10. Monks, Hikes, Politics, Class

Trip Start Nov 14, 2008
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Trip End Nov 29, 2008


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Sunday, November 23, 2008

The next morning we were back for a separate ceremony - the business part of it, when the novices exchanged their white robes for the traditional orange ones and did their official swearing-in. Someone told me that Buddhist monks are given different colored belts just like in the martial arts, to designate their rank - newbies are the same color orange as their robes; the next step up is yellow, etc. Interesting. No wushu training with this particular sect, though.

There was a procession from the courtyard to the main Wat building that did a number of laps around the outside before entering, then there was a wait for the arrival of some Buddhist officials - a couple of major honcho-type monks, presumably the only ones there with the authority to ordain novices. When the ceremony concluded it was more eating, some endless chanting by the whole assemblage of monks, yet more eating, then we were off.

Tida and Naya wanted to do some shopping so we dropped them off and Tohn, their daughter Mai and I continued back to Don Mueang. Mai was not happy about being excluded from the shopping expedition and was in a bit of a state, so Tohn had to go into Serious Parenting mode. I excused myself for a walk - I hadn't had the chance to explore the immediate area since we'd arrived, and I wanted to go for some cash at the ATM I'd seen on the way here.

I'd noticed that by far the most numerous ATMs all over Bangkok were the ones with the big green "K" - the Kasikorn Bank Corporation, they of the excellent skyscraper at the south end of the Rama IX bridge. Despite Tida's fears of dire consequences in using bank cards - one of her friends had had her number stolen and account drained by a retail clerk on a recent trip to Thailand - I wasn't particularly concerned. ATMs don't write down your numbers on the sly and abscond for a little free shopping, and unless there were some weird incompatibility problem and the machine swallowed the card and didn't give it back, I'd be fine. She'd brought some American cash with her and had gone to a currency exchange shop at Baiyoke, but I figured if I'd had no problems with ATMs on an obscure streetcorner in 1998 Paris, I shouldn't here in 2008. I didn't. Just like in Paris the ATMs do an automatic currency conversion based on the exchange rate and dispense the cash, in this case baht, currently at about 34 to the dollar. So no more trips to currency exchange shops needed.

I continued my stroll down Thanon Song Prapha to the Wat Sikan and turned onto Thanon Na Wong Praha Phatthana, which goes past an amazing building I'd spotted a few days ago that looks like a humongous UFO. It's part of some kind of administrative complex for the Thai Navy - the whole block on that side of the street is a Thai Navy compound, maybe a boot camp or training center, I'm not sure. At any rate, there are buildings and there are buildings - once in awhile you bump into one that's just got "cool" written all over it, and the "UFO Building" is definitely one of them. All it needs is a huge stage out front and Schenker, Mogg and the boys doing a concert, heh-heh. 'Daydreaming, sorreee.

An American (or any non-Thai,) is a rare sight in a suburb as comparatively remote as is Don Mueang, so I'd been getting lots of surprised stares and kids pointing as I walked past the streetside cafes and shops. All of it is good-natured curiosity - "astonishment" is a more accurate description - assuming of course that I hadn't just left my fly open. Outside of a little convenience store I even had a guy come up and ask, all excitedly, "You're an American?" In a way it was a little weird, like what I imagine it must be like for a movie star out to buy groceries, having a complete stranger come up and ask "Are you really _______?"

But no requests for autographs and no women throwing their underwear, so my celebrity is apparently of limited currency. I'm happy to report that the sense of benevolence among the people of "the land of smiles" is clearly a reality. I also have to question the presumption of America's "PC" (Presumptuous Collectivist) boneheads that America is universally hated abroad. Maybe I'm in the wrong country, or maybe all of those "enlightened" haters are just hiding, because they seem just damned scarce here. They're far more plentiful in...America, unfortunately.

By this time the heat and the exercise had pushed me into that primal liquid-acquisition mode, and as chance would have it there was something called the "Groovy Bar" just ahead. I think "groovy" and "bar" are a matched set in Thailand, kinda like Astaire & Rogers, Bogart & Bacall, Hellborg & Lane, Wallace & Gromit, Manny & Glottis, Pan-Kun & James... You can't have one without the other, it just ain't right.

The Groovy Bar was just opening and therefore empty of other customers, and the host invited me into a glass-enclosed lounge on the raised wooden veranda. They hadn't yet turned on the A/C so it felt about 20 degrees hotter than outside - which would make it roughly 150 degrees Farenheit. Not wanting to offend, I had a seat on the leather couch inside anyway. It cooled down quickly as I flipped through some Thai magazines and the barman went for my water and Singha.

When he got back he sat down and, with the same air of fascination as the people outside, asked me about my presence in Don Mueang, how I liked Thailand, and inevitably, about politics and the recent American Presidential election. Now it was my turn for fascination, because the perspective on American politics from Som, a bartender literally from the other side of the world, was remarkably insightful and accurate.

