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
11/13/2004 Addressing two questions: Yes, I am getting the e-mails. If we could find a cheap flight package, Siem Reap is inexpensive and wonderful. A little hot, but, hey, that could be a plus at some point, right?
Kwo Wei and I have planned this trip for over six months. She is a guide at MIA and often travels to distant parts of the world alone; she wanted to come to Southeast Asia at the same time, roughly, that I was, so we agreed to travel for part of the trip together. We saw Bangkok (sans Mark) and have planned 7 days here in Siem Reap then she intends to go onto Phuket, an island or beach area in Thailand. I plan to extend here in Siem Reap for four nights and just hang out; write, take in the local scenery.
When I said I had a consistent internet connection, I spoke too soon. Back up today, Saturday, the 13th. We'll see about later.
Anyhow...I've now spent three days touring Khmer ruins from their classic era, roughly 1100 AD to 1400 AD.
I'm staying at the Sakura Hotel, all teak furniture, teak floors, air con, hot water and laundry for $25.00 US a night. And this is a mid-range price. As with many hotels, they have a list of rules, many of which you might suspect but here's a new one to me: Guests. Firearms, explosives, and poisons not allowed in room. Please check them at the front desk. Hmmm......which suitcase did I use for the cyanide?
Saw Angkor Wat on Thursday. According to material I've read (I won't use this anymore, just assume it please.), it is the largest temple in the world. Not hard to believe. The size of this place astounds. And dwarfs.
It is a place where the gods descend to treat with humans, and a place where humans ascend to encounter divinity. It has an outer wall about 9 feet tall, a gopura or gate at each of the four directions, a moat, then an inner wall.
On the outside of the inner wall, under a stone canopy are a series of bas reliefs. The sculptors were geniuses. By sheer coincidence we came into this stony celebration of Vishnu at the very spot I wanted to see most of all, the bas relief of the churning of the sea of milk.
Here's the idea in a nutshell: the demons and the gods agree to co-operate to achieve a task worthy of divinity: the creation of an elixir of immortality. The way to get it is to churn an ocean of primordial milk.
The churn is Mt. Meru, the sacred mountain, and to turn it the gods and demons wrap a naga, a huge, sacred snake around it. The naga is not happy about this so a god holds the head and a demon the tail, in between them gods and demons form a sort of tug of war team and pull the naga back and forth.
It works. Not only is the elixir of immortality created and the gods now live forever, but also created are the apsara, beautiful manifestations of the female principle and monsters of the deep, depicted charmingly in churned up poses, twisted, turned upside down. Thus, the churning of sea of milk produces the immortal pantheon, and, in the apsaras, the creative principle for humans.
This is all carved in stone on the side of the wall and preserved as if it were done only a few years ago. Other panels are not so intact, but this piece is and it's exquisite.
Angkor Wat is a temple dedicated to Vishnu, preserver of the worlds. Vishnu incarnates himself whenever evil is in danger of overtaking good. Krishna, the cowherd is an incarnation of Vishnu, as is Narashina, half lion and half man who slays an evil king. I forget who Krishna killed. The ninth incarnation of Vishnu, and the most recent is the Buddha. The Buddha overcomes samsara. The 10th incarnation of Vishnu will come at the end time when the world is in great danger.
Angkor sits, stone darkened by the centuries, looking every bit the sacred mountain its designers intended. Once inside its walls you have entered the world of Vishnu and his devotees, the Vishavites, if you pay attention. Paying attention though is hard to do. Streams of tourists (like yourself) distract; the heat, for a Minnesota boy, distracts; the overwhelming unfamiliarity of the architecture and the iconography is difficult to penetrate. This latter dilemma though, works also in your favor.
The very strangeness of the stone reliefs, the many gopura, the beautiful apsaras positioned everywhere, the steepness of the stone steps, the enclosure of the walls, the water surrounding, filled with bright lotus flowers--the gestalt is there whether you get it consciously or not. Going down and going up. Reading the bas reliefs. The dark stones, cut over 60 kilometers away, stacked so as to create the mass of a sacred mount.
All these resonate with the Hindu in us. That part of us connected to the Brahma, that part of us that desires stability, Vishnu's prime attribute. As you travel from Wat to Wat, these architectural conventions begin to reinforce each other, to play a sacred music, the music of the spheres. And, of course, there is Shiva, too. Destroyer of worlds. The dissolver. Shiva Nataraja, lord of the cosmic dance. That is the Hindu trinity: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. And is it not how things are, that is how things come to be, struggle to remain, then final return to the place whence they came? Even us.
These astounding creations, considered by many the 8th wonder of the world, a Unesco World Heritage Site are, yet, available. You can crawl up and on anything you can get to, except the shrines themselves (and please don't touch the reliefs and statues, but many, many have). Even though it was all perfectly ok with the Cambodian government and the Vietnamese Oil Company, Somitex, that gets most of the ticket revenue, reckoned at 2-3 million dollars US a month, I still felt guilty clambering around though I went right ahead and did it anyway.
This will not last, I'm sure of it, and I hope it. Still, the freedom to see things from the angle that most interests you is an exhilarating feeling.
