Bangkok has been a steady 40 C, 100 F, for days. But before I get into my days and the TV coverage of the coronation, I want to set up the psychological scaffolding of this trip.
I am now 82. I have traveled in SE Asia for 35 years, almost always alone. There are three things that are a bit different on this trip. One is being alone on the road at 82. The second is that I am going to two previously unknown, un-experienced cultures—Japan and French Polynesia. New cultures are always a challenge and require you to be psychologically limber. The third is the combination of the previous two, which has produced in me slurry of slimy paranoid fear.
What I know about fear is that it is the enemy, that the only way to deal with it is to walk through it—weep, scream, shit in your pants, but walk through it. If you don’t it will come sit next to you on the sofa and become your best friend forever.
A fourth factor is that a year and a half ago I had pneumonia in London, was hospitalized for 17 days, 10 of them in intensive care. Those 10 days are gone, without a scintilla of memory. I am about three quarters back physically but my immune system is debilitated and I have often caught cold with pulmonary problems on flights since then. I went to an immunologist in BCN who prescribed pill upon pill as well as teeny pills, bolsitas, that slip through your fingers, to take– five every hour while in the air. However, the pharmacy did not give me the full compliment of the regular pills and I didn’t count. So I may have enough or maybe not. But I had no ill effects from the Helsinki-Bangkok flight. So far so good.
Another presence, a sort of shadow in the background, is the cultural attitude toward older women who travel. One man, who didn’t know I’d heard, said, “What’s amazing is that she can do it at all.” His remark calls up Dr. Johnson’s quip on women preachers being in the category of a dog walking on its hind legs. It is almost always a bad idea to obey your culture but going against it also requires a certain gritting of the molars.
That is the emotional landscape of this trip.
I had a window seat from BCN to Helsinki. That landscape beneath me was mountainous, not the Alps, but with grand ridges in perhaps Germany or further east in Hungary, serene in snow, with almost black valleys, usually with a river. Squiggly paths led up the mountainsides, contouring them before disappearing into snow on which clouds lay their dark palms of shadow.
Coming down to Helsinki we had views of the islands covered with firs and the solitary house by the shore. Once over land, firs enclosed occasional green pillows of fields. The flight to Bangkok was a smooth ride over the vastness of Russia.
As we came down to land at Suvarnabhumi Airport, I remembered my first flight to BKK in the late 80´s. I looked down on a vast expanse of irregular squares and rectangles of a green vivid to the point of being electric. Now houses, factories, highways have replaced the paddies.
I should have objected when I got my taxi slip and found it was for a large taxi. Instead I had an argument, a mild one, with the driver about whether to go on the new highway or not. I decided to go his way finally and it was fine, although since it was a large taxi everything was more, tolls, the amount on the meter, the luggage fee. But I do think this time the highway was better. We only hit two serious jams.
When I got down from the taxi on Soi Kasemsan, almost as grave a descent as coming down from a truck cab, Khun Fai came out the door with a Cheshire Cat grin and the handyman whisked my bags away from the driver to take them through the door. I wanted to hug everyone including the landlady who showed up almost immediately and her son who has a new, awful, unbecoming haircut. It’s supposed to be spiky but it flops. But this is Thailand, a no touch culture, so there were no hugs.
After an hour’s nap, which my landlady insisted on, I Sky Trained one stop to the Paragon to become a mall rat and go to the Gourmet Market. I walked by the durian display inhaling intensely. Others may despise that odor but it makes me salivate. I tried some herbal soup—not bad but you wouldn’t want it often—popcorn and caramel drizzled rice cakes with cashew nuts.
I had an excellent lunch at Taling Ping (I just discovered through Thai friends that I have been misnaming this restaurant for years as Ping Ling—language should be protected from foreigners and the dyslexic) of pork and shrimp dumplings, hot crab curry, cappuccino and a small chocolate meringue cake. As I consumed this I watched a woman across the way making some kind of dessert of excess calories. After I paid my bill, I went to see what it was. She had started with a core I couldn’t identify, dribbling it with syrup, topping it with whipped cream, and showering it with almond confetti.
When I went over I found the reality less enticing. The core is soft white bread cubes which is then drizzled with a dark syrup, little beads the size of salmon caviar, which must be sugar, in screaming pink, or orange or brown, topped by whipped cream and the slivered almonds.
This spring in New York I found I was walking up sometimes 20 flights a day. Here there are not as many flights but they are longer—fifty steps up are usual. Good exercise, although the air one is breathing in kills brain cells.
When I came back from the Paragon I gave the diminutive girl who had taken both my big bags up stairs to my room 20 baht, less than a dollar. She was, at first, terrified of accepting it. Khun Fai urged her and she finally did take it.
I am now arranged, unpacked and almost adjusted to that first extra high step on the A One stairs.
Khun Toi and Khun Jean, apparently pronounced, Yean, were at the gym this morning so we had a reunion. I saw Ahmor, I don’t think I’ve got the name quite right, who is negotiating with the powers that be about my gym fee this year.
I tried to reach my dressmaker, Moon, but couldn’t get through to her, the same for Kai. I was getting a message in Thai on the phone. Over lunch at the Coffee Club by the Sky Train station at Sala Dang I had the waiter look at the message. Very simple. I had run out of money. So the waiter kindly let me use his phone to contact Moon. You can always work something out in BKK. I tipped him 40 baht, about $1.20, which caused him proxims of ecstasy.
Moon’s sister is as scary a driver as ever. She took us by back lanes through, what I think of as, two-story BKK where there are lots of old teak houses, some well groomed, painted, with glass windows and shutters but there are a few with boarded window in a derelict state. We moved from the SUV to the house/factory through the god-awful gap of 100-degree heat. It was like breathing in an oven.
On the road we could see occasional swirls of dust. It is dangerous to breathe this and when there is a lot, people stay indoors. More I could not learn but I think it comes down from the north and is, at least partially, the result of fields being burned off.
Moon and her sister are going to give up the factory, running the business out of their home so as not to pay rent. They hope this will enable them to finish paying off the debt the husband or son incurred during his womanizing-gambling fling with the bank’s money. Moon told me, “I want my old age to be debt free.” They also complained, practically in unison, about how much the coronation is costing.
I have been watching it on TV at the A One. Today it was taking place inside the palace in rooms I’ve seen when on the walk around the Grand Palace. Gold is the coronation color. The flower bud shape is very prevalent, stylized in a variety of ways, and used in decoration or as the shape of objects whose use I don’t know. There may be no use, just a symbolic meaning.
The participants, largely older men and their wives, all looked desperately bored. The men were in white uniforms with row of ribboned medals across their chests and then below and dotted about, starburst orders or decorations in gold and enamel or encrusted with gems. The wives wore the tight Thai top and skirt with a sash across from shoulder to waist. Officials and officiators walked on their knees on the well-carpeted floor, scarlet, of course. The women’s jewelry was exciting—in particular a stunning pair of emerald drop earrings, greener than a cat’s eye. I presume that room was air-conditioned, since it was 100 outside. The monks in orange robes chanted and looked cooler than the other participants.
The to be King had not yet mounted the stairs to the throne, gold adorned with nine umbrellas over it. There were many gold objects about. The Queen, Khun Toi said with disgust and contempt, “That’s our Queen,” pointing at a picture in the newspaper, is good looking. She had on a pair of open heart shaped earrings in good-sized diamonds, certainly a carat each. She’s good but tough looking, muscled like a rock. She was the King’s bodyguard.
And so, after much pageantry, to bed.