Arriving in BKK on a Friday means you are up against evil traffic. The driver I got at the airport needed a john. There’s no john he could use in the airport? So we drove to a gas station where he left the meter on while he went to piss. He took me into BKK by a truly obscure and round about route. It took between and hour and a half and two hours. When I finally realized where I was I was most relieved.
I had given him the A One card, which explains how to get to Soi Kansemsan. However I could tell he had paid it no mind. Kansemsan is one way. He did understand my slightly hysterical hand motions accompanied by incomprehensible English. We got there. He was about 50 Baht over the usual price but since that’s about a buck and a half, what the hell. When I paid him he gave me a hangdog look. I gave him a mean look.
Wonders! My old dentist N had sent me an email about a pulmonologist at BNH Hospital. I went streaking off. They didn’t want to let me in to see him because he was due at the Palace but I threw my age at them and they gave in. Thank god this is part of the world where I can trade on my age. In the US they wouldn’t care.
Dr. Chan Chai is a terrific doctor, kind, sensible, and hears what you say. When he went to listen to my lungs I scandalized the nurse and possibly him by taking off my shirt. I didn’t want any interference with his ability to hear wheezes. But one doesn’t do that in Thailand. To my amusement the nurse snatched at the curtain and closed it, although all of us who were in the room were on the same side of the curtain. He told me the cough is bronchial and I’m on the mend. So that was a relief.
To celebrate I had green chicken curry with eggplant at Paling Ling in the basement of the Paragon. Excellent. While I ate I had a lot of enjoyable eye contact with a little girl, maybe eight, no more than ten. Her mother was introducing her and her brother to coconut juice in the shell. I urged her on with eyes and motions and she took to it. Her younger brother squirmed, had a sip and didn’t like it. She actually ate the slippery inside which one might not take to easily. I loved watching them.
Sunday I went out to lunch with W, T and N and N’s younger daughter to a 123-year-old Chinese restaurant, now being operated by the third generation. It is plain and populated by old but extravagant eaters.
We had goose feet, which I don’t like as much as chicken feet, crab and pork rolls, oysters in eggs, heavenly, (I used to eat this at the market by the canal when I stayed out in Banglampoo, but only during the day because at night the rats ran over my feet) rice with taro, shrimp, mushrooms, bits of chicken, kale stems with mushrooms and duck tongues, (doesn’t that sound like something from Henry VIII´s banquet table?) noodles fried crispy with ham to which you add a sprinkling of sugar and then sour sauce, odd but interesting. It was all good and lively. We were supposed to finish with durian ice cream, the specialty of the house, and the dish that started the restaurant, but they were out. Imagine durian ice cream 123 years ago.
So we went to have a Thai dessert. T and N grew up about two streets away where their mother had a store. Next door is a Thai dessert place—rows of glass bowls full of all kinds of things, a man with an ice shaving machine and sugar syrup. The place was jammed. I prefer Thai desserts to Chinese. You chose things from the bowls; they are added to shaved-ice sweetened with syrup and at the bottom are thin noodles. With my noodles I had water chestnuts, longans, gingko seeds, some part of the water lily and something else white and crunchy. It is the variation in texture that is the treat.
While we were consuming this in the shop open to the street in a bedlam of noise another noise began to intrude, a drum and then a gong and then firecrackers. Above the heads of my fellow desserters appeared two dragons, one yellow, one blue, twenty feet long. I went tearing out with my IPhone followed by W who worries about elderly women doing things. The men who were holding the dragons up on sticks made them sway and ripple down the street while periodically firecrackers were thrown under their feet. Behind them came two-man dragons leaping ferociously about. Last of all came child dragons shyly peering about, distracted by what was going on around them.
It is the ten days of the Chinese Vegetarian Festival. The temples are full of people remembering their dead. In Thai it is called Kin Jae. It is also called Jiu Huang Ye, the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. It starts on the first day of the ninth month and is celebrated in Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma and by the Chinese population in Indonesia. What is interesting is that it is not a China Chinese festival but a SE Asian Chinese festival, a celebration that the Chinese diaspora created.
As we drove to Chinatown for lunch we passed the Dusithani Hotel, which is standing empty. To W’s upset and my chagrin it is to be torn down. Not that it’s a wonderful piece of architecture but, for this town a middle aged landmark, put up in the 50’s and surrounded by trees can cause nostalgia. They, W says, will put up a huge hotel-mall-office building. This town does not need another mall. The trees will go. What BKK needs is to be planted with so many trees that it looks like a jungle from the air and even then they would not be able to absorb all the CO2.
On the Sky Train an overweight young thing with her two friends asked if I was all right standing or did I want a seat. She said she would ask someone to give up a seat. We were a stop away from my station so I said I was fine and thanked her. As she was getting off she asked me if I wanted to go to National Stadium and when I said I did she told me it was the last stop. Unfortunately when the Thais help they are apt to assume that you are a congenital idiot. One of her friends had on wonderful plastic silver sandals, which snaked around her ankles and had a toe strap in the middle of which there was a one-inch by half an inch diamond.