For some reason, John Ruskin's classic, the Stones of Venice just popped into my head. I think the reason is the comparison between the stones of Venice, darkened by ship and boat exhaust and weathering, along with overall Gothic sense of the city and the equally Gothic sense of at least Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom, the next Wat.
Ta Phrom is famous here. It was the site of filming for Lara Croft: Tombraider. And, it brought Angelina Jolie to town. Their still talking about her. You know this place from photographs though not in the same way you know Angkor.
At Ta Phrom a conservation decision was made to leave it in its found state. The reason? Banyan, fig (bodhi), and stonge (kapok) trees have penetrated and embraced so much of the temple that to remove the trees would destroy Ta Phrom, destroy it to save it. Sort of Vishnu/Shiva. Though the trees will break down the walls they now hold, until that time the sense of ruin, of ancient history enfolded by the green world, creates a place where past and present intersect, a place filled with a sense of decay, yet in that very decay lies a peculiar mordant beauty.
When I get back, I have pictures. I paid a price for the ones at Ta Phrom. Up till then I had seen the Khmer as a gentle people, "Good luck to you, mister!" said in a way that makes you feel they mean it. A young man asked, "How long you been in Cambodia" First mistake, "Two days." Translation, potential sucker. To make a long story short, he cajoled and charmed me into letting him take my picture, carry my bag, point out decent picture spots. It was all good (though I had prickles of unease enough to make sure I got both my camera and bag back.) until he said, "The entrance is over there. I'm done here."
This was the signal for me to reward him. I knew this part was coming so I gave him 5 dollars, not a bad price for excellent photographic spots and he was friendly. Recognize me getting taken a second time?
His face went hard, "This isn't enough."
Oh. "Well, what do you think is fair?"
"You should pay for a day of my school. $20.00"
No way. "Well, I'll give you three dollars and that's the end of it." Our driver gets $20.00 a DAY.
He grimaced, took my hand and squeezed it hard, "Good luck to you." I could tell he wanted to do more, but decided not to, for what reason I don't know. Bummer. Extortion. Still, I felt fortunate to get away for $3 extra. Like the lesson with Peter this one had its upside and its downside. The downside was I no longer looked at the young Cambodians with the same sense of innocence as I had before. An innocence naive, even I knew. Still... Too bad.
I've been here two weeks plus now and if a cold and two scams are all the downside...a great trip.
More to say, but later.
I remain, a Woolly Mammoth far south of his natural habitat,
and too hot, but what can you say? All that hair and bulk...
11/15/2004 Siem Reap, Sakura Hotel
Afternoon of my fifth day here in Siem Reap and my fifth day touring Angkor's Wats. They are the enstoned dreams and ecstatic visions of the ancient Khmer devarajas, or god-kings. I love some of the titles here, Banteay Serei is a Khmer name for a temple dedicated Shivaraja, Lord of the Three Worlds.
I'm having background/foreground issues here and I've had them elsewhere, too. In Rome. Greece. Turkey. Mexico. Here's the source: our driver is a Khmer, Seng Sonnavarith. If I didn't know, I could see it, because a countenance similar to his is on every bas relief I see. Just like Chichen Itza, or the Roman Forum, or Delphi, and Ephesus. In all these places I had a guide whose own traditions and history were my vacation. We are, of course, the current Rome, Delian League, rulers of Tenochiltilan, so, in effect, the ruins of the past undergo a transformation where their former glory gives service industry work to the descendants of these great cultures of genius. To me, strange.
This morning I roamed around Bauphon, part of the Royal Palace in Angkor Thom. The French have it closed for restoration, but they allow visitors a chance to get up close and watch the restoration. Very interesting to this once upon a time student of archaeology.
How's this for the bummer of the decade? To rebuild many of these temples, including Bauphon, a process called analystosis requires taking the temple apart stone by stone, shoring things up in general, then putting it all back together. Analystosis got underway at Bauphon in the 1960's and continued on through the 1970's with stone take out, marked, and laid out--all according to master key which told how they all fit together.
Guess what? They didn't back up their work and in 1975 lost it all, all the how to fit it back together data, that is. Bummmmer. Now they're relying on informatics. What is it? I don't know, but I'll bet somebody's glad it exists. This is a big temple, too.
Right next to it is a royal chapel, Philemanakis, or celestial palace. It is not a temple mountain, making it quite unusual. There is an ancient Khmer legend that the Angkor area had a nagarini, sacred snake, as its true ruler. Each night this nagarini incarnated as a woman and the king would climb up Philemanakis to its one tower, and there mate with her, or else. Else his rule and his life would be over. After, he could move on to his concubines. Ah, the burden of royalty, eh?
One interesting piece of the Angkor experience I've not mentioned is the music. All the while tourists are around, a Cambodian band(s) made up of landmine victims, or disabled people, or children play traditional Cambodian music. It is haunting and beautiful, and seems made to go with the jungle and the sacred mountains. Perhaps it was.
Today I followed the music (not so easy with my deaf ear) and found a small band, sitting cross legged as they all have been, in front of a 20 m tall Buddha in the lotus position, saffron robe draped over his shoulders and a small band of devotees honoring him with their music.
