Friday, August 21, 2009

Thai Frankenfish is Yummy

The tastiest fish I've eaten in Bangkok was served whole one evening at a sidewalk restaurant. It was stuffed with herbs, rubbed with salt and grilled over a charcoal fire. The white meat was plentiful, without small bones, and aroi maak (very delicious). My friends told me it was called snakehead, or pla chorn, and I assumed it was because of its flat head. But I learned from Tony Bourdain's Thailand episode of "No Reservations" this week that the snakehead is a vicious predator that can walk on land and eat small pets.

"These are the fish that people introduced in America and they were crawling on people’s lawns and killing their poodles," Tony said to my friend Jerry as they feasted on snakehead at the Taling Chan Market on a trip up the khlong. "When released into a body of fresh water, these carnivorous beasts pretty much move on top the food chain like water-born gangsters, gobbling up every other fish in sight." A little research affirmed much of Tony's claim. A native of China, the snakehead snuck into America, either imported by an Asian hungry for traditional cuisine or a tropical fish enthusiast impressed by the fish's nastiness in an aquarium, and was found in a Maryland pond in 2002 eating its neighbors (but not, apparently, any pets). I discovered that the beast inspired two grade B scifi movies, "Frankenfish" and Snakehead Terror." It's been located all around the states and is now banned as an invasive and even dangerous species. Thais raise fish for food in backyard ponds, but the snakehead must be separated from catfish for it will devour its less aggressive watermate. Thais also feed fish as a way of making merit and I've tossed pellets and hunks of bread into the water at innumerable temple ponds.At left people gather on a dock at Wat Yannowa on the Chao Phraya River to feed what appear to be thousands of fish, and most, I think, are snakehead (the thought of eating fish from the polluted river is a bit disconcerting). At other temples, I've watched people release turtles, snakes and fish into rivers and canals to gain merit for an advantageous rebirth. Since seafood is a staple of the Thai diet, I question the logic of feeding fish and then eating them as a form of religious ritual.

I learned about "No Reservations," a show that airs on The Travel Channel, from Jerry who'd appeared with Tony on an earlier episode filmed in Thailand. This time he came during Songkran last April and the host and crew got caught up not only in water fights in Silom but also in the street fighing that paralyzed Bangkok for several days. There is a wonderful section of the episode (which aired in the U.S. Aug. 17) where he goes searching for cockles in the mud flats along the Gulf of Thailand. Now in its sixth season, the program features the foodie and former chef who searches the globe for unusual cuisine, and always presents it within a historical, social and political context. What ties everything together is Tony Bourdain's wonderful zest for life. As someone who has never learned to cook, and who often eats out of habit rather than desire, I've found that watching his show makes me ravenously hungry. Up until now I've avoided eating street-grilled sausage in Bangkok, but after seeing the section filmed in Bangkok's Chinatown where Tony raved about the sausage with ginger, I'm ready to give it a try. And pass me some more of that snakehead fish!

"How can you talk about Thaksin and Thai politics without mentioning the monarchy?" asked Jennifer, a friend from the Little Bang Sangha, in the elevator after the book launch party at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand last Tuesday. Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit's 2004 book about deposed and exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been updated and reissued and the historians were joined on a panel at the FCCT by two popular Thai intellectuals, Pitch Pongsawat and Ukrist Pathmanand to discuss the current political scene. Since the entire board of the FCCT, along with president Jonathan Head from the BBC, has been charged with lèse majesté for allowing previous events that allegedly defamed the King, the participants were understandably cautious. Baker defended the absence of the monarchy from his book by calling it a "black box." Since "no one knows what's in it, I didn't want to write about rumors." Some in the audience questioned how Thaksin's "legacy" could even be discussed since he's still front page news, and the final chapter about his incredible impact on Thai politics has yet to be written. The day before, Thaksin's red shirt supporters had ceremonially submitted a petition with five million names to the King via the government, requesting a pardon for the former leader who has been convicted of corruption charges which many believe were politically motivated. Baker described Thaksin as "a man totally beneath principles. He became what people wanted him to become." And Pasuk, his wife, added that he was "a great opportunist in exploiting the situation to get into power," no different from any other populist. "He got into trouble because of so many demands he could not satisfy. So he becomes authoritarian and creates an oligarchy until he’s toppled." I look forward to reading their book. And that evening I joined the FCCT, a move that set me back 5000 baht ($150). The group meets regularly in a penthouse suite in Chit Lom for drinks and dinner, entertainment and interesting speakers on a wide range of topics.

