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Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads



Bangkok is Southeast Asia's largest city, and it's obvious by what you see as soon as you arrive there: huge roads choked with traffic, thick pollution in the air, people bustling around huge buildings, and noise, noise EVERYWHERE! With about six million people in the city proper, it's bigger than Los Angeles, and is kind of to Thailand what LA is to California -- the major center of entertainment, business and many other activities. Its Thai name even reminds you of LA: "Krungthep" means "City of Angels", just like LA! (Bangkok's complete official name, though, is the longest of any city in the world: Krungthep- mahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintarayuthayamahadilok Phopnoppharatratchathaniburirom Udomrathcaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkatthatiyawitsanukamprasit, which means "City of angels, great city, immortal jewel of Great Indra's Ayutthaya, land of the blissful nine-jeweled capital, with abundant palaces, immortal palace where Brahma's incarnation dwells, built by Vishnukarma (the god of engineering)".

And, like LA, there's a LOT to see there. So check it out!


Yes, Bangkok is a BIG city, with BIG city problems. Maybe the biggest, to most people, is the traffic (and the pollution that comes with it). Some people say that whole governments are voted out of office because they can't solve the traffic problems of Bangkok. Sometimes, it takes an hour to go two kilometers. The streets simply can't handle all the people that have arrived in the past few years. (Thailand as a whole had only 2 million people in 1900; the population is now around 60 million!! And many of those people move from the country into the city as the country becomes more and more industrialized.) Thailand is obviously connected to the international business world: there are all kinds of cars, and you see gas stations like Shell, Esso and Mobil (unlike Indonesia, where all the gas stations are run by the government-run company Pertamina).

But, if you're smart, you can avoid the traffic by traveling on the boats that run on the Chao Phraya River and its many adjacent canals. This long-tail taxi runs mostly on the canals (notice the offerings hanging off the front to insure its safety?). Larger "express" boats take you to major stops along the river, while cross-river ferries take a minute or two to get you from one side to the other. As soon as I figured out this system, I knew I'd like Bangkok -- I just LOVE cities with canals!!

One reason I love canals is that they're just plain beautiful. They're also very important -- as important as the water they channel through the city. Besides serving as roads, they provide water for washing (and sometimes for drinking, which isn't too healthy, to be sure) and for keeping cool, and in the outer reaches of the city for irrigation used in agriculture.

Look familiar? Check back in the photos from Yogyakarta, Indonesia. You see these traveling fruit carts EVERYWHERE. The pineapple's as good as what I had in Java, and just as cheap -- only 10 baht (about 25 cents) for a huge half fruit!!

The day I arrived was only a couple of days before the King's birthday. King Bhumibol (pronounced "Poo-mee-pone"), also known as Rama IX, is highly revered throughout the country and has great influence even though his title is mostly ceremonial and he has little official power. Much of it has to do with his powerful charisma (much like the Sultan of Yogya, but even greater, perhaps): he has done many compassionate things for the people of the country, and gained much popular support by his stand supporting students in 1973 who had been brutally suppressed during their demonstrations against a totalitarian government . He is also accomplished in many fields: he speaks four languages fluently, and is a fine painter, an expert yachtsman, a skilled woodworker and a great musician and composer (he even wrote the country's national anthem). I always thought of royal families as being totally unimportant in the modern world, like the one in Great Britain -- but Thailand's king (and his family) is a different case!

The king is so revered in Thailand that even saying negative things about him is considered one of the worst things you can do. (My positive impression comes from seeing the good things he's done; I'm sure there are things about him that are less than perfect, but that's not what people think about.) I heard one story of a foreigner who was thrown in jail when the wind whisked some money from his hand and he stepped on it to keep it from blowing away. His offense? The king's image is on Thailand's money, and by stepping on it (even unintentionally) he was disgracing the king's image!


A day after I arrived, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a performance of traditional Thai khon dance. Some of you may have watched the opening ceremonies of the Asian Games held around Bangkok in December. If you did, you saw a truly beautiful and mysterious performance that showed the complexity and richness of Thai culture. Khon dance is one of the oldest and most beautiful of art forms in Thailand.

The khon dance portrays stories from the Ramakian, which is Thailand's version of the Hindu epic Ramayana. (Remember how the Ramayana is central to Javanese and Balinese culture as well?) This is one of the most obvious influences that India has had on Thai society.

