Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ramayana Matters

Our last three days in Bangkok were a flurry of activity. One of the highlights was a five-hour long bicycle tour through the busy markets and Buddhist temples, navigating through alleys so narrow and congested that had we wandered there on our own, we probably wouldn't have dared to venture in. Bangkok was introduced to us a city of marketplaces: weekend markets, night markets, floating markets (the Chao Phraya river used to be Bangkok's main trading artery), Chinatown markets, wholesale markets, flower markets, etc etc. Dave writes in greater detail about our bicycle adventures on his blog.
Wholesale flower market

Though Buddhism is Thailand's official religion, Thais also believe in spirits. Every other city intersection seemed to feature a spirit house, to which people brought daily offerings of flowers and food. Certain large trees were also decorated and worshipped; later we heard that every time a new house is built, a displaced spirit needs to be pacified by construction of a new shrine outside of the house's shadow. Garlands of yellow flowers are in such high demand that an entire section of the wholesale flower market was dedicated to their assembly and sales. Need to pass a test? Have bad fortune and want good fortune? These occasions undoubtedly call for extra offerings to the spirits.
Placating the tree spirit

The Wats themselves--the Buddhist temples--were plentiful and magnificent. It was not uncommon to see terrific poverty and squalor next to the tall white-washed walls and gold-plated doors of newly renovated temples: eerily similar to the experience of walking down Market Street in San Francisco, with all the new skyscrapers going up right above the homeless. We also walked through many neighborhoods of malls and hotels and office buildings and middle-class single-family Thai and Western-style style houses with garages and backyards. The different areas flowed easily into one another, extensive networks of alleys and courtyards dissecting each city block: to get a sense of each area, we quickly learned to go off map and follow our noses. Every populated alley and large intersection seemed to feature several food carts selling barbequed meats, noodle, rice, and egg dishes; carts offering instant coffee espressos (sugar and condensed milk optional); spirit temples; 7-11s. It seemed common for families to keep chickens and turkeys in their compounds. There were also many dogs and cats roaming around, none of them lacking for food: let's just say that Thai spirits were generous and ready to share.

A window of almost every store, restaurant, or semi-official establishment (including cabs and tuk-tuks) featured King Bhumibol (also known as King Rama IX) and/or other members of the royal family. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, ranked currently 135 of 179 in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom index (somewhere between Afghanistan and Russia). A perceived criticism of the royal family is a punishable offense for both locals and foreigners alike. And who would want to criticize His Majesty? He's a very photogenic presence and a natural model--as evidenced by hundreds and thousands of images of him we've glimpsed during this trip--a photographer himself, and from what I understand a talented poet. And he takes after the best: in the late 1790s his ancestor King Rama I created Thailand's greatest epic, Ramakien, by compiling and rewriting certain episodes from the Hindu Ramayana. His son Rama II adapted the work further, apparently construing a happy ending. (The very name of Thai Kings, Rama, at least in English, comes from Ramayana, but this business is very complicated--as are Thai naming customs.)

This business of Ramayana/Ramakien gave me a great deal of hope: it instantly made Thai culture feel approachable. That is, I could simply read the Ramayana (with a great deal of footnotes) and then study the Ramakien, and this would give me far greater understanding of the Thai imagery and symbolism. As it was, Dave and I soon learned to spot references to these epics. The galleries of Wat Phra Kaew (the temple attached to the Grand Palace and housing the Emerald Buddha), for example, retold stories from Ramayana. And so did many paintings at the Contemporary Art Museum, MoCA Bangkok, one of the city's newest museums.

In every country we visit, Dave and I usually try to look up the contemporary art scene. Prior to this trip, we'd heard from my brother Kostya and Dave's colleague that Bangkok boasted a vibrant community of artists: a recent feature in the New York Times made this official. Vibrant art community there might be, but not at MoCA, Bangkok. Let's just say, I made a googling mistake. And from the photographs and the TripAdvisor page the building itself looked very respectable. Dave and I braved an hour and a half-long trip by two trains and a bus to the outskirts of the city--to find ourselves nearly the only visitors roaming the five floors of exhibit space. The art... well, it was very clean and featured many contemporary takes on Ramayana/Ramakien. Temporary exhibit #1 showed off His Majesty's own photography.
Best of MoCA: Dave with Dali wax sculpture
Actually learning to take the bus in Bangkok proved useful. The very next day, Dave and I got embroiled in another adventure. I suppose, if one were attributing blame for these things, one could say that I made another googling mistake. I looked for a good walking tour, and every walking tour I was finding seemed to be at least four or five hours long. Finally, I discovered the tour that claimed to take only two and a half hours and was free to boot (I assumed the guides operated on tips--we had taken a tour like this in Sydney). The webpage gave the time and location; so I figured we'd just show up. In the worst case scenario nobody would meet us, and we'd put together our own tour: we had the map and an idea about what major Wats and palaces we still had to see.

