I’m sitting here on my balcony of the hotel looking south down the Chao Phaya River that courses through the city on its way to the Gulf of Thailand. The traffic on the Khrung Ton Bridge 10-stories below is already getting heavy heading into Bangkok on the other side of the expanse. Distant thunder clouds advancing ever closer, ever louder, loom silently shrouding the city. Still, it feels rather peaceful sitting here communing with the river spirits who assure me with their presence of quiet comfort.
The yellow and white lights from the bridge shine on the surface of the swirling, murky waters– even in life’s sludge one can find sparkling diamonds and gold; the quick, elusive flashes of light that could compete with the mesmerizing mirrored temples that dot the river banks.
The rising sun transforms the tops of the clouds to puffy popcorn shapes with undercoatings of grey. A sudden explosion of fast-moving clouds rises up like the head of a menacing dragon.
Even at this early hour ” I feel the urgency of now– a strong desire to hold on tight yet feel the release and relief that comes from letting go.” (RR Tolkien) It gets me thinking of how so much we possess holds us back. We attach such great value to a photo, the remembrance of a little gift from a grateful student, or perhaps a stone gathered from a sacred place that spoke in volumes and still does with the memories that it conjures. All will be meaningless, their stories largely forgotten when we pass. They are our road markers, like digital push pins on a Google map. Their brilliance, their importance and their illusion flickering like the finite flashing lights in the river below. Dancing, dazzling images of the river gods stealing away with the coming dawn.
I have been attending the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Conference here at a river-side hotel. Staying on the river is a new thing for me. There are basically two “centers” to Bangkok. The old one along the river with its mixture of marvelous temples, Western colonial-style buildings and teeming river life framed by teakwood structures of many types. It is the cultural base of the city. The other a vibrant hub of metal and glass. A financial and tourist area of modern living further away from the river enveloping the Pratoom Nam-Sukhumvit-Silom triangle. Both speak the story of Bangkok in equal measure. When I arrived, I stayed in the more modern part in a favored hotel on Sukhumvit Road. I know this side of Bangkok the best because I spent so much time in it even during my Peace Corps days.
Bangkok is not what one would consider a “walkable” city in the tradition of, say Paris, as the heat and pollution and traffic can soon do you in if you do not pace yourself. But nothing tells you more that you have arrived than this first-day promenade. Street sellers of every type and description hawking their wears on a hot day with the sweet, pungent fragrance of jasmine mixed with 100 varieties of barbequed meats and fried vegetables. You have truly arrived when your nostrils are baptized by the explosion of a cloud of garlic tossed in a fire-hot wok as you pass! That any of these smells reach your nose at all with the pollution is a testiment to the unsuppressible aroma of Thai flora and spice.
It has been so great meeting up with some Peace Corps days friends, like Elllie Johnsen, Nancie McDermott (author of great cook books), Judy Kocker and Debbie Thomas. It has also been a treat to meet former volunteers from as far back as Group I and the newer folks in Group 126! These young people would respond in surprise when I said I was in Group 47. That is ancient to them! In this day of cell phones and cheap Internet Skyping, one girl looked at me and inquired, “Oh, My God! So how did you communicate with your family back then? Did you like write letters?” (My turn for an OMG!) I stopped myself answering, “Well, only if the rain prevented my using smoke signals.” I explained what an air letter (aerogramme) was, and yes, I wrote letters. Back then to make a call, if you could actually do that from your site, often required making an appointment to make the call to begin with. The actual quality of the call itself could often be dubious and all that for the privilege of spending about $50.00 for about a 15-minute call—– oh, I wrote letters, you betcha!
The ambassador’s reception at the embassy was fun, but even here had a “Washington cocktail party” air about it. We received an email informing us that we were not to swim in the pool, to stay out of the ambassador’s residence, and NOT to engage the ambassador in any extended conversation. So much for the accessibility of our government officials! I thought the pool comments were quite funny and more appropriate to when we were actual volunteers– some of us could be a bit uninhibited back then! It was odd considering the dress code for the reception was “business casual,” hardly a luau! Thanks to Judy Kocher, a few of us quickly repaired to the Polo Club, a huge expanse of very valuable property that covers a central area on Bangkok. It contains several restaurants, a golf course and horse racing track. Membership required. The membership is an assortment of well-healed or connected foreigners and Thais. All very nice and relaxing.
Geoffrey Longfellow, a former PCV who was here roughly the same time I was, is now working in Thailand at one of the palaces. He arranged a visit to Vinmamek Palace, which was built entirely of teak wood and assembled with pegs! This is so impressive when you notice how well and tightly all the pieces fit together. It is an elegant and beautifully designed place. Everywhere you turn there are lots of historical artifacts and interesting stories of the past. Unfortunately, it was raining that day so that put a damper on photography– which was restricted to outside the palace anyway.
As the rains abated, we went to the nearby throne hall, a large Western-style structure that is now a museum filled with some very impressive gifts given to the Queen on various occasions. The frescoed ceilings are awesome. In front of the museum is the vast plaza that was being set up by the Red Shirts in anticipation of a ruling to be made by the Supreme Court later in the day that most thought would go against the ruling party. Part of the ruling could have forced the party to not only lose power, but to be disbanded and its leadership banned from public office for 5 years. This tactic to overthrow those in power is, I believe, a recent invention. It is basically the “new coup.” The military can no longer overthrow the government as it would seriously affect “business as usual” and make foreign investors queazy. Fortunately, the Supreme Court surprised many by issuing a ruling that was a “win-win” for all sides. Crisis averted, for now at least.
Tomorrow are the “main events” at the Foreign Ministry with the Princess Srindhorn and then the Peace Corps reception, which will be a little more relaxed I am sure.