Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In the Paradise of True Crime, the Thai Press Would be King

There are very few kinds of books that I will not read, but the backs of cereal boxes hold more allure for me than volumes of true crime. When I worked in a bookstore, that was the section I pretended wasn't there. When a customer would ask me where it was, I'd take them there as rapidly as possible, refusing to ask the bookseller's leading question, "Are you looking for anything in particular?" because I was afraid they might tell me. In detail.

But there's no avoiding true crime in Thailand--it's the staple of the daily press. Although I miss the juiciest stories because I cannot read Thai, the English language papers often have a story that would make Ann Rule, the Queen of True Crime writers, salivate like Niagara Falls.

The first assault against humanity-- and perhaps good taste as well-- that I noticed in my morning paper was the husband who was castrated by his wife when he was in a stupor induced by a jubilant night on the town. He managed to get to a hospital, severed member in hand, and it was surgically reattached, with the victim saying his story should be a warning to all straying husbands. 

He was fortunate. Many wives throw the errant appendage outdoors where it's carried off by neighborhood dogs--and I know this because during my time in Bangkok, I read many of these stories and concluded that in Thailand Lorena Bobbitt would be a household saint.

A more conventional true crime scenario occurred just before I left for my seven-year stay in the States, so I'm unclear about the way it ended. A prominent doctor and university professor took his wife to dinner where she rapidly became so befuddled that he took her home, telling the waitress that his spouse was unwell. That was the last time this lady was ever seen.

Later accounts said the doctor had purchased a large quantity of garbage bags and rubber gloves before his wife diappeared.  Human flesh, cut into pieces, was found in his apartment, about 14 pounds worth,  and DNA proved it had once been on the body of the doctor's wife.

However the courts would not issue a warrant for his arrest because of inconclusive evidence--a person could after all survive the loss of fourteen pounds, although this weight loss was more extreme than the average regimen. The doctor, when I left the Kingdom, was still a free man.

Recently a severed head was found hanging from a rope tied to a city bridge. The police didn't rule out suicide, which I thought was amusing, until my friend Rodney pointed out that when suspended from that height, the body's weight  would tear it away from the neck. The body was soon found in the river below, was matched with the head, and was obviously torn, not cut, off.
A suicide note was then found to be credible and the case was closed.

Now the press is engulfed with the discovery of a woman who had been declared dead after the tsunami. Her husband had identified the body, it was cremated, their young children, who were beneficiaries of her life insurance policies, reaped the financial benefits, and life went on. The police were suspicious of the death, however, because the husband was unconcerned about any possessions that may have been found on his wife's corpse before it was cremated. Since she was a woman who habitually wore very expensive jewellery, this raised the eyebrows of local authorities and a red flag to the national Crime Suppression Division--especially when the dead wife's DNA and fingerprints weren't found on file with the Thailand Disaster Victim Identification unit.

When a woman was found repeatedly applying for replacement ID cards which were denied because her fingerprints didn't match those of the name on the card that she asked for, and who resembled the dead wife but was without the distinctive birthmark on the face that had characterized her, the case went from cold to hot. Police followed one of the dead wife's children after school let out and found the woman alive and well, living with her family in the heart of Bangkok.

Police believe the wife's face had been altered by cosmetic surgery performed in China and that the hoax was prompted by substantial debts that the woman had incurred and was reluctant to repay.

And then of course the most prominent true crime story involves a politician of the highest level, a fugitive from justice who is refused entry to many of the world's nations and who uses modern communication methods to hold meetings with his faithful followers at home. The ending of this story is still waiting to unfold--and the Thai press will be there every step of the way. After all, that's what keeps us buying papers--true crime, the savior of the free press.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Advancing Thunder

One of my favorite times of year in Bangkok is when thunder begins to rumble rather comfortingly in the distance during the weeks before the rains settle in. I heard it yesterday and hurried home to close my bedroom windows--but the rain never came, only the cozy sound of thunder with its promise of cinematic storms and daily rainfall.