Another day a woman with whom I had had no previous contact on the Sky Train tapped me on the shoulder as she got out at the Siam station obviously thinking I must want the Siam stop.
I can’t remember which day, but I was caught in a storm as I got off the Sky Train. I stood for about 40 minutes under the eaves of the building on the corner of Kansemsan and Rama I. I watched Rama I become a creek, the cars splashing up waves as they went by, people deciding what to do—get wet or join us under the eaves, or unfold a poncho. Then I watched the rain come down in slender silver chains changing in the light. Two boys had lunch sitting cross-legged under the eaves and then played with one’s camera until it began to lighten.
At the dress factory, after the usual start-stop drive, which may be in part due to her being so tiny that she has trouble reaching the pedals, I announced that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. It was now almost three. They sent a girl out for sum tam with sticky rice. Sum tam is a Thai salad made from green papaya and other things. In this case the other things were mostly tomatoes, onions and peanuts. It was okay sum tam but not special, however, the whole factory was delighted to see me eating sum tam and a ripple of commentary passed through the first floor accompanying my meal.
A couple of times a week I see a slim, young man walk down the Soi in a fascinating get up. He wears black trousers, a white shirt with a long black kimono type coat open over it. Last time I saw him he also had a gold shoulder bag. He looks as though he is wearing a Russian fur hat because he combs his intensely black hair up slick from his forehead in a high pile with similar side pieces, also high, in the back not quite so high with a concave place in the center as one would have in a high Russian fur hat. Bangkok is relaxed about these things. But I want to know where he works.
I saw Kai when I picked up everything. I love what he’s made for me. He told me that my body language suggests that I am rich. That’s interesting. I wonder what I can do about it so taxis won’t charge me so much.
He also told me an interesting story, I wonder how much is true, about Jim Thompson. I have to stop here because some of you don’t know Jim Thompson.
Jim Thompson was an American who was in the OSS in the Second World War. At the end of the war he came to Thailand and decided to stay. He started the Jim Thompson Silk Company, reviving the Thai silk industry and giving work to hundreds of women, particularly Moslem women in my neighborhood, (the Jim Thompson Museum, well worth a visit, is in the next soi to mine) who were weavers but also in villages outside of Bangkok.
He took a vacation in 1967 in the Cameroon Highlands in Malaysia, went for a walk, and disappeared off the face of the earth. The mystery continues unsolved.
Kai says that Thompson had a lover, a soldier in the Vietnam War, named Bush, who lived with him and helped develop his business. He says Bush went with him to the Highlands and either didn’t go on that walk or escaped or killed Thompson. He, Bush, then married a wealthy friend of Kai´s, a Thai who had a son by him. The man carried on the business and his son, Kai says, now is carrying on the business. The Thai woman divorced Bush and married a French antique dealer, living in Paris until she died.
I had immediate doubts about this story because Westerners, whether straight of gay, come to Thailand because they like brown bodies. They have no interest in white bodies. Thompson was gay and it is unlikely that he would have been interested in a fellow Caucasian.
So I did some Googling, discovering that, indeed, he started the company with a partner, an American, George Barrie about whom there is no information beyond the fact that he was Thompson’s partner. That Kai would get the name wrong is not surprising. The present CEO of the company however, is Gerald Mazzalovo and I know that Thompson created a board of directors to keep the company stable. I have met some of them.
The other thing that is interesting about this bit of gossip is that in Thailand, certainly in Bangkok, it would raise no eyebrows that Thompson was gay or that he had a lover of whatever shade. Even in the 50’s and 60’s it would have been unremarkable. That the lover should then marry a woman would also be unworthy of comment. That’s normal.
I had a gay Caucasian friend here who was for some years the lover of a Thai wrestler. After a while the wrestler told my friend that he wanted to marry and have children. He did this, telling his wife about his affair with my friend who was always welcome in the house.
Now these are the same people who are scandalized when I take off my shirt so that the doctor can listen to tell if my lungs shake, rattle and roll. This is a culture where prostitution is unremarkable, just a way of making a living. Fascinating isn’t it? We take totally for granted what we are taught by our culture, don’t question it.
My grandsons leer and slightly sneer about PDA, or they did, until I asked them what was wrong with a culture that says people who love each other should not touch in public. Would that culture be puritanical by any chance? Possibly a tad hypocritical?
This is one of the reasons I love traveling.
One day in my room I reached to take my gym trousers off the inflatable hanger I had put them on to dry out and to my immense startlement, and his too, a lovely, plump, browny-beige gecko tore like a surprised naked maiden who had dropped her towel across the wall and shot behind the wardrobe. I should think the unairconditioned hall would be better than my room for hunting insects but I was delighted to see him. I haven’t seen a gecko in over a year, not since Algernon, who was quite large, lived for a while in the patio off my bedroom and hung out in my window box.
Thursday was carnival of errors. After the gym, I went to find my jeweler, Rudi Crosley’s new location. Her instructions were that she was in the DD Mall near Chatuchak, the huge weekend market, in a grey building, on the third floor next to the escalator. I knew this was going to be difficult, just not how difficult. I asked at the ticket kiosk of the Mo Chit Sky Train stop where Chatuchak is, where the DD Mall was. No one had heard of it. I asked people coming up the stair from the street. Most didn’t speak English and walked straight on as though I didn’t exist. Others said, “No English.”
