14 July 2000
13 July - Singapore to Bangkok - b takes three nights in Bangkok en route to Tokyo
The cheapest flight to Tokyo was on Thai Airways. I had no trouble flying with them. Who would with a motto like "Thai- smooth as silk"? Plus they have cool purple tail fin decorations. The only catch was a stop in Bangkok to pay homage to the king. I decided to make the most of it and asked for 3 nights. I also figured I could do with some new threads as my current wardrobe of a dozen pieces is over a year old.
So I returned to Krung Thep, City of Angels, Capital of the Buddhist Kingdom of Thailand. The plan landed and it took so long to pass through passport control my two bags were coldly sitting next to the luggage carousel by the time I got there. The passport agents took their jobs unusually seriously.
My passport is pretty well worn and the plastic around my photo is starting to bubble up. I'll admit that it looks a bit funny and so did the officer. He gave me a suspicious look and asked me about the this. I shrugged and said that I need to get a new one its 10 years old. While he was eyeing and practically sniffing it I explained how I often kept it in a pouch around my waist and it had absorbed too much butt sweat but his English wasn't good enough to catch all that. I told him I was just going to be there for 4 days before going to Tokyo and that was good enough for him.
I took the airport bus to Banglampu, the backpacker area. The ride should take 45 minutes or so, but took over 2 hours because of traffic. The fella next to me was a Kiwi wrapping up an around the world trip. He'd spent most of his trip in Europe and was heading back to New Zealand. Costa Rica was the highlight of his trip.
We talked about the Mediterranean. He said that Greece smelled like China. What he meant was that Athens smelled like Fuzhou. I said that was strange, because I'd had had the same thought about Shanghai. It smelled like Athens. He'd taught English in China in Fuzhou. He mentioned the excellent tea in China. What he meant was the oolong tea from Fujian. I pulled a suspicious looking plastic bag from back pack and asked him if it smelled familiar. He smiled and recognized the fragrant oolong tea from Fujian, China. I explained that my girlfriend was from China and her parents now lived in Fujian. This was some tea she'd given me and it was the good stuff. He explained that the good stuff was not cheap even in China.
He had also studied in Russia. I suggested he had a thing for old Communist Empires and he said he was a communist. He contended that we'd all be communists if not for Stalin. Yes, he was an undergradute.
Jews in Bangkok
I found a room off Khao San Rd. and after checking in I made straight for the Isreali restaurant. On a small alley between the Shell gas station and the Police station sit two Isreali restaurants. One is 17 years old the other only 4 years old. I go to the original one.
I sat down and ordered the plate of falafel, baba ganoush (or hazilim), fries and salad, with a side of houmus and pita bread, and a bottle of coke. In front of me where half a dozen Isrealis watching a TV playing a video of a Jewish comedy in Hebrew. Behind me were two Japanese boys. I asked the Thai waiter if he understood the movie, he smiled and said no. I didn't understand it either, but it looked funny. I've watched bits of these movies and they all seem to share certain characteristics, most notably is the whimsical soundtrack, other less regular items include guys in suits being made fools of or making fools of themselves, a scene with a girlie magazine, a scene or two with a genuinely attractive Isreali woman, men in uniform. I've been in this restaurant several times and the scene is always the same.
No Isrealis in Malaysia
A couple of long-haired, bearded Jews walked in and I asked the redhead if he was from Isreal. He was. I confirmed that they were not allowed to go to Malaysia. I asked if they had to fly to get to Singapore or could they take a train. He wasn't sure. I told him he wasn't missing too much in Malaysia anyway. He seemed to think he was. I reassured him that Malaysia's Mahatir hated Western people in general.
I realized that I'd never had a political conversation with an Isreali. From speaking to this fealla I realized how hemmed in and despised they realkly felt. Here in the land of Tolerance they could find a haven serving up home-cooked vittles and Hebraic comedy. I went outside to pay and asked a question that I'd asked before. Was the owner of this place Isreali? Jewish? The Thai lady said, no it's just us Thais. How did you learn how to cook this food? They smiled and shrugged. Not only have the spawned the neighboring restaurant but I've notice falafel turning up on the menu of at least half a dozen other restaurants and street vendors.
