Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bangkok: Day 2

Our second day in Bangkok, we went on a special joint-tour of the city. Our guide, Sammy, picked us up around 8:00. He looked different from other Thai, less dark and more Eastern Asian in appearance, so I asked him about it. He said his grandfather was Chinese, and that about 10% of the Thai population is Chinese.

On the way to the next pick up point and throughout the day, Sammy told us a lot. He had only been educated through elementary school and at about 14 had started off as a bellhop at a hotel. He learned to speak English through self-study and conversing with the tourists, so he was promoted and promoted until he was finally reached hotel manager. Then he decided he wanted to be a tour guide so he could travel and see what the tourists saw. He had a very skeptical impression of the Buddhist priests and religion. He told us criminals could become priests and then the government couldn’t touch them. They also relied entirely on alms from the people and did very little in terms of good works and charity themselves. Though they do serve the purpose of preserving traditional Thai culture such as message, cooking, history, and festivals, old literature and manuscripts. Sort of like the monks in Ireland.

He also told us that every morning and evening, Thai people have to sing the national anthem. Even though the royalty no longer rules Thailand, no one is allowed to say anything bad against them. Thai people can be thrown in jail for it, and subversive movies and literature from other countries are banned, like the book Anna and the King of Siam and the musical version The King and I. The royal family believes these make fun of the royal family and subvert their authority. (What authority? They’re not supposed to rule, right?) I got from Sammy that the king is highly respected, but is very sick. No one much likes the eldest son, but of course Sammy didn’t say this out loud. “The walls have ears,” he said, so he just said the Prince’s name and made a face. The King has played a crucial war in keeping political decent in check. When the red shirts and yellow shirts fight, all he has to do is say stop, and they stop. But now that he’s so sick, they aren’t stopping, and every few months there seems to be a demand for re-elections or even a military qu. Many people seem to be worried that when the king dies and his playboy son takes over, politics will get even worse in Thailand.

We were a little late because we had to stop by and pick up another family who hadn’t quite finished their breakfast at their hotel.

“All Indians are like that,” Sammy complained. “I tell you, I see tourists from all over the world, and Indians are the worst. Americans on the other hand, I always like Americans. You don’t make people wait and you always ask lots of good questions. If I had my way, I’d only tour Americans.”

I couldn’t help wondering if he said the same to every nationality he came across. Personally, I found the Indians very polite and interesting. They were living in London (like the Hindi characters in the Bollywood film The Brave Heart Gets the Bride,) and spoke perfect English. They were visiting some family in India and swinging by Thailand for a short visit. We talked about our various travels, and they gave us some good advice about what to see in Chiang Mai.

We took a restroom break at a small orchid farm, pottery center, and coconut product demonstration. We only had fifteen minutes there, but we could have spent hours!



That’s where we learned to make sugar from a coconut flower. They boil the flower sap in a big pot until it becomes paste, then form it into balls like this:



It’s very sweet and creamy! I asked why this kind of sugar-making isn’t more popular, because unlike sugar cane, it doesn’t deplete the soil, and it’s better for you. ( ) said it’s because you have to cut the whole flower to get just a little sap, and a cut flower can’t produce any coconuts. You make more money from selling the coconuts, and you don’t have to process them. Only a few places make sugar out of coconut flower sap, and because of that, it stays a novelty.

Next we took a trip down the river again, this time to visit the floating market. People sold everything from fruit to fans right out of boats along the river! Here’s some pictures:





Mom bought a “fan hat,” a hat that you can fold into something like a Japanese “sensu,” with bamboo ridges. I bought some small purses to give out to my friends as souvenirs. I also got Mom some durian fruit because she had become so curious about it throughout the trip.

OK, time for the durian story. I first tried it in Singapore with my Chinese friend Ying-Ying, where I ate so much I threw up. It’s so popular in Singapore it’s considered the “national fruit,” even though they can’t grow it and have to import them from Malaysia and Thailand. They even have an art museum modeled after the durian!

