MARKY AND THE KING OF SIAM
When I first visited Bangkok in the 1980’s, skyscrapers were still rare, and many peoples’ wooden houses fronted small canals, with tipsy little canoes connecting them to the great river Chao Phraya. Selective memory of walks along a canal neighborhood highlights a hawker pushcart that served steaming pad thai, and a tinier one offering an amazing mix of pastel green worm-like confections, plus sweet beans and various pink and black chewy things.
One time at a movie theater with hand painted posters , a vendor grilled cuttlefish over charcoal on a cart, then put them through hand-cranked metal rollers, shredded them and sold them with a little plastic bag of chili vinegar. It sure beat popcorn.
“Kraithong”, the feature they showed, was based on Thai folklore, about the Crocodile King, a very butch guy with the power to animorph into a reptile, in a cave under the river with his bevy of sexy queens in alligator-print bikinis. Even without understanding a word, it was totally charming—until one scene. Some toddlers frolicked on the river shore and children swam happily, before a crocodile pulled them under. And they were gone, screaming. But the audience reaction was more shocking yet. When each child disappeared, there was a ripple of laughter. As we ate our cuttlefish strips, I recall thinking: This is the strangest country I have ever seen.
Three or four visits later it no longer seems so strange. But exquisitely sensitive in ways we barely discern. And understandably proud, as the only land in SE Asia to have never been colonized. As was seen in “The King and I,” where Anna found ways to confront her boss, the Siamese king. Theirs is a deeply non-egalitarian society, in which everyone knows their place in the hierarchy, so never loses face. Even that laughter in the theater makes sense to me now. It was not cruelly ghoulish, but came out of deep uncomfortableness—one of several dozen forms of smiles and laughs that Thais can distinguish between, and name. These include the Boss is Wrong but Boss is Always Right smile.
Since that visit almost all of the canals have disappeared under a system of eight-lane roads with pedestrian overpasses. SkyTrain rails appeared above some major old canal routes (considered expensive to ride compared to the 2-cent public busses), and then an underground subway was built to carry more of the traffic that dozens of ferries and riverboat routes still transport across and along the huge river artery that snakes through Bangkok. It is not easy to move over 10 million people, a population that had increased two and a half times the population when I first visited.
On one trip we took a bus ride to Kanchanaburi, site of the Japanese war crimes shown in the David Lean film “Bridge on the River Kwai”, a version of WWII in which all the victims are British soldiers captured and tortured by Japanese warlords, instead of the entire local population. Before we even got out of the Bangkok metropolitan area (which is about 6,000 square miles) I looked down an alley at dusk, and yelled. Well, who wouldn’t scream if they saw an elephant being led out onto a major thoroughfare? None of the other passengers, that’s who. I heard another of the dozens of Thai laughs, a not-unfriendly one perhaps called the Wow Look at That Ignorant Tourist laugh.
This time Ken and I are back in Bangkok at the beginning of a 9-week SE Asian tour. It is the cool season, as opposed to the rainy season, which means a mild 88 degrees Fahrenheit on a good day, or 95 on a bad one. But in the central city we almost never walk in the direct sun, thanks to the luxury hotels, apartment buildings or condos, and Trump-like office towers on every block. And in Siam Square, the shopping malls. One after the other, easily a dozen, side by side. Working Class malls with electronics and an anchor department store. Middle-class ones with Forever 21 and Burberry. Then one with a Maserati dealership, another with a Rolls Royce showroom, and each with its own Louis Vuitton store. And an appropriately priced food court.
And all along this “miracle mile” is a Parade of Elephants. Statues of elephants, many painted in fantastical styles, from small ones to quarter-size. Families take pictures of their kids next to them. This is as close as they will come to a real elephant in Bangkok streets these days. It’s now illegal to lead them here—which was a form of begging, since Thais adore their royal animal. However, it turns out that walking on sun-heated concrete can cause these massive creatures to have heart attacks. So it is a good thing that they remain in the North country.
On an unintentional mall tour (it’s the quickest way to get to our public transportation) there are some actually worthwhile sights. They include:
*A five-floor cultural center with art-based stores features an demo of Virtual Reality tech, across from a ’50s art deco movie palace.
*An internal courtyard with a tree made entirely of fruits and vegetables, fresh ones.
*A gorgeous thin 20-something in a black Versace suit demoing one of those Segway-like skateboards in a high end gadget shop. Sorry, no photo of him, as I was thrown completely off-balance in more ways than one.
*Two high-end shop-girls on the floor trying to fix the automatic sliding glass front of a store.
Outside every mall are multi-story Christmas trees, but without Xmas icons– no Santas, much less Baby J’s. Instead, one features a mickey mouse-eared theme, another Snow White with her Seven Dwarves. Plus, enough lights to power a small third-world country. Which Bangkok is not, if it ever was. Although in the country there is still enough ethnic discrimination, rural poverty and government corruption to go around.