There is an easiness to Hindu/Buddhist relations here that would be quite hard to believe if you were in, say, Lynchburg, Virginia or at the Southern Baptist Convention. In Cambodia, since the devaraja idea came here from Java and had its roots in Hinduism, most of the Angkor Temples are Hindu temples, only Bayon has a mixed heritage. The country now is largely Buddhist, but this heritage, so powerfully preserved has made the two faiths very compatible.
Which leads me to my last observation for this message. Architecture is long. It is strong. These are enstoned dreams and ecstatic visions; and, they still have the power to reach out and touch your soul, even though they are bereft of the gold images and paint that adorned them; shorn of the thousands who cared for them and made them come alive, without the sounds of chanting and the smell of incense once so much a part of their existence.
Until later on,
still in Siem Reap, among the ruins,
11/16/2004 Siem Reap Boy, do I feel like an old fart. I extended my stay here in Siem Reap for four days; I like the town and the people, the relaxed pace. Then, I went to take my meds yesterday evening. I put them in a blue plastic pill case that I've had since I began taking blood pressure meds so many years ago. It's good for a week. The length of time I planned to be here. So, I packed light and left my cache of meds in Bangkok, bringing only what I needed in my handy blue plastic pill thingy. Oops. Not enough meds. Especially my malaria meds which I need to take seven days after I finish being here where there is some exposure.
Oh well. Tomorrow back to Bangkok. Now, I admit, a week in Bangkok is not my idea of a bad time, but I'd settled in here. Mr. Seng Sonnavarith, our driver, is a hell of a nice guy. I set up with a Yahoo e-mail account. He wanted a website, too, but I said, "Hey, I just use the damned thing for writing." If you're interested, Bill, let's talk when I get back.
I filled up three 256K flash memory cards. I figured that was enough, so I started sketching. Got some done, will do more in Bangkok over the next week.
Returned to Angkor Wat and Bayon yesterday and today. Trying to get a gestalt, a sense of what it would have been like, 500/600 years ago, to believe in these gods, believe in them enough to build these wonderful, difficult, stony buildings.
Again, Ruskin's The Stones of Venice came to me. I haven't read it through so my association may be off, but here's why it rattles around for me. We tell ourselves what I just said; we come to these places to learn of cultures long ago, but, in fact, for most of us, we find most fascinating the things they left behind: ruins. No color, no smells, no people. Suggestive remnants. Decay. Hiddenness and obscurity. We come here to see the left behinds.
It is the same thing that draws us to downed trees, talis, sunken ships, and, just maybe, religion. This is, in the end, a Gothic sensibility and one satisfied by cathedrals and holy wells and Glastonbury and Avebury as well as Angkor Wat.
We come not for the past, but for the present, and the present, in these cases presents the past to us through dilapidation, wreckage. An idea for a working title for the book on these journeys came out of this speculation: Soul in Ruins. We'll see. It has a nice, grabby feel to it.
I'm going to take this one step further. These ruins draw us to our shadow selves, the detritus of our past, hidden in the dark corners of our mind, no longer accessible to the light. It is no wonder, if this is right, that people come to them in such numbers, even in the heat and humidity, even in hard to reach places, expensive journeys required.
When I see Angkor Wat I see the work of one devoted to Vishnu, yes, but the key is not the builders devotion, but mine. Am I devoted to stability and preservation, like Vishnu? Do I worship the orderly, disciplined life? And, if I do, then what do these ruins say to me, to my soul, my atma?
This great temple, the largest of all if we're to believe the guidebooks, has its central deity as Vishnu. Yet, here it stands, empty. No worship. No chanting of the sacred texts. No offerings. No colorful sashes for the statues, in fact, no three dimensional images from the time period of the temple at all. This monument to the God of preservations lies in ruins, dependent on government handouts for a new life. Or, is this Vishnu, or the Vishnu energy at work? Hmmm....
I come to it and I know little of Vishnu, little of how to worship him, or when, or, for that matter, why. Yet, I do not leave empty handed. The bas reliefs have stimulated an interest in the Ramayana, as did the Ramakien murals in the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Even more. They leave me with images from the Ramayana, not images I access from the past, but images I access in the present, as I walk the galleries of the great inside precints.
Thus, like the great Cathedrals of Europe, built around the same time, these temples teach an illiterate society the iconography of their faith. And, ironically, they do so, too, to this Hindu illiterate as I walk these halls. Again, I emphasize, I have this experience not because Angkor Wat is centuries old, no, I have them, because it exists in the present moment and so do I.
Moving among the stones of Angkor Wat and Bayon these last two days, I found myself sitting down, going slow, waiting. Kwo feels vibrations or tingling sometimes in front of Buddhist statues; I feel the same thing most often in a forest, or on the great lakes or in the garden, but once in a while I feel it at a place and Angkor and Bayon are such places. It is some combination of shadow work and reverence, awe and mystery.
Went shopping today at Artisan's D'Angkor. They have an excellent website, just up. You can find it through google. For some time, this French run program has trained stone cutters, sculptors, wood-carvers, silk weavers, repousse' metal workers in the ancient crafts of the Khmer people. Partly this is to help in the restoration process at Angkor, but mostly it is to create livelihoods for artisans.
