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
11/24/2004 Bangkok My plane leaves Don Muang International Airport for Narita at 6AM. Next year, if all things go well here (and cracks in the roof suggest they may not) coming back to Bangkok will be through a new Airport. Don Muang is old and shows it, so I imagine no one who uses it will be sad to see it go. Airports don't create the same sentimental attachment as Grand Central Station, St. Pancras, or the Gare du Nord.
Yesterday I found the subway stop near Hua Lamphong, the national railway station and descended. The Bangkok system is clean and simple, like many of the newer systems around: San Francisco and DC for example. It is non-descript, no fancy murals or vendors, but it does the job. I don't come from a big mass transit city or state so my experience of subways has its limits: vacations, trips for the church, travel with Kate. Even so, the sameness of subway passengers still strikes me. There is the learned stare, the gaze, attentive to a spot always just to the side of any other passenger. The erect posture in the seat; the making oneself narrow on the strap or bar. An inwardness. Perhaps this chthonic travel has associations with mythological as well as municipal underground. The lights, the colors, the cheery advertising (minimal in Bangkok's system) all try to distract us as our journey takes us along avenues followed, in the past, only by moles and souls escaping their burial to wander through the earth, like, well, like subway passengers?
I took the subway to business node, Silom, where a lot of farangs work in various financial and commercial centers. This is also one focus of Bangkok's famous, notorious, night life. I saw one street (This was about 11 AM) and it had signs for bars like: Exquisite, Touch, Midnight. These signs were three or four to a small commercial building, meaning, I guess that these clubs were on different levels of the same building. The street was only a couple of blocks long, but it must have had forty clubs. It didn't look exotic during the day. It must improve at night, or when you're drunk.
I got propositioned on the street last night in Chinatown. It surprised me, but then I figured old, limping, white guy faraway from home, he's gotta need company, right? I didn't. She was an attractive Chinese woman (I think.), dressed a little slutty, but otherwise unremarkable.
Cabbie yesterday home from Jim Thompson's house and museum had on a Hawaiian shirt and wanted to take me to a Thai silk company for "...only five minutes." No, thank you. I want to go to my hotel. I'm tired. "Oh, OK. Five minutes only then? OK" No. We didn't go to the Thai silk factory, I'd learned my lesson. He spoke passable English. "So. Have woman in Bangkok?" No. "So. Get Thai massage?" Yes. "Full body massage?" wink, wink. "No." I think the poor guy really wanted to save me from myself, a hopeless farang. He gave up at last and dropped me at the New Empire.
Jim Thompson's house is an interesting place for a variety of reasons. A former CIA type and an architect/interior designer, too, he fell in love with Thai silk. At the time (post-WWII and into the 1950's) the Thai silk industry had fallen on bad times. He single handedly revived it, from the mulberry leaf and silk worm to weaving and garment production.
Over the course of this work he built himself a home on a khlong, or canal, as a traditional Thai house would have been, with its "front door" a boat dock. He used Thai artisans, bought rare Thai and other Asian art, and purchased six already built Thai homes which he dismantled, then reassembled and joined to create his larger home. The result is a very pleasing, tropical home with bamboo, ginger, and other tropical plants and trees like the raintree.
Jim Thompson disappeared in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in 1967 while on vacation. No one knows why or how. Now his home is a museum and a shop for sale of his silks. All of it is under Thai royal patronage and proceeds go to a Thai home for the blind.
Here's what struck me. This place is a Thai fantasy. It uses, to pleasing effect, the Thai upswept roof, teak floors, clever shutter and ventilation systems, stilts. It is a place any one with an aesthetic sensibility would enjoy. It is also almost the only place outside of a Wat where I saw traditional Thai architecture melded with modernism. It could be so beautiful, but Bangkok is anything but beautiful, and it is ugly, not in an Asian way, but in a bland Euroamerican metro way: lots of uninspired modernist architecture, some slums, and a smattering of historical sites of genuine interests.
So, I'm left with this: the farang brings Thai past into the present, yet the Thai people don't seem to have that same priority. Just an observation. And, I didn't see much more of Thailand than Bangkok, so what the hell do I know.
Well, gotta pay my bill and get ready for a taxi in the wee hours of the morning. I'm coming home.
Still, though, in Bangkok,
11/26/2004 In Minnesota: The physical experience of pilgrimage is over now. As I said earlier, my body's reaction to the journey was an early alert to significance and the first true moments of pilgrimage. Today, Friday morning Minnesota time, my body now lags behind, still caught by the rhythm of another time and place.
So, the body is first in, last out. In another body memory, my Achilles tendon still recalls the high curb and sunken roadway off Yaowarat in Bangkok. As near as I can tell, I have no wee beasties swarming my gut. Something I gave thanks for yesterday as Joseph and Kate and I had a meal of Thanksgiving at Jax's Cafe.
I have many memories and one-third fewer photographs, since one memory card pulled a cyber thing on me and came up with a Memory Card Error. All of Singapore and early Bangkok byte the dust.
Still, on the advice of a web digital guy, I bought three 256K cards rather than 1 big, cheaper one. Just in case, he said, one goes wrong, you won't lose the whole shoot. Good point.
Now the heart goes to work on the journey. It is the heart that comes along last, taking its own time to sort through experience, reflection, reaction and create its own gestalt. A bit surfaces here and there, but the work goes on out of sight, especially as I intellectually process the images, the written material, my own journal entries, the e-mails I both sent and retrieved.
No telling how long from now some aspects of the pilgrimage will crystallize. I mean that literally. They will take on a multi-faceted reality and certain moments will shine with meaning they did not have when first impressed into the deeper reaches of my core.
Right now I have a couple of intellectual take-always.
1. The United States is far more important than we can imagine and to taxi-drivers, street vendors, and poor children--not only Oligarchs International. This means, for me, no matter how attractive northern Thailand or the Canadian north shore of Lake Superior, I cannot leave this country. It is mine and I am of it, too many people need our multicultural, global, people-honoring voice, and a part of that voice is mine. So here I stay. For good.
2. The world is a better place for religious and cultural diversity. We have access to so many different ways to approach big questions like violence, compassion, stability and destruction, beauty and power. Without, however, the physical (not emotional or solely spiritual) act of pilgrimage, it is all too easy to ignore this delightful and fortuitous reality. I say this because so few of the members of congress even have passports.
3. To have had you all as partners on this journey, folks to whom my emerging thoughts could be offered, has been a gift. I know so much more about the pilgrimage for your attention to it, than I would have known without you. Perhaps there is a more general message about pilgrimage here, especially the notion of the life pilgrimage and friendship.
This e-mail brings the SE Asian correspondence to a close. Thank you for listening.
Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a blessed and holy time in our culture and I hope it brings you much joy and laughter and love.
I was, in a former time,
your foreign correspondent,