In Thailand, everywhere we went there were “no durian,” signs. In the hotel, on the elevator. Even in the airport! On our way from Phuket to Bangkok, right next to the “no guns” sign, there was a sign that said, “No durian in the cabin! If you have durian, you must report them to the flight attendant, who will put them in baggage for you.” So we asked a flight attendant, “What so terrible about this fruit?”

“It smells awful!” she said. “If you eat it, it’s on your breath for hours! Everything you eat for the rest of the day smells like durian. You belch, smells like durians. You fart, smells like durian. It spreads like a disease, so even if others don’t eat it, it’s all they can smell, so it’s all they can taste! It’s disgusting!”

So we came up with a song about the forbidden fruit based on the 50’s song “Du-ron-ron-ron, a du-ron-ron. Went something like this:

Let me tell you ‘bout a fruit, it’s really grand.
The du-ran-ran-ran, the du-rian.
But everything you try to do you no can-can.
‘Cause of the du-ran-ran-ran, the du-rian.

Like I met a guy, and he was the man.
Adu-ran-ran-ran, a du-rian.
But then he smelled my breath, and he ran
‘Cause of the du-ran-ran-ran, the du-rian.

Took it on the elevator, but it was contraband.
Adu-ran-ran-ran, a du-rian.
So I smuggled it back to my homeland.
Adu-ran-ran-ran, a du-rian.

There were a couple of other verses, but they’re about equally ridiculous. Anyway, after all this fuss over a fruit, Mom decided she really wanted to try one. We bought it at the floating market, and the woman warned us.

“Now, you can’t take that in the bus! Or a van! Or on the public transportation! The smell will get in the air conditioning and the whole thing will smell like durian for the rest of the day!”

We assured her we planned to eat it outside and did just that. Mom tried a bite, made a face, took another bite.

“Like it?” I asked.

“It’s…different,” she noted. “Not bad. Not good. Just…strange.”

Which is true. The durian is like no other fruit I’ve seen. The closest thing I can compare it to is pineapple on the outside, and sweet avocado mixed with honey on the inside. I ate the rest. They’re OK. Our breath did smell like durian for the rest of the day. But I don’t see why people make such a big deal out of it.

We also tried mangosteins, dongons, and jackfruit, all fruit I’ve never seen, and didn’t try another ten or so unique things. We have a surprisingly small variety of fruit in the U.S. Very interesting.

But the most interesting was probably the tiger balm lady who followed us around for awhile, begging us to buy. I made the mistake of turning to Mom when we passed her and asked, “Don’t you use tiger balm?” After that she wouldn’t leave us alone, insisting that hers was better than the stuff you can buy in America. We finally gave in and let her do a demonstration on us. She did a mini-Thai message on both of us using the balm, and then we felt obligated into buying it. She pulled a fast one when I gave her a large bill and expected change. Instead of giving change, she just gave us another jar of balm.

“Special price, special price, only for you!” she was practically crying. So we bought two jars.

After the floating market, we visited the wood carver’s market. They carve mostly from teak wood and pass down their skill from generation to generation. First they cut the wood, then paint a layer of white on it, draw on the design, carve out the design, then paint and finish. Here is some of the amazing work they do:



That took a year, they said. And this one will take a total of two years:



That guy’s world-famous. Can you see the white and the penciled design where he still has to carve?

The also carve all kinds of intricate furniture. And unfortunately idols. The Buddha images are usually made of teak wood, then covered in gold paint before taken to the temple and dedicated. How could anyone worship something they made with their own hands? How could you possibly think the thing you fashioned has any power to create or destroy? Now, that’s a sci-fi question for you. I suppose a robot or computer fashioned could somehow evolve power and intelligence of its own, but again, only because it was designed to do so. How can anyone who creates not be drawn to the Ultimate Creator? You would think that they more than anyone else would understand our need of Him and be drawn.

At this point, our Indian friends, who only had the half-day tour, had to go back to their hotel, and Sammy had to accompany them. (He was not happy about this, grumbling that he’d rather stay with the Americans than go with the Indians, but we assured him we’d be all right with his friend.)