It seems early to hear this before the craziness of Songkran sets in during the time of year that is supposed to be hottest, but I remember wet and stormy Songkrans from past Aprils. Bangkok storms look as though they were painted by El Greco--in this part of the world there could be as many words for lightning as Eskimos have for snow and Bedouins for wind. It comes in sheets, x-ray flashes, snakes, like Northern Lights in this hot climate--a good thunder storm is easily the best pyrotechnic show that I've ever seen.

And under the rain, which always falls just as I'm setting out to do something, the greenness of this city becomes piercingly bright as the dust washes away. Even covered with the fallout from city grit, our garden looks quite verdant,  and the enhanced green that will come from the rain is difficult to imagine.

Even now, while the heat of the day continues into early evening and beyond, just before dawn the moisture and coolness from the trees outside my bedroom window makes me get up and turn off my fan. After months of concrete stuffiness, this is pure bliss and in the coolness before I fall back to sleep, I realize that at last I'm beginning to feel at home in Bangkok once again.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Home With No Spirit House

Admittedly my experience with houses in Bangkok is limited, since this is only the third I've inhabited, but I'm a shameless peeker.  When I  peek into other people's yards,  they have, as the other two houses I'm familiar with had, a spirit house.

These are little houses on pedestals, ranging from simple wooden domiciles to elaborate glory-days-of -Ayuttayah- Khmer-spired manor houses, that are meant for spirits that were displaced in the construction of the human home, so they will be happy and content and won't trouble the people who have taken over their space.

At first I thought this was a charming idea and a pretty custom. I happily bought garlands of jasmine and roses to drape on the little structure but without any feeling behind the gesture. Then I moved into a house that had two spirit houses--one of dazzling white concrete, one small and lovely and made of wood. As part of the moving-in process, I cleaned the little houses and gave each one its own elephant as a housewarming gift. When Jessia arrived, she took over the duties of providing the spirits with what they might need, and I contributed the occasional garland. Then the baht plunged and the economy began to disintegrate.

Money was tight to the point of almost being a mythical substance. One morning I found myself with two baht to my name, which wasn't enough to buy the three baht cupcake that often was my breakfast. So, in a whimsical mood, I put one baht on the threshold of each of the spirit houses and asked them to do what they could about this miserable situation.

Within a couple of hours, Rodney came home with an unexpected sum from a class that had just signed up for English lessons, and I took part of my windfall and bought the spirit houses very elaborate garlands as thanks.

This happened several times, this two baht crisis, and each time it did I turned to the spirit houses, and each time they came through with enough money to keep me going. My friend Usa, who worked in our nearby office, began to do the same thing with the same results. 

"I don't believe in God but I believe in the spirit houses," I said to Usa one morning, who responded, "Me too."

This is why I feel bereft without a spirit house in my new home. I've always believed that trees are sentient beings with spirits at their core--my mother taught me that when she would weep at the destruction of trees for no reason in Alaska's changing wilderness. And the trees that surround my Bangkok home bear mute testimony to the ones that were removed to make space for our house. 

There are spirit houses for sale on our soi and choosing one to bring home would be an easy matter. But it can't just be plunked down in any old spot--I know from conversations with students in the past that the right corner  must be carefully and knowledgeably chosen and a ceremony observed. And what that is I have no idea--but the act of  finding out and learning a little more is why I live in Bangkok. And once I do, this house will have a residence for the spirits and perhaps everybody--the seen and the unseen-- will sleep a little better.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thai Means Free

 Since my return to Bangkok after my seven-year absence,  what surprises me most is the amount of regulation that has fallen into place since I first came here fourteen years ago.

Thai people meant free people, I was told repeatedly by my students, and the amount of personal freedom that I saw was stunning, especially when compared to the strictures and caveats I'd left behind in the States.

Carol Hollinger, in her classic Mai Bpen Rai, tells of an aristocratic Thai friend who went to America and returned horrified because of the signs she saw everywhere that said "No Spitting" and who questioned the U.S. reputation for liberty because it was a country where there was no freedom to spit. After my recent visit to Beijing, where I was mildly surprised to see a chic woman whose outfit I was admiring bend her head and elegantly spit into the ground surrounding a streetside tree, and having grown up in an Alaskan town where the indigenous residents spat on the sidewalk as a matter of routine, this was not a personal liberty that I yearned for any country to uphold.

