Tuesday, August 25, 2015

LOY, LOY KRATONG AT PEACOCK HOTEL




                                        LOY, LOY KRATONG AT PEACOCK HOTEL


The low sun casts an ethereal glow on the treetops of the lush surroundings. Already the insect chorus heralding imminent nightfall is going full bore, while frogs mournfully belch in search of mates. An olive colored snake freezes up on the edge of the path in front of him, causing the human interloper to shudder and stop, but just as quickly the reptile slithers away, slipping into the undergrowth. The trellis-covered path leads to a concrete patio, a sterile clearing in the midst of a well-tended jungle garden. An array of lounge chairs ring the diamond shaped pool. The glittering aqua tinted water is the focal point for an assortment of fun-and-sun worshippers, almost all foreign.
John gives the tourist watering hole a wide berth, cutting instead across a broad moist lawn flanked by a row of massive, overhanging jamjuree trees. Under the dark canopy over ponderous, overhanging branches he meanders along, this way and that, trying to avoid muck, puddles and squawking birds until he comes upon the lake pavilion. Red velvet ropes cordon off the venue from the rest of the hotel grounds. The VIP dinner party slated for the lake pavilion is already underway, with music playing and food being served. Barefoot Thai dancers clad in traditional garb gyrate as if in slow motion, their ornate crowns tipping left and rotating right, glittering in the candlelight. Brass cymbals ring and glasses clink while the whiff of fried garlic and hot chilies, jasmine and alcohol lace the air.
He’s back, back in the fragrant, hope-infused oasis where he first fell in and out of love, a place that has lurked seductively, sometimes menacingly, in his dreams ever since. What better night to reunite than a full night moon like this one?
It’s Loy Kratong, the festival of lights. Distant fireworks are already pricking the remnants of the dark vermillion sky somewhere over the banks of the Chao Praya, while candle-lit kratong floats being cast adrift on the banks of the mighty river, as well as in lakes, canals and ponds across the land.
The sky is free of rain; the moon is placid and rotund, floating buoyantly above the eastern horizon. The chirp of crickets is everywhere, cool-season flowers are coming into bloom and thanks to a gentle but steady breeze, and holiday traffic patterns, auto exhaust has lost its chokehold on the air, at least in this lush, privileged corner of the city.
After a quick pit stop in the hotel bathroom, John returns to the steamy outdoors. The face he saw in the mirror while splashing water on his face wasn’t looking younger, that’s for sure, but then again, she’s ten years older too, and there’s the hope that the reunion will be so joyful that the minute ravages of time will go unremarked upon if not entirely unnoticed.
Subtly thwarted by vigilant guards in crisp white suits who examine invitation cards, John decides not to join the party yet. He remains reassured by the conviction that once the ravishing object of his affection arrives, he will no longer have to hide and bide his time on the perimeter.
Killing time, he ambles around the section of the lotus pond that isn't roped off. Here, candle-lit, flower-decked floats are being launched by eager tourists under the supervision of conscientious Thai staff. The sun is gone and the stars are starting to show. On the tourist side of the pond, a pair of pretty silk-clad hotel staffers introduce elderly Europeans to the colorful floats crafted of banana root, explaining that the kratong are typically decorated with pandanus leaf, purple Amaranthus petals, and sticks of incense. The candles are said to represent the light of the Buddha, while the launching and setting adrift of the candle-lit float is said to be a good way to get rid of bad karma.
While watching from the rear, John slyly seizes the opportunity to drifts over to the "Thai" side, thinking he might just slip into the party unannounced. He attempts to pass through an unguarded opening in the velvet rope.
“Welcome, sir!” greets a voice out of nowhere. A uniformed hotel attendant had just stealthily emerged from the shadows like a phantom, puncturing John’s dreamy vision of the intimate past. “Are you lost, sir?”
“No I am not.” John quietly bristles. Why does he keep getting lumped together with all those fresh-off-the-plane tourists? Lost? Perhaps. He’s at ground zero of a lost love, about to reconnect with a life that has eluded him for so long.
“Please step this way, please sir!” the attendant warmly urges. 
Convinced that Joy's arrival would change everything, John decides not to put up an argument and instead docilely follows this escort towards the glow of Christmas-lit trees and twinkling bushes.
“Happy Loy Kratong, sir.”
“Happy to you, too,” John answers distractedly, his eyes focused on the distant constellations of light emanating from the private party. He isn’t inside yet, but he will be any minute now.
Chatting with the attendant, who seems to be impressed by all things "international" John immediately realizes the futility in protesting that he isn’t a tourist. The man is just going his job, helping people to find their place, even if it means moving them apart.
As the attendant leads him deep into the tourist pen, he feels like a mustang being roped into the wrong corral. He keeps up a facade of calm, but he is champing at the bit with silent indignation.
“Here we are. You are welcome to enjoy International Loy Kratong Party.”
“Ah, thank you.” John sighs resignedly. Once a farang, always a farang.
Now that the hotel staff has outed him, he’s got no choice but to pretend he’s enjoying the little segregated shindig for flight attendants and package tourists; a dash of local color, a sprinkle of hotel hospitality. It’s Loy Kratong for dummies, and to everyone’s gaze but his own, he’s one of them.




