A Year in Bangkok – Green Mamba!

7 11 2011

Sometimes, my brain simply fails to comprehend the stupidity of others. I, of course, never do anything stupid. But here, I’m really talking about beyond stupid. For example, a European guy living in Pattaya decided to keep a pet cobra. Can you imagine anybody with even half a brain deciding to keep a pet whose bite is lethal? Sure enough, the snake bit him and he had to go to hospital for the antidote. Even with the antidote, I understand that it is an extremely painful experience. Now that is gross stupidity but did the guy get rid of the snake? No, he continued to keep it as a pet, even allowing it the run of his apartment. I would have thought the old adage ‘once bitten twice shy’ might apply here but it became twice bitten as the guy’s decomposing body was later found in his apartment.

Green mamba striking.

Last week, we heard of somebody who decided he needed a breeding pair of green mambas. Deadly snakes for which we have no anti-venom as they are not natural to Thailand, but to a relatively small part of East Africa. Being a breeding pair, they did just that and became seventeen green mambas. Unlike the black mamba, it is relatively shy and non-aggressive but a green mamba will bite if threatened and, with no antidote, you can expect a slow and painful death.

It almost looks cute here.

Now this particular idiot’s house has flooded and the snakes have escaped. So far, one has been caught. Watch out for the other sixteen!

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A Year in Bangkok – Sacred Ink

23 07 2011

Typical Sak Yant tattoo.

Some years ago, I went to Pattaya for a weekend. I have never seen a place where the sex industry is so ‘in your face’ and I’ve never been back to Pattaya. Like Patpong in Bangkok, the industry apparently grew from the demands of U.S. troops calling there. Apparently, Angeles City just outside a U.S. base in the Philippines is similar, again feeding the demands of the same clientele. Shortly after my visit, the then Thai Culture Minister visited Pattaya and was quoted in the newspapers as saying that she had seen no evidence of prostitution. I guess she gets around with the aid of a white stick.

It's common to see them on monks.

Prostitution is illegal here although you would never guess. I haven’t been there since before the tsunami but I understand that the sex industry on the holiday island of Phuket is now thriving. Enter the outgoing Culture Minister who, at a recent emergency meeting, ordered the Ministry’s Phuket officials to start patrolling the tourist zones of the island as something insidious is going on there which is apparently totally against Thai culture.

A simpler one.

As you can probably guess by now, there are certain things tourists do on Phuket which are a bit naughty and offensive to traditional Thais. You may not know this, but Angelina Jolie is to blame! In 2004, she was over here for some filming (Lara Croft I think) and she ‘discovered’ an already well known tattoo artist called Ajarn Noo. Interestingly, at about the same time, my wife was translating for a Scandinavian film company who were making a documentary about Thailand which included an interview with Ajarn Noo. He seemed to think it necessary to keep them waiting a long time when they arrived for the interview. I have heard from other people that this guy regularly seems to keep people waiting or, occasionally, not bother to turn up at all for appointments. And, if you are a westerner, he will apparently charge you 200,000 baht (four thousand pounds) for a Sak Yant, or temple tattoo that you can get done the traditional way in a temple for around 500 baht (ten pounds). Or so I am informed. Actually, it’s not just on Phuket – it’s all around Thailand. Thanks to that actress, traditional Thai tattoos are very fashionable in certain parts of the west now and the Culture Minister is concerned that people are getting them done on inappropriate parts of their bodies – hence patrolling the tourist areas.

Ajarn Noo

The tattoos are called Sak Yant. Sak Yant is the Thai name for sacred geometrical designs inked into the skin. Sak is the Thai word for tattoo and Yant, or Yantra as it is known elsewhere in the world, is the Thai name for a geometrical design believed to posses magical powers of protection. They can be done in ink or in sesame oil. Traditionally, women often had them done in oil because they were invisible yet still offered the same level of protection. A 17 year old boy, called Boy, was recently stabbed in Saphan Phut – not the nicest part of Bangkok – but escaped serious injury because, he said, of his Sak Yant.

Some of them take several days to do.