At the bottom of the stair I found two young men who spoke English. They tried looking up DD Mall on their phones. One helpfully told me, “There’s a DD Mall in India?” I said that wouldn’t work. We asked tuktuk drivers. They had never heard of it. I foolishly hadn’t topped up my phone and could not make calls. I asked one of the young men to call Rudi’s number. He did and she seemed to explain things to them because they said they would find me a motorcycle to get me there. I said, “I am too old for a motorcycle.” We got a cab and they instructed the driver who nodded firmly. We waved at each other as I took off.
The driver dropped me at what looked like a mall but it turned out not to be. However, the doorman told me the mall was five minutes down the street. I walked through a fish-for-aquarium market. There were fish, all sizes, all colors in plastic bags in aquariums, in plastic pools and basins. Nemo, where are you?
However, there was a Seven-Eleven and I got my phone topped up.
Then I saw the mall but it was the JJ mall, not the DD. Since consonants slip and slide between English and Thai I thought it might be all right. Chatuchak Market is also known as JJ Market, for instance. By now I had been on this search for an hour. I went into the mall, took the escalator to the third floor and found myself in a parking lot. I called Rudi but her phone seemed not to be working. But she called me back. I tried to explain where I was. She said severely, “I told you DD, Dog, Dog, not JJ.” I explained that no one seems to know where DD Mall is. She told me she would send her driver to bring me to the right mall but I must go to the front of the JJ mall. He would meet me there.
Have you ever tried to find the front of a Thai mall? I found what I thought was the front and called again. She said, “The driver is waiting for you in the front.” At this point he and I saw each other. I felt like a desert islander rescued by the Royal Navy.
Since her driver has zero English, there was no point in asking questions. We crossed the pedestrian bridge over a large street, no signs, we walk, we walk and there by all the Norse Gods and the Norns was the DD Mall.
We took the escalator to the third floor and there was Rudi her white hair up in multicolored rollers because she was leaving tomorrow for a jewelry show in Singapore. Rudi is 85.
I picked up my earrings and ring, bought an exquisite ring, as instructed for 150 or less, for a friend and announced that I was hungry, not having eaten since breakfast, it now being 3pm. Rudi suggested the Food Court on the 7th floor and told me only to eat the duck noodles because everything else is “Yech.” I took the driver with me because I needed him to order the duck noodles. When we got to the 7th floor the food court was closed.
When we came back to Rudi I told her I just wanted to go home. She told her driver to take me to the Sky Train. We drove there in her Mercedes.
In the basement of the Paragon, at Paling Ling I had red duck curry and was very happy.
I haven’t been to Suan Prakkard in probably 25 years. The name means Cabbage Garden, which is what it used to be. They call it a palace museum but it consists of a congregation of Thai teak houses that were once a wealthy family’s home. I took a taxi but it can easily be done via Sky Train and foot. Not surprisingly it has changed in those years. There is now a big administration building in glass and marble with a small bronze of a military ancestor outside hung with a necklace of marigolds. You pay a small fee; they lock up your purse, give you a fan and a brochure.
The first group of rooms, part of the administration building, houses the family’s collection of objects excavated at Baan Chiang, a 300 BC archeological site with lots of bronze ax heads, spear heads, a bracelet with tiny bronze bells hanging from it, bracelets of stone and glass. There are some earrings that would be worn today in Barcelona. They are turquoise, curved like rams’ horns. There is also pottery—some incised with decoration, some painted. It seems to me the collection is larger than it was when I originally saw it.
The houses are scattered about in clusters among ponds with turtles sticking their noses up at you and little brooks with reeds on their banks. My favorite among the teak houses is the Lacquer Pavilion, 17th century, covered with scenes from the life of Buddha done in black and gold. Another house contains a display of the Khon dance that tells the story of the Ramayana. Masks for many of the characters are on display. There is a house full of old crystal and silver, a chapel house with a nice collection of Buddhas, two Burmese and one from Gandhara. There are houses full of collections of minerals and seashells, one with musical instruments. Once these were sleeping houses, dinning houses, a reception house in which to entertain guests.
It was a killer day and the vegetation in the grounds makes it hotter, more humid. There was a tailless cat under some bamboos as I left trying to cool off.
Saturday I went to the Chatuchak Market early, 10 am, and wandered about for an hour among artificial flowers, soaps and scents so overwhelming you gasp for air, children’s clothes, women offering foot and hand massages unable to find the sections I wanted. Finally I discovered a map on the wall, reoriented myself and went to see what antiques or “antiques” were available. The only interesting things were some Burmese lacquer ware boxes. There was some new gold and silver jewelry in a familiar shop and the stall that sells all things fake Tibetan. But a woman who was just setting up had real batik, not the best, but real from Indonesia. I bought.
About this quest for cultural things that are and are not done, when I said to Moon that she would have to put my zipper on the side since I had no husband to zip me up the back, she said, “Only Western husbands zip up their wives’ dresses, not Thais.”
I am fascinated. What is that about?