FAERIES, A FERRY & A FLOATING MARKET
On Sunday we are led by faerie friends on a bicycle excursion to Bang Krachao. This is a less developed almost-island in a curve of the river across from the cargo ship docks, known as Bangkok’s “green lung.” Getting there involves 20 minutes of peddling via huge intersections and through an industrial part of the city, then a 5-minute ferry boat ride, which used to cost 5Baht, but now goes for an inflated 25B including the bicycles, which is 75 cents US dollar. Then a ride past farms and small rural homes, and into an Eco-Park, on tree-lined paved roads beside lakes, unpaved ones through jungle marshland. It is an enchanting place, full of birds and butterflies but remarkably free of mosquitos. (Ken disagrees, as he got bitten there.)
At the park’s far end, we are led by Dhami Boo, our experienced farang (foreigner) faerie guides us onto a maze of raised concrete walkways over watery food-growing areas. They are about three feet wide; quick turns require slowing the bikes down. I hear that a doctor friend of ours, on a prior visit, fell off the walkway and into wires and waterways—three times. It is a little like an Indiana Jones ride, of about 3 kilometers. So my both nerves and my butt are happy when we arrive at our destination.
The Floating Market is no longer held on boats and now happens every weekend. Three long rows of stalls under awnings draw tourists from Bangkok, almost entirely Thais, but with the occasional foreign Asian or European farang. It is a real farmers’ market, and the offerings are local, artisanal and amazing. I hear there is a section for Chinese-type plastic goods, toys and clothes, but we never saw it. Instead, each booth offers fresh discoveries. There are seed stores and potted tropical plants, some hung in empty tiny coconut shells. Also fanciful toys made of coconut shells. Bunches of bananas. A stall of plastic bagged chili sauces. An herbalist. A lady and her son selling tropical fruits they grow; I buy a papaya, and a cherimoya (custard fruit) for a mere 35 cents— they go for $6 a pound back in SF, if you can find them.
Sweets are sold on a stick (deep friend balls of sweet dough around a sweet-savory chicken sausage), in a ceramic boat (taro pudding with candied coconut and grilled shallots), or in a scraped half baby coconut (coconut ice cream with all those chewy things I’d first tasted on the old canal), plus many more we didn’t try. Each was about 20B or 55 cents, plus an extra 5B for all those chewy add-ons. But first were the food stalls. Fiery northern fishball soup. Green papaya salad with fermented (and stinky) black crab. Clear broth with veggies and chicken feet. Chili-crusted fried chicken. And those are just some that we had at one stall among dozens.
Next to it was a juice place featuring a fruit I had never seen, nor had anyone in our group. The one Thai guy with us, though he grew up on a large fruit and poultry ranch in Isaan, said they never grew it, so he wouldn’t try it. The teenager vending it said it was a fa-kaw, accent on the kaw! A next-stall neighbor said it’s called gac fruit (scientific name Momordia cochinchinensis). And it is incredibly strange-looking, all spiky day-glo orange on the outside and Vampirella purple with large black seeds inside. He let me try some of a cut opne one. It tasted…sweet. The juice was thick red nectar, not like any other fruit I know. I am in heaven.
This is the best market I have even been to. Not Byzantine like the one in Budapest, not as gargantuan like the sook in Fez. Nor what Les Halles must have been like in Paris, before it was torn down to become the Pompidou Art Center. But small, homey and very relaxed, with handmade wooden benches and gazebo areas dripping with flowers and vine tendrils and lined with giant ceramic water jars the size that Sabu jumped in and out of in my favorite film of 1940, “The Thief of Bagdad”.
I love this place. Though “designed” there is nothing Disney-fied about it. It is done on a small scale to provide local sellers a chance to market to an adjacent megalopolis. And it is by a canal. So as it turns out, the old Bangkok I remember is not quite lost forever in the face of modernity. And it seems obvious that Thai people who arrive, by jeep or motorcycle or bike, appreciate it too.
One last note, for all our Jewish friends out there. It is Hannukah, though no mall decorates for it. But it is also the King’s birthday, called Father’s Day since Bhumidol Adolyadej, king of Siam since 1946, is absolutely beloved here. He and the queen are revered as the ones who have always watched out for the interests of the poor, and he’s really seen as the father of each Thai. There is huge fear at what may come at his unspeakable but immanent demise, particularly between the factions of Red Shirts (rural) and Yellow Shirts (urban) who have battled it out on the streets and in parliament during recent years. Because he is gravely ill now, on the King’s birthday this year there will be no fireworks, but at dusk everyone will come out of their house with a lit candle to say a prayer for his health. Here there are no giant menorahs or cartoon Maccabees. But it is a festival of lights nonetheless. Also the time of year I remember my own father Ben Baruch Freeman’s yahrzeit. May his memory, as we say, be for a blessing.