The Sak Yant tattoos are traditionally done by Buddhist Monks or Brahmin holy men. Each different design is believed to carry a certain protection and many people believe that when a design is inked onto your skin by a Buddhist monk you then become imbued with that protection. Some designs are meant to give the owner the power to charm a lover or get rich while others offer protection against enemies. I’m not sure what getting rich has to do with spirituality!

Ouch!

Yant tattooing is practiced in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. The prayers tattooed around the Yant are written in Pali Sanskrit, the original language of the Lord Buddha, using ancient Khom or Khmer lettering. The use of magic Yantras and the sacred alphabet to write them has been a common practice with the Khmer race for thousands of years.

A monk again.

Sak Yant tattoos have a very strict application method that must be adhered to and takes many years to master at the training of Yant masters. The tattooist must concentrate very hard while inscribing the tattoo as he must silently chant a mantra that changes with each new element of the design while inscribing the ancient words. The recitation helps to pass on the magic onto the Sak Yant tattoo.

They can be beautiful.

The tattoos the ministry is so upset about are those depicting three particular religious images – the Lord Buddha, Ganesh and the cross so in reality this is about much more than Thai culture as those images are from India, India and Calvary in that order. Worse still, people are getting them on the “arm, leg, ankle and chest, places that are not suitable to the beauteous Thai culture or Thai society’ said the Minister. Hmmm………

 





A Year in Bangkok – Songkran

16 04 2011

May your new year be full of wetness!

Well, here we are at Songkran again. The Thai sense of fun really comes out at Songkran, the Buddhist new year in the middle of April. As almost any excuse will do for a party, we celebrate three new years here. First we celebrate the western new year which is now officially recognised as a public holiday, then we celebrate the Chinese new year but the big one is the start of three days of madness and mayhem properly known as Songkran.

Good fun whatever your age.

Most of Bangkok’s population comes from the rural areas so they mainly go home to be with family, much as we do at Christmas. On the first morning, people traditionally visit their local temple to build sand stupas and wash the Buddhas. By lunch time though, the festivities are in full swing. Stemming from the tradition of giving water to the Lord Buddha at this, the hottest time of year, people stand on the streets or drive by in pick-ups and soak anybody within range, topping it off with talcum powder.

Water for the Buddha.

One tradition behind this is that if you wet the hands of an elder, they will grant you a wish. The powder bit is just for fun.

My first year here, I managed to miss it in town on the first day as I went in shopping early but going home was a little different. As the little red bus dawdled up the street, people threw buckets of water through the open doors, many of them throwing it at the ceiling to ensure that it would splash back down with maximum effect.

Wetly getting off the bus and walking home, one of the local stall holders squirted me with her water pistol so I warned her – one more time and she was going to be tickled.  Of course, she took up the challenge and my shopping lay abandoned while I chased and tickled her. I was made to wait a few minutes and she came back with a lotus garland which she put round my neck along with a little sniff kiss.

Getting back as far as my apartment block, I was greeted with “Ah, Khun Ben” from some of the staff who then thoroughly soaked me yet again and covered me in talc.

Sadly, drunk driving is a major problem during this festival and huge numbers of people are killed, they even ran death counts in the corner of the TV screens when I first came here but now, that is restricted to the news programmes. In just one year the road death count over this three day holiday period was around five hundred and forty with another four thousand injured. Apparently most of these people were on motorcycles. Human life is relatively cheap out here and I can only imagine the outcry over such a thing happening back home.

During the evening of the main Songkran day in my second year here, I went night-clubbing Thai style with some friends. We always eat there, and get live cabaret style entertainment with lots of slapstick comedy and some really good singing. This goes on to about midnight, after which there is western music and dancing. No dance floor though, everybody just stands at their tables and dances. The cost of such a night out including all food and drink is normally under ten pounds a person – UK prices are always quite a shock to the system when I go home for a holiday.

Officially, the three day holiday is divided as follows: the thirteenth of April is Elder’s Day, the fourteenth is Family Day and the fifteenth represents the first day of the new year. Songkran comes from Pali and Sanskrit and means ‘a move or change in the position of the sun from Aries to Taurus’.

