Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Luck of the Draw

Between my article and my last blog post about the Magic Tattoo Festival, I am getting pretty sick of the words "Magic Tattoo Festival".  However.

When we were at the temple, we did notice an array of animal statues displayed on the grounds.  We wondered if perhaps these were representative of the animals that people were invoking the spirits of.  Could these be the choices that the spirits get to pick from?

If this is true, then what if you get stuck with the apprehensive boar?

Hey guys, is there a party tonight?  I'm totally free!

Do your friends make fun of you if get the effeminate tiger?


Can becoming a poorly proportioned frog be considered a spiritual experience?


If you get the sad gorilla with body-image issues two years in a row, do you think Seriously?  This again?


And when you get the smug rabbit, do you just pretend you never went to the festival?

You seriously haven't heard of this band?

Food for thought.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

But Is It a Magic Tattoo?

Everyone's got tattoos these days.  Tribal tats, butterfly tats, ambiguous Chinese symbol tats.  I've got a tat, I'm not gonna lie.  It's a lotus flower that I got on my wrist in Nepal when I was twenty.  When I was busy walking around Kathmandu, draped in scarves, finding myself.  Immediately after I got it, I panicked a little.  Was it a flower?  Or a soccer ball?

Nobody knows for sure, but around World Cup time, it seems to come in handy when I'm packed into a bar with overzealous soccer fans.  I'm really into this!  It says, as I down another beer, and feign interest in whatever is happening on the big screen.

The real question, though, is not whether it is a flower teeming with hope and possibility or a soccer ball, teeming with...Pele-ness.  The question people never ask is if it's a magic tattoo.

Spoiler alert:  It's not.  But here in Thailand, people take tattoos and their spiritual significance quite seriously.  Every year in March, the Sak Yant Magic Tattoo Festival is held at Wat Bang Phra, 30 miles west of Bangkok.  It is a time for those who have received spiritual tattoos from the monks of the temple to come back and get them "recharged" for a new year.  People receive many different types of tattoos from the monks: animals, mythical creatures or Thai and Sanskrit script.  The monks are said to channel the energy of Luang Poh Pern, a monk who studied magic and sorcery at the temple.

The reason that the festival is so well-known is because those who have received the tattoos are known to slip into a trance, often channelling the animals of their tattoos.  I went to the festival, prepared to see men (and a few women) growling like tigers and howling like monkeys.  This was quite intriguing to me, and I imagined a large crowd, and then a sort of...corral (?) in the front where these people/animals would frolic.

You guys, I didn't know.

It was only 7am when we arrived, but it was already hot.  Naturally, a smart way to deal with this issue is to sell aluminum foil mats to sit upon in the blazing sun.  Sheer marketing brilliance.

We obviously bought one.

As soon as we found a spot, we began to hear the screams.  A shriek would rise up somewhere in the crowd, a moan, a wail and the sea of people would begin to part.  It dawned on me that those who fell into trance were not going to be rounded up like livestock, but would rather allow the spirit to move through them.  And through the crowd.

When in trance, people would scream and run through the crowd towards the shrine at the front.  Sometimes they did howl like monkeys, or gallop like tigers.  Other times they walked slowly, their brows furrowed in concentration.  But when they decided to move, they moved.  And if you were in their way, the only thing you could do was move yourself.

Many people crashed, fell and writhed upon the ground.  Those that caught them would instantly begin to appease them the way you would an animal - tugging on their ears, cooing at them, stroking them gently.

It was extremely powerful.

I felt this sense of calm come over me.  Yes, there were times I was frightened, as exhilaration and adrenaline coursed through my veins.  But what I was witnessing felt real.  These people were moved.  They were connected to something greater than themselves.

And perhaps we can all find the magic if we look deep enough.  Whatever we claim to call that magic, it exists somewhere in all of us.  We just have to be open to it.

Even if sometimes all we see is the soccer ball.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

No Compromises

The floods that have been making their way through Thailand have at last reached Bangkok.  It has been a slow process, and by slow, I mean months.  It has taken over three months for the floodwater from northern Thailand to reach the capital. 

During that time, people here in Bangkok were certainly horrified by what was happening in other parts of Thailand.  I just feel like it never really occurred to anyone that it might eventually hit Bangkok.  I think we all* just kind of thought the floods might disappear.  Evaporate.  Run out of water?  

I don't really know how floods work.

What I do know is that the country has been devastated and the deluge has finally reached Bangkok.

I always thought that disasters of this magnitude struck suddenly - and in an instant, everything changes.  Floods like this, however, creep in slowly.  It can take weeks or months for the water to finally arrive and then the same amount of time for the water to recede.  Some areas of Bangkok are now completely underwater, while in others, we wait.  We sit and we wait in this surreal limbo that entails...well, sitting and waiting for a natural disaster to arrive. 

