Reflecting On My First 10 Years In Bangkok, Part 2
Reflecting On My First 10 Years In Bangkok –
Part 2, Summer of 2538
Before I go forward, I feel that I have to go back. That first summer in Bangkok, I learned about a thousand things. I can’t remember them all now because after 10 years, they feel like second nature.
My pal’s wife was thoroughly appalled to see that I had washed my socks in the same load with the rest of my other clothes. She taught me that this simply could not be done. Because the feet are the lowest part of the body, the socks must be laundered separately. Well, at least I didn’t wash my socks with HER clothes.
My pal had a lot of pride in his Siamese culture and explained things to me so simply and succinctly. He taught me that when we ate, we should eat one spoonful of plain rice first, without mixing it into the meat or vegetables yet, to pay respect to the rice farmer who is the backbone of the country. The spoon in the right hand, fork in the left, was introduced by Rama V after his tour of Europe. You should always leave a bite or two on your plate when you finish your meal. Otherwise, your host might feel insulted that he did not give you enough. Opposite from back home where “cleaning your plate” is a compliment to the chef.
I learned how to tell time in Thai. The wee hours are “tee” 1-5, the morning hours “mong” 1-5, then there’s “tien wan”, “bai – 4 mong”, 5 – 6 “mong yen”, 1-5 “toom” for the evening hours and then you’re back to “tien” for midnight. “Tee” is the sound of a small bell, “mong” is the sound of a large, temple bell and, “toom” is the sound of a large, temple drum. That’s were these words come from. Telling time in Thai came in mighty handy when making a date. I wonder how many scores of farang have shown up for a date at the wrong time and missed meeting their friends because they could not tell Thai time!
There were two groups of monks who walked in the morning hours in our neighborhood, one group in orange robes and one group in brown robes. I asked my pal why Khun Mere only gave offerings to the monks in orange and not to the ones in brown. He simply explained “That’s not our team.” I also asked why only Khun Mere made the offerings and not everyone in the house. “One person per household is enough.”
A pack of Marlboro Lights was B40. If I remember correctly, a big bottle of Amarit (which I think is extinct now) was about B32 and a big bottle of Singha was B35. Sometimes I would splurge on a B50 bottle of Kloster. The motorcycle taxi from home to market or vice versa was B7. My pal and I would sit on the front porch at night together, doused in mosquito repellant, drink beer and contemplate questions such as “If the dharma is constantly changing, does that mean that it always remains constant?”
I wanted to go to Angkor Wat. Thais call it Nakhon Wat. I had been reading about it and looking at photos for years. My pal’s wife pitched a fit and said that there was no way because it was far too dangerous and there were murderous Khmer Rouge along the border. She refused to let me go and this may have saved my life. As a substitute, it was explained to me that Phrasat Phranom Rung in Buriram was quite impressive and had architecture from the same period. So, the wife stayed home and my pal and I were off in his pickup.
Somewhere along the way we stopped for lunch. We got out of the truck and a table of men drinking whisky yelled something at us. “Not here, man” my friend said and we went on to find another, friendlier place.
We got off the beaten path and went to a small, bronze-age archeological site. The presentation was actually quite professional and better than many I have seen before and since in Thailand. I was formerly trained as a museum curator and I asked my friend if he thought there would be a chance for me to be a paid consultant to the Fine Arts Department or some other organization. His reply “Forget about it. They are just a bunch of smart-assed bureaucrats who think they are Mr. Know-It-All. No way.”
We bought a few handicrafts in the tiny village, including a few cotton pah kao mah and silk paisin. This village was so small there was nowhere to eat or even buy a bottle of water. Nevertheless, the villagers shared their water and fruit with us. I would not be surprised if some of them had never even seen a farang before. In fact, they were as curious about my Bangkok buddy as they were about me.
Then we visited Phrasat Pii Mai near Korat. At first the guard wanted to charge my pal the farang price because he had this wild, curly hair, big mirrored sunglasses and a Chairman Mao cap. He did not look typically Thai. He took it all in stride and showed his ID card and got in for free. We took a lot of photos.
We hit the road again and made it to Surin. We found a cheap hotel near the train station. The room was not much bigger than a walk-in closet. The maid explained that this was one of their larger rooms! There were 2 small beds pushed together and the mattress on one was about 5 inches higher than the other. We took the room, had a great cheap dinner next door, several beers and then bed down for the night. The next morning at breakfast my pal says “Hey man! Last night you tried to invade my border. You rolled onto my bed and I had to push you off me because I was afraid you might be dreaming about your girl and, you know!” We still laugh about this.
We made it up to Phrasat Phanom Rung in Buriram. Indeed, it was impressive. We walked around a lot and took a lot of photos. My pal explained how after Buddhism came to Thailand, the monks made up a story to explain to the simple villagers about the huge multi-headed Naga snakes adorning the ruins, which belonged to the former Brahman religion of the Khmers. These were like the king cobra that opened his hood and shielded the Lord Buddha from the rain. So, Hindu and Buddhist images could go on through the ages side by side. I thought about all the Catholic cathedrals that I had seen built above the destroyed ruins of Aztec temples in Mexico and believed that the Buddhist monks had found a better and more peaceful solution. We stayed until sunset and it was glorious.
The next day on the way home to Bangkok, the sun was setting red hot in a pink and orange sky over the bright green rice paddies, the most beautiful and brightest shade of green I had ever seen. I said “Now I know”. My pal just looked at me and did not say anything for about a half an hour. “Now you know what?” I let a long moment pass. Finally, I said
“Now I know why you call it kao suay”.
While Thailand has changed a lot in the last 10 years, the rural areas have changed much less so, and I imagine some would not be that much different now to when you were there a decade ago.