Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
11/7/2004 Bangkok. Hi, all, literally from the streets of Bangkok. I'm in the Chinatown Hotel lobby on Yaowarat Road, about three blocks from the New Empire Hotel. The New Empire has three good things: air con works, linen is clean, and it's $16 US a night. The few things I could improve with an interior design consultant I'll pass on for right now.
Got into Bangkok after a two flight from Singapore across the Bight of Bangkok and into Bangkok proper. Traffic bad, but not the total gridlock I've often experienced on I-35. (Remember, Joe?)
The heat here is drier, but more intense than Singapore. The streets are strange; last night Kwo and I wandered Yaowarat Street for a half-hour hunting for a restaurant. (I had chili crab, Mary, at the Shangarila Restaurant.) The hunt for a restaurant proceeded slowly because, unlike Singapore, Bangkok has not banned hawkers. The result is a crowded, lively, people rich night scene, right on the sidewalk: many fruits including dragon fruit and jack fruit and durian, chestnuts roasted in a large wok with small obsidian rocks to even out the heat, ducks splayed open with bamboo and barbecued, cilantro and bok choy, shrimp and chicken, bubbling pots, soft haggling in the background.
This AM I got my wake up call from Kwo and away we went. Kwo walks fast and wants to take in as much as possible. I walk fast, too, but I'm not as committed to sight seeing. In fact, on our first venture out we went to a pier and waited on one of the harbor taxis, much more exotic than Venice. One came, the people got off and I took a picture of a long-boat (think extended canoe with a really big v-8 attached to a drive shaft about ten feet long and steering column cum acclerator mounted at the back and a Thai guy dangling his arm over it all, smoking a cigarette). When I turned back, the taxi and Kwo was gone.
Big city. But I knew where she got off, so I waited until the next one and hopped on it. A great, cheap ride. Kwo was at Pier 9 and we proceeded on about our way. First stop, a Monastic university where meditation is taught. Monks in saffron robes and sandals, white walls and quiet, very different from the street just outside. Dogs lay draped over the steps and the occasional nun in white robe passed between the buildings.
Nothing happening there though we did inquire about instruction in meditation. We wandered on through the grounds of Thammasat University and found our way to the National Museum. This Museum alone is worth the visit. It has an excellent history museum and much art, Buddhist and Hindu either produced by Thai's or their predecessor cultures like Sukkothai and Lop Buri.
After that, a cooling ride on a water taxi back to Pier 5 and now I found this place. Will have to do this on this kind of basis now.
Love to you all,
I am, In Bangkok,
Your correspondent and friend, husband, father, or brother, Charlie
11/9/2004 Bangkok. Once again at the China Town Hotel. A busy couple of days. Yesterday...Went to Chatachuak Market by Skytrain (the El of Bangkok). 35 here. Hard to imagine a crisp fall morning in Fahrenheit can mean 95 humid degrees, but it not only can, it does.
The market had row after row of merchandise of all kinds: Thai silk, sacred objects of many kinds, shoes, brassiers, large (and I mean large) rocks...yes, rocks. Dinnerware, some nice Celadon. Art. Knives. Guns. Hats from straw to cloth. Fruit wrapped in plastic bags: jack fruit, mango, pineapple, rose apple, bananas. Water for only 10 baht, about a 25 cents.
I found a turtle for Kate (number 4, I think) and a couple of Celadon pieces with elephants done in unglazed clay. Very nice. Total? Less than $12.00! This place makes Sams Club look like a Cadillac drivers only shop. If it wasn't for the literally claustrophobic heat and the crush of people, I'd go back in a Minnesota minute.
Speaking of Minnesota...I miss the cool weather a lot.
After the market Kwo and I went by Jim Thompson's house--a big deal here because he revived the Thai silk industry, then disappeared Jimmy Hoffa style in 1968. Some people think he was CIA, others that he ran drugs. Whatever, he's gone, but his silk shops define high end silk garments still.
We went by there on the way to a canal about 40 feet wide that cuts through Bangkok about a mile east of the Chao Praya. Water taxis run on this canal, very long, thin boats driven by crazed Thais with either skill or a death-wish, I couldn't decide which. Once you get in they use light rope to pull up a tarp that protects the passengers from river spray...see the death-wish reference above.
From there to the golden mount. This and the Wat of the Emerald Buddha are key monuments to the Thai people. Three Rama's (Kings) worked on building this tall mountain-like structure, partly because they chose real soft ground and the first King's efforts came to naught when the whole damned thing sank into the earth. However, with monarchical persistence they kept at it. Now the the mount is built and houses, under a golden stupa (a shape here oddly similar to the top of a soft-ice cream cone), an observatory with a great view of Bangkok, and another gold object with buddha reliefs facing the four directions.
I joined everyone else (every Thai else that is) and bought four pieces of gold leaf for 20 baht. The idea is to put one piece of gold leaf on a buddha in each of the four directions, praying at each one. It took me three tries to get more gold leaf on the Buddha than on my fingers, heat and gold leaf are a bad combination. Still, I liked the idea and the obvious syncretism of an animist idea and the Buddhist iconography appealed to me.
After this Kwo and I split up, she went onto another Wat (she saw one more before. I saw some of it.), I walked back to the New Empire in the heart of Chinatown. A long hot walk. But, the street life in Chinatown is worth a visit to this country anyhow.
