I'm in Bangkok! Wow! So number one! This is my last day here, and I'm ready to go home; that I'm reflecting on my experiences rather than having new ones is probably a good indication of this. I met my dad here in Bangkok last Friday, and the next day we took off for three nights in Cambodia, in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. We are tourists. We don't speak the languages. We don't know how much things are worth. Tomorrow morning I'm leaving for a place where I can have more meaningful interactions with people. But first, here are some disconnected thoughts on Cambodia, Thailand, being a tourist, and my relationship with my father.
Cambodia. Cambodia! Wow. Even in Thailand, my eyes are wide, and it's all I can do just to take all this information in. What can I write?
We stayed two nights in a town (Siem Reap) near Cambodia's most famous tourist attraction…the ruined temples of Angkor Wat and others. The town survives almost totally on tourist trade, apparently. It seems to be difficult for those who don't speak foreign languages to make a living there, since prices are inflated because of hotels and restaurants buying all the food. But the people who can speak English are doing better than elsewhere in the country…we paid our guide to the temples $20 for eight hours.
The temples and palace complexes around Angkor Wat are really…something. The earliest ones were built in the ninth century. Wow…That's really old. Most of the temples were originally built using Hindu symbolism (a moat around two surrounding walls and four towers in a square, with a fifth, tallest, in the middle, representing the approach to paradise and its highest peak, where Shiva lives) and for worshipping Hindu deities. The country has since become Buddhist, and a lot of the figures of the Hindu gods have been moved and replaced with representations of the Buddha. Because of this compromise, tho, many of the buildings were preserved, and were still used when they were 'discovered' in the jungle by the French in eighteen-something.
The best and brightest art there is an amazing temple with many four-faced towers, the eyes looking in all directions. The faces have the sort of quiet look to the eyes and the near-smile that changes expression every time you look away. Fucking. incredible.
In Phnom Penh, the woman who saw me hailing a cab and stopped to watch…she was carrying a basket toward the market and was wearing a stack of ten hats with floppy brims, all of different colors…I couldn't take my eyes off her…we stared and smiled; Other people carrying things to market on brimless baskets three feet wide, balanced easily on their head…no hands!; The market itself…a huge yellow art deco structure whose color has been mellowed by the red dust of the city…the building in the shape of a cross with arms pointing to the north-east, north-west, and the alleys between the arms made of the roofs of innumerable vendors…open to the air inside, with geometric wind-holes cut in the walls all the way up to the stories-high roof; The Mekong and the impossible clear heat of February; Banana leaves cut into circles and used on a plate under the food, or under a bowl, like a charger. (I wonder if Williams Sonoma sells giant cookie cutters for this purpose?); The colonial legacy in the form of French bread and charming yellow-and- white villas.
Cambodia does in fact print its own currency, but if you're a tourist, you might not ever discover this. Visa fees must be paid in US (no matter what country you're from), and aside from the small packet of laundry soap I bought, all prices are quoted in US.
Cambodia is a strange place to be. I've said this before, but being a tourist is wierd. How can I possibly relate to the people asking for money, who've lost limbs to mines? I can't speak to them, and even my concern seems prurient to me. How can I justify to myself sitting in a French cafe eating pastries while the people in town who can't speak English or French are having a hard time getting enough to eat? Is tourism in countries outside the first world unavoidably unethical?
An interesting phenomenon was that in Cambodia, people usually called me "Madame" when I was walking around with my father. He doesn't look seventy, but then, to the Asians I've asked, I apparently look about twenty-two. Wouldn't I be better dressed if I had married for money? Anyhow, the counterpart of this phenomenon is that in Bangkok, I'm almost always called "Sir." At first I thought people were talking to my father, but they'd look right at me and say it. Happened again when I was alone in the cab this AM with a driver whose English was pretty good. It doesn't bother me, but I wish I knew what they were picking up on so I could cultivate it.
In a lot of ways, Bangkok seems like Taipei. It's sticky-hot. Stray dogs press their surface area flat against the cool concrete. There are motorscooters and bicycles everywhere. Stores spill out onto the sidewalks and street vendors take up most of the rest of the available space. The streets are full of people. I love it.
The taxi drivers in Bangkok are bastards. Getting in a cab here is like making a deal with the devil—you can be pretty sure you're not going to come out ahead. DO NOT get in a cab without first haggling over the fare…you should be paying a third of the rate they quote you. Also, be very careful about what money you give the drivers…DO NOT accidently give them 100 Chinese Ren Min Bi when you meant to give them 100 Thai Baht (exchange rate ~8:1) because they'll deny you did. And if you want to give them 500 Baht, first say, "Can you make change for 500 Baht?" otherwise they'll give you 60 Baht in change instead of 460. I think next time, I'll vacation in a country where I can haggle in the language.
Compared to Taiwan, there are a lot more couples that are one older white man and one younger Asian woman. I'm trying not to look askance at it because I figure they both must be getting something out of the relationship, but it still seems strange and attracts my attention.