What a great idea! I supported it to the tune of several hundred dollars, thanks again, Dad. I got a wonderful stone head of a Khmer devaraja, the god-king; two different versions of the apsara, the celestial dancers that have so captured the Khmer heart and the heart of restorationists, and a kneeling statue of Prahanmarpti, the goddess of wisdom. (for the garden, Kate.)
Cost almost as much to ship as to buy, but supporting these artists, whom I saw at work, feels so good and I wanted these things anyhow. Sure, you did, you might say...but, I really did and I feel fortunate to have acquired replicas made by descendants of the ones who made the originals, and good, no, excellent replicas at that.
I have eaten a lot of Khmer food while here. It's pretty basic stuff, but good. Papya salads with smoked fish. Pork and cabbage. Chicken lemon grass soup. This stuff won't take the world by storm, but it's good home cookin'.
Tonight Kwo and I went to the Grand Hotel D'Angkor's cultural festival. Let me say that I almost never go to these things because I suspect of exploiting rather than authentically presenting them. I'd like to see the Grand Hotel surprised me, but it didn't. It was over costumed and under directed. The dancers were game, and some quite good, including one nine-year old girl who was sooo cute and serious, but the mermaid tails were a bit too much.
The food, however, was excellent. It is, after all, a French hotel.
Well, time to hit the bed. Tomorrow at 1:30 pm I get on Bangkok Airways for Bangkok--after paying $25 bucks worth of what they laughingly call a passenger service fee both here and in Thailand. Let me see now, the service I get for my $25 is what again?
Still, a soul in ruins,
And, still, in Southeast Asia,
11/18/2004 Siem Reap "Reflections this morning before the plane for Bangkok". I sat this morning, drinking coffee on the Red Piano's verandah. Below a school yard filled up with children in blue skirts and pants and white tops. Parents dropped their kids off, all that I saw came on motorcycles. Long narrow balloons had become swords and crowns and the kids politely sparred or ran, triumphant, balloon sword, Sovereignty of the Moment, held high, bent slightly by the wind.
A bell rang, clanged and the school yard emptied, left fluttering outside, alone now, was the good old red, white, and blue. The Cambodian flag. It features an image of Angkor Wat.
There were two of us now on the verandah, a second floor retreat from the dust. He wore a black knit shirt, had red hair, and the pale skin that seems always to go with it. He drank coffee. So did I. I looked over to the school yard, enjoyed the fan's movement over my body, cooling me, looked up and he was gone. I was the last breakfast customer.
This is the pace I've sought since starting this whirlwind tour of Thailand and Cambodia with Kwo. She's a sight-seeing whirling dervish, always on the move, yet always, according to her, "...resting. What I learned in Buddhist training." She has a lot of energy and does more sight seeing before breakfast than I normally get down in a whole day. I've seen much more than I would've without her, but I'm going to be glad to pull the throttle back a notch or five, sit over breakfast and lunch, notebook nearby and write.
In order of their impact on my heart I would list Angkor Wat, Ta Phrom, Bayon, and Banteay Serei. Of the rest, many were interesting, like the boudoir of the devaraja and the nagarini, or the Terrace of Elephants, but they didn't hit me square in the God-gene like these four.
Angkor captures you from afar. It has a wide moat, then an outer wall with five gates at its main, western entrance, the direction of death, unusual for a temple's orientation. The five gates are a Vishnu gate, a Shiva gate, and a Brahma gate, then, toward either end, two elephant gates. These last have no steps since the elephant pulls up, backs in, and you (the devaraja) get off the elephant's back and right onto the gate. In the 1200's there were images of the Hindu trinity in these three gates (which are more like chapels), and bas relief's of Kal (kale) on both the inner and outer door frames. Kal is the god of time, and his iconographic function is to remind that human life is short and, therefore, so is the amount to left for you to achieve liberation from earth and merger with the Brahma.
I forgot to mention that to cross the moat you must use a long causeway built of stone and lined on either side with naga's, serpents whose bodies make the up the balustrade and the roofs over the corridors and galleys.
Once past the outer enclosure the inner courtyard lies about 600 feet ahead, again a causeway lined with naga's body and capped with the nine-headed cobra, the king of the naga's. From this distance you can see five towers, four on a level a long flight of steps off ground level, and the fifth, yet again taller than that. Together these are the mystical Mt. Meru, the Hindu Olympus. Here, under this tallest tower, stood Vishnu's primary image, for this is a temple to the preserver, the stabilizer, he who protects and sustains.
Today, however, it is the long galleries around the lowest level of this inner enclosure which hold my interest. It is here, on the outer wall, where the bas reliefs are. I have not seen their equal, though I would claim no special expertise. I imagine them in the same vein as Dante's in the Purgatorio, living tableaus which moved and changed according to the needs of the soul in passage.
But, as I said in the last message, it is not any one thing, rather it is the whole, the gestalt--a mass of ancient stones engaged in the only kind of time travel we really know--that pulses, somehow still lives.