Thailand - Free land
When I put down my bags in my room and walked out onto the alley running alongside the wall that surrounds the neighboring temple I noticed that I felt different. What was it? I felt like I hadn't felt in several months, almost a year, what was it? I felt free. I had left The Chinese dictatorship of Singapore and the Muslim nation-states of Malaysia and INdonesia. I was in the Buddhist kingdom of Thailand, Free at last, thank Buddha, free at last.I'd heard a couple of expats say that they had made Thailand their home because they could be free there. And I was made to understand by some young landy who'd probably read it in her guidebook that Thailand literally meant "free land." (So does France.)
Thailand is different from it's neighbors and so are it's people. Like Bhutan and Nepal it is a Kingdom that has remained free and independent. They are also all Buddhist. (Nepal mixes in Hinduism). Tibet would be in the list, but alas it has not remained free and independent. Unlike it's neighbors, Thailand has remained free of colonial Psychologically Thai's remain much stronger than their colonized neighbors Malaysia, Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, and even China have felt the intrusion of the colonial powers. Only Thailand kept them at bay.
How are Thai people different? In a word, they are more tolerant. This is no doubt an aspect of their Buddhist heritage and something they share with Nepal. This freedom and tolerance makes Bangkok a comfortable home for things like falafel, french baguettes, western music, transvestites and sex shows.
I sat in the restaurant to catch the BBC news, but before I got to the news I sat through a 30 minute interview with an English priest named Peter who is having a sex change and will soon be Carol and from what I gather still a Catholic priest!?The interviewer did a poor job of discussing the Catholic angle. He was only interested in a man having a sex change, or, as Peter put it, a gender redesignation.
Democracy in Asia
The Fijian president was released from house arrest, but would be eliminated from politics. That makes for the overthrow of two "democratically elected" leaders in two different commonwealth countries in the past few months. The first was the military coup in Pakistan. Now all of you sitting cozy in the first world probably tow the line... These coups are a bad thing and democracy should be restored to these countries. But b over here in staunchly undemocratic Asia has a different slant. Those BBC reports about the return of democracy ring awfully hollow. Britain just feels guilty because of it's colonial connection with so many trouble-plagued places. It would like them to "embrace democracy" because then the people will have no one to blame but themselves for their problems.
America is a bit different. It tows this line because it has very crude ideas about a connection between democracy, free market economies, development, political stability and political freedom. This, however, is hardly laboratory science as we have seen in Asia. The four tiger economies are hardly bastions of freedom and democracy. India's freedoms have done little to bring economic developement and Indonesia's political freedoms are now edging towards anarchy.
Asians, in general, are not interested in democracy. It is a very alien concept to them and many Asian intellectuals don't even buy it. They fear it breeds American style lawlessness and immorality. I'm not saying they're right. But it may very well be that democracy is not something that can be generated over night nor is it a political cure all.
14 July - The National Museum, Bangkok
I thought I'd take in some sights that I'd missed on my previous trips to Bangkok. I swung by the National Gallery and looked at an unimpressive collection of contemporary art. The older art was fading away. One painting from the 17 century was carelessly hung by a window; it was almost fully bleached out. I was reminded of several ancient Greek vases in a similar state at the museum in Athens. Small oversights like these that are one of the hallmarks of so called developing nations.
The National Museum
This is the largest museum in the region and it is expansive. I only had time to get through about half of it. What I did see reinforced a thing or two about Thai aesthetics. The Thais are all about black and gold and deep red and and inlaid mother of pearl and colored glass and mirrors and anything relfective and more gold. The Thais do an amazing job of using all this color and glass and reflective material to decorate temples and shrines and thrones and what not.
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