"With Bush," he said, "whether you like him or not, you always know that he truly believes what he says; Obama says only what people want to hear." I've been willing to give Obama a little more leeway in demonstrating an integration of word and deed, but yeah, I'd picked up on that too. I have little use for (either) Bush, and I'm no particular fan of what the Republican Party has become - a pack of finger-to-the-wind pragmatists who wouldn't know a Founding principle if it came up and bit them on their flabby arses.  But while they are guilty of criminal default-on-principle, the Democrats' propensity to replace "what is" with "whatever you wish it to be" in their rhetoric is apparently engraved in their DNA, and has shown itself, historically, to be profoundly destructive of human life and liberty.

To each I'd have to say "You can twist perceptions - reality won't budge," as the Professor put it. ("There is a Rush lyric...") Sorry kiddies, but there is no Santa Claus, and money still does not grow on trees - unless you're a Golgafrinchan management consultant. Pardon me for breaking the news. America's entire, alleged "two-Party system" is apparently 100% Golgafrinchan now - which is why I've been attempting to steer clear of the sewer that is politics these days. I'm a sucker for any exchange of political ideas though despite myself, and the opportunity to get the perspective from someone on the other side of the world is always priceless.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with the proprietor of an antique coin shop across the street from the Louvre in February of 1998, about the time Clinton was gearing up for another strike on Iraq for its blowing off yet another WMD inspection deadline (which strike the antique vendor heartily supported.) That conversation, like this one, just underscored for me how distorted a picture our "major" media present of the rest of the world's perception of the United States - for some media types there's apparently a cloud for every silver lining and America can do nothing right. There is some validity to the "Pollyanna" critique, certainly, but the opposite extreme is irrational self-loathing. Call me an oddball, but I think a nation that hates itself can't have much of a chance of survival. I call that the "Cobain" critique.

D'OH! Exiting soapbox...

Som is an interesting guy to talk with - his excellent English, he'd informed me, was due to his father (or grandfather?) having worked for the Thai embassy in some function - but it was time to start my hike back. I drained the water and the Singha, paid the tab, made what would turn out to be an unfulfilled promise to return, and took my leave. By the time I would get back to the house I would have been gone for over two hours, I had no functioning cell phone, and I didn't want my hosts to worry. Sure enough, by the time I had turned back up Tohn's street he was just rounding the corner on his motorscooter - his daughter had suggested that I'd gotten lost so he'd come out on a Search & Rescue. They didn't know me well enough to know about my bio-proto-GPS of course, but it was still a little embarrassing.

What I'd forgotten - gee, imagine that - was that this afternoon I was scheduled to take my See-Saw-Ou and tag along with Mai to her music lesson. The school is in a complex of buildings back in the direction I'd hiked, just beyond the Wat Sikan on Thanon Song Prapha. It's a nice, open-air place, and when we walked in there was a large class in session, studying three traditional Thai instruments - the see-saw-ou, a wooden xylophone-type thing called a ranat ek, and Mai's instrument, a nifty steel-stringed zither-like instrument called a kim that's hammered upon with two oddly-shaped flexible mallets.

They all had a good laugh - accompanied by copious wide-eyed stares - when the guy who met us at the door announced to the teacher that an adult American was looking to start see-saw-ou training from scratch. The instructor was the classic authoritative educator, and the immediately-evident proficiency and discipline of his class proved it. They not only sounded good, but while I waited the door guy showed me a photo album of the class' frequent performances on Thai television.

Eventually the teacher reached a stopping point and delegated my instruction to one of his senior students, a bright girl of about 11 or 12. She led us to an area between the two larger classrooms, kind of an open-air veranda beside a koi pond, where she proceeded to teach me (successfully!) how to tune up and do a basic scale.

My young teacher, the door guy and another student who knew how to speak and write English even worked up a diagram of fingering, with each marked as "Do - Re - Mi - Fa - So," etc. The door guy then offered to take my camera and snap a couple of instructional close-ups of fingering and bowing technique. If I'd been thinking, I'd have set the Panasonic for video mode and just had him record the whole lesson in high-def.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, but the "do-re-mi" of Rodgers & Hammerstein/Julie Andrews' "Sound of Music" has apparently become the universal mnemonic for music teaching the world over. All involved with that classic film have a lot to be proud of, and the rest of us can marvel at the lasting power and cultural influence of outstanding cinematic art - what at the time was just a movie musical. Today Hollywood divides its time between producing...stuff...like "Saw" - i.e., torture porn - and...errmm, timeless masterpieces like "Tropic Thunder." The disintegration of Western Civilization is truly a sad thing to contemplate; its disintegration by intent, doubly so. In that sense it's intensely heartening to stumble onto a great little music school attended by disciplined students training under what is clearly an excellent teacher.

The upshot is that Joe American here, who'd never picked up that ungainly instrument - nor any bowed instrument for that matter (I'm thinking E-Bow doesn't count,) was up and running with basic scales in about fifteen minutes flat. I sound a little like a sick goose at this point, but I've got the hang of it. After copious thanks to everybody - plus more stares and good-natured chuckles from the kids - we took our leave. I feel a little guilty in that I'd bought my instrument at Ayutthaya, and Tida tells me that the school derives a good chunk of its budget from instrument sales. But "That's the way that lady luck dances..." (There is a Rush lyric...) Maybe I can just send a donation to the school along with Mai next week.

So I end this day with a newfound musical skill - make that: newfound potential skill - and a renewed amazement at the incredible hospitality of the Thai people.
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