We went to a lovely buffet place for lunch, were we visited with some Americans from Boston, who were quite the travelers themselves. Then we headed on to a place called the rose garden for an elephant and cultural show. Before the shows started, we had some time to wander around. We found out that “rose garden” was really a misnomer. There was only a small garden, and we couldn’t walk among the flowers because it was gated off. But here’s a woman spinning silk:



I’ll talk more about that process for tomorrow, when we learned about all the traditional crafts.

Here’s the elephant show:



And someone after the show, taking a picture with the elephant



The cultural show was about an hour long, accompanied by a traditional Thai “orchestra” of mostly drums, xylophone, nasally horn, and cymbals. The music was extremely repetitive. Anyway, it’s Thailand’s longest running show, with over sixteen thousand consecutive performances for the past four decades. Here’s what we saw, described straight from the brochure (with a few edits). I wish I could show videos, but alas, no...

1. Glong Sabatchai: traditional drum dance used to celebrate victory. A simpler form of Japanese taiko drumming.

2. For Lep: Fingernail dance from the ancient Lanna Kingdom in Northern Thailand. They wear long silver things on the end of their fingers. Used for welcoming guests:

3.Ordination into Monkhood: As a predominantly Buddhist nation, most males enter into monkhood to learn the Dharma and to practice abstinence. A procession of family and friends, bearing all the meager possessions he will need during his monkhood, with the to-be monk on elephant back, marched around the stage made to look like a village square. Before this the boy studied for two months as an apprentice and is then a monk for about three months.

4. Muay Thai: Thai Boxing is an ancient form of martial arts where fists, elbows, knees, and especially feet are used in hand-to-hand combat. Nowadays, matches are fought in a boxing ring. Normally there are 5 two-minute rounds in a regular fight. Today, it is an international sport that holds world championship fights in many weight classes. (While in Thailand, we saw many fliers for upcoming boxing matches with competitors from New Zealand, Australia, and various Europeans nations.)

5.) Traditional Self Defenses: Ploles and armguards were used in ancient battles. It originates from Ramayana where the two combatants are actually monkeys.

6.) Sword fighting: Ancient Thai swords are relatively short and worn strapped to the back. Legends abound where male and female warriors fought side by side. Thailand was never conquered until the Japanese briefly took over in World War II. (For this scene, a girl fought a boy. He struck the sword from her hand, but then she slapped him, kicked him down, retrieved her sword, and beat him. That was pretty funny.)

7.)Thai Wedding: Starts at sunrise when the groom’s party parades to the bride’s house, singing and dancing. The procession bears gifts of food, fruits, sweetmeats, and the dowry which is traditionally in gold. At the bride’s house the groom must pass ‘gates’ of chains set up by the bride’s relatives to gain access to the bride’s house. Once there, his elders discuss the dowry with the bride’s parents and gifts and brought forward. The wedding ceremony itself is a simple affair where a special flower garland is placed on the heads of the bride and groom, connecting them together. Then all the relatives and friends bless their union by pouring holy water over their hands and wishing them a long and happy marriage. The newly weds join in the wedding party with singing and dancing. (No Buddhist monk presiding or anything. No vows.)

8.) Kala Dance: comes from the South where dancers use coconut shells to create a lively rhythm after the rice harvest and other festive occasions.

9.) Forn Tien: the Candle Dance originates from the ancient capital of Sukhotai and is used to celebrate the end of the harvest.

10. The Harvest Dance: Comes from the Central Plains and depicts the harvest of rice.

11. The Bamboo Dance: There are many versions throughout Thailand and other countries, but this one comes from the Northeast. The steps and speed get more complicated and faster as the dance progresses:

12. The last dance was a combination of dances from all over Thailand, and ended with the “Flag Dance,” with flags from all over the world and was rendered to a very cheesy xylophone version of “it’s a small world after all.” Finally, anyone who wanted to could join in the Ramwong or Circle Dance, which of course I did. It was fun, but too short.

We got back to the hotel about 5:30. It was fairly early, so despite our exhaustion we took a walk around the park across the street. We saw some people doing Tai chi, some students walking around, a small orchid garden, and a lovely fountain.

And that was our second day in Bangkok!

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