and as the song says
if you don’t believe I’m leavin’ just watch me go
and as the song says
if you don’t believe I’m leavin’ just watch me go
Earlier in the month I promised my reader(s) a discourse on the beers of Thailand, with an analysis of their various qualities, merits, attainments, and distinctions, and whatever other observations seemed most necessary or appropriate or entertaining. As I’m leaving Thailand a day from now, I’ll suspend any further research into this subject and give my report.
Truth is, there’s not much to write home about. All the beers are a version of a light German lager, and are more like a mass-produced American beer than their European cousins, with the best of them falling somewhere between Budweiser and Michelob. So, as beer, they’re not very good.
But considered more broadly, with both the abstracted interest of a philosopher and the practical interest of an entomologist or ornithologist in pursuit of a bug or bird, the situation is more hopeful. The food here is very hot, as you know, and the climate is hot as well, and these two hotnesses conspire to inflame one’s desire for refreshment. Water serves admirably, and I drink it through the day, but after sunset, at the close of a day of periodic water-drinking, I desire something else with my evening meal. Now, when you order a beer here they’ll bring you, if you ask for it, a whole bucket of ice, and if you fill up your glass with ice and pour your beer over it, you have a beverage that goes excellently with the spiciest green curry and the hottest green papaya salad.
So, as beer the Thai beers are watery, but considered as water they can be quite good. The water in the beer combines with the water in the ice and carries along, suspended within it, a hint of a third element, suggestive of beer, that sets in train a series of pleasant correspondences that produce a beverage that, while neither water nor beer per se, embodies some of the most refreshing qualities of both beverages.
That said, some Thai beers are better than others, naturally, and I’ve indicated that graphically below by arranging them left to right in ascending order of quality.
Beerlao, from Laos, is also at the top of the local list, but you can only get it in bars so I don’t have a bottle. Singha and Chang are on the same level but I like to have an opinion so I’ve chosen to like Chang better and that is what I usually order. Singha has a mythological beast on the label
which, if we replace our drinking cap with our art historical hat for just a moment, we can see is the same species we encountered earlier guarding the entrance to a temple.
Chang means elephant so that is what they have on their label, a matched pair. I had thought they were standing under a fern-like tree but now that I look closer I see it is an erupting spring.
I’d like to conclude this discourse on Thai beer with the observation that the political element of beer labels is generally overlooked. This year is the 80th anniversary of Thailand’s constitutional monarchy , and among the people I talk to here - not a cross-section, admittedly - the general feeling is that, in the next eighty years and the future generally, they would like there to be more emphasis on the constitution and the rights of the people and the rule of law, and less on the monarchy and oligarchy. I don’t know much about the political situation here but the beer labels give me hope that, in the fullness of time, this may come to pass. The Archa label says “Finest Quality Lager”
and Federbrau says “Premium Quality”
and Tiger says “World Acclaimed Lager Beer”
Anyone who has sampled these beers, as I have, knows that these statements are untrue by any objective standard, and so they must be evidence of at least a limited freedom of opinion in Thailand, and I find that encouraging.
Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand until it was sacked by the Burmese in 1767, and was called by travelers the Venice of the East. Not much left there now though. The Burmese must have been thorough and the climate and neglect took care of the rest. Lots of ruined wats, spread all over town, so I took a little tour. The first place had this reclining Buddha -
People buy little pieces of gold leaf and rub them onto the statue.
I had seen these for sale in the market along with the flower garlands, and I guess they are a form of lotus bud used for offerings.
The next wat wasn’t interesting but had more of this pseudo-bonsai that I’ve seen on all the temple grounds -
as well as some good old topiary.
A very large reclining Buddha at the next wat -
who looked like he was having pleasant dreams.
Near his feet there was a tree I’ve seen everywhere I’ve gone, with beautiful reddish orange flowers -
The next wat had a vast area of ruins and was very impressive.
Like most of Thailand, Ayutthaya had terrible flooding last year and you could see the muddy mark on all the buildings, about four feet off the ground in this picture -
These attached bugs, which look like jewelry, were on their way somewhere, the smaller one doing it backwards like Ginger Rodgers.
The last wat was a tall tower
where I climbed a vertiginous staircase
and had some great views of the flat, wet countryside.