Bayon, a temple within the Royal Palace of Jayavarman VII, a very busy guy, has the towers, many towers, with great faces carved in their stone. You've seen them somewhere, I know. It is the smile, like Mona Lisa; the smile causes you to look twice, and to smile yourself, if a bit enigmatically. For you Woolly's on the recent South Dakota jaunt, the great tower of Bayon reminded me, at sunset, of the Blackhills--the color and texture, even the mountain simulacrum.
Though Jayavarman reputedly built Angkor Thom, the larger enclosure within which lies Bayon and the Royal Palace, the Terrace of Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King among others, to honor Buddha; it cries out, everywhere, to me, of its roots in Hinduism. The debate on Jayavarman's true intent colors the interpretation of the faces. Who are they? Some say a bodhisattva, some say Vishnu, some say an ancestor...me, with no hard evidence? I'll go with Vishnu.
Here's another potential weight on the Hindu side of the teeter-totter. Coming into Angkor Thom from the South Gate the causeway across the moat has the naga balustrade and the nine-headed naga king end caps. This is true also on the Northern Gate. A line drawn through the two gates intersects at the towers of Bayon Wat, right where the center tower lies. This could mean that the entire Angkor Thom design recapitulates, in overall scheme, the bas relief found on Angkor's south-eastern wall, the churning of the sea of milk.
Last night, my final visit to the temples, I spent at Bayon, sitting until the sun went down, watching the effects of changed light. A peacefulness fell over me, and made me want to spend a night out there among the ruins. To watch the moon rise, see the stars over Mt. Meru. Listen for the ghosts.
Ta Phrom winds its way into your soul as the fig tree and kapok tree embrace and penetrate its walls. Here the head of Ozymandias, king of kings, lies already wreathed in tree root and ready for decomposition. The tumble down walls, the moss covered stones, the stones pried apart by bodhi tree finger roots help us remember that without the preservation work underway now at several sites, and already accomplished at many others, these wonderful sites would disappear again, become home to the monkeys and the birds.
Without detailed explanation Bantay Serai's charms are difficult to evoke. Suffice to say that it has details, thanks to use of a harder red sandstone, that others have lost. And, it is compact, easy to navigate, no billy goat climbs.
11/18/2004 "Three weeks in and resting." Bangkok Air describes itself as a boutique airline; I think that means it doesn't have much in the way of routes. They were great about changing my ticket, twice. No penalties! Can you believe that? If I wanted to change my Northwest ticket, it would cost me.
The Siem Reap International airport has a very sophisticated lobby. Clean white tiles, buff and hematite walls with scrolls of pastel raw silk hanging from wooden dowels like those used for Chinese paintings. On the panels were inscribed various quotes about Angkor.
Now I am faraway, by Southeast Asian standards from those stones of Angkor, sitting in the New Empires dining room, using the computer which they got back to work since the last time I stayed here. I like being able to access the internet from my hotel, like I could at the Sakura. It gives me a sense of home, oddly enough. I can get up after a night's sleep, or, just before, get on the computer and draft something. Or, like now, I can eat lunch, stop by the computer while the ice block on the air conditioner melts, and communicate with friends and family.
Last night, Kwo, in answer to your question I got into the dim sum place just down the street from the New Empire. As a farang gwai loh though, they didn't give me the dim sum menu, and I only saw it after I'd finished a tasty soup and a special fried rice. I will return and get the dim sum menu; hell, it has pictures! I can point and order. Today I ate lunch at the New Empire, surprisingly good food.
After the Dim Sum place last night I went to the 7/11--hmmm, haven't I mentioned that 7/11 convenience shops are all over Bangkok, very odd--got bottled water and candy, then headed off to the ATM. On the way the legendary Bangkok traffic led me to run among cars parked in a traffic jam. I missed the open sewer below the curb...it was dark. I pulled something; really hurt.
So, I took two Alleve, put my leg up and decided to rest all day today, Thursday. It's getting better, but just for a minute I went from confident world traveler to I want my Kate here, right now. Second option, I'll pay that penalty and get on the next plane for home where she is. As it improves, my list of things yet to do seems more than adequate for the time I have: visit Wat Po, the official home of Thai massage; to the begging bowl village and buy a monk's begging bowl, see a muay thai match, go back to the weekend market (I mean, the bargains...), take a boat taxi to the end of the line and back, ride on a Thai train somewhere.
Ok, gotta go out now and buy a toothbrush. Mine got lost in transit from the ancients stones of Angkor Wat to the glass towers of Bangkok.
I love you all,
as friends, sister, wife, son
and I, for one more week,
will still be a farang correspondent,
from the Venice of Southeast Asia,
Hi, all 11/19/2004
This computer has microsoft word, so I'm returning to my old style of sending my messages as a word attachment. This computer system has Symantec corporate virus software, so I'm reasonably sure it's ok.
If this doesn't work for you, let me know. It's easy enough to cut and paste this into an e-mail.
From a humid Bangkok night,
Guess what, the menus on this copy of Word 2000 are in Thai. Good thing I know the ones I need by heart.
Last week I saw the stone carved by Rama I, the first instance of Thai script. With Rama II’s Ramakien that makes the Thai kings Thailand’s Dante, Goethe, and Shakespeare, at least in the formation of the standard text and language.
