Although thrilled with my black pearl necklace, my eighty-third birthday present to self, I was not happy with the clasp. Therefore, I took the necklace, after my morning workout at the gym, to my expensive jeweler on Sukhumvit. I suppose it sounds decidedly recherché, or haut something or other, to have an expensive and an inexpensive jeweler but, in truth, in the culture of Bangkok, it seems quite natural.
Jewelry is not for special occasions in a Thai woman’s life. I knew a woman arms dealer who wore to her office jewelry an American woman would have been hesitant to wear to a ball. At the opposite end of the spectrum in the U.S., when I wore earrings, a short gold chain and a ring, not a wedding ring, to a job interview, a man commented, sorry I cannot reproduce his diphthong heavy accent, “You sure do carry a lot of hardware.” Needless to say I didn’t get the job.
While Pom, the daughter of the owner, and I were leaning intently over drawings she was making for the clasp, agonizing between a pair of cats holding a ball or a pair of frogs clasping a water lily, Khun Rani came in looking perfect—a delicate, elderly, Thai but with the daintiness of a Dresden figure. We kissed on each cheek warmly. I had forgotten she does this. In the middle of various enquiries, she asked if I’d had lunch. When I said I had not, she asked me to lunch.
I was stunned. Thais do not do this with Westerners. She took me to Baan Khanita, an elegant, wood paneled restaurant with whimsical Thai prints on the walls.
She ordered three appetizers, which were her lunch. Little pork patties with sweet or sour sauce, leaves on which one deposited dried shrimp, peanuts, tiny lemon dice, chili and onion, little crisp pastry cups full of vegetables with thick, yummy tamarind sauce. I ordered roast duck in red curry. It was exquisite with tiny eggplants that go crunch between your teeth and are slightly bitter. I begged off on dessert and we had cappuccino instead.
Eating with Khun Rani is distracting because of the flash of her rings; there are many. There is a pinky ring, platinum with pave diamonds, a large ring with three oval stones—a ruby, a sapphire of great clarity and an orange-brown stone set in a pave of diamonds—finally a simple ring of silver or platinum that curves around her thumb. There were more but she also had bare fingers.
She has six grandchildren. The eldest is studying medicine and complaining about his workload. Her husband has had Parkinson’s for the last five years but is not yet trembling. She claims we have known each other for 40 years, which can’t be true. I think it is about 36. We were introduced by an Irish friend of mine, the most charming man on earth, who bought rings for his daughters from her when they were young, intending them to be gifts for their late teens. Happily he was able to give them the rings before he died.
It had never occurred to me that for Khun Rani I am a source of nostalgia. I buy from her only occasionally and am certainly not a big customer but it was definitely flattering to be in that position.
The next day I had lunch with my friend C with whom, many years ago, I trekked in Sikkim with mutual friends. We have stayed in contact and always have lunch when I am in Bangkok. Over excellent Japanese sushi he told me his partner, Sekun, once personal florist to the Queen of Thailand, had started a horticultural museum where they were planning a big party later in the week. He invited me. How exciting. Ultra Thai to have a Museum of Floral Culture.
My next lunch was with N, my former dentist at the BNH Hospital, during which I caught up on her children, one traveling in the US, the other beginning to work as a doctor in a Bangkok hospital. That’s a thrill for her as she has been tired of the unreality of medical books in recent months. Her other news was that after telling me last year that the old Dusitani Hotel was coming down, she has now heard it is not. This is a hotel that is not an architectural gem, just a locus of nostalgia.
I took a taxi to the floral party. It was in Dusit, the royal area of Bangkok where the King’s palace is. No tall buildings are allowed here, which makes it a little cooler than other parts of Bangkok. There was a two or maybe three story house with grounds, a pool and more orchids than seemed rational. The guests impressed me because many people, although not all, were wearing what pleased them. This was equally true of men and women. In the case of the men it often meant wearing loose, baggy trousers, their heads wrapped in scarves or pieces of embroidery. Many looked as though they had just emerged from a desert in Uzbekistan. Sekun was in baggy short trousers of Northern Thai blue with a top of tribal embroidery and applique work. He played a Thai stringed instrument, which I never identified. C wore a Chinese outfit in brilliant yellow, the Imperial Chinese color, with a long straight skirt under a long tunic. He could have come straight out of Dowager Empress Cixi’s court. One woman had draped herself with about twenty necklaces of varying lengths and designs that swung and sparkled as she moved. Another was in a deep emerald Issey Miyake Pleats Please top, superb with her shining dark hair.
The food was heaven, the best Pad Thai ever, with dried shrimp, not desiccated but plumped up with the sauce they were in. There were a few Westerners but it was largely a young Thai event.
A man, large for a Thai with a shaved head and excellent English, made me an exquisite necklace of jasmine buds ending in tassels of purple flowers.
The next day I flew up to Chaingmai to see my friend M who has Parkinson’s. He was considerably worse than last year, unable to walk around the temples we had enjoyed in earlier years. We did get to an exhibition at the Chaingmai University Arts Centre called, “Never Again”. It is called a “celebration” of the fifth year of military rule and gives a detailed history of the arrests of protesters of all varieties, and displays objects—tee shirts, banners etc. I was amazed that it was allowed.
There were photos, one of a formation of military that managed to be both chilling and beautiful. Other photos were so Thai I had to smile. Where else would one go out to protest with one’s hair in pink spikes?
The exhibit was organized by the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
I returned to Bangkok feeling worried and helpless about M. On the Sky Train coming back from seeing my less pricey jeweler, Rudi, about purchases for friends from her collection, a strikingly vivacious woman, of Indian ancestry, tall, slender with long black hair, suddenly appeared before me saying, “I saw you at the floral party but I didn’t get to talk to you.” So we talked on the train and agreed to meet again to have coffee at Paul’s at the Paragon where we talked for over two hours.
She works for an NGO on malaria extermination. There are only a few places left on the borders with Burma and Cambodia, jungley, inaccessible areas, where the disease persists.
She was raised in LA but went to Georgetown where she was shocked by the Catholic culture and the muffling effect it had on the lives of women in her class—an experience of micro-cultures in the U.S.
Kai, my couturier friend, took me to an interesting Western restaurant called El Mercado, run by a Dutchman married to a Catalan. Part of it is open, part enclosed with a chalkboard menu and an adjacent delicatessen selling hams, sausages and cheese. Kai took me into a cold room where they had their fish on display—cockles, whelks, shrimp, crab, fish, river prawns and lobsters. I had a Lamb Navarin, which was excellent, so it was a surprise to find that the owner is a vegetarian. There were also killer desserts with shiny strawberries under which lurked exquisite yellow custard.
The restaurant is in Klong Toey, a slightly slummy area where it presents a green, flowery, face both modern and comfortably relaxed. It was fun chatting with the owner about Barcelona.
I picked up the jewelry for friends from Rudi at the DD Mall, which she is thinking of leaving. I do hope so since it takes me forty-five minutes to an hour underground and above ground each way from the A One Inn. She is considering the Amerin Plaza, which is two Sky Train stops from me.
Rudi is 88 and will be off to a jewelry fair in Singapore in a few days. She nursed her husband, whom she says treated her like a princess, for fifteen years through various illnesses. When we parted she said, looking at me sternly, “Try to stay alive until next year.” I suggested she do the same.