It's quite bizarre.

And the information we get!  Honestly, no one knows what's going on. Two weeks ago, there was a palpable sense of fear in the city, with doomsday reports urging citizens to evacuate as high tides threatened to overflow the (already high) rivers. 

I, along with many others I know, fled the city...
Only to return a week later to find that everything (where I live, at least) was completely fine. 

I felt a little silly.

Here's the 'hood....bone dry.

It's been confusing, to say the least, and it's become political and messy and I am just going to avoid that part altogether.

To bring you the real story.

Ladies and gentlemen, it all begins back with those doomsday news reports.  They inevitably led to an apocalyptic spending frenzy throughout Bangkok, most notably hitting our beloved 7-11's . This hoarding began a few weeks ago and, as these pictures from last night prove, it's still in full swing.

I can kiss trying to find a Diet Coke goodbye.

Now, I know that these are uncertain times.  People are buying whatever they can get their hands on in order to make sure that they have enough food and water should the floods render them housebound.  It's not a time to be choosy. 


What is so wrong with this guy?? 

Are we really so picky that in the event that we run out of food, Peanuts Chicken Flavour Coating simply will not do?  Is it that bad?

I don't understand.*

Also, in other news, when did everyone start hating Sprite?


At this point, we don't know when the situation will end.  Will we flood, won't we?  These questions still echo throughout the drier parts of the city everyday.  However, I do know that we will all retain our dignity, because under no circumstances will any of us be eating Peanuts Chicken Flavour Coating snacks. 

And that shows strength right there. 

*Just me?
*I didn't buy any either.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Simple Task

Running an errand in Bangkok is a game of chance.  If the deck is in your favor, the waves of motorcycles part, the wind is at your back and your destination is always open.  The deck, however, is rarely in your favor.  Bangkok is one giant house of cards, teetering precariously, and one move can send the whole thing crashing down in spectacular fashion.  And that, my friends, is why I love this place.

Case in point.

I had but one simple errand to run today.  I needed to get a bank statement which is required to get a visa for China, where I will go for a conference in September.  The bank that my work uses has quite an obscure headquarters located in a mall on the outskirts of Bangkok.

Now mind you, I attempted to go on this errand yesterday but I ended up getting on the wrong city bus and traveled for 30 minutes in the wrong direction.  Clearly, the deck had already started to crumble.

I finally reached the mall today and she was not without her obstacles.

One need only sidestep tasty treats...

And shimmy confidently through this dance party...

To reach the destination, an empty room, where you will be asked to take a number.

Only for the number to be called right as you're sitting down*.

In all honesty, it was fine.  I got the paperwork.  I made my way out. I even bought a pretzel.

I got in a cab and we were cruisin'.  I was eating my pretzel.  I had a full deck in my hands.

It's rainy season in Bangkok and usually this amounts to your average afternoon thunderstorm.  I enjoy this because I tend to enjoy thunderstorms, particularly from the confines of my apartment and a big blanket and possibly a bowl of traditional pad thai**.  Today was no exception and the rain came down in droves.  Thunder tumbled through the streets and lightening lit up the sky, silhouetting crumbling storefronts and shabby fruit stalls.

It took us over an hour to get home and when we did, my cab driver decided to sit in the car park of my apartment and wait it out.  And that's when you know it's serious.  Because these public transport guys?  They're tough.

I, however, was home.

I got into the elevator and pressed 9.  On floor 5, the elevator stopped and the doors opened.  In hindsight, the deck was falling fast and this was my chance.  I ignored it however, as I often do my intuition.  I stayed aboard and somewhere between 7 and 8, the elevator ground to a halt.  The lights on the floor numbers dimmed, buzzed and went out.

Welcome to my worst nightmare.

I frantically pressed buttons, any button, every button, the doors-open button, the doors-close button(?).  My heart in my throat, anxiety surged through my body like an electric pulse.  My hands shook.  I pressed the emergency button.  I pressed it again.  I pressed and held down with all my might.  I took a deep breath and surveyed the scene.  I searched for any ventilation, any place that would allow me to breathe should I be stuck there for hours, days, the rest of my life.

Then everything went pitch black.

I could feel the elevator start to groan and lurch.  And to my horror, we started dropping.  Slowly.  Fitfully.  Floor by floor.  Further and further into the black pit of my eventual demise.

Would I die in an apartment named Happy Place?

Is that allowed?

In the end, I didn't die***.  The jaws of life, aka a nonchalant maintenance guy who'd seen it all before, pried open the doors and I came stumbling out in all my panic attacked glory.

I proceeded to walk up nine flights of stairs and write my memoirs by candlelight...

....and wait for the power to come back on.

A simple task complete.