Whatever I did to my leg made me slower today, but not immobile. I wandered down to pier #5, along the way taking in all the shops being set up on the street. A scissors grinder plied his trade in the gutter using a whetstone set in a crude wooden platform and his hands. Elsewhere, a woman beat a chicken breast with a heavy cudgel of stone, then dipped it in batter and threw it into the wok filled with hot oil.
Donut makers turned out street side sweets like the State Fair nearer to the pier. Folks grab them on their way to the office or shop, I imagine. A monk held out his begging bowl and a man dressed in a security guards maroon uniform dropped something into it, then stood, head bowed and hands in the wai position while the monk chanted.
I also passed several street side spirit houses, all with fresh flowers, incense, and oils. On other days I have seen vendors come off the ferry with long bamboo poles and two rattan baskets suspended from either end filled with their products and their whole shop.
I felt a little vulnerable since a disabled person is the first choice of street thugs, but I had no moment where I sensed even the slightest threat.
When the water taxi docks, the driver churns the engines to keep its rear snug against the docks, no ropes. The disembarking passengers get off then, the embarking ones jump on. Most times I’ve given it no thought, but there is, sometimes, a slight gap between the boat and the dock as a result of the angle. My ankle, though not painful today, did have the disconcerting habit of folding up unexpectedly. So, I made care not to end up between boat and dock.
In all of this double thinking I forgot to notice the yellow flag which means express. So, I went on two piers past my stop and had to take a ferry back across the river for 2 baht. Then, since I’d ended up at Thammasat University (the Yale of Thailand) I had to proceed back south, along the river. This route took me past the amulet sellers with their 10, 20, and 30 baht representations of famous statues of Buddha. Apparently, the more amulets the better because some men wear ten or twelve.
This amulet market had one more curious item for sale, old dentures. On a stool, in 2 ft. by 2 ft by 4 in. glass cases various stood by to assist your purchase of somebody else's bridge, full set of uppers or lowers or whatever other combination. I do not know how the poor souls came to no longer need their dentures, nor, the circumstances under which the vendor obtained them.
After the amulet market (actually, old men sitting on a dirt sidewalk with their wares in small glass cases) came the Grand Palace with its whitewashed thick walls, crenellations, and uniformed guards. On the side where I walked, navy personnel dominated and six naval officers stood with an official looking woman while someone sang in a high Thai voice.
I made contact with an old bitch whose dugs hung toward the ground. She licked my hand and wagged her tail, then followed me across the street into Wat Po. On the corner across from Wat Po was a dried cuttlefish stand with box after box of the flattened creatures bound with red cord and ready for home use.
At Wat Po my friend and I entered the temple grounds. I may not have explained this before, a temple is not one building, it is a complex of buildings with varying functions. Some complexes are larger than others and Wat Po is large with many buildings. It houses an elementary school, the Reclining Buddha, the largest in Thailand, several small chapels, a souvenir shop, toilets, an ordination hall or bot, administration buildings and monks quarters.
It also houses, since the early part of this century the definitive school for Thai massage. Western medicine pushed Thai medicine and massage (an integral part of it) out of the hospitals and academic settings and Wat Po took responsibility. My first stop was the massage school. I had a muscle or ligament owey, plus three weeks of travel insults to joints and limbs and torso.
Here the pilgrimage rears its head again. The massage school, I knew, existed. I read about in more than one place, but the directions I received from the smiling and helpful temple personnel were vague at best. And Wat Po is a big, confusing mix of buildings, many very tall. And I wanted a massage.
So, I wandered the sacred precincts of Wat Po; my quest, find the massage school. I found many beautiful buildings and even a guide, with a placard who said, “Over there, turn left.”
I did. I encountered a small courtyard filled with what looked like English school marms engaged in some flower enterprise with a few white coated temple attendants. Was this the massage school?
No. Couldn’t be. Could it?
I went on and found a monk. I kneeded my arm and looked questioning. He nodded and indicated, further on.
Oh. Seems I’d gotten that direction before.
Still, I kept heading in the general direction they’d all given.
Then, faraway, through a doorframe, in plain English, Massage School. I limped on.
400 Baht later, $10 for the herbal pack and an hours massage; I was in the hands of a petite fortyish Thai woman whose fingers were made of steel.
They gave me a pair of blue cotton shorts to put on since this gave her better access to my legs. Oh, man. I was paying for this. She went right down to the bone, then moved my muscle between her strong fingers and the bone itself. Now, most of the time, as Kate or my dental hygienist can attest I’m a real non-brave guy when it comes to pain. I don’t like pain. It sends a message; you take the message, then you no longer need the messenger. Well, this woman made me wince.
In the end, after she’d pulled, pressed, rolled, kneeded and poked I felt very languid and my limp improved. It was no longer painful to walk. I still limped, but it didn’t hurt. Worth every bath thank you.
Second and last mission of this day. Buy a monk’s begging bowl from the last community of craftsmen devoted to making them. This means following a map in Bangkok. I no longer think Bangkok taxi drivers are stupid; I think they’re under paid. This city resists accurate mapping. Rivers cut in to streets, street names change by bend in the road, small roads often don’t have names, just numbers and often have no signs at all.