However I was thrilled to see that in Thailand, anyone with a cart and a talent for cooking could set up an impromptu restaurant on the sidewalk, that every available surface was filled with small-level entrepreneurs so that shopping was possible on any skybridge, that smoking was allowed almost everywhere, and that it was possible to buy a can of beer and take it with a bag of popcorn into a movie theater. As a former Alaskan, I had grown up where you could do just about anything you were willing to take the consequences for and the Thai mindset was very familiar to me.

When I passed workers who were employing open flame miilimeters from pedestrians, when I crossed a wildly busy street without regard for traffic lights, when I drank beer while listening to the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra as they gave free concerts in the park, I felt at home. When I heard a man on CNN who, when constructing rockets for the annual festival held in the northeast was working with gunpowder while a lighted cigarette was in his mouth, respond to the interviewer's question about the threat of smoking while working with what was very close to live ammo, by smiling, saying "It is forbidden" and taking a deep drag off his cigarette, in some very perverse way, I understood. This guy was fully willing to accept the loss of a limb or his life for doing what he pleased without strictures on his behavior.

Now the skybridges and most of the sidewalks have been emptied of the people who constructed instant markets in the space available, cigarette packs are hidden from public view in most convenience stores, bars and nightclubs close earlier than they do in strict Singapore I've been told, and kingdomwide there are hours of the day when you can't buy alcohol in any form.

Yesterday was a lazy Saturday afternoon. I had errands to do and realized that I was hungry. There was a sushi restaurant nearby and sushi and a bottle of Kirin sounded really good. I went in, studied the menu, placed my order, and there was a moment of silence. "Oh madame," the waitress said, "no beer, wrong time." And it was--I was forty minutes away from the five o'clock happy hour, which in Thailand has become an hour bordering on the ecstatic, with no alcohol sales in restaurants or supermarkets between two and five pm.

Of course there are little neighborhood mom and pop stores where I could have bought a cold beer after getting my sushi to go--there are always ways of circumventing  regulations anywhere in the world. The fact is any true sot can get what he (or she) needs at any time of day. It's the person who spends money for lunch in a restaurant or for expensive expat delicacies at an upscale supermarket who's being penalized, and at a time when economies all over the world need a certain amount of frivolous expenditures to take place, this particular law in Thailand seems about as sensible as banning the consumption of fish sauce  in the hours before dawn or during the late afternoon.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cats on the Soi

If I'm lucky, when I buy my newspaper in the morning, the dress shop near the newsstand is open and the cats who reside there will be holding court--one young, dapper Siamese cat (which isn't as common a Bangkok sight as you might think it would be) and a grande dame calico. Both are friendly and well cared for and love a spot of cat worship in the early hours of the day.

Further down is a spot that has been in existence for years, and has always puzzled me. There dogs who are lugubrious and malodorous are near the sidewalk in cages. It's a dismal sight and I usually walk out in the street to pass it without having to look.

The other day, I steeled myself, walked past, and there in a cage was one small kitten. I stopped of course, and it was eager for whatever I had to give, but when I asked the woman at the nearby noodle stall about it, she assured me that it was not good, and pantomimed the gouging of claws.

Yesterday, after seeing the lovely boutique cats, I walked past the kitten, who was attacking the hell out of some paper in its cage, but stopped to come up to look at me like "Well, what are we going to do about this?"

I returned home with the full intention of adopting it and began pleading my case to she who must be obeyed, our housekeeper, Jessia. With the help of a dictionary, one of my housemates and much dramatic intonation and facial expressions, I managed to get the story across.

Jessia's face turned sympathetic and in her turn, with the same linguistic aids, told me that those animals are all terminally ill and some people provide a sort of hospice service for them before they die. 