Dave wasn't feeling well that day. He'd caught a cold a couple of days earlier and was powering through it. A tuk-tuk delivered us from our hotel to the historical center. The day was particularly hot and humid, probably the hottest day of the trip so far. The location was a large park right outside the gates of the Grand Palace. The free tour guides were nowhere to be seen, though we combed the park back and forth in several directions. Dave approached a respectable-looking Thai gentleman carrying an orange umbrella and asked him if he might be a tour guide or if he'd seen any tour guides.

The man shook his head: he was a lawyer, teaching at the nearby law school. Where were we from? he asked. Oh, California. His uncle was in California, in Southern California. What did we want to see in Bangkok? Grand Palace and all the main Wats were closed this morning because of an important Buddhist ceremony, but he could point out some temples on our map that would be open and that we had better see. We'd have to go by tuk-tuk--these temples were further away. But we could get a "governmental" tuk-tuk, with white and yellow license places, and the whole route would cost us 40 Baht (a little over a dollar). There was also a great silk store on the way that was running a special promotion. The man raised his orange umbrella, and after a short while tuk-tuk materialized. We thanked our new friend and climbed aboard.

In fifteen minutes, the driver deposited us at a small temple outside the perimeter of the old city. We weren't entirely disoriented--we had a map and a working smartphone, and we'd spent several days roaming the city at that point, and had an idea of its geography and layout. There were no other visitors at this temple. The security guard seemed very curious--how did we hear about this Wat; most tourists don't know about it, though it's a very important Wat--one of the members of the royal family had been a monk there, and the family gave the money for the temple's upkeep. The story sounded familiar--I had read about a temple like that, and so Dave and I looked closer at the Buddha towering over us. The security guard was sweet and wanted to know how long we've been married--we must've been on our honeymoon... Then, he recommended a shop where we had to go after this Wat, a shop selling gems and jewels, rubies, sapphires, with a 600% discount.
Confused at a Wat
Dave, I think, was suspecting a scam from the moment we got into the tuk-tuk, and had he not been affected by the cold, he wouldn't have let things go this far. I refused to believe that we were being scammed--so elaborately and bizarrely--for as long as I could. But then when the tuk-tuk driver insisted on taking us to that store, I had to admit that we were being taken for a ride--that that's where the expression "being taken for a ride" probably came from.

Getting out of it all was awkward. We were in the middle of nowhere. The tuk-tuk driver had called all of his friends, and there were something like eight people meeting us at the gem store (to make the place look more popular, I suppose?). The idea was that we'd go inside and buy things. The scam was apparently so popular (and effective) that it was outlined, step-by-step, in all the tourist guide books we'd read. Still it was hard to believe how many people must've been involved. On the other hand, we decided, this was probably not that different from being talked into attending a time-share presentation in Las Vegas. In both cases we didn't actually have the money on us. In Bangkok, we were down to our last few hundred Baht, and we needed them to get to the airport later that evening. So we apologized to the tuk-tuk driver--we felt bad embarrassing him in front of all of his friends--and walked away.

We visited the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha--both sites turned out to be open. (It took us that entire day to unravel all the stories that the scam artists had told us about Bangkok--and I'm still not sure about some of them: do, for example, differently colored license plates on tuk-tuks mean governmental vs. private?). Getting out of the downtown area proved nearly impossible. With so many tourists needing a ride, the cabs refused to turn on the meter--they preferred to charge a flat fee for at least twice the amount what the meter would cost. Though in the US dollars the difference amounted to that between $4 and $8, not getting cheated became a matter of principle with us that afternoon. Armed with the smartphone, we could take a bus where we needed to go for less than a $1. Except we couldn't: in the mid-afternoon, the city suffocated with traffic, and the right bus never came.

None of this spoiled our mood one bit. We were having fun. Dave had sweated out some of the congestion in his chest. We bought a coconut and visited another museum that afternoon--Jim Thompson's House. Then Dave took a nap and I explored the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center, a proper contemporary art museum (also an art school and a shopping center for books and new age gifts), displaying very creative and high-tech works of art, integrating variety of media, engaging with artists around the world, and reflecting on contemporary social themes beyond the Ramayana/Ramakien.
Cutting the coconut
That night, after Dave woke up refreshed from his nap, we packed up our bags and headed out again to while away a few early morning hours till our 7 am flight. At 3 am we found ourselves at a supermarket in Patpong, shopping for Sriracha and tamarind snacks to take back to San Francisco as souvenirs. Then we took the metered taxi to the airport, and spent our last half hour before the flight at duty free shops, sampling the rice crackers these shops were promoting: all the same brand, but different flavors. (There must've been a dozen shops in a row running the same promotion--that's a scary amount of rice crackers.) We passed out the moment we got on the plane and slept all the way to our layover in Tokyo.
Round ping-pong table at Bangkok Art and Cultural Center


  1. The scam artist said we should take a Tuk Tuk with a Yellow or White plate.

    This page says to take only Yellow because White is a scam

    This page says to take only White because Yellow is a scam

    I think you just have to trust your instinct on this one...

  2. Wow, that scam does seem pretty elaborate!