I set off from Wat Po with my pretty good map. I know I’m not stupid; I do get lost, but when I’m paying attention I can usually find my way with a map. Hmmm. Not this time. I wandered through very interesting places. I saw a bronze foundry; men making Buddhist statues, Buddhas on the move in the back of Chevy pickup trucks, but I’ll be damned if I knew where I was.
Believe it or not it was City Hall that broke the cartographic traffic jam in my head. It had to be, let’s see, right there. And if it was there, and the Giant Swing there, then Thannon Boriphat and Soi Bahn Bat had to be there. Pretty close.
It was. I found Joe Somosak’s begging bowl operation. Bought my black lacquered bowl, stand, and metal plate; saw the entire bowl making process from beginning to end, not a long production line, 7 steps, each performed by a different person in their own house among this warren of alleys shops and homes.
Next I had already decided I would use a taxi to get home. I found a driver, showed him the helpful card the New Empire (and all other hotels) give out so you can tell your driver where you’re going, and I settled back.
Not long after, maybe 15 minutes, the driver yelled, “New Empire.” He smiled. Looked very happy. We had found it! This tells you all you need to know about the Bangkok taxi experience.
And so, to bed for a nap.
All for now.
Later in the same day. Just had a wonderful meal here at the New Empire. I’m going to head out on Thannon Yaowarat (my street here in Bangkok) and participate awhile in the craziness of weekend in Chinatown. The sidewalks fill up with hawkers, so many that often you have to go out in the street simply to move around. A lot of the guidebooks say Chinatown is too congested for tourists. I suppose in a way it is, but if you’re looking for a cultural immersion then it happens every weekend here in Chinatown, not far from the door.
This hotel costs $18 a night. It has clean sheets, air conditioning and pleasant staff (with the exception of reception—though frankly I think working reception in a hotel frequented by Chinese tourists requires a sanity check every now and then…they are very demanding and not too happy most of the time, or, if they are, they hide it well.) The downside is, it’s not exactly the Ritz. It has a dining room with good food, but the menu, though quite large is almost all Thai and Chinese food. I know, what can you expect in a Chinese hotel in Thailand. You’re right, of course. All I’m saying is that a more upscale hotel would have to cater to a broader clientele. Which would cost more, so… Well, I have chosen cheaper lodgings for more spending money and greater overall flexibility and I’m happy with the choice for this trip.
The Sakura in Siem Reap at $25 a night had even more than the New Empire. It had refrigerator, a bathtub, and very polished, clean unique look. The staff tried hard to please and personalized the service whenever possible, like making sure there was always plenty of fresh fruit on hand. Also, my laundry…all of it…never cost more $1.00.
If you can find a cheap flight to either Hanoi or Bangkok and get a decent deal on a flight to Siem Reap, you can have a very inexpensive vacation. If you don’t buy art and crafts, of course. Eating is comparably price, if not even cheaper.
With the exception of stepping in that damned sewer I feel much more comfortable in Bangkok the second time around. I know the transportation system, have a good plan about what I want to see and find before I leave for home. All the same, I don’t think I’d return if I come back to Thailand, which I hope to do. I would go first to Attuthya, the capital before Sukkothai, the one that preceded Bangkok, then on to Sukkothai, Chiang Mai, Ching Rai, The Golden Triangle, and Laos. See, in other words, the northern and more rural part of Thailand.
I don’t recall whether I mentioned this but Kate has found a medical mission in Siem Reap at the Angkor Children’s Hospital, funded in part by Luciano Pavarotti. The hospital is very modern, including a bamboo wall with recessed interior lighting. We passed it every day going out to Angkor. It had a sign outside asking for blood transfusions to help children who contracted dengue fever during the recent epidemic.
Teaching English might be a possibility for me, or, working on some development schemes, or, hanging out, writing in the AM, visiting the temples in the cool of the day. It would good to be there a month, more time to ease into the rhythm of the place.
I’m gonna send this. Love to you all.
11/22/2004 Still in Bangkok. Down to less than three days until home and Thanksgiving. My thoughts have begun to turn to home related tasks: a presentation on the trip at Groveland on December 5th, Thanksgiving with Joseph and Kate, hugging them and the dogs. Wearing a coat and gloves. Clearing up my lungs. That sort of thing.
I stop this in its tracks when possible. That is, when I become aware I've drifted to the future. Be here now. I'm not gone yet and Bangkok remains available as an experience.
Haven't heard from Kwo; she's up in Sukkothai or Chiang Mai for Loy Krathong, a lotus petal in the water festival which I will miss by one day. It's celebrated on the night of the full moon, November 26th here.
This AM I encountered the famous (at least over here) "...can't speed up the Thai's when they don't want to." I wandered down to S&P's with Cafe Americano on my mind. I waited to leave the hotel until 8 AM, the time they open. On the way I bought a Bangkok Nation from a Chinese vendor who graced me with a smile. The ankle/leg came along with less reluctance today, though it still complained.
I got S&P's soi, turned left past the steamed bun hawker, an attractive thirty-something woman. The big woman who makes the morning soup was across the way stirring the pot and ladling out bowls of mixed soup, a morning dish common for all Thai's, but not universal.