The guest house where I was staying had a pond behind it with a walkway and covered sitting area built over the water, by far the nicest thing I saw in the former Venice of the East. The woman who owns the place said that her neighbors thought she had wasted her money building it because it wouldn’t generate any money but I reassured her that they were wrong, which she knew of course. She asked me what I did and immediately told me she knew I was a teacher because I am so calm. I tried to tell her that I’m an artist but she didn’t understand so I agreed that I’m a teacher. She said that the birds went away when the flood happened and didn’t come back, but I saw a lot when I sat there in the early morning - a night heron stalking the edge of the pond, fantails on the dock and low branches, a zebra dove with two little babies in the eaves of the sitting area, sunbirds in the trees, mynas all around, spotted doves in the grass, and a lot of my favorite bird here, the Oriental Magpie-Robin, which is smaller than our robin, boldly black and white like a magpie, not frightened to be around people, and runs around the ground and on roofs energetically looking for insects. It reminds me of a mockingbird and has the same habit of running along the ground and stopping suddenly and flaring out its wings, sort of like it is taking a very deep breath. No pictures of these lovely birds because my camera doesn’t zoom far enough, but it was early morning and the lotus flowers were open.
Before coming here I didn’t believe all that Spiritual East stuff but I’ve seen some signs of it.
I saw someone wearing a teeshirt that said
You have to really quiet your mind to receive that one. Very Buddhist. I would have bought one if I knew where he got it.
I saw a sign in front of a temple that warned me about my attachment to the material things of this world -
I was already wary of the spiritual danger of kissing, hugging, and smoking, but it was good to be reminded about number 9
and I resolved to never again be that overly friendly stranger.
I know this sign is true because I checked
Before I left Chiang Mai I found a bilingual poetry garden next to one of the temples where I learned that my present state will not last
and my mediocrity is actually a good thing
so I should keep my stone dry
and learn to focus my hatred and vengeance in order to defeat others.
Chiang Mai was a great city to just wander around, with quiet streets
and some beautiful temples and stupas
The buildings I like best were on the temple grounds but had some other particular use unknown to me.
This beautiful building was set in a little pond -
This was my favorite -
The temples had some nice mythological beasts guarding them -
I just spent a few days up north in the small old city of Chiang Mai, at the edge of the mountains, a very nice place, much cooler and cleaner and quieter than Bangkok, with historic architecture, excellent food, and surrounded by nature. Everything worked out in a very Thai way. I called a friend of a friend when I got there, met him for coffee, and he was going to talk to a friend who was organizing a show, so we went there on his motorbike and it turned out to be a museum/installation called 31st Century Museum of Contemporary Spirit, and I met Kamin, who started it, and Kaew, who helps run it. There are various installations in a structure made out of shipping containers linked by platforms
and its all raised off the ground like a traditional Thai house, and has a lot of windows and panels that can be opened for light and air.
It was a pleasant space to wander through or just hang out.
Kaew invited me back a few days later and I gave a talk about my work in one of the container rooms.
After seeing the museum, Kaew took us to See Scape Gallery, where he was organizing a show with about 80 artists, and he introduced me to Hern, who started See Scape, which is sort of a gallery and a cafe and a boutique all rolled in one.
The Floating Market is on a lot of postcards and is one of those places that represent Thailand in tourist brochures, so I went out there to have a look with my friends Logan and Sandy and their friend Melissa. The tide was out, there was almost no water in the canal, and it was mostly mud, so we took a boat out on the larger canal to see yet more wats (temples). I don’t find most of the temples here very interesting but they had some nice crematoria near them
and some beautiful plants. My friend Kate said these look like plumeria
and I was surprised to find milkweed here, more exotic and ornamental than ours
I have no idea what kind of tree this is. The flowers are on short branches that shoot out from the trunk, like they are just stuck on.
