Thursday, November 13, 2008

Whatever Floats Your Boat

As the sun set yesterday, and as the 12th full moon of the Thai lunar year rose over Bangkok, I walked the several blocks from my apartment to the Chao Phraya River at the foot of Pinklao Bridge to observe Loy Krathong. "Loy" means to float, and a krathong is a small boat traditionally made out of a banana tree trunk with elaborately-folded banana leaves, various kinds of flowers, candles, and incense sticks, among other objects d'art (the creativity of krathong makers is endless).

It was a bittersweet celebration for me. Last year Pim introduced me to the mostly secular holiday and we co-mingled with millions of residents drawn to both sides of the river to honor the goddess of the waters, Phra Mae Khongkha, and to symbolically let go of our troubles and cares for the year by floating our boats. The festival probably began in India as a Hindu celebration, similar to Diwali, to thank the deity of the Ganges with floating lanterns for giving life. In Bangkok the holiday is marked by fireworks over the river and a procession of elaborately designed ships lit up with colored lights. This year I celebrated alone, my date for the evening having canceled a few hours before. But though it began in sadness, the evening was a delight.

The rainy season has been long this year and the Chao Phraya is full. Sandbags contained the overflow and puddles were frequent. Near the river there were dozens of tables selling hand-crafted krathongs, many the product of families working together. Children for a fee jumped into the murky (undoubtedly polluted) waters to launch krathongs on their way into the current. Newspaper articles this week have advised against purchasing krathongs constructed from a foam base that is nearly indestructible and ecologically harmful. The annual celebration fills the poor Chao Phraya with tons of trash that must be later removed to keep the essential waterway open. Exhuberant youngsters were setting off firecrackers that sounded disturbingly like the bombs the various political factions here have taken to throwing lately. I cringed repeatedly.

I wasn't ready yet to float my own krathong, so I walked across the Pinklao Bridge to watch the parade of ships up the river. Some of them blasted music at full volume and featured dancers that were hard to see from the shore but easy to watch from the bridge as the vessels passed underneath. To the south I could see fireworks beyond the Grand Palace and Wat Arun. The riverbanks on both sides were lit up with neon color and spotlights crossed the sky. Bangkok really knows how to throw a party.

The narrow walkway on the other side of the river was becoming crowded as I walked north towards Suan Santichaiparkran Park with its stately Phra Fort Sumen which was built during the reign of King Rama I over 200 years ago. This is the edge of Banglamphu and not far from Khao San Road, so the crowds were full of farang eager to buy and launch their krathongs. Now that I am a permanent resident I maintained my distance, knowingly aloof. On the other side of the Phra Arthit river taxi pier, the crowds got almost nasty. I struggled towards the park in a failed attempt to recapture the memory of last year. While the hoardes of revelers were the same, the entertainment from a variety of stages was new. I bought a plate of rice and chicken and reclined on the lawn to dine and watch the festivities.

After getting my fill of claustrophobic bodies, I retraced my steps and returned to the foot of Pinklao Bridge on "my" side of the river with its refreshing absence of seasonal tourists. This was Thai family territory. I bought a krathong for 30 baht and stood in line at the riverbank until a swimmer came to carry my gift of forgetfulness and forgiveness into the healing waters of the river. The kids, girls as well as boys, seemed to be having a blast, though I saw one shivering from the cold water. Celebrants lit their candles and incense (some added sparklers), said a short prayer, and turned their small boat over to the a swimmer who accepted a donation which they put into a pouch or bag for safekeeping. I gave this little girl 20 baht to launch my krathong which she did with the help of an older kid, and I'm sure they all made a killing. The park between the river taxi and ferry piers was full of people. The homeless who usually live there must have been moved aside for the evening. People were selling all kinds of food as well as krathongs. The barbecue restaurant had expanded its tables onto the sidewalk and was full of diners. Even on the 4th of July in America you would never see such a lively nightlife as you see on the streets of Bangkok on any night of the week as well as one that is as special as Loy Krathong.

We're having a cold spell in Bangkok. I haven't used my air-conditioning or fan in over three days. Perhaps this signals the end of the prolonged rainy season and the beginning of winter. It's only in the high 60s but Thais have put on their sweaters and coats. I'm still sitting with my shirt off as I type this.

While it's the fourth week of the new term, I've had only two classes so far. At the first meeting there were only two students. And this week there is no class. Wednesday was the full moon and Wan Phra, or Monk's Day. The class would normally have been held on Saturday, except that this Saturday is the cremation ceremony for Princess Galyani Vadhana, the sister of the King. It promises to be a splendid affair and I'm planning to take photos. An elaborate crematorium has been constructed on the Sanam Luang parade grounds for the Princess who died ten months ago. She had been a French professor who also worked in rural development, and she died of cancer at the age of 84. The ceremony, which honors royalty as a deity, ceomes from Hindu traditions. Official mourning begins tomorrow, ahead of the moving of Princess Galyani's body from the Grand Palace (where it has been lying in state) to Sanam Luang on Saturday, when her body will be cremated. The collection of the ashes will take place on Sunday. All residents have been requested to wear black for three days, and I bought new outfits for the occasion at Tesco Lotus.

It's now officially the Christmas season in Bangkok. Immediately after Halloween, decorations went up at all the major shopping centers. They ignore the Thanksgiving bump in the road that inaugurates the season back in the USA. It's hard to know what ordinary Thais think of this, but they love to celebrate holidays, their own as well as others. In Starbucks the cheesy Christmas songs on the PA, from Frank Sinatra and Eartha Kitt among others, is disorienting. Both Loy Krathong and the annual Bangkok custom of decorating stores for the Christian tourists prompts me to reflect on my residence abroad. I've been living here for a year and two months. I have six more months to go on my visa and work permit, and expect to renew both for another year.

Although I'm lonely now that I've grown used to having a companion, I feel at home in this city, this country, and cannot see leaving in the foreseeable future. My youngest son Nick, who turns 26 years old TODAY (it was also my late father's who would have been 100 today), is thinking of coming to visit in February, as is my daughter Molly. Luke, who travels from Boston to Austin this weekend to visit his new girlfriend, would like to come once his job prospects and finances are in order. Chris is busy fixing his roof, a DIY project necessitated by the economic downturn (his business is home furnishings and homes are being foreclosed at a rapid rate), which means that he and his wife Sandy (who just celebrated her birthday last week) probably cannot budget an Asian vacation (although they are world travelers). Tonight I join members of the Little Bang Sangha to hear some instruction in meditation by Jeffrey Oliver, a former monk from Australia. So I continue to lead a normal life as an expat, savoring new experiences, tastes and sights, an elderly man continually entranced by lovely Thai ladies, and a school teacher bemused and challenged by his two classes of monks. It's not a bad life.

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