Lots of countries in this region celebrate similar festivals at this time of year although they have different names in each country. Essentially though, they celebrate the start of a new year after a harvesting season is over and before the start of summer. This year it is 2554 but they no longer advance the date at Songkran, they moved that bit to 1st January some time ago to fit in with the ‘developed’ world.

This year, we spent the final day of Songkran cycling round the Ancient City in Samut Prakan. I forgot to take anything long sleeved and I forgot sun block so I now look like a cross between a giant stick insect and a lobster.

Regardless of the history of this manic festival, I’m perfectly happy to simply think of it as the biggest water fight in the world! And many thanks to Alex for the use of some excellent photos here.

Most accident victims are on motorcycles.





A Year in Bangkok – Young Monks

10 04 2011

Go anywhere in Thailand, especially early in the morning, and you will see monks in their orange robes, the design of which hasn’t changed since the time of Siddhartha. Some time ago now, I was told that every man has to become a monk for a part of his life in order to fulfill the blessing of his parents.

Sometimes young boys disappear from school for a short time and return with their heads shaved, having become monks for a couple of weeks. More often though, they do that during the school holidays and especially now, the long summer holiday. Young boys can become novices at any age, but a man cannot become a monk until he gets to the age of twenty. He can then remain a monk for as long as he wants, even if it is just for a few days. One to three months seems to be more usual, although a minority choose to remain in monkhood for the rest of their lives.

I often feel here that Buddhism is very much a living faith and the monks have to abide by no less than two hundred and twenty seven strict precepts or rules of conduct. How strictly they are adhered to is another matter though. For instance, when my daughter came to visit, a young monk asked her to marry him, explaining that he wouldn’t be a monk for very long.

Sixty two young monks visited our housing estate to collect alms very early this morning. All of these boys, I believe, are fulfilling their family’s wishes during the summer holidays. They came from the local temple and their visit here was something of a special occasion which ensured that most of the people who live here were up and paying their respects.






A Year in Bangkok – A Visit to Chinatown

27 03 2011

Read the rest of this entry »





A Year in Bangkok – Public Transport

19 03 2011

Getting to town from the apartment block where I used to live is easy and cheap so long as you avoid the roads – sometimes the traffic seems to just stand still for an hour at a time. I struggled along these roads until a chance meeting led me to be introduced to the wonderful but often rancid canal (Bangkok was once called the Venice of the east) along which operate water buses. My local pier is just five minutes walk away and, for about ten pence, I can get a water bus to the nearest underground station or straight into the main shopping centre for the princely sum of twelve pence. By using water, underground and sky train (an overhead rail system) I can move around town very quickly and enjoy the air conditioning of the train systems. Actually, the air conditioning on the train systems can be quite vicious and, when I have got on one whilst still wet after being caught in some of the Bangkok rain, it was far too cold and had me in shivers. A word of warning about the water buses too – keep your mouth shut! Every now and then, you get a face full of canal water and I dread to think what that might contain. I have often seen drowned cats and dogs in the water and, on one occasion very early in the morning I even saw a human corpse bobbing along. You can also see wildlife in there, I once saw a huge python which must have been two metres long and it is fairly common to see monitor lizards working the banks. They always seem to do this in pairs and if I see one now, I always look for the other one which is usually just a few metres away. They have very small heads and it is always a surprise to me when I see the end of a monitor lizard’s tail and realize how long the animal is for such a small head.

The water bus.

Amazingly to me, in the hot summer weather, people swim in the canals. Goodness only knows what diseases one could catch doing that. Sometimes, I just can’t cope with the noxious smells on the water so I then get the ‘little red bus’ to my nearest sky train station at a cost of five pence. It always seems like a miracle that these ancient buses, which have long since lost their doors and various other parts, continue to run. I’ve also learnt to take care on the pavements which the motorcyclists see as extensions to the road. On the rare stretches of pavement which are both wide and clear you need to be extra vigilant as it is entirely possible that a car driver will decide it is a handy way to move an extra ten metres up the ever static traffic queue. Pavements are also restaurants and places to sell your wares so there’s not much room left for the humble pedestrian.