I had never seen anything like this. The flowers were beautiful and scarey
The temples had some good decaying wall paintings of people swimming
watched over by a Buddha
and ruled over by a buxom female diety with a whip
Some people have complained that I’m not in any of my pictures, so I asked Sandy to take a picture of me pretending to bang a gong
On the way to the last temple there were a lot of concrete figures illustrating traditional Thai martial arts
Continuing this mix of violence and creepiness, there was a spot where you could have your picture taken as a Thai soldier killing a Burmese man
and as a young person killing another Burmese man
This little girl made it look like fun
The last temple was in a clump of trees
that twist around it, covering every side and starting to grow in the windows
When we got back we had lunch and walked around. In the postcards the Floating Market is colorfully-dressed dresses women in flat, narrow boats surrounded by colorful fruits and vegetables, all crowded together picturesquely on a canal. They must truck all that stuff in and take those pictures all on one special day because nowadays the Floating Market is a regular land-based market on both sides of a narrow canal with some boats, actually floating, cooking seafood for people who sit on the steps down to the canal.
On the left are scallops in their shells, and on the right are squid, more scallops, and shrimp the size of small lobsters.
There were some amazing displays of seafood, like in a Dutch painting
The giant shrimp on the grill looked particularly good.
I went back to the canal and walked in the opposite direction, mostly to see what was growing there.
It was hot, humid, hazy, with a threat of rain, like most days here during rainy season, not a day to accomplish anything or have consecutive thoughts, but a good day to walk slowly and look at the happy plants, who love this weather.
It smells putrid along the canal and there is a lot of trash and broken concrete, but I’m leaving all that stuff out and creating a lush linear garden, the way it could actually be with very little effort.
For those of you wondering if I found any more specimens of plumeria, I did, in front of Jim Thompson House, where I ended my walk. He was an American who came to Thailand after WWII, worked for US intelligence, built a beautiful house out of pieces of traditional Thai architecture, helped restore traditional Thai silk weaving, and disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
I could feel the storm coming as I took these last pictures, so I packed up and started to walk briskly and then run to the train, and got a little wet but made it to shelter just as the skies really opened up.
I escaped the heat and dirt of Bangkok last week and went to a small island called Koh Samet, a few hours away in the Bay of Bangkok, near the border with Cambodia. Most of the island was pretty trashy touristy and loud but I found a great place on a secluded bay, very low-key, mostly French and Germans, some families with little kids, and the Thai owners had a two year old, so it was very quiet, pretty shut down by 9 o’clock, and I just swam and read and ate excellent food.
This was my little bungalow -
The whole place was shady and tucked into the trees -
This was my favorite spot to read -
I wanted to ride one of the commuter boats that go along the canals, but first I had to find the station, so I walked down a little path, with the canal on my right
past a shrine
through a leafy stretch that a woman had transformed into a garden
and then the path ended, depositing me in an alley
where I felt like I was stepping through people’s living rooms, until I came out on a street with another shrine
and a shiny tree
and then out onto a larger street which took me to a bridge over the canal, where I expected to find the station but found instead a blind man playing music, a sign perhaps of something I wasn’t seeing.
I doubled back on the other side of the canal, through construction sites and a warren of alleys with some very poor people living in houses pieced together from trash and chickens running free and dogs in cages and sacred trees with scarves wrapped around them and lots of garbage and then a fancy hotel with manicured grounds, and it was all very interesting but not where I wanted to be. It was the middle of the day, I was very hot and thirsty, and I had pretty much walked in a circle since leaving the garden along the canal, and I thought about just going home, since I had gotten back to a place I recognized, but I gave it another shot, went back to the blind man’s bridge but on the other side of the bridge - it sounds simple but is extremely complicated here for reasons I can’t explain - and there it was waiting for me, the ferry station.
The ferries have an ingenious, jerry-rigged system of blue tarps that can be raised and lowered to avoid having the toxic canal water splash on you
and there are brave women who walk along the edge of the ferry to sell you tickets.
People basically cower under the blue tarps and hope for the best, but I stood up most of the time to take pictures.
At the end of the line
I could see my destination, the Golden Mount
which is a temple that was built by one of the kings, fell down, and had another temple built on the artificial hill of its ruins. I walked up countless flights of stairs around the outside of the temple, past models
and more waterlilies
up and up
until I came out on an incredible panorama of the all Bangkok spread out before me.
The temple at the top was not very interesting, and I could see a dark storm headed my way, so I hurried down past more bells
and plants and models
and got back to the ferry for an exciting ride as the wind started to pick up and I could feel that the storm was about to hit.