That particular kitten will never live with me, although in true feline fashion, it quite clearly chose me while staring inquisitively and somewhat imperiously from his cage. All I can do is offet the guardians of the hospice some money to help with the care they provide and hope this little animal has lots of paper to shred into confetti during the time he has left to be an attack cat.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

New Life Same City

Birds wake me at 5:30 every morning, just as the night begins to fade to pale grey. My bedroom window looks out on flowering branches and I have my morning coffee outdoors on a little covered downscale patio of sorts, looking at greenness.

In Bangkok in previous incarnations my eyes were so starved for green that when I saw that color I would stare unblinkingly for as long as I could. Now it's my visual breakfast, and the birds and I relish it until the sun's heat drives me indoors and them-- I have no idea--probably to take a long nap after the rigors of their early morning concert.

I am so far removed from my palatial little concrete bunker on the fifth floor of my former home that I might as well be in another city. In fact it is only sois away from the house I live in now, on the same street. Now the luxury of space and greenery and quiet that I enjoy makes me wonder how I could have lived in a concrete box with no screens on the windows which was designed for the airconditioned life of a buffered apartment dweller.

My new house is making me remember the pleasure of cold showers during the hottest time of year, and the delight of a breeze passing through open windows and screened doors, and the joy of sitting outdoors in a private space which--between my years of apartment life in Seattle and here--I haven't been able to do for decades.
Banana-Mango, Rodney has named this place, after the trees that dominate the garden. A large stalk of bananas that dropped from its tree this week is ripening nearby and another is gaining the mass that will soon cause it to fall to earth. The mangos are small, Jessia tells me, and I can't see them, but they should be turning golden in this heat as well.

And the quiet--after six months of living near an impromptu bar across the street where men would often sing quite badly until they finally passed out, and where karaoke parties were an occasional feature--dogs barking at night are nothing. I fall asleep dreaming of wolves on the Mongolian steppes and wake to the soundtrack to a Disney movie as birds make sounds I've never heard before in the cool air of pre-dawn.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thai Shoes on Beijing Streets

The day I left Bangkok for Beijing, I was trading a temperature that was expected to be 102 degrees F for one that was rumored to be in the high 40s F. In my suitcase was a lightweight, rather weird, long green buffalo plaid shirt/coat with a hood, a pair of sturdy shoes, and pink and black striped pirate socks. When I moved to Southeast Asia, bringing warm clothing was not a priority--not even a low one. Now I knew that once I reached the chilly streets of China's capital, I was going to die.

The shoes I wore on the plane were black flats with a crisscross of straps near the open toes. They were my "sensible" shoes in Bangkok, as opposed to the heels that I love to wear, and they seemed a good choice for the flight--comfortable but with a note of frivolity. 

On my first morniing in Beijing, I slipped them on out of habit when I went  for a quick walk around the neighborhood near my hotel and to my delighted surprise, my feet were just fine. No hypothermia threats, no frostbite--there was a little nip in the dry air,  but without the humidity that saturates Bangkok's weather, a temperature that would be sheer misery in that city was invigorating in Beijing. I realized that although I needed the peculiar hooded shirt/coat, I wasn't going to have to wear my clunky shoes, and my mood brightened.

And then it began. Every person who walked past me gave me a quick glance that stopped at my feet and stayed there. I looked at other footwear which was mostly boots, athletic shoes, and flats that looked somewhat like the ones that languished in my suitcase. As far as I could tell, in what was just becoming spring in northern China, I was the only person who was venturing outdoors with naked toes.

The people who looked with the greatest scrutiny were ladies who appeared to be about the same age as my mother, and they definitely looked askance. I began to grin at their expressions of bemusement, and when I did, most of them cracked up. One of them rode by on a bicycle, cast a quick glance at my feet, and gave me a thumbs-up, laughing. And I began to fall in love with  people in Beijing.

For the three days that I was there, I wore my cheap little Thai flats everywhere I went. One woman told me in broken but serviceable English where I could buy another pair of shoes. The young woman in the Uighur cafe where I ate during every one of my Beijing days managed with pantomime and Mandarin to ask me if my feet weren't cold. Everybody stared and most people smiled. The old ladies giggled. I was enchanted.