Wednesday, August 19, 2015

LUCKY CHARMS: ERAWAN





(An excerpt from BANGKOK SUNSET)  


The blazing heat of Sukhumwit at high noon hits one in the face like the rush of hot air emanating from a just-opened oven. John and Sombat exit the air-cooled lobby of the downtown hospital and step into raw sunlight, dodging cars and carts, motorcycles and trucks, sweating and swearing, coughing from the exhaust, seeking the solace of shadows big and small.
Sombat airs his intention to visit a famous shrine and John duly nods in agreement, assuming the next step is to find a tuk-tuk or a taxi, knowing how much his friend hated to break a sweat. Instead the Thai makes the highly unusual suggestion that they go on foot. John knows then and there that something is wrong, terribly wrong.
The hot season is so hot at its hottest that dogs don’t stir and even insects stop crawling. Day after day of cloudless sun has not only baked Bangkok to a crisp; it has been drying up reservoirs of goodwill. It’s edgy weather and tempers flare easily, the kind of heat that calls for five showers a day and lots of cold drinks in between if you have the luxury, or the stoic acceptance of a sticky layer of sweat and grime as a second skin. It’s about the only time of year when people like Sombat, born and brought up in the tropics, get hot under the collar on account of the sun.
Keeping in the shade and napping at noon had been the standard strategy of dealing with toxic sunshine for millennia; then air-conditioning was invented. Ever since it was discovered that heat could be transferred from one place to another, it had become possible for a select few to work and play in air-conditioned comfort round the clock. The pervasive heat could be held off but not defeated. Even the rich had to endure the steamy gaps between luxury home and luxury hotel, the skin-reddening heat between cool shops and parched parking lots. But the biggest gap of all was between rich and poor, for the sweltering heat was democratic in a way the cool air was not.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in over-developed, over-trafficked Bangkok, where the exhaust of hulking air conditioners and hot fumes of internal combustion motors conspired to make street temperatures soar.
John and Sombat lumber in sullen silence down the searing, smoky urban corridor known as Sukhumvit, where the shadow of the overhead trestle offered scant relief heat, as cars, buses and trucks kept the trapped air filled with burning vapors.
The Thai is both uncommunicative and serenely stoic, unfazed by light or shade, as if in numb and in trance. His glazed eyes search the extremities of the busy thoroughfare for divinations that only he can see.
On the way across a rusted footbridge, two white-robed women with shaven heads politely request cash while impolitely blocking the steps. John, who by now has picked up some of his friend’s innate skepticism, wonders aloud if the two petite unisex creatures are really nuns or just poor women pretending to be nuns or perhaps transvestites pretending to be women pretending to be nuns, but Sombat will hear nothing of it. He reaches deep into his pocket and drops a heavy handful of coins into the outstretched alms bowl.
Back on the sidewalk, they are confronted by the sight of a shirtless, bare-footed man taunting fate; darting in and out of the traffic, oblivious to cars as he hops on the hot asphalt.
 “Look!” shouts John. Before Sombat can answer, crazy-farang is in the street, trying to slow traffic, waving one hand waving frantically while collaring the vagrant with the other. Horns honk but the traffic halts and John leads the man to the curbside where he collapses on the curb, writhing like an overturned insect.
Ya ba!” shouts a bemused bystander in a bright blue Hawaiian shirt. The man in blue quizzes Sombat as to why his farang friend would risk breaking a sweat to save a worthless bum. John knows ya ba is slang for meth, but what it really means is ‘don’t get involved.’
According to the prime minister’s pronouncements, no mercy was called for when it came to druggies. Ever since the top cops launched a national anti-drug campaign, kicked off with a series of well-publicized executions by firing squad, and a series of extrajudicial roadside killings, it had become politically incorrect to show an iota of sympathy for anyone who had anything to do with drugs. Unless, of course, the victim was the son or daughter of an important politician or socialite, or unless the addictive chemical in question produced a profitable, socially-sanctioned chemical dependence, such as nicotine or alcohol.
The police arrive, a few perfunctory questions are asked, and John and Sombat move on. They weave their way along the edge of a sidewalk that has been whittled down to the width of a single plank by location-savvy vendors who commandeer the curb to tap the human flow.
They edge forward single file, like hikers traversing a precarious ledge, skirting hot traffic on one side and burning charcoal braziers on the other. One wrong step and you’re hurled into the house of pain.
Sombat inexplicably pauses to pray at a gaudy guardian shrine that sits in the parking lot of a second-rate department store. The centerpiece is a gilded image set upon an altar bedecked with incense and flowers, a warder-off of evil that John has passed a dozen times without taking into account.
John watches in wonderment as the Thai buys a fistful of lottery tickets from an unshaven old man who dispenses thin paper slips printed with auspicious numbers, methodically drawn from a flat wooden box that looks like it might contain a chess set. Sombat pockets the lucky paper, and then goes on to make merit in little ways, tossing a few coins to curbside beggars, including an unhealthy little boy cradling a healthy-looking dog. 
They don’t get much further down the road when he pauses to listen to a blind crooner. The old lady, who has dark wrinkles where her eyes should be, sings her heart out on a tinny microphone over the din of the traffic, interrupting her sad ballad to say khopjai ja to her unseen benefactor. Her seeing-eye partner, a dark, shrunken man with a bemused look etched on his otherwise impassive face, bows deeply in appreciation. Clink, clank, clunk go the ten-baht coins. Flitter, flutter, go the twenty-baht bills.