Later, we had dinner at the White Orchid, a hotel down the street. The food was great, but I realized afterward I'd been in Bangkok three days and had had no Thai food! (I fixed that at lunch about twenty minutes ago.) There was a floor show with Chinese singers, so our waitress asked us to move further back--she seated us in this spot next to the stage in the first place--so I went but Kwo stayed to finish her meal. I was done.
So, I was alone. "Did you come all by yourself, honey?" A tall person with lipstick, long straight hair, and a pant-suit asked in a gravely voice that confirmed what I thought--a transvestite. I said no.
Not too odd here. The Miss World Transvestite beauty pageant finished over the weekend.
This morning the Royal Palace. I have begun to sense what it must have been like to live under a monarch. The king's stuff is so nice, so beyond what you could ever hope for that the bond among king, state, people, and religion becomes seamless. I, as a peasant, could look at the Palace grounds with their gold sofa has and their gold hang hongs, the Emerald Buddha, an emblem of Thailand as much as Garuda, Vishnu's fierce vehicle and feel a sense of pride, not envy. I can't be king, but it is important to see my king do well, since his prosperity and security reflects the state of the nation.
Now, I can also see how that rationale would go stale when you learned elsewhere folks shared a bit more equally, but the end result is not much different from the oligarchic nature of current American culture.
I sat on the floor of the temple of the Emerald Buddha this morning, legs carefully tucked under me so my feet were behind, not in front, which is very bad juju. While I sat trying to absorb what it would be like to sit there as a Buddhist, a group of kids came in and knelt down. They were maybe 10/12 years old and all had a nice t-shirt with palm trees and islands.
With the sweetest face imaginable they put their hands together, thrust them out and up as they prostrated themselves three times. They looked rapt. Children approach faith so guilessly, not caught up in ecclesial politics or the politics of state, and the innocence and trust always gets to me. As it did today.
I have found the opportunity to participate in the Deepavali festivities, and the Ramadan fast-breaking, and now visiting several Wats here in Bangkok that the faith of everyday folk points beyond us, and within us, to a truth, some truth, whatever it is, about the nature of the human soul.
Tomorrow I'm going to Atthuytha, an ancient capitol of Thailand. These ruins and those of Angkor Wat are the primary reason I came here (aside from Mary and Mark) and I feel ready now, after almost two weeks here.
My love to you all,
Still in The Far East,
11/10/2004 The farang has landed. Got into Siem Reap at 7pm local time, the same as Bangkok. Visa process surprisingly efficient. Hand the guy your visa application, passport, and a passport photo. That's the visa application. You go to the back of the next line and wait. A man shows you your passport picture. You nod, hand them $20 (in US cash please, no riels). That's the visa granting process. Then, immigration. Lots of stamping.
You're in Cambodia. Hard to believe right here 30 years ago the same pleasant people who helped us were busy murdering each other and planting land mines all over the place. Which the guide books now remind you of in this way: If you need to heed the call of nature, do not go off the path. It is better to be caught in a compromising position than to get blown up. Hmmm. Mighty encouraging.
Still, the good news is most of the land mines have been removed from around the temples. Can't kill the tourists. Of course, the rest of the country is not so fortunate. Remember Princess Di?
Tomorrow, up at 7 AM to see Angkor Wat. It may take the whole day, or more. I'm excited about seeing it.
Kwo is unhappy; she thinks I only make up my mind about things the same half-day a decision must be made. I told her I thought her time frame was too generous.
11/11/2004 Sorry if this is a bit repetitive. The other one disappeared and apparently found its way into cyberspace. All this playing around with other computers is taking its toll.
On the ground in Siem Reap at the Sakura hotel, at least for tonight. Visa process efficient...hand a man passport, photo, visa application (the visa application process); proceed to rear of next line. Wait. A man shows you your passport photo. You nod. Hand him $20 US (no Cambodian money, please). The visa granting process. Then, immigration control. Lots of stamping. Everywhere. I don't know what it's all for but it does seem to make life work for the immigration clerk.
Outside a guy solicits us to ride in his taxi. Only $5. Then, he disappears, but "...his brother." comes along. Who turns out to be Mr. Ritt. A genuinely nice guy. The hotel I selected is under renovation, so he brought us to the Sakura nearby.
Kwo wants to have more choices; "a principle." So now we have choices. She looked up stuff on the internet. I like Kwo though my decision making style seems to irritate her. She claims I don't make up my mind until the same half-day I need to decide. I told her I thought her time frame was generous. She didn't see the humor. Ah, well.
Out here, near the ruins of Khmer kings long dead and remembered by only a few, a decision about where to stay seems insignificant. To me.
We flew here in the dark, landing at 7pm local time. It gets dark; I mean night, fast in the tropics. So the ruins remain cloaked in blackness for now. Tomorrow, Angkor Wat. It may take a day or two to see in itself. It is huge.
Saw a miniature of it in the Thai Grand Palace grounds. Now there's a place to live. Gold stupas, monkeys made of bright pieces of colored glass, sweeping roofs topped with lance sharp golden sofa ha's. Guardians a good twenty feet tall; wonderful paintings recounting the Ramakien, a story based on the Ramayana, and writted by the second king of the Chakri dynasty, Rama II. Four long walls filled with these gold leaf and richly colored renderings. And, in the Royal Wat (temple), the emerald Buddha. Really a jade Buddha but the Buddhist abbot who discovered it thought it was emerald.
It's not big, actually, small, but high and lifted up among many gold buddhas.
Gotta go. Our car is coming to take us to Angkor Wat.
More later, I have a consistent internet connection here.