The next time I go to Beijing, I'm going to bring several pairs of the highest heeled, toe-revealing, least practical shoes that I can stand to walk in, along with a couple of pairs of frivolous flats. And to any entrepreneurs who are reading this--I think Chinese ladies in working-class neighborhoods are ready for Jimmy Choo knock-offs--particularly those ladies who are sixty and older!  

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Travel Tip

In case you plan to go to China, be aware that if these things are found in your bags, they will be confiscated:
Human embryos
animal or human blood
animal carcasses
used clothes
dairy products

This list is by no means complete.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

She Made It Special

I went to the Forbidden City because it's one of those places you must see--and it was everything I'd ever dreamed and far more. But I am a bad sightseer and in a place with a scope as huge as this I go for the micro-details. So I was snapping pictures of decorative tiles and lovely color swatches and paws of bronze lions and the sweep of roofs when I noticed a woman standing beside me. She was alone, which was unusual in a place engulfed by couples, if not groups, and she was staring as intently as I was through my camera lens. She was around my age, wearing clothes without style and a haircut to match, but there was something about her face that claimed me. I stared at her and wondered what she was thinking.

She was old enough to have been born during the Famine, young during the Cultural Revolution, and beginning to age as China decided that being rich was glorious and frivolity was good for the economy. She could remember when the Forbidden City was truly forbidden and knew that Zhou Enlai had saved it from being destroyed by Red Guards bent on eradicating all traces of ancient decadence. I yearned to talk to her but since I couldn't, I stalked her with my little digital camera.

And suddenly I realized she knew what I was doing and wasn't turning her face away. We entered the exit at the same time and were separated by a burst of crowd. And then I saw her spreading out a discarded tour map on the sidewalk to sit on. Her back was turned to me and I started to move away, but then realized there had to be a moment when we could be together in some way. 

I pulled a visa picture from my passport holder, went to her side and squatted beside her. "This is for you, " I said, holding it out," I have your picture here," and I showed the image of her looking into my camera. "Now you have mine."

I put the picture in her hand and walked away. When I turned to look back, she was staring at something in her hand, then looked up and saw me. I waved to her, she moved her hand in response, and we both were smiling.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Stereotype Smashing 101

My friend Don Gilliland's friend Margaux moved into her new Bangkok home and had her birthday almost simultaneously, and while this might well have caused a lesser woman to retreat to her bed and take to strong drink, Margaux had a party, inviting family, friends and strangers, of whom I was not the only one.

Margaux is the kind of woman who when presented with bottles of wine and no corkscrew promptly goes next door to meet her new neighbors--and then invites them to join her party. It was sheer delight for her to discover that her  neighbor's face was adorned with thanaka paste--Margaux had just returned from a trip to Myanmar and her neighbor was from that country. It was true friendship at first sight.

Everyone at the party was enchanted by Margaux's exquisite young neighbor, who is smart and funny in at least three languages: her own, Thai, and English. Less enchanting for me was her male comrade, who was easily double her age, and he appeared to be equally disenchanted with me. There's a definite antipathy between many foreign men of a certain age and their femals counterparts, and Paul and I looked at each other with more than a little wariness.

As the evening wore on, that wariness wore off. It became obvious that despite the age difference, Margaux's neighbors were genuinely happy together, with eight years of cohabitation to attest to that. And when we discovered that we each had a deep love for our chosen country and respect for its people, as well as a voracious appetite for volumes of history, Paul and I began to become fledgling friends.

It's always a humbling experience to realize your own prejudices and borderline bigotry, and an exhilirating moment of growth when someone gives you the opportunity to rise above all that--plus a card for a computer genius at the intimidating mass of high tech stalls at Panthip Plaza. Thanks, Paul!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Help! There's a Rooster in My Phone Booth!

And here you are--visual proof that Bangkok is indeed an urban village! (In Hong Kong unused phone booths now house internet stations; in Bangkok they shelter livestock. Not that this is a bad thing...but it does tend to make you stop and look.)