Monday, March 31, 2008

Trendy Bangkok

In Bangkok, fashion and upscale dining trends come and go quickly. By the time you've figured out what's in, it's already out. Producers of fake designer bags can hardly keep up with the demand for the latest knockoffs, and so-called "chic" restaurants change hands and themes so frequently, you're not sure from month to month if a place will be serving pasta primavera, sushi, or sushi primavera.

Last year in Thailand, we even had a trendy god. Around this same time one year ago, many superstitious Thais were obsessed over a particular magical talisman that promised instant wealth. The talisman is a Hindu-Buddhist mythological god named Jatukam Ramathep. Jatukam is generally depicted sitting, surrounded by a seven-headed serpent, and is most commonly found on large round medallions worn as necklaces, encased in plastic boxes, or hung from the rear view mirrors of taxis.

The craze apparently started with a rumor that someone wearing a jatukam image struck it rich. Suddenly, everyone and their taxi driver was heading south to Nakhon Si Thammarat, the place where they're made, to get one. I heard at one point that some of the jatukam amulets were fetching thousands of US dollars. I guess it's true what they say about needing to spend money to make money. Most disturbing, however, is the true story of a woman being trampled at a temple by a mob of greedy believers competing to buy a prized jatukam.

But, like the other trends in Bangkok, the fad has faded. You can still find the amulets in Bangkok taxis, but I've been told by several drivers that the jatukams have greatly depreciated in monetary value. Maybe they didn't work as well as expected. Anyway, I would guess the only ones who got rich were the monks who made and sold the amulets.

It'll be interesting to see what the next trend will be in Bangkok. Hopefully, it won't be sushi primavera.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Warm and Cozy

There's a joke in Thailand that there are three seasons: hot, hotter, and hottest. In Bangkok the phrase "warm and cozy" rarely comes to mind. I usually reserve those words for a mug of hot cocoa on a snowy day back in the States, or for a big wooly pullover sweater. But in the the interior of one Bangkok taxi, the words "warm and cozy" seem appropriate.

Several months ago, I got into a taxi and I couldn't believe what I was seeing (and feeling underneath me). Almost every major surface in the taxi was covered in knit material. All the seat covers, the ceiling, the top of the dashboard, the "gloves" for the gear shift and turn signal, and even the cover for the tissue box were hand-knit in bright yellow and sky blue yarn with hot pink accents.

The driver told me that his wife in the Northeast (Isaan) had knit everything for him. When he told me, I couldn't help but notice that he got a bit teary-eyed. He missed his family. He had come to the city alone, like so many other taxi drivers in Bangkok, away from his wife and children, to make a living and to send a large portion of his income home.

It was clear the knitting was a pure act of love. And, it made me think about how hand-knit things are intended to provide warmth and comfort, and how they're a reminder of the person who made it. At that point, it brought back good memories of the thoughtful gifts of handmade knit blankets, scarves, gloves, sweaters, and socks I've received in my own lifetime.

Some might get into the taxi and consider it bad taste. It might remind them of an itchy sweater their auntie knit for them in a hideous color. But, I've never felt warmer or cozier in a taxi, never mind that it was 95 degrees outside that day.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Taxi Tunes

There's nothing that quite sets a mood in a Bangkok taxi like Thai music. I'm not talking about the Thai pop variety. I'm referring to two forms of Thai music known as Luk Thung and Mor Lam. Unlike most other music recorded in Thailand, these two styles are distinctly Thai. While there are traces of Western influence, the musicians haven't forgotten their roots.

Luk Thung is Thai Country music, and the name means "child of the fields". It emerged in the late '40's, or early 50's, but it wasn't until the '60's when the name was coined by a well-known DJ. The songs are ballads and more upbeat tunes about farmers, workers, lovers, and people moving to the big city in pursuit of a job and money. The sound can best be described as "croony" and emotional, and includes a singer whose voice rises and falls, wavers and wails.