It was 8:20. S&P was not open. Well, I thought. De nada. I'll sit on the stoop and read the paper. So, I did. Still nada. I went inside the building, sat at an S&P table in the lobby and began to sketch. The soup hawkers customers. Their stools. Her stall. The steamed bun vendor. I need more work on the sketching thing.
Time. 8:40. Still not open. OK, de nada is one thing. Nada for breakfast is another. I got up and went down the street, hailed a cab, and went to the Sheraton for an American breakfast. By this time I was hungry.
The Sheraton is no Oriental, nor Raffles for that matter, but it did have decent coffee, bacon, and fruit--all three unavailable here at the New Empire. I ate happily, wrote in my travel journal and thought about my day. I decided to go next door to River Center, an antique center where, according to Lonely Planet, they tell you if the stuff's old or not.
I don't want to buy an antique for several reasons: 1. I wouldn't know one if I saw it. 2. Let the Thai folk keep Thai art. 3. Too damned expensive. 4. Then, there's that pesky customs stuff, too. Me, I want good knock-offs. I was not, however, in a mood for that either; I just wanted to see what was on sale and to pick up some less expensive souvenirs.
I wandered the halls for a couple of hours in and out of shops selling Buddha statues, temple bells, palanquin stirrups, netsuke, and several versions of a Thai favorite, wooden and marble penises. Not to mention silk, jade, mother of pearl inlay (a really big thing here that leaves me cold, but who can account for taste?), and gemstones--so they say.
I picked up a few things, but I left the Thai patrimony and matrimony intact. Couldn't afford to do anything else.
Over the next few weeks this trip will settle in, certain things will float to the surface as memorable, others will disappear forever. Today, however, I have this sense. The terminus of my pilgrimage came in the walk up the path to Angkor Wat. When I saw the temple-mountain, I knew this was why I had come, no matter what other rationales might have come and gone.
Please don't take this as corny, because it was my experience. I came to experience my inner-Hindu. I didn't do this on purpose. I wanted to see Angkor, sure, but I wanted to see it for historical and art-historical reasons; to stand, myself, in front of the churning of the sea of milk. What I found was an eloquent text in stone, a witness to Vishnu, the preserver, and, in Banteay Serai, to Shiva, the destroyer. I have a sense I have come away from this trip with a new god in my pantheon, Shiva. We'll see, but to worship the Shiva energy in the universe makes a lot of faith sense to me.
So, the Celtic Gods, Mother Earth, Jesus, the One God Brahma and his destructive/creative power, Shiva. I don't what this is, polyglotism perhaps, syncretism of a sorts. Not sure, but it feels like Shiva came into me with power. Shiva Nataraja, lord of the cosmic dance and god of the three worlds.
Will send this later today or tomorrow. More later.
Here's a montage: Changi airport and the highway into Singapore at 1AM, hot and humid; devotees in yellow dhotis walking across a pit of hot coals, Raffles in the morning, white, ceiling fans turned slow; the lights of the Deepavali across Serangoon Road, a cabbie asking Mary and I why we were so happy. Across the Sea of Siam to Bangkok. Arrive in heat and humidity, to wait in a long taxi line. The gritty front and lobby of the New Empire and Chinatown's night market, chaotic and dazzling that first night. Turning around to find the water taxi gone with Kwo on it, our first venture out. Seeing the sky knives high above the temples, covered with gold mirrors. The monkey figures, in varied colors of mirrored glass holding up heaven and a gold chedi at the Grand Palace. The Foreigner's Gate. Eating soup across the way. Amulet sellers crouched in the dust, selling good luck for a quarter or a dime. Another flight. Across Cambodia. No bombs this mission, Air Bangkok, not America. Nighttime at Siem Reap. Herded across the tarmac toward a quonset hut building lit with brilliant sodium arc lights. Images of the gulag. An efficient visa application and granting process. Angkor in the morning. Solemn, gray. A time capsule of huge dimensions. We were here. And still are. The churning of the sea of the milk and the creation of the beautiful apsaras. And, the elixir of immortality. Angkor Thom and its southern gate. The naga bridge. Then, Bayon. Towers of stone with faces watching all ways. Kwo deciding to go earlier, stay longer. Eating Khmer food. Back to Bangkok. Bomb pocked fields below. This is NOT a peaceful Buddhist region...it is, and has been, a war zone...for centuries. This IS a peaceful Buddhist region, gentle Thai people, the hospitable Khmer living where they have for centuries. Moving too fast. A leg in pain. Slow down. Rest. Let the experience sink in. Finding the Baan Baht, the monk's begging bowl village. Wandering.
A couple of thoughts on Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for Dad and Kate, who encouraged this trip. I'm thankful for Mary and Mark, still my blood, and for Mary's gracious hospitality. I'm thankful for these countries, this region of the world, not because it's special, it isn't, but because it's unique, as all parts of the world are as we come to know them better. It is one place where we humans live, in ways that make sense here. I'm grateful to the artists of the devarajas, the hands who took their divine dreams and carved them into stone. Thanks to all of you, wherever you may be.
Well, I may send something tomorrow or maybe not. We'll see.
Still in Bangkok,