Motor cycle taxi.

Transport generally is very different from back home. Motor cycle taxis are a common form of public transport here too. You can’t hail one like a normal taxi but have to go to one of their stands. They are fairly obvious as you’ll see lots of motor cycles and men in brightly coloured singlets with Thai numbers on the back. Just as the Thai alphabet is different to ours, so are the numbers. In central Bangkok, the motorcycle taxi drivers’ singlets are dayglo orange. These have to be one of the most dangerous forms of public transport, often called Bangkok helicopters by people here. In this city and in this traffic I occasionally decide, pervertedly maybe, to put my life in someone else’s hands by taking one of these motor cycle taxis. Usually, I only take such a risk if the traffic is at a complete standstill, especially as crash helmets are not usually available unless you carry your own. One reason I don’t like them is the death count of people I have known, which currently stands at three, or maybe four. I don’t know what became of the fourth who, after he came off a bike, I went to see in intensive care in the Camillian hospital near where I live and I couldn’t recognize him. His head had been shaved and cut open then stitched up again.  Various parts of his body were encased in plaster and several tubes were attached to other parts of his body. The last I heard of him, he was flown to England for further treatment.

Song Thaew.

Another form of public transport is the song thaew (thaew is pronounced the same as the beginning of the English word town) and quite literally means ‘two long seats’. No surprises then that this is a pick up truck with a bench down each side. Just like regular buses, they have a set route and use the normal bus stops. At busy times, they cram as many people as possible into them and it is quite a sight to see them traveling through the city traffic with several people hanging off the back of them. Song thaew drivers are like most other drivers of public transport here: they are protected by the Lord Buddha so the quality of their driving is not an issue. Above the driver’s seat you will see various symbols from the time the vehicle was blessed by the local monks.

Song Thaew.

When you use a song thaew, or any other form of public transport here, you should really try to forget about the driving and just enjoy the scenery if you possibly can. And, if you are in the countryside, there is usually some fairly spectacular scenery to enjoy. You will sit in one of the two long rows in the back, under a metal frame usually covered by thin aluminium sheets but possibly covered by canvas or plastic. You will share your seat with market traders and their chickens or other stock and with men armed with amazingly long hunting rifles which always look home-made to me. The driver will squeeze as many people in as he can, regardless of your comfort or even of your ability to breathe. I have been told that only boys or men are allowed to hang off the back of the song thaew, they don’t let women or girls do this. In practice though, I often see women and girls hanging off the back of them in rush hour Bangkok. It isn’t really a comfortable ride but it is always interesting. Forget about the po-faced passengers on British buses, here you are practically sat on each others’ laps and everybody is friendly and smiley about it.

Tuk Tuk.

As for the driver, he seems to believe that his is the only vehicle on the road. Either that, or he believes that the blessing the monks gave his vehicle provides divine protection. He will swerve into the oncoming traffic to pass another vehicle or an animal totally regardless of what might be heading for him, and therefore equally regardless for us squashed into the back. If another vehicle is heading our way, then the driver assumes he is hallucinating and presses on. We always seem to miss the oncoming vehicle but it’s so close we can see the whites of the eyes of its occupants and occasionally even count their fillings. The driver doesn’t even notice, flying along smoking his cigarette and listening to luk thung music (Isaan country music) at full volume on his CD player. The tyres are usually bald but that doesn’t matter as the drivers don’t seem to know how to use their brakes and simply accelerate if they ever notice a potential problem on the road.

Motor cycle taxi stand.

Outside Bangkok, rickshaws are very common. In Thailand, it is called a samlor which means ‘three wheels’ and they all seem to be operated by stringy older men with great leg muscles. They are a cheap form of transport and you often see people going home from the market in these, complete with enough shopping to stock the average supermarket. I love seeing these, especially as they have disappeared from Bangkok where they evolved into the infamous tuk-tuks, originally called motorized samlors but renamed because of the sound made by the two stroke engines which were a great help in contributing to the appalling level of pollution in Bangkok. Tuk-tuks now run on gas and cause much less damage to the environment. I used them when I came here on holiday but have only rarely been in one since coming to live here. Because they are a bit of a tourist attraction, I find they tend to be a relatively expensive option.