The style derives from traditional Thai music, both classical and folk, and originally included only traditional Thai instruments. Luk Thung continues to evolve, and even in its early days, the music underwent changes, adding Malay strings, cha-cha-cha and mambo rhythms inspired by Xavier Cugat, elements from Hollywood movie music, and "yodelling" from American County and Western tunes.

Luk Thung started in central Thailand, but it's become popular throughout the country. There's now a slightly faster version from the Northeast (Isaan), and singers from the South. There's even a blonde haired Swede who gets in on the act.

When it comes to Mor Lam, there are several ways to tell it apart from Luk Thung. First of all, the language is different in Mor lam. The singers use an Isaan (Lao) dialect. And, each song begins with the singer moaning, "Oh la naw", which means fortune. In a nut shell, the style is more lively with a faster rhythm, and the vocals are almost rap-like. Male and female duets are common, and they like to improvise, especially in live performances. In between lyrics based on Lao epic poems and more current issues, they like to crack jokes, add a bit of news, and sometimes even heckle the audience.

Bangkok taxi drivers love to crank up the volume when luk thung and mor lam songs come on the radio. Who can blame them? It adds fun and drama to the drive. I love it when I catch the driver tapping to the rhythm, or bobbing their head to the music, and I especially enjoy when they croon along. It doesn't take much for me to start tapping and bobbing, too, and sometimes I even find myself humming in harmony with the driver.

To hear some luk thung and mor lam, check out monrakplengthai.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Have A Nice Day

The longer I stay in Thailand, the less exotic it seems. Even some of the objects and images in Bangkok taxis are starting to look too familiar.

Occassionally, that feeling of "the exotic" returns. Yesterday, on my way home from work, I momentarily had that feeling. In the taxi, facing the driver and next to a sacred bodhi leaf laminated in plastic, there was a striking image of Buddha in an elegantly shaped frame. I assumed it wasn't from Thailand because of the style of the Buddha. So, I asked the driver where it came from, and he proudly told me it was from India, and that it was given to him by his close friend.

I sat there, staring at it, mesmerized by its beauty. From where I sat, it looked antique, and I imagined his friend buying it from an old Indian man in a market in Delhi. And, maybe he did. But, as my imagination ran wild with images of spice markets and snake charmers, the driver handed it to me, and on the bottom part (previously concealed under the edge of the dashboard) there were bold letters, in English, spelling out, "Have A Nice Day".

While it struck me as funny, I also felt let down. The object that I had originally revered as a sacred artifact had turned into a tacky souvenir with a cliche' message. Rather than continuing the journey in my mind to the old Indian market, I was directly transported to a bland, all-too-familiar place in middle America. I tried hard to convince myself that the message was perfect in a taxi, and that the printed phrase gave the object a hint of Bollywood and a bit of colorful Indian-style kitsch. But, I just couldn't shake my feeling of disappointment.

So, then I started to think about why it's so important to me to seek out exotic things. Why do I crave it so much? Yesterday, it may have had something to do with wanting to break out of my usual daily routine and experience something completely different. I wouldn't say the discovery of the "Have A Nice Day" message ruined my day, but, in my case, it didn't quite have the positive effect that was intended.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Gauging by my Thai...

Living in Bangkok for almost 5 years, I'm slowly picking up the language. Most of what I've learned is literally on the street in noodle shops, and in taxis. When I'm in a cab, I usually sit up front to practice my conversational Thai speaking skills. I've learned a lot about the culture and Thai people by chatting with the drivers. And, it's quite rewarding speaking to the cabbies here. They're usually very appreciative (and sometimes very surprised) I can speak any Thai at all. And, they love to compliment foreigners on speaking Thai by telling us, in Thai, that our speaking skills are "Great!", "Really Good", and "So clear!". It's easy to get an overinflated ego and start to believe that you're almost fluent in the language.

