Clogged lungs and quiet streets, 7-Elevens and temples, saffron monks and lemon kings, sweet and salty feet.
I had a smooth flight from Bangalore to Bangkok on Sunday night, but with little sleep. Beside me a large Indian gentleman forced me into the aisle and a small girl behind whacked my seat should I dare to doze. On arrival I took a taxi to my guest house. With variously-shaped glass buildings soaring all around, it seemed like the 21st century after Indian cities, where I saw few skyscrapers. A hazy red sun was rising at the end of the street: the beautiful side of smog. (See my Bangkok photos here)
I was impressed by the wide, smooth highways. Mini-bus utes chugged along with two rows of passenger benches on the back. Motorbikes carried multiple passengers without helmets, but the streets were free of litter and potholes. I hardly heard car horns and many drivers indicated before changing lanes. First-timers in Asia come to Bangkok from the West and complain of the chaos. Returning from the other direction, I was surprised to find how quiet and peaceful, clean and tidy, an Asian city of 10 million can be.
My parting souvenir from India was a smoker’s wheeze – I wondered how many cigarette-equivalents of pollution I consumed per day. An article in the New Indian Express, “It’s Getting Harder to Breathe” said 20% of Chennai adolescents suffer from wheezing, so I’m not alone, and perhaps 1/8 of premature deaths in India are due to air pollution (Luce 2006 348). In Bangkok I was never conscious of fumes.
On the street kids played badminton (instead of cricket in India), while their elders relaxed in shady cafés over chess. Guys lovingly polished their bright new cars, often pink. India’s mangy street curs all looked much the same to me, but here there is a range of dog breeds, often with collars, as well as many cats. There are no bars on windows against human or monkey intrusion.
The Thai people seem so laid-back. A few blind beggars in town shuffle along with speakers playing music on their back, donation-box on their chest, but they never approached or harassed me as in India. I saw the high-tech IT-Square mall and browsed the narrow lanes of the amulet market: round medallions, figurines of copper, brass, silver or gold, shining plastic or faded terracotta statues of Buddha or Hindu gods to hang around one’s neck. Nowhere did proprietors pounce; in fact they hardly noticed me. Rather than fighting off every passing auto-rickshaw’s offers of “help”, I had to wave down taxis and their drivers always switched the meter on.
Everywhere you look is the red-orange-green logo of 7-Eleven superettes, and Thai Buddhist temples or wats. Soaring red, gold, blue roofs with shining glass tiles. Black Buddha statues were slim and athletic, unlike the East Asian laughing Buddha with his belly like Jabba the Hutt’s. They were covered in fluttering square-inch leaves of gold foil, scented with buckets of burning joss sticks. I was overwhelmed by the vast Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It’s a riot of dazzling statues and glittering glass, soaring gables and gold stupas. Respectful dress is required: pre-warned, I’d worn socks in my sandals to cover my feet, while bare-legged women are lent wrap-around sarongs at the gate.
Saffron-orange robed monks are also everywhere, from venerable sages to lads blowing soap bubbles: an apt symbol of a faith that teaches the fleeting of all things. Another monk was up a ladder, wiring fluorescent tubes around a huge royal portrait.
The Thai are very religious and they love their king. December 5 was His Highness the King of Thailand’s 80th birthday and I read all about him in my Thai Airways magazine. He is the world’s longest-reigning monarch (61 years) and a gifted polymath: saxophonist and jazz composer, regatta-winning yachtsman, agricultural experimentalist, eradicator of diseases. He is deeply loved by his people who display his portraits in schools, shops, houses, billboards. Many people wore T-shirts of lemon yellow, his birth day’s colour.
His Highness seems the picture of a true king, as if from a legend. His list of accomplishments sounded like the biblical King David and King Solomon rolled into one: victorious general, harpist and songwriter, student of nature and sage. I will use him to introduce my sermon next Sunday on the Magi from the East visiting the baby king Jesus. But I occasionally found the adulation disturbing. In a black and white newsreel, for example, an old Thai lady placed her head beneath the king’s foot.
The following day I caught the Chao Phraya River taxi boat into town, past many more temples and corrugated iron huts. I wouldn’t swim in the brown, weedy river, but it was less aromatic than Indian equivalents. I tested the four Thai condiments of salty fish oil, sweet chilli sauce, sour chillies and spicy-hot chillies on chicken fried rice as I overlooked the river, watching water lapping through the wooden floor planks.
Thai culture is heavily shaped by pre-Buddhist belief and practice. There are many little spirit houses with fruit and incense offerings. Temples had murals of the Hindu Ramayana epic and I’ve seen many Indian elements, like greeting with hands together as if in prayer, and not touching or pointing with the soles of your feet. An Indian story tells of a holy man sleeping in a temple. The priest reprimanded him for lying with his feet pointing towards the idol and he replied, “God is everywhere. Where is he not?” He was a courteous man so he changed position anyway. Such was his holiness that he woke to find the idol had moved to again stand before his soles.