Bangkok smells like sticky rice, and cilantro and lime and other green things.
Flowers are everywhere here. Vendors sell loops of jasmine and yellow chrysanthemum to hang on the shrines to Buddha or the beautiful four-headed elephant, or to hang on the rear-view mirror of trucks, and bunches of orange or purple or yellow orchids to attach to the front grilles of cars.
On Friday we went to Pattaya Beach by bus…two hours from Bangkok. I sat and stared at the sea. I sat and sipped Singha beer and sang the Pogues song. Vendors walked up and down the beach with ice cream, or steaming pots of seafood, or there was the one who called, "some fruit, many fruit."
People here seem to swim in full dress. Long pants and shirts.
The architecture in Bangkok is actually quite interesting. A lot of new buildings mimic the style of the old temples and palaces. They are stepped like pagodas, many layers, with the smallest near the top.
Also, tiny green eggplant streaked with white, about the size of small eggs, cut up in green curry; Kaffir lime trees with their warty hard fruit, growing in parks; Jackfruit trees along the streets, the fruit huge and heavy and spiked like a mace, dangling over everyone's heads; Mango trees, fruit just large and still green; Durian toffee; Iced coffee; Fresh papaya at breakfast; Sweet sticky (and slightly salty) rice with mango; Seas of hot lemongrass soup (one of the two things I can pronounce in Thai—the other is the name of a stop on the El: Rat.Cha.Tii.Wii.); Street vendors selling green mango with a sauce that looked like nothing but red chili and sugar; Iced coffee; Our ridiculous hotel, with speakers for the television in the bathroom; And maybe best, going home to my own bed, my old habits, my music, my swimming pool, and a language I can speak.
My father. What do you want to know about him? He's almost seventy and retired recently, but he decided to go back to school to become a physician's assistant. This is connected to his rediscovering his latent Christianity (Tho I don't generally have warm feelings about Christianity because I think it displaces a more genuine (this-worldly) search for meaning I think it might do him some good. What he lacks is the ability to think well of people and to sympathize. Jesus has his work cut out for him.) I admire this charitable impulse on his part, maybe partly because I often accuse my chosen profession of lacking humanitarian results.
On the other hand, I wonder. His lack of sympathy and inability to listen to what people are saying will make him the sort of medical professional that to me seems typical. I've been sick (with the flu or something) and recovering on this trip, and I've always had to deal with fatigue. And despite my having voiced concerns about these things, he declared my tiredness was due to drinking too much cold water. ??? I worry that he'll assume that he can separate the important symptoms from the unimportant without listening to what a patient says.
In trying to relate to him, I've discovered (or maybe re-discovered) something about intimacy. It's not about getting a person to describe himself and his motivations and hopes and dreams. This might be knowledge, but it's not more than that. I haven't been able to spontaneously talk about myself with my dad because he's so critical of other people, and so negative generally. No matter how much I know about him, we're not going to be close until he learns how to seem interested in what I'm doing and ask me questions about my life.
He's also frighteningly bigoted. Probably our first day back from Cambodia, we were waiting on the platform of the El, and on a building opposite stood a person wearing full head covering, with only the eyes showing out, and a garment that hung down to the floor, like a Muslim woman in conservative dress. He said, "There's a terrorist." That's exactly what he said!!! I was astonished, flabbergasted. When I tried to point out to him what a horrible bigot he was (tho not in those terms!), he said that if he saw a group of people dressed like that, he'd report them. Holy shit! That was almost enough to make me go back that day.
I don't think I'm strong enough to remonstrate with him. I don't even think that's what I should do. When he hears what I'm saying (his hearing is getting worse, and it was never that good), he seldom listens. When he does, any back-and-forth has the tone of an argument. So I've just stopped trying to have meaningful exchanges with him. We talk about what we plan to do, and sometimes about what we see, tho we see very differently even looking at the same thing. It's not that I don't listen to what he says. It's enlightening to hear what he thinks about the world, and he's not always wrong. But I've stopped trying to respond. I must seem either very simple or very absent.
Despite this interpersonal strangeness, it hasn't been a bad trip. There's a lot to take in, and more details than my poor brain can catalogue. I wish I were here with friends—that would be far better than my poor vague descriptions.
Camille Faux set off from home one fine summer day in search of her fortune, but has yet to find it. She had high hopes when she was given three eggs and a kind word by an old woman by the side of the road—one gold, one silver, and one obsidian. When she later came to the mountains of glass, she threw down the first, and it shattered into tiny bits and revealed a bagel with lox, as fresh as if she were sitting in Zabar's. She postponed crossing the mountains. The silver egg, which she threw down when she reached the Labyrinth, revealed a yellow silk scarf, which looked really quite smashing on the Minotaur. Now, while she's pretty sure she's in search of something, she's bothered by the nagging worry how exactly, if she doesn't know what it is she's looking for, she's going to recognize it when she finds it…