I got completely soaked running between the ferry and the train, and then again between the train and my apartment.
Last Sunday my new friends Logan and Sandy took me to the outskirts of Bangkok to the Heaven and Hell Temple. Heaven is OK. You climb up ladders through various levels with different little shrines with painted walls and assorted decor and images of the Buddha, finally reaching the tippytop of Heaven in the attic -
But the real attraction is Hell -
Heaven looks like it was finished a while ago and kept as is but Hell is a dynamic, constantly evolving place of scary painting and motorized horror. I don’t think “animatronic” is the exact right word, but you put in a coin and the painted sheetmetal and plaster figures come to life and wreak horrible, awkward, repetitive vengeance on the hapless sinners.
All it took was a small coin to make the bloody cauldron actually boil.
The rules were pretty clear and explicit
and they broke them, apparently, so they ended up here. Some of the sins didn’t seem terrible enough to warrant this
but I’m not a Buddhist.
My favorite part was the signs
and the paintings on the walls and ceilings
There were a lot of birds
There was also a section with an impromptu display of preserved snakes
I couldn’t quite see what the monks were going for here, but Hell is a work in progress, after all, and it may come clear in the fullness of time.
The last section was kind of cheery, I thought. A skeleton was going for a bike ride through a forest of naked women growing on trees. The women didn’t seem to mind.
Not such a bad place all told, especially after what came before.
I finally got out of Hell and had a special Thai ice cream sandwich, and it made me think of Dostoevsky,
you know, that part in The Brothers Karamozov when all this drama and strife has gone on and then its the next morning and they’re having latkes and someone says “So much suffering, and pancakes afterwards.” Its made of green bread, cocoanut ice cream, chopped peanuts, and chocolate syrup, and it was excellent.
Afterwards we bought a loaf of bread to feed to the sacred fish in the polluted canal.
It was truly disgusting - the pictures don’t do it justice - and much scarier than Hell.
On the way back I saw some real rice paddies next to the highway, looking very green.
I went out to this enormous market that only runs on weekends. It was mostly crappy mass-produced stuff but I found some good music and saw a few interesting things. Some beautiful orchids, which grow like weeds here
and a lot of succulents
I had been waiting for my opportunity to eat fried bugs and this seemed like it
I had a few choices
and decided to go with the crickets, at the top of the last picture. The worms looked like they’d be good with a beer
Warming to this insect thing, I had a waterbug
which looked tasty but the legs and shell and stuff weren’t really chewable so I wouldn’t recommend it.
I saw a blind man singing
and some cute kids
I set out early in the morning for Klang Toei market, where the street food vendors buy their vegetables and meat and fish, and headed toward Bang Sue.
Klang means canal, and the market is set on a fabulously dirty one
but the produce is fresh and often exquisitely arranged
There were various pickled things
and fresh seafood
and dried fish and squid, laid out very nicely
I bought a pan and some clams and vegetables and lemongrass, chillies, young galangal, lime leaves, tiny eggplants, fresh green peppercorns, bamboo shoots, and a few other things, and made my first meal when I got back to my apartment, which came out pretty well.
I’ve been sampling the local beer - Thailand is fourth in the world for per capita alcohol consumption, so I felt that I should get to know this aspect of their culture - and I’ll write some reviews in a few days.
The other day, I went to a beautiful flower market on the river where women were making garlands for offerings at Buddhist shrines
and selling all kinds of cut flowers
There were food carts all around the market. This chubby kid was enjoying some grilled chicken
and the fish in the river were going after something edible amidst all the trash
I also saw a nice aluminum jug
After the market I took my first ride in a tuk tuk, which is basically a motorcycle with a cart attached to it. This is what it looks like from inside -
They’re pretty dangerous, but so is walking on the sidewalk and eating street food.
I went to three temples, and saw more Buddhas on the way -
At the entrance to the courtyard of the third temple, a man was selling some pretty dubious, Unbuddhist good luck, offering to set one of his birds free if you paid him a few dollars ransom.
It bothered me, this animal slavery in the guise of freedom, but I tried to assume some of the Buddha’s lofty detachment
and reflect on the folly and beauty of this passing world