January 3, 2017
Let me just get this out of the way: I need a damned camera. The one on the phone is just useless unless the subject is less than five feet away. And then I need to learn how to use it. Otherwise, it’s just as useless.
Okay, that little item of business dispensed with, let’s get on with it. The airport in Bangkok was a breeze compared with my Shanghai experience. After the plane landed, I was able to quickly navigate my way to immigration, and the Thai officials were very efficient in getting us through the booths. I was at the baggage carousel before it began dispensing our luggage. I enjoyed a nice conversation with an American girl from New York, who was planning to stay in northern Thailand for about six months. Aven, (“it’s like ‘Raven’, but without the ‘R'”, she explained to me) had been here before, and had some helpful tips about the country. I’m still a rookie at traveling, so I’m happy whenever someone is willing to share their experience with me.
For the first time in memory, I actually had to show my claim tickets to collect my bags. Two hard-working Thais offloaded the items as they came around on the belt, saving us the trouble of having to wade through a crowd to snatch them off ourselves. I checked the time and saw that I still had several minutes before my friend was to pick me up outside exit number 4, our pre-arranged meeting spot. I quickly rolled the luggage cart over to the currency exchange, and received 3,382 Thai baht for the $100 US that I handed the woman along with my passport. The challenge is to try to remember how much you are spending in American money when everything is in a different currency.
Titima, my friend who hosted me for one night during my last trip here in May, met me with her car outside the entrance. Sitting in the left-hand seat without a steering wheel or pedals always throws me a bit. Thais drive on the left side of the road, which is a bit unnerving when you see oncoming traffic in the lane where you think you are supposed to be. I’m sure I’ll get used to it eventually, as long as I remember to look to the right before crossing the street. It took about 30 minutes to reach her home, driving through an incomprehensible maze of highways and side streets and alleys. I truly have no idea where in town I am, or how to navigate. I didn’t have time to grab a new SIM card for my phone, so Google maps is just a pretty little icon on my homescreen for now.
After hauling my bags up the stairs to the third-story bedroom in Titima’s lovely home, I washed up and then we left to go pick up her younger son, Ben, and his girlfriend who was introduced to me as “B”. They had a family gathering at the university hospital to visit an ailing relative, so I was introduced to several of her family members. I was to wait inside a small coffee shop on campus while they gathered together visiting grandmother, and I availed myself of the opportunity to eat something and try not to fall asleep at the table. Jet-lag is always a problem for me, and I was determined to stay up as long as possible, even though I had only slept for two hours the previous night. When they returned, they ordered dinner for themselves, and we had a nice chat. I’ve met both of Titima’s sons now. Paul, the older one who stays with her, I met on my previous visit. He is a broadcast news editor and works early hours. Ben works as an on-air personality at the same government-owned radio station. Both of them are very fluent in American-style English, having spent much of their earlier lives in Texas. They are extremely polite and pleasant company to be around. So conversation around the table was not difficult, and it helped to keep me awake. I did fall asleep in the car on the ride back home. I just hope that I didn’t snore loudly.
Since New Year’s Eve and Day fell on Saturday and Sunday this year, yesterday and today (Monday and Tuesday) are observed holidays. We decided to head to one of the temples near Nakhon Pathom, a town to the east of Bangkok. When we arrived, there were several hundred people sitting in the courtyard at tables while the orange-robed monks delivered a prayer service. I’m not certain how long the service had been going on, but about two minutes after we walked up to the spot, the monks went silent and everyone got up and queued up at long buffet tables where sat huge pots of rice and countless platters of various home-cooked food. Titima, and her sister who joined us, led me into the line and told me to fill a plate for myself. I really didn’t know what it was all about, but when offered home-cooked dishes that I’m not familiar with, I almost always say yes. I took a little of this, a little of that, until my plate was filled with small tastes of meats, seafood, rice, noodles, and curry sauces. I asked what the occasion was, and they informed me that this is a regular practice, weekly at least, if not more often. The monks are forbidden to dine after noon-time, and the faithful worshippers bring food for them to eat. Anything left over (which is a tremendous amount) is distributed to the tables for everyone to eat pot-luck style. I felt a little guilty, because number one, I’m not Buddhist. Number two, I didn’t bring anything. I also noticed that out of the hundreds of people in attendance, I was the only non-Thai person there. Yet nobody looked at me funny, or pointed and whispered. They handed me a plate and treated me like anyone else. I was made to feel at home. Definitely a privilege that I appreciate being able to be part of.
After the meal, everyone took their plates to a communal wash station. Plates and silverware (Thais prefer the western utensils over chopsticks in most cases) were washed in soapy water, then rinsed off in a series of three sinks to make sure that they were free of soap residue. It was really something to see and be a part of. Nobody expected someone else to take care of it for them.
We then adjourned to another building, an open-sided library, that sat along a body of brown water. We respectfully left our shoes at the entrance, a custom whenever entering any temple structure. While my friends looked over some books for purchase, I wandered over to the railing overlooking the water. As I allowed my eyes to gaze out over the pond at the beautiful building on the other side, I caught some movement in my peripheral vision. Gliding through the water was a monitor lizard. He eventually climbed out of the murky basin, through the lush green flora, and onto the grass. I estimate his length from nose to tail was about 7 feet. It was interesting watching him walk, using his left-front and right-rear legs simultaneously to propel himself forward, then repeating the opposite sides. He didn’t stay out long. Monitor lizards are shy, and he left as a small group of people came his way from around the building. I also saw some very big carp swimming below the surface, colors ranging from whitish pink to orange to brown. A large snapping turtle lazily floated in the shallows. I tried to take good pictures, but as I said before…
The variety of trees surrounding me was stunning. I found myself staring up towards the sky to view them, then realized that I probably looked just like the Nebraskan folks that I poke fun at when they visit the concrete forests of Chicago. The Thai people possibly thought of me as a naive tourist, but are way too polite a society to say anything rude.
We briefly visited the next building, which held an altar. I followed Titima up the steps and into the main hall. She explained to me the proper manner in which to sit and supplicate the Buddha- different styles for men and for women. I did not perform the ritual myself, since I’m no longer religious, and somewhat a non-jihadi atheist. But I did kneel, showing respect for those worshippers around me as they went through their prayers.
Despite the fact that this was only half of what I did on this amazing day, I’m going to end my post here. I don’t want to run on and on, because I fear that my small audience will shrink instead of grow if the stories take longer to read than the amount of time allotted to a reasonable trip to the restroom. (Because that’s where you are reading this, aren’t you?)