*They even made me go back to the machine to get a number, though no one was there
**Kraft macaroni and cheese

Friday, May 20, 2011

Super Giant Asia Tour 2011

A few weeks ago, some friends and I decided to hit up an excellent, oversized, continental tour happening this year.

Now is it just me?  Or do traveling carnivals the world over seem to have some sort of pact in which they compete to find the most derelict, seedy spots to throw down their temporary empire...

A few abandoned buildings on the left can't dampen this party.

And although it took us over an hour on various modes of transportation to finally reach this little corner of Bangkok heaven, all was forgiven upon arrival.  The sheer magnitude of class oozing from SGAT*'s radioactive pores blinded us, captivated us and eventually, destroyed us.  

"What constitutes a good time at a carnival?" - you, forced to ask me
"Many a thing, in fact!" - me, pleased with the opening

Could it be the sweet smell of McDonald's (clearly in cahoots with SGAT) wafting through the park(ing lot) on a sticky, hot May evening? 

Or could it be when four members of your party feign excuses and then actually leave the park after the pleasant sensory experience** that is "The Breakdance"?


Or is it the overwhelming urge to need an oversized styrofoam-stuffed animal to hold on your hip as you strut nonchalantly*** through the park?

It's possible...

Or is there just a certain magic to be found in among the jerky mechanics, the sleaze, the blinking lights, the stickiness, the tinny music, the rows of hard(won) stuffed animals, the gum stuck to the ground, the clang of the winning bell, the beer left in the bottle, the wiping of sweat, hands wrapped around metal, chugging and churning, whizzing, squeals of delight fading in and out, the beautiful, brilliant cheapness of it all.

Yes, it's all of that.

But mostly just this.

*I'm doin' it
**Nausea-inducing nightmare
***'What, this?  Yeah, I won it, whateva'

Actual footnote:  Breakdance picture from

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Best of Bali

Aaaaand we're back!  I realize it's been a bit of a hiatus here and for that I apologize, faithful readers*.

I will relay one funny/chilling tale from Bali and then get back to our Bangkok basics.

Now, every vacation has a few good stories and a few good stories usually mean a few good monkey stories and a few good monkey stories usually end with at least one screaming/scarred-for life child/me**.  Therefore, if you follow the formula correctly, most vacations end with at least one screaming/scarred-for-life child***.  You don't need Bali for this or a monkey, but those elements do provide for a great backdrop and a merciless antagonist.

This guy would never hurt you...right?

It was our second day in Bali.  We had spent a day relaxing on the beach in Kuta.  And by relaxing, I mean fending off the bracelet vendors, the ice cream man, the massage lady, the cross-bow salesman, the fake tattoo hawker, the pedicure woman ("Oh my God," she would murmur as she examined my toes****), the fruit-on-her-head lady, the beer guy (didn't fend him off), the giant wooden penis retailer, the sarong representative, the carved Buddha clerk, etc ad nauseum.  In summation, Kuta Beach in Bali...wellllll, hard to relax.  But it was great to watch the surfing, drink Bintang beer and eventually give in to the bracelet lady and walk away with five wooden bracelets that I haven't worn since Bali...

A more innocent time

That afternoon, we decided to get out of the tourist strong-hold of Kuta and see some of the "real" Bali.  For a price, we got a private driver to take us right into the heart of it.  Where, you ask?  Well, the tourist temple of Ulu Watu, naturally. 

We paid the fee (about a dollar), were given a sarong to wear over our shorts and entered the temple grounds.  The sun was beginning to set, providing a brilliant backdrop for the terror to come.  We were excited, as the naive are, to see many a monkey prowling the vicinity.  They're so cute and funny and just like us.

It was all going well, we posed for some pictures cliffside and enjoyed breathtaking views over the ocean.  We smiled, we relaxed, we let our guard down.  As we stared across the vast ocean, contemplating deep meanings and the complex truths of our lives - a bloodcurdling scream tore through the air.  Behind us, an ugly scene was unfolding.  A young girl was wailing and flailing hysterically as her father held her back.  One shoe ominously dangled from her right foot.  In front of her, a monkey.  Calm, cool, collected.  He held her other shoe in one hand.  He stared deep into her eyes.

And then he ate it.


**India, 2004 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Thai Tiger Beat

So I was going through my back catalogue the other day of some favorite films.  You know, Khaw Hai Rok Ron Jaroen, Anda Kub Fahsai, Sabaidee Luang Prabang.  The ones we all came of age with.

In doing so, I noticed a common denominator in all of them.

That denominator being Thai heart throb, Ananda Everingham, naturally.

What teenage girl doesn't have his image plastered across their room?

This teenage girl certainly does!*

But folks. I say that to say this.

Never stop reaching for the stars.