25 February 2010

No such...

We have been busy, dear readers, we have been like the proverbial bees, and we are tired. I have been writing strange things and reading new things, and I am ready for something just a bit more familiar. Over the last (almost) two (whoa!) years, this blog has become –for me, if not for Craig– a sort of home, a place to put my thoughts and to think and to know that you will read and think with me. So, though this blog often used to be on my to-do list, another box to tick, another chore at the end of the day... now, it is a gift. I finish all the chores I must get done, and then I settle in, with a cup of tea, on my metaphorical internet-based couch. Comfortable. Allow me to stretch out.

The Old City of Bangkok is filled with temples, called wats, royal ones, educational ones, ancient ones, quiet ones...derelict ones. We went first to Wat Phra, pronounced "Pra," connected to what used to be a royal residence, also known as the Grand Palace. But these days, it's only used to house visiting dignitaries, like Queen Elizabeth and her sort.

I borrowed a sarong from the ticket office and Craig had to borrow big poofy pants, because you must show your respect for the royal family's former residence by not showing too much ankle. We found the mix of Hinduism and Buddhism nearly overwhelming here, with Hindu deities painted in Chinese style, dragons next to skinny, ascetic Buddhas next to big fat happy Chinese Buddhas.

Craig especially appreciates Garuda, the chicken-man deity, and insisted on photographs.

Every structure in Wat Phra's complex is guarded by demons and gods of varying sizes, colours, ferocities.

Another part of the Wat Phra complex is the Royal Regalia and Coin Museum: a true blend of the banal and the fascinating. The Thais love their royal family, and they love their king. His dynasty is strong; Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that was never colonised, largely because the Thai kings were always Anglophiles and Europhiles who managed to befriend European royalty and manipulate neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. And even I'll admit: their king was pretty cool when he was young. He drove around in a mustard-yellow Rolls Royce; he's a fairly serious photographer, and he played jazz trumpet with the likes of a certain Dizzy Gillespie. Every business has to hang up a picture of the king somewhere in the establishment, but there's not just one official picture, so it doesn't get boring. The music venues tend to hang pictures of the king playing the trumpet, restaurants have pictures of him with his SLR. A lot of the pictures we saw were sort of ordinary home photos, a birthday cake in the foreground, the king hugging his mom. You can actually get a sense of the king as a person, not just an image. And the Thais love him.

But they are prone to some serious hero-worship. Royal Regalia included the royal picnic basket, the royal typewriter collection, the royal fly-whisk, and several royal spitoons. And there was more than one museum dedicated to this sort of cataloguing of the royal mundane possessions. It was reminiscent of America (look! George Washington's wooden teeth!) in its total devotion to political leaders. But after nearly two years of living in Australia, where political figures are always seen through shit-coloured glasses, it felt weird. Seriously, in the States, you can visit Jefferson's house, Washington's house, they're all museums of the country's heritage now. But in Australia, most of the museums are about convicts, women, ordinary people. Good luck finding a museum featuring Lachlan Macquarie's toothpick holder or Bligh's mustache wax box.

On the other hand, the Coin museum was awesome. Ancient money is so impractical! Baseball-sized spheres of metal with gashes in them, or cubes with sticks stuck into them. Ridiculous. There was also a collection of Thai money from the golden age of empire; at some point, Thailand was so flooded with money from foreign countries, the king decided to just collect the foreign coins and re-stamp the backs as Thai currency, rather than mint his own. So, all these coins have Victoria's face on the front and Thai writing on the back. Bad. Ass.

The Emerald Buddha also resides at Wat Phra, and it is a beautiful statue surrounded by enormous murals of Buddha's life. It's not emerald; it's really a jade Buddha. They call it the Emerald Buddha because the person who found it thought it was emerald. It has gold clothing which the king ceremoniously changes every season; a golden shawl for the dry season, a heavier golden shawl for the springtime, and a golden umbrella for the wet season.

Make no mistake: Wat Phra is not just a tourist trap. It's also a temple. People pray there. It's a holy site. But we kept seeing this strange thing: a lot of people were also texting or talking on their cell phones.

I'll be honest, I haven't been to a church in a long long time, but people surely don't text? Do they? Can you pick your nose in Jesus' house? It seemed a fraught combination, sacred and profane. And all of Bangkok was like this: a talisman on a shopping mall, a goddess sculpture in a backalley lit with neon. Spirit houses on a 7-11, underneath TV aerials, underneath knots and snarls of powerlines.

I started thinking maybe it's not such a dichotomy-- maybe the modern stuff, like cellphones, are part of the sacred stuff. Maybe it's all sacred...

The powerlines in Bangkok are clumped heavy on the poles, like a Rube Goldberg contraption.
"It's amazing there aren't blackouts every day, with all that power being stolen," Craig said.

Wat Phra also has a small-scale model of Angkor Wat, built when Thailand conquered Cambodia, a symbol of Thai domination. Craig calls it "Angkor Watito."

And maybe it was this sense of Thai national pride, or maybe it was all the royal crap (I do have a very American deep-seated mistrust of any royalty, and don't we all?), or maybe it was the expensive entry ticket, but in the end, I didn't really like Wat Phra very much. Not nearly as much as I liked Wat Pho, pronounced "Po," which houses an extremely large and serene reclining Buddha.

The roof needs fixing up; we donated a tile. I wanted to buy a tile to take home with me; tiles are my favourite souvenirs, but no luck. Tiles only for Buddha.

Wat Pho was much quieter, with fewer tourists and more monks, sleeping in hammocks. Definitely the better wat.

And there was only one more old wat on this side of the river, Wat Mahathat; monks are still trained here. The guide book said many of the speak English, and enjoy practicing by giving free tours. Far from friendly monks, Mahathat seemed full of stray dogs. No tourists. Mahathat felt empty, abandoned. We walked through the whole complex, looking for people, for something. A humid silence covered the place. "Good afternoon!" a young voice called out; I turned around to see an orange-robed boy leaning out of a window, smiling. "Good afternoon," we called back, and he ran away, to join a group of monks running toward... I don't know what.

I remembered too late that women aren't supposed to talk to monks. No wonder we weren't approached for English practice.
Outside Mahathat, we found an amulet market and bought a few for good luck, even though we couldn't really be sure what we were buying.

We tried to go to a few vegetarian restaurants recommended by the Lonely Planet, but were faced with the same problem that we face with vegetarian restaurants everywhere. They are so rarely good. They are so often completely terrible and smell like piss and make you wish you were just eating vegetarian dishes from an omnivore restaurant. It was not good, and we were hungry, and then I realised I'd lost my purse.

With my little camera in it.

With the amulets in it.

So much for good luck.

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