Thailand Vignettes of an Artist
At about 2AM one morning in late December of 1990 my flight from Tokyo descended into Bangkok. I’d been dozing but roused suddenly with mounting anxiety and butterflies in my belly. What if he wasn’t there to meet me?
The required procedures to enter Thailand were much simpler then than they would become, and that night I found myself progressing to the reception area before I knew it. Still disoriented and uncertain I spotted a small group waiting to welcome travelers, and there among them I beheld the broad smile of my youngest child. My heart kept up; I was elated, hugely relieved. Stephen was not holding up a big card with my name on it but a bouquet of yellow flowers.
My impressions of Thailand that night of my arrival were surreal. We headed toward the Bangkok hotel he had booked for us through streets and lanes that came alive even in the darkness, eerily illuminated by lights of dangling bare bulbs. Distorted shifting shadows and dark silhouettes of workers were multiplied everywhere by the swinging lights as the workers prepared busily for tomorrow’s market.
We rattled along in our tuk tuk, (the three-wheeled taxi ubiquitous in Thailand), fitting right into the local scene. At the side of the road a woman squatting on a small stool held up by its feet the duck she had just slaughtered as its blood flowed into a metal tub. Stephen explained it would be appreciated as “blood soup.”
The local color of Thailand was both figurative and literal! From city to countryside bright tints and shades of pinks, turquoises, yellows, peaches created an ongoing, ever-changing montage. The clothes people wore, the foods they ate, both fresh and packaged, even the trash on pavements and along highways — color was everywhere, if not fresh and bright, then sullied by dust and pollution.
Stephen had already been befriended by a pretty young English-speaking woman who was (too) eager to take me shopping for custom silk clothes. It was arranged for me to go with her on her small motorcycle. I was reluctant but Stephen urged me to do it. I did. After tying a bandana around my mouth I clung to her for dear life as we careened through traffic to the other side of Bangkok.
Pollution was bad there, and my bandana was dark with soot from the emissions of all those tuk tuks and mopeds that shot in and out of traffic everywhere. . . traffic flow is the reverse of that in the US, and once, when I wasn’t paying attention, I came within the break’s squeal of the end of me!
After Bangkok we continued along the Chao Phraya River to Ayutthaya where Stephen had reserved our stay in a guest house that may have been the prototype for his jacalito in Taos. It was comfortable and informal with bicycles available. No paperwork at all was necessary to borrow a bike; bikes were there for the taking.
We cycled in wild traffic even there in Ayutthaya but looked for quieter routes. One morning along a dusty neighborhood road we passed a sort of card table which held a big metal pot of soup and a hand printed sign. Stephen read, “Fish testicle soup. (Ho Ho!)” We passed it up and had a bunch of small very sweet bananas for lunch.
Another day on the borrowed bikes we set forth after our open-air breakfast of very delicious coffee and tum-yam soup, a traditional dish, spicy, tangy and hot. Our destination was a peaceful park featuring a tall stupa, a dome-like Buddhist shrine that Stephen knew about. It was a matchless, memorable day. He had his dictionary and language papers and I brought watercolors. In the shade of the stupa we spent the afternoon.
We celebrated New Year’s Eve quietly with a special dinner suggested by our waitress. We did not know what we were eating, and began to suspect songbirds were on the menu as the tiny bones suggested. Most dishes were flavored with lemongrass, and rice was the staple. Always, presentation was colorful, often sculptural, with carved or curled vegetables perching high above the entree.
On New Year’s Day we went to breakfast early on the bank of the Chao Phraya River that weaves through the city of Ayutthaya. From a veranda with a misty view of the wat, which is a Buddhist temple, across the river we lingered in our most peaceful setting so far.
Our day continued along the banks of a legendary floating market. It was a scene like no other! Riverboats heavily laden with food, flowers, household goods, even clothes clogged a narrow canal. They were crammed in, side to side, bow to stern, and shoppers negotiated with the boatmen and women in a cacophony of shouts. To make a selection in that confusion was a difficult matter.
More sightseeing included several lavish and colorful temples with elongated glittering Buddha’s. In the temples the scent of golden marigolds was lost in heady incense. Devotees would come and go to pay homage before the Buddhas by kneeling and bowing and offering gold leaf. Their constant but sporadic flow disturbed the candlelit sanctuaries.
Outside skilled women were stringing fresh marigolds into garlands to honor and invoke the Buddhas, working alongside big bins overflowing with endless ropes of withering flowers. The monotonous, laborious routine of the marigolds was the daily activity of countless women. Known as phuang malai, these garlands signify good luck and the practice was known to be in use at least as early as during the 19th century time of King Rama V. Back then, the skill of creating these garlands earned great honor for the women.
Then there was our round-trip bus trip from Bangkok to Burma, now Myanmar, where we spent an afternoon in the Golden Triangle. Here the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar are formed where the Mekong and Ruak Rivers meet.
After lunch our experience was a chaotic shopping bonanza. We made the most of the dizzying displays of every category of ethnic goods: clothes, accessories, toys, produce, jewelry and more. Prices were very competitive, and we yielded to temptation. When we made it back to our hostelry laden-down, hot, and weary there was the wrapping and shipping of the largess. Stephen dealt with that like a pro. Our thanks would be the fun of unwrapping and re-discoveries at a very enthusiastic welcome home party!