Somebody’s having trouble with unlucky stars.
“Hey Sombat,” John says, wiping the sweat off his face. “Like, man, what’s the matter? What’d the doctor say?”
“Nuttin’. He just draw my money and take my blood.”
Then all of a sudden it all makes sense. Sombat is ill but doesn’t know how ill. That’s why they’re making a pilgrimage to Erawan Shrine, the most opportune lucky spot in Bangkok. Originally built to ward off bad spirits when a spate of bloody accidents slowed the construction of a deluxe hotel, the busy corner has gradually evolved into a shrine open to all, rich, poor, foreign, local, in need of a pat on the back from the invisible hand of fortune. Taxi drivers put their faith in the shrine’s power every time they pass it, taking their hands off the steering wheel to show their respect, leaving the guidance of their vehicle in the hands of the supernatural, striking the fear of God into non-believing passengers.
Even tourists flock to the corner shrine. The rush of devotees thickens as giant buses dock at the curb and camera-toting Taiwanese and Koreans step down to the street to join the flow. John and Sombat get wedged between a gaggle of supplicants, squeezing past pushcarts manned by matrons selling golden flowers, jasmine garlands, sandalwood incense, votive candles and wooden elephants. The Thai expertly weaves his way, never once losing his footing on the uneven walkway, a pothole here, a chunk of detritus there. John follows cautiously in his wake.
At the shrine entrance Sombat gets into an intense transaction with an old man tending an assortment of caged birds. John watches with astonishment as his spendthrift pal turns his wallet upside down and empties it of cash to buy a pair of birds. Well, he doesn’t exactly buy them; it’s more like renting them for the first leg of a short roundtrip flight. Many years before, as Joy had explained to John on one of their memorable chaperoned cultural tours, releasing a caged bird was a way of making merit, because Buddhists cherish freedom, the life force of all living creatures.
The twittering pale yellow birds scamper and tweet hyperactively behind the wooden slats of their cages, looking ruffled and in a panic. While it was obvious to any bystander, probably even the tourists, that the tiny birds didn’t venture far from their wooden cages, the karma-challenged Sombat, at this touchy juncture in time, has somehow convinced himself that the mere act of opening the cage door to release the bird, only for it to fly back to its prison perch, by habit or hunger, is going to somehow change the negative valence of his luck.
The rolling thunder of cars, trucks and buses creates a quasi-melodic drone, oddly comforting, almost cosmic, the moment you stopped reacting to it and just let the rise and fall of the sound waves wash by, not unlike the pounding sound of the surf crashing on the shore. What grates the ear is not so much the background rhythm and base notes but the showy solo players, like the revved-up bike, the piercing police whistle, the honking van or grinding engine.
Up the intersection above looms the splayed concrete viaduct of the sky train, arching over the traffic like the sun-bleached skeleton of some impossibly humongous dinosaur. Commuter trains roll by in opposing directions, periodically slicing the air with a whispery whoosh.
So what was with street-savvy Sombat buying birds from a karmic con artist? It wasn’t like him, but he had been off-color all week long. Not only had he been hanging around the house an annoyingly high percentage of the time, but he’d been utterly out of character, puttering around, ironing his clothes, cleaning the kitchen, fixing the broken steps, pacing listlessly, sorting through old photos, staring at the ceiling; why, he even made mention of giving away his worldly possessions to become a monk!
And look at him now, as his unsteady hands fiddle with the matchbox cage, urging the fragile birds out. It’s the story of his life, paying bar fines to buy a bird’s freedom for the night, knowing full well they’d be back in captivity and primped for re-sale as soon as he was done with them.
Finally one frightened winged creature takes flight, shooting upward like a rocket before zigzagging across the intersection, narrowly avoiding collision with a traffic sign. Then the other one takes wing, darting madly to an intermediate point above the rush-hour traffic but well below the air-rustling whoosh of the elevated train, until they find an almost inviolable perch on an insulated power cable suspended from a crooked utility pole planted in front of police headquarters across the street.
Good deed done, Sombat smiles weakly. Clean out of cash, he borrows a few bills from John to buy a pack of candles and incense as they enter the black-and-gold fenced enclosure of the Erawan Shrine proper, a sacred corner in a profane world where local devotees and camera-snapping tourists perambulate the small but reputedly potent four-faced statue. On a raised pedestal the all-seeing idol presides over a fallen city of two-faced progress. The lord Brahma gazes benevolently down at the material world with 360-degree night-and-day vision, seeing all, knowing all.
The perpetually busy shrine is the wishing well of Bangkok village, a last hope to the hopeless. Yet John swallows hard when he espies his proud friend dropping to his hands and knees, showing abject devotion to a Hinduistic icon. Harder still when he sees his friend being filmed by tourists, as if the distraught Thai had nothing better to do than perform for them.
Unmoved by imputed omniscience of the gilded Brahma; John refuses to go through the motions, instead retreating to a shaded corner where a tinny percussive orchestra plays for hire. Music tinkles from the amateurish ensemble as they hammer away on bamboo xylophones, small brass cymbals and leather-headed drums, beating out ancient rhythms in gentle counterpoint to the mechanized tumult of the intersection.
Eight darkly rouged dancing girls gyrate in slow motion, turning and swaying to echoes of Angkor and the ancient Siamese court. Attenuated bejeweled crowns sit heavily on the dancers’ heads, pointing skyward like temple prangs. Foreheads moist with sweat-beaded makeup, the girls plod through dance after dance, rotating in a bluish miasma of smoking incense and auto exhaust.