A Year in Bangkok – Drunk as Charged!

13 03 2011

Some drunks are aggressive. I, on the other hand, am a slobbering over-friendly drunk who thinks the whole world wants to cuddle him. In the early hours of a Sunday morning I was staggering home from the delightfully named Sin Bar, a rooftop bar in the city centre. As I passed one of the ‘entertainment plazas’ (a small area of go-go bars) I observed a tiny Thai guy using his kick boxing skills to severely damage three westerners who looked like professional rugby players. Goodness knows what they had done to cause offence but I have yet to see a westerner come out best in a street brawl. In my inebriated state it struck me that all they probably needed was a cuddle and a bit of love to sort things out so I resolved to go and talk with them. Fortunately, there was so much traffic on the street that I was unable to negotiate a safe crossing so I got a taxi home instead. It took me some time to remember where I lived and the driver was on the verge of throwing me out of his cab when the address came to me.

A little bit of love!

How did I get into this condition? Somebody I know got married on that day and I was fortunate enough to go to her wedding. These tend to be morning affairs although Ae’s extended until early afternoon. And what an interesting wedding it was. Her husband is called Gotchang, a name which really appealed to me as chang (as well as being the Thai word for elephant) is a brand of beer. I liked the name so much that I spent a few minutes dreaming up English equivalents – Gottaylorslandlord, Gottetleybitter, Gotfullerslondonpride and so on. He is Japanese and many of the guests there were Japanese and Ae is Thai. Japanese names are wonderful. I know one guy called O’Gucci and, when he introduced himself to me, he told me that his name means ‘big mouth’ in Japanese, adding that I would never forget that. He was right, I haven’t. Another friend is called Yumi, pronounced ‘yummy’ and there is a Japanese dental surgery near where I used to live with the wonderful name of Fuku – pronounced ‘foo koo’ of course.

It is the first time I have been to a Japanese style wedding and I was surprised to see Gotchang dressed in a very fetching floor length skirt in a sort of black and white checked pattern. Ae was also wearing a lovely dress. At least, it looked lovely from the front but when she turned to the side it was all I could do not to laugh – it was one of those traditional Japanese dresses with a huge bow at the back, making it look to me like she was carrying a back-pack. Asking why Gotchang was wearing a skirt, I learned that it was because he is samurai. I had no idea that they still existed.

A very fetching floor length skirt.

There were about a hundred and forty Japanese guests there, fifty nine Thai people and me. I am usually the only westerner at work but this was the first time I was aware of being the only Caucasian face at a social affair. All but one other at my table were Thai and I communicated by telling bad one-liners which the Thais love. I don’t think the Japanese guy at our table was so impressed though. The beer was free-flow and, as it flowed, my jokes got worse. A problem with drinking beer in a lot of Thai places is that you have absolutely no idea how much you are drinking because your glass is constantly being topped up as if it is a magic glass of beer which can never be emptied.

 

I found the speeches hilarious where employers and family members relate the bride and groom’s life histories, even giving their blood groups. One of the employers was bald but had a magnificent beard so I announced to the others on my table that he had his head on upside down which caused enough laughter to get us some funny looks. Suddenly, it was time for us to toast the bride and groom. We all stood up, raised our glasses and the Japanese majority shouted something which sounded like ‘yeuk’. The groom isn’t the most handsome man I’ve seen but I didn’t feel there was any need for that! When I expressed this view, the Japanese guy at our table told me it meant ‘good luck’.

 

There then followed a bad singer, more speeches, more free-flow beer and the bad singer again. The free-flow beer still flowed and I, rather foolishly considering the company, decided it was time to tell the joke about why Japanese men have slit eyes and buck teeth. The joke was highly appreciated by everybody at the table except the Japanese guy, who had been sensible enough to drink free-flow orange juice. Then we all stood up again to say ‘yeuk’ to the happy couple and it was over so we all went home. I had a short sleep before heading out again to meet a friend for more beer, hence my getting into something of a state and wanting to give those brawlers a cuddle.








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