Until yesterday. In the morning, I step into a taxi, and when I look up, there's a white plastic gauge with blinking red lights mounted to the front on the dashboard, surrounded by small Buddha figures, and there are three more of these gauges mounted near the driver's door. They appeared to be some type of tachometer. But, why was it necessary to add more of them in the vehicle? Wasn't the standard one that came equipped with the car sufficient? After 5 years of riding in taxis in Bangkok, I thought I had seen everything there is to see in the cabs.

Being in my usual curious frame of mind, I asked the driver in Thai, "What is that and what is it for?" He replied with what sounded like, "Ship Meter". To confirm, I asked, "Ship Meter?". He said no, "SHIP METER", this time with more emphasis, and slightly louder. So, then I asked him in Thai if it were something for a ship. He laughed and said no, again.

Either my question wasn't clear, or it indeed had nothing to do with a ship. In my head, I kept repeating, ship meter, ship meter. What could that mean? And, if they WERE meters for a ship, what were they doing in a taxi? Was he using Thai words that I didn't know, that happened to sound like English?

I was confused. I wanted to ask him to write it down so I could understand. If he wrote it in Thai, I could look it up in a Thai-English dictionary. But, the opportunity never arose. The drive was too short, and he dropped me off in a no parking zone, zooming off for fear of getting a citation from the policeman standing there.

I may never know what those plastic gauges were gauging. I've concluded it doesn't really matter. What this experience did was remind me I need to keep working on learning the language. And, anyway, miscommunication can happen anywhere, in any language. My misunderstanding won't affect my attempt to speak to the taxi drivers. And, I'd rather struggle with the language than have dead silence in a taxi.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Money, Money, Money

In Thailand, where some hard-working Thai people live on less than 200 US dollars a month, it's no surprise that people pray to the gods for money.

But it seems that taxi drivers have taken it to the extreme. Or maybe I just notice it more in the confined spaces during my daily commute back and forth to work.

Before I arrived in Bangkok almost five years ago, and back in the day when I studied about Theravada Buddhism in a World Religion class in college, I imagined the religious culture here as somehow being more "pure" and less affected by money.

I was wrong. And in the taxis of Bangkok you can find examples of every possible method of praying to the money gods and goddesses that exist. Some of my favorite objects and techniques includes resin Buddhas with torn money on the inside, Thai goddesses beckoning baht-toting customers with a hand gesture, money torn into pieces as an attempt to make it multiply, miniature versions of fish traps that symbolically trap the money inside, Thai baht folded into the shape of fish, and giant amulets chosen for their ability to make you get rich quick.

I guess I shouldn't be too surprised by all of this. But I am surprised that there are a few Buddhist monks involved in some of these money-making schemes themselves. There's even a "Money Monk" who is well-known for blessing taxi drivers by literally whacking them on the head with a wad of cash. I've included his picture above, as proof.

Another interesting practice by monks involves blessing a business, including a taxi, by drawing a sacred design in the shop, or in the case of the taxi, on the car ceiling. While the drawings are intended to protect the business and the business owner, taxi drivers love to point out how it brings them more customers and money.

Of course, it's not the first time that religion and money have mixed. Anyway, who am I to look down on people trying to survive out there, and make a baht or two. In fact, I could use some extra money myself. Maybe I need to look for "Money Monk", too.

Safe from Harm

I get off the skytrain and jump in a taxi and go to work. I put in my 8 hours. Then, I get back into a taxi and head for home. 5 days a week. Sounds boring? Not if you're taking taxis in Bangkok.

For me, it's not so much about the view outside. It's more about what's inside the taxis in Bangkok; the menagerie of gods, goddesses, deities, and monk statuettes, flowers, and other trinkets chosen for their ability to protect the driver and the car, and to assure that the driver has ample passengers. Like me.

As the taxi slithers in and out of traffic, sometimes barely scraping by enormous city buses, I feel safe. Afterall, the taxi talisman are protecting me from evil spirits lurking in the outside world. I know I'll get to my destination unharmed, so I can retreat back into my own safe environment.