John takes a seat on a bench sinks his head in his hands, a headache is coming on. He closes his eyes and tries to will away the searing crescendos of the internal-combustion-engine orchestra that aurally assaults the shrine. Cocooned by the all-embracing heat, he sinks into a trance, succumbing to the call of the past, darting in and out of lucid dreams.
The shrine presides over a shadowy world of fumes, the intersection of spirit and matter. John closes his eyes, trying to picture the world back in the day when the ancient dance the dancing ladies are dancing was new, a world without electricity or machines, a world of unsullied skies and pristine streams; something almost as far beyond the ken of today’s city as today’s city would be to the ancients.
A misty series of images, first a point of light in the distance, then a glowing rectangular window frames the figure of a young girl smiling across the years. Phusai ngam, a beautiful indirect way of saying “I want to know you.”
To this day he wonders about what happened. It wasn’t like him to take the liberties he took; and in all likelihood it was not like her to let him take them, either. What prompted each of them to take an evolutionary leap with a total stranger? Was it just random, selfish genes and eager-to-replicate DNA doing its unthinking thing, or was it part of a larger more spiritual scheme of things? He had preferred to believe the former because it seemed to let both of them off the hook. What difference did it make if she was good or bad, flawless or fallen? He had had her, and she him and even though she was lost in time, a thing of the past, were their fates not wed in some ancient elemental sense?
If there was a heaven, could she hear him thinking?


(available on Kindle)