During the discussion, Pasuk said she saw a move towards mass politics in Thailand, a move away from unity, from what the elites can manage. "So the government counters with mo-so, the moderation campaign, and the I Love Thailand campaign." Both of these campaigns, launched in the last few months, feature posters, TV spots, billboards and ads, but everything is in Thai so I cannot understand what it's all about. Baker, who writes under the pen name "Chang Noi" in The Nation newspaper, explained that mo-so stands for "moderation society" (in Bangkok the rich are often described as "hi-so," or high society people, and the poor consequently as "lo-so"). This propaganda program is organized by the Internal Security Operations Command of the Army and funded by a billion baht voted after the Songkran troubles. "The Army has long dished out PR on its own importance," writes Chang Noi. "After the 2006 coup, it poured men and money into a campaign to influence the hearts and minds of the Thaksinite North and Northeast. This moso campaign represents a new frontier - an attempt to influence society as a whole through public media." And it won't have much impact on the widening divisions in Thai society, he concludes. The I Love Thailand campaign is another propaganda move to induce unity (by implication "unity" is an anti-Thaksin, anti-red code word) by encouraging Thais living outside the country to stick up for the present government. Prime Minister Abhisit announced that the project was launched because when his government took office the country's image had been bruised by internal conflicts, violence and protests. The situation was made worse by violent protests by the red shirts in Pattaya and in Bangkok in April. (No mention is made of the closure of the airport by yellow shirts.) "What can you do to show your love for the country?" is a key question of the project, according to Satit Wongnongtaey from Abhisit's office who is in charge. The web page is designed to emulate Facebook and other social networking sites and includes "patriotic music." In Chang Noi's view, these costly internal propaganda campaigns resemble techniques used by many totalitarian regimes in the 20th century.
Both the moso and ILoveThailand campaigns are explicitly designed to counter the social and political divisions of recent years. For one, the answer is to act moderately. For the other, the answer is to unite. Neither campaign acknowledges that there might be some real causes underlying those divisions. Neither campaign suggests any solutions to such causes. Neither acknowledges that people may have plunged into political activism because they thought it was their civic duty and because they had the country's interest at heart. Both want to sweep real problems under the carpet where they will fester and ferment. Is this a wise strategy?
In another critique of the government's mo-so campaign, Pavin Chachavalpongpun described "moderation society" as "a sufficiency economy reloaded for a new generation," and called it "surely a no-go" in the Bangkok Post. Sufficiency economy is a notion of the King's that sounds anti-capitalist and environmentally friendly but would perhaps ultimately reinforce the class system and unequal distribution of wealth in Thai society and ensure control of the country by the elites. Pavin suggests that the "mo-so project is the latest political tool employed to undermine Thaksin and perhaps his supporters. In putting the royal concept of sufficiency economy up against Thaksin's borderless capitalism, the mo-so makers could have purposefully dragged the much-revered institution, once again, into the ring of political conflict with or without their intending it." Pravit Rojanaphruk asks in The Nation, "Why is the military educating us about democracy?" In Thailand, unlike most countries in Europe, the military is relatively independent of civilian control. "Despite its checkered record of staging one coup after the other," Pravit writes, "the Army runs a fat campaign to educate the populace about democracy." Earlier this year the Army was paid by the Cabinet to go to rural areas where Thaksin remains popular, "to educate people about "democracy"...Sounds like a bad joke doesn't it?" The Army in Thailand owns and controls major television stations and hundreds of radio stations, not to mention the fact that many generals (Thailand probably has a higher percentage of generals than any other major army) are on the boards of major corporations. "Equally disturbing about these extra-curricular activities of the military is that nobody seems to care about its ever-increasing role in Thai society," says Pravit. One might also ask, what does Thailand need an army (and a navy and an air force) for anyway?

The Little Bang Sangha met again last night in the mirrored Planet Yoga room underneath the California Wow megagym on Sukhumvit for the third in Phra Cittamasvaro's series of eight Rains Retreat talks. Last week Pandit Bhikku said that the way of wisdom is like a relay race, or the use of different modes of transportation for each leg of the relay in the race toward what Buddha saw as "the deathless." Each segment requires the development of different qualities, compassion, loving kindness, etc. Wisdom requires the willingness to change and grow out of the ego self. He compared mindfulness to the pivot in the center of the see-saw that brings balance. "The trick is to be with what is, not to create another state of mind." We must watch the process of thought and not get caught up in the objects of thought. This seems to require not thinking, which I find not only difficult to do but impossible to grasp as a concept (is that the idea?). A conundrum.

Last night Pandit surprised everyone by presenting a "guaranteed method" to have a beautiful meditation. Since hardly anyone is satisfied with what happens (or doesn't) when they sit on the cushion or chair, we were all ears. "The trick is to have lots of bad meditations," he said. He compared the trials of unsatisfactory meditation to St. John of the Cross's dark night of the soul. People like his friend in the hospital want to be happy and comfortable, "but it is easier to be mindful when you are uncomfortable." We search for bliss through the distraction of a perfect meditation rather than strive to see things as they really are which is the goal of wisdom. Just as in the cinema we see images rather than the screen on which they are projected, in life we are ensnared in the five hindrances, as the Buddha taught. During the 20-minute meditation, I found myself struggling to stay awake. And this, I suppose, was good precisely because it was bad.

Nan and I are speaking daily now. Since there is mobile phone reception only on the roof of her mother's house in the village in the province of Phayao, we talk after she gets to the hospital 30 kilometers away each day to have her back and arm massaged by a nurse using hot herbs. She tells me that her back is better, and that even though her father is still in a coma, she wants to return to Bangkok next month to be with me. I don't want her to take the long bus ride (over 11 hours) so I proposed flying up to meet her to bring her home. She said her mother could drive her to Chiang Rai three hours away by car (Chiang Mai is nearly a six-hour drive). I've never been to Chiang Rai, "the gateway to the Golden Triangle," and I've decided to spend the weekend there so we can see some of the area's sights together. I'm planning to buy tickets on Air Asia this afternoon, before I go to see Brad Pitt in "Inglorious Bastards" which opened yesterday. On Tuesday I am going to the the new MCU facility in Wang Noi for a conference of members of humanities faculties at the university different campuses around Thailand. This will be the second such meeting for me to attend, a mark of my increasing longevity in Thailand. And just as last year, I will miss the second day of the conference to teach my class, unlike many of the other ajahns. My students have seen too little of me this term because of all the cancellations and postponements, and I find it a bit ironic to talk with other teachers about methods of English instruction while neglecting the students we're are supposed to be helping. But perhaps that's an un-Thai way of thinking.

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