The Thai version of the story is basically the same as the original from India, but it does have some variations. The names, for example, are slightly different: the demon Ravana is "Thotsakhan" in one change. Even the title of the story suggests a difference that tells much about Thai values: "Ramakian" means "Glory of Rama", which reflects the Thai people's historical support of a strong kings. (Kings since the 18th century have been named "Rama", after the name of the main character and king in the Ramakian, and they always live in Bangkok, whose full name includes a reference to its still being Ayodhya, the place where Rama lived.)

Stories like the Ramakian are considered part of Thailand's tradition of "classical" literature. There are also other performances of "folk" literature, which include songs, plays and folk stories, and "religious" literature, among which the Jataka Tales are a favorite. But more on that later!

After the play was over, I followed a massive and growing crowd across the street into Sanam Luang, a large and grassy gathering area that has a long, important history to the city. I wasn't sure where I was going, but somebody mumbled to me that there was going to be a "kick-boxing" match and I knew I had to go. It was obvious by the density of the crowd, milling around or pushing one another or piling onto buses parked around the area, that SOMETHING big was going on. The energy was psycho.

I kept moving around, trying to figure out where the action was, but nothing much seemed to be going on. Suddenly, all the lights went out. Everyone pulled out candles and lit them; the national anthem began blaring out over loudspeakers. Fireworks began exploding high in the sky in every direction. At one point, I could see four separate shows going on, and this lasted for a good twenty minutes. In front of me, a fireworks fountain erupted, spewing yellow sparks a hundred feet into the air. It was terrifying! A dragon appeared out of nowhere, it's forty-foot-long spiraling neck holding up a head with sparks spouting from its mouth. Then, as if to make the madness even more intense, the gate we'd all been jammed behind opened up, and thousands of people rushed forward towards what looked like a boxing ring in the middle of the field.

I'd stumbled onto the King's birthday party!

The centerpiece of the celebration was the muay thai (Thai kick-boxing) match. It's a bit like Big Time Wrestling, but WAY more manic. The style is ferocious and savage, with wrestlers using not only their fists (which are gloved, at least; in the past, they would wrap their arms in tight cloth rope, dip them in glue and pour on ground glass) but also their heads, feet, elbows and knees. "Rocky" type music blares as the announcer yells out the names of the competitors: here, Thai champions against Dutch challengers. (The Thai ALWAYS win...) But, it's the CROWD that's REALLY crazy. They yell and box each other with each blow in the ring. Even worse to me, the people in the back would sit down first, then yell at the people in front to sit down so they could see -- and, usually, throw stones and dirt at them to make their point. It was INSANE. I loved it!

On my way back from the party to my hotel, late at night, the streets were still buzzing -- even if these no longer were. Yup, they're sautéed insects (some kind of cricket, I think), which were being sold by a streetside food vendor. They're considered a real delicacy throughout the country. Another nearby vendor was selling worms in a coconut soup broth. I decided not to try either one; there was just too much other great food to try, and Thai food is my very favorite in the world!

This sate seemed MUCH more appetizing to me. I have to say that I tried for six weeks in Thailand, and I couldn't get a photo that would give you any idea of the food scene here. It's just plain overwhelming. Street block after block are lined with temporary stands like this one sitting out in front of one restaurant after another. People eat little bits of things at any one time...but they eat, and eat, and EAT!!



Most people think of Thai food as being very hot and spicy. Some is, and some isn't. Generally, though, the farther south you get, the spicier the food. Almost every meal has rice, though some are noodle-based; basic ingredients are meat, poultry, fish, seafood, vegetables and fruit cooked with coconut milk, chili peppers, fish sauce and shrimp paste. The herbs and spices that are added, though, make Thai food unique and tasty. Some of the flavorings used are ginger, basil, lemon basil, lemongrass, lime leaves, and many other dried and ground spices from around the region.


A Thai meal is always balanced in many different ways. If some dishes are spicy hot, for example, others must be milder. There must be both vegetables AND meat or fish. A soup is always served, but it's not eaten before the other dishes, as in many Western cultures, but rather is sipped throughout the meal. At the end of the meal you might have some kind of very sweet dessert, like these being sold by a street vendor, or some tropical fruits like those you saw before being sold at a portable stand.

Fun and interesting as Bangkok is, after a couple of days of the constant noise and traffic I was more than ready to take a break. (And, it's HOT: according to the World Meteorological Association, it is the world's hottest city. I agree!) I'd heard the trains were fun, so I decided to take one and head out of town...



To Part 2

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