12 February 2010
Bangkok, Day One
Bangkok is colourful. The Chatuchak markets... are not. They are, however, enormous. Frighteningly so. It's bigger than some American cities, and densely packed. Apparently you can buy anything you can think of in these markets, if you just know where to look. Looking for a delicacy? Live squirrels, in tinny tiny cages. Want to engage in some cruelty? Fighting cocks, with steely razors superglued to their talons. We spent hours there, nearly the whole day in the humid stifling heat, and we didn't even see any of that. But I doubt we saw much of the markets at all. They are just too big.
Breakfast was some mediocre street food, coconut and taro sticky rice in banana leaf packets for me, some grilled bananas for Craig. Lunch, on the other hand, was spectacular. A footpath cafe, serving noodle soups, with fresh veggies on the table to customise your meal.
We picked up a bag of tiny, tart strawberries, and the vendor asked if I wanted sugar on top. I said yes, and he spooned a heap of pink crystals over the berries. It wasn't sugar. Or well, it was sugar, but it was something else, too. Something a little confusing.
Southeast Asia has mastered the combination of sweet and salty in a way I'm not sure I've ever experienced. All the fruit juice has salt mixed in; it not only helps you sweat and gives you minerals, it also just tastes better. Seriously, give it a try. It's amazing. Later that night, Craig got a coconut-mango sticky rice; it was sweet, starchy, mango-y, and coconutty, with just a slight trace of salt accentuating all the flavours. Incredible. I'll never go back to simple-sweet sticky rices.
A week later, we told our friend Paul about the genius of salt and sweet in Thai food, and he said Khmers do it, too. He's taking French classes with several Khmer students, and their teacher was trying to explain was black pepper is.
She said, "It's a spice, you know, you keep it on the table."
And they didn't understand.
So she said, "It goes with salt. You know, what you eat with salt"
And they said, "Oh, you mean sugar?"
Well, they may not know what pepper is, but I reckon they're onto something with this sugar/salt thing.
At Chatuchak Markets, we picked up some cheap clothes and walked around. The heat forced us in and out of the markets every few minutes; outside the markets, the streets were sun-scorched and bright. Inside the markets was shadey, but the air was wet and stuffy, claustrophobic. We could only take either one for a few moments at a time. Until we found refuge in the charming Chatuchak cafe. An iced coffee, with loads of sugar and Carnation Condensed Milk, is surprisingly refreshing in Bangkok's stifling humid heat.
That night, we went to see an Aksra theatre performance. This is one of the coolest things I've ever seen in my life. Huge statues of Hanuman and demons dominate the lobby.
The Aksra theatre does traditional Thai puppetry. The puppets are about 1.5 feet tall, and it takes three people to operate one. And they make no attempt to hide the puppeteer. One person controls an arm, another controls the feet, and the third controls the other arm while also holding the body of the puppet. This picture is from here.
The three puppeteers have to be in complete sync with each other, so they dance to keep in time. Because the puppeteers are so skilled, occasionally you do get tricked into thinking the puppet has independent life, even though you can clearly see the masters! It's brilliant because the performance has so many layers. You can watch the puppet dancing; you can watch the puppeteers dance; you can watch the strange organism made up of 3 puppeteers and a puppet. Sometimes the puppets interact with each other, and sometimes they interact with their own puppeteers. Like ventriloquism and puppet shows combined. Amazing. Or you can watch the whole stage show, made of several groups of puppeteers and puppets. The show was about three hours long, and despite not understanding a single word, we were riveted.
The performance also included a fun Muay Thai demonstration. And also there was a really weird Cockfight Dance. Go ahead and read that again. You're not mistaken. I did indeed write Cockfight Dance.
Two women come out dressed as roosters. With huge feather tails and headdresses on. And men come out dressed as...well, men.
And the men got the cocks (women) all riled up, by blowing under their tailfeathers (that's right), and then the women danced like they were fighting.
It was super weird. Thailand weird.
The last puppetry performance of the night was an excerpt of the Ramakian, which is basically the Thai version of the Hindu Ramayan. Now, I grew up with stories from the Ramayan; even though my childhood was largely non-religious (and nearly sacrilegious), my mom couldn't filter tales of Ram, Hanuman, and Lakshman from my world. But this was a really strange experience. Because the puppets looked like little Indian people, dressed in Indian clothes, and doing Indian classical dance things with their hands. But they were singing in Thai. It was a little like getting a whiff of your third-grade teacher's perfume 20 years later, in a strange country, surrounded by strangers. Familiar, surreal. Culture, eh?
The best part of the puppet show, though, was that (1) Craig and I were the only tourists in the audience-- I will never know why and (2) during the intervals, the puppeteers brought the puppets out into the audience and the puppets played with the children in the audience. Hanuman came and talked to a little girl near us, and she blew him a kiss. Cute.
Before every movie showing or performance or public game, the Thai national anthem is played, and everyone has to stand. At first, I was worried because I've only had to stand for the whole American national anthem once, and I got really bored that time. And it's in English. But it turns out the Thai national anthem is short. And it made me think: if you had to stand up for the anthem every time you went to see a movie, do you think the American national anthem would be officially abbreviated? We have a really long one, folks.
Another thing I found really interesting was that Thai people don't wear any kind of traditional dress anymore. You'll only see traditional Thai dress at a traditional Thai dance performance or something. Otherwise, on the street, everyone wears Western clothes. But Indian women wear saris and kurta tops even in Western cities-- it seems like Indian people have held on to their fashion a little more tenaciously. Maybe. I hear all that's changing in Bombay these days.
We saw a lot of Bangkok that day. We visited MBK, a gargantuan, labyrinthine mall in which we found not one, not two, but three (count 'em!) THREE food courts. We saw several free nighttime concerts set up on temporary stages: awkward teenage girls in skimpy dresses, standing awkwardly, singing in public and not very well. We drank beer in a dark brickwork bar and listened to Thai men cover Paul Simon and Michael Stipe. And we saw statues on the street we can't explain.
In more current news, our friends Benedict and Monika just became parents last week! Henry was born on Thursday 4th February, and Craig and I got to visit the freshly-minted human last night, on his one-week-iversary! He's beautiful and sleepy. He smells good and can't scream very loud yet. His skin is still slippy and thin, and his toenails are impossibly small. He has pretty grey eyes, and we're somewhat in love with him already. His parents are two of the most thoughtful and wonderful people we've ever met. And we were amazed by them last night. Not surprised, but still astonished, because you see, they're brilliant parents already. It's only been a week.
And even Henry knows it. Look: he can't believe his luck.
I call him Hank.