Friday, May 23, 2008


Waiting for classes to begin, waiting for more documents to complete the visa process, waiting for news about the fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains where the Kings were forced to evacuate from their Browns Valley home, waiting for Obama and Hillary to settle their differences, waiting for the diarrhea cure to kick in, waiting for the new coup, waiting for the Burmese generals to confess their inadequacies, waiting for Godot.

This week began with Visakha Bucha, which is Christmas and Easter all rolled into one for the Buddhists. The biggest religious holiday in Thailand (even the bars were closed), it is sometimes considered Buddha's birthday, but it actually marks his birth, enlightenment, entry into Nibamma, and death. Visakha is Pali for the second month of the lunar Hindu calendar, but the date varies because different traditions use different lunar calendars. The decision to agree to celebrate Vesak as the Buddha’s birthday on the first full moon of Vesakh was formalized at the first Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Sri Lanka in 1950. In Thailand, it is a day to meditate, observe the eight precepts, eat vegetarian food, and give generously to the needy.

Pim and I took the bus across the river to Pinklao where we looked at a couple of apartments for rent in the 26-story Commonwealth condominium complex. The dingy studio apartment looked down on a luxurious swimming pool one floor below, while the two-bedroom one crammed with its owner's junk had a glorious view of the rain-swept cityscape to the west. In addition to the pool there was a gym, restaurant and even a putting green. On the bus back to Siam Square we listened to a monks chanting over the PA. We got off at Wat Pathum Wanaram, the temple nestled between the Siam Paragon and Central World megamalls. Like Makha Bucha in February, celebrating the Buddha's first teaching to his disciples, we marched in a procession, holding lotus blossoms, incense and candles, three times around a holy image, this time a "boat" on a pillar in the middle of an artificial lake on the temple grounds. There were tents on each side of the rectangle where it appeared people were making donations and perhaps getting their fortune told. A monk in one tent was delivering a sermon. Musicians in another were getting ready to play. Pim softly chanted a prayer as we walked. After three times around, we laid our blossoms on a pile and stuck candles and incense into the sand in a trough.

I am reluctant to move, having grown accustomed to my small room on the 7th floor at Siam Court where I've lived for nine months. But after next week, both of us will be commuting to jobs on the other side of the city. It makes sense to find a place over there, in Banglamphu or across the river where rents should be cheaper than here in the tourist paradise of Sukhumvit. I've had to convince Pim that we can't afford to buy a brand new place for two million baht in one of the spiffy Lumpini Condominium developments in Pinklao. I dream of a small two-story townhouse in a cozy Thai neighborhood, with security and an internet connection, a place for plants and a spot to park a motorbike. In Bangkok, however, furnished serviced apartments in huge buildings are more common. Having to buy a TV and a microwave might negate any savings in rent. Pim has a refrigerator in storage from her dormitory. In America it was common to pay 60 per cent or more of income in rent; here I've been paying about 40 per cent, so perhaps I can afford to upgrade. Something with a bedroom and a kitchen would be nice.

The many street stalls on Sukumvit, in addition to counterfeit DVDs and CDs, specialize in tee shirts, most with beer logos, geographical icons or cartoons to advertise that the wearer has recently visited Thailand. Often I see shirts which came originally from America. For some strange reason, I've seen a number of shirts that advertise Hollister, the motorcyclist capital of the world. The other day I was amazed to see a woman wearing a tee shirt that read "I am afraid of Americans." I reached for my camera but she passed by too quickly to get a shot. My usual walk down Sukhumvit takes me past the friendly kids with Amazing Thailand!, the official state tourist agency, who get paid 20 baht for every survey they can convince tourists to take (after three or four times, now I politely decline), and past the ladyboy prostitutes who cluster around the entrances to Bookazine and Starbucks. From my perch on the second floor of Starbucks, I can watch them put on their makeup and accost various unsuspecting men. On the corner the tuk tuk drivers flash wrinkled brochures full of naked ladies and solicit rides to a nearby massage parlor. Sometimes I watch the one-legged beggar drag himself along the pavement looking for coins. In addition to caffeine, Starbucks provides the daily English papers and I diligently try to understand the mysterious world of Thai politics.

For example, one of Prime Minister Samak's deputies is in trouble for remarks he made at the Foreign Correspondents Club last year which, in their Thai translation, have been thought by some to be disrespectful to the monarchy. And a 27-year-old Thai man who refused to stand in a movie theater during the playing of the national anthem was arrested recently and charged with lèse majesté, offending the dignity of Thailand's king. He insisted there is nothing in the Thai constitution that requires him to stand. The crime is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. This morning's paper announced that a mass rally would be held on Sunday by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to protest constitutional amendments proposed by Samak's People's Power Party which they fear will absolve members of Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai Party, dissolved by the 2006 military coup, from corruption charges. According to the story, PAD charged that charter amendments are "detrimental to the country, religion and the monarchy, as well as the people." All politicians and parties in Thailand hide behind the lèse majesté law, accusing their opponents of questioning (or even mentioning) the monarchy. One of PAD's founders is right-wing newspaper publisher Sondhi Limthongkul whose pages have urged violence against anyone who refuses to stand for the anthem. Originally a supporter of Thaksin, Sondi turned against him and huge PAD rallies preceded the military overthrow of his government. But even Sondhi has been accused (unsuccessfully) of lèse majesté. Such nationalist and royalist flag waving reminds me of the anti-communist hysteria in America during the 1950s.

Last week we visited the October 14 1973 Memorial on Ratchdamnoen Road not far from the Democracy Monument which was erected after 1932 to celebrate Thailand's establishment of a constitutional monarchy. On that day the military turned its guns on a crowd protesting the expulsion of student activists upset over the dictatorial one-man rule of Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachon, the prime minister. He was a staunch anti-communist and a loyal supporter of the American war in Vietnam. Over 200,000 had gathered near the Democracy Monument to call for a constitutional government (irony of ironies). In the violent response, a thousand were killed and the King even opened the gates of Chitralada Palace to protestors who were being gunned down by the army. Unfortunately, scenes of bloodshed like this were repeated again in 1976 and 1992. But the memorial stands as a reminder to Thais of what can happen when the fragile balance of nation, religion and king is upset by allowing the military to decide what constitutes "Thainess."

Jerry and I were sitting around the other day talking about friends. I've been reading Follow the Music, Jac Holzman's account of running Elektra Records during "the great years of American pop culture." Many of our mutual friends were interviewed by Holzman's co-author Gavan Daws, a good pal of Jerry's from Hawaii. There are comments by the late Diane Gardiner as well as my friend Pat Faralla who was publicist for Elektra on the west coast, and now, according to rumor, runs a restaurant in Portugal. I particularly liked the story of Paxton Lodge in the Sierras where producer Barry Friedman, aka, Frazier Mohawk, gathered a group of musicians and groupies, including a young Jackson Browne, to recreate the home studio ambiance of Big Pink where The Band made such great music. But the project sank under the weight of drug-fueled madness (Browne's rise began after he swore off drugs). Holzman lost thousands of dollars and Friedman, who helped Jerry find work in Hollywood, now runs a farm outside Toronto.

Corb Donohue, our friend who died of cancer last year, once told Jerry that "there are only 600 people in the world. The rest is all done with mirrors."

I like that.

1 comment:

Ed Ward said...

Aw, man, sorry to hear about Corb. One of my favorite people when I lived in California, but as you know, I fell out of touch with a lot of them over the years.