spied in my palm. The massage was terrific. And now the ladies, Ali in particular, greet me familiarly as I pass and try to talk me into the 400 baht oil massage. I somehow suspect that there is more to it than oil and gentle hands. But it is nice to be known in my neighborhood.

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