Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Big [Dirty] Mango

Bangkok, Monday morning, December 2009.

I awoke on Khao San Rd at 5:30am.  Fumbling out of my 3 dollar hostel, there was heavy grey mist covering the streets and the only thing clear to me was the blood orange color of the monks' thick robes wandering silently, collecting alms. their presence is loud, although a peaceful one.

Thailand is a maze of contradictions. it's culture full of paradoxes that few can solve or explain.
How is it that these holy men walk this street before dawn so gracefully when only hours before it was littered with drunken backpackers, prostitutes and scam-artists? How can these cultures coexist in a way that makes sense?

Bangkok, although the most Westernized city in the country, also exudes the most "Thai"ness. It is a compact chaos, glittering with golden stupas and suffocated by smog. Its people, its badgering, its heavy air, tuk-tuks, traffic, they weigh down on me so much that I feel like the city is actually a pressure cooker, not a metropolis, and I'm ready to explode.

 They call it the Big Mango, which I always assumed was an Asian play on the Big Apple, but Bangkok is not unlike eating a ripe mango with your hands: if you don't mind the mess, its quite the treat...

Bangkok has the most to offer, assuming you can suffer through all the in between. The most beautiful temples, some of the best food, easily the best shopping.... It's a fascinating,fun and fast paced place to be, but it wears down on you quick... which is why I was sprinting towards the bus station, utterly exhausted and desperate to get back to dusty old Ayutthaya.... Oh yeah, and I had to be in class by 9 o clock......

Don't Leave Home Without It

The Essentials of Living/ Traveling in Thailand
I've been here long enough to know what to bring around the city or pack for quick country tour. These products I literally could not live without.

#1 Tiger Balm
This small but mighty item is so essetial in my daily lifie that if I forget it when I leave the house, I immediately go to 7-11 to pick up another one for a meager 50 baht. Because at any given moment, I have at least 4 ferocious mosquito/ ant / other scary bug bites somewhere on my body that need rubbed down constantly. Luckily, TB does the trick. While I was keen on white for a while, the red version is a bit more fiery so I've switched back to that.

Tiger Balm is a miracle worker on sore muscles as well as bites. Ask your masseuse to lather some on before your yogic Thai-massage and you will be in heaven (or should i say Nirvana?).
Other uses include: rubbing on your temples for a quick pick me up, rubbing on your neck/shoulders when sitting at your computer for 24 hours takes its toll, or rubbing anywhere on your body at any time for mentholy warming, burning, cooling tingling magic. I like it on the inside of my forearm, near your elbows. (Thanks Emily) Weird, but totally sensational. As you can tell, it's never far out of my reach and I use it generously :)

#2 Prickly Heat, Lavender or BabiMild, purple
 February through May, this will safe your life. When you're hot and sweaty, (which is all the time, even after you shower) pour this old-lady powder all over yourself and your sweat will tingle away. Its absolutely magical, and will leave you feeling indescribably prickly and fresh. 
just do it. you will smell better too!

#3 All-purpose Sarong.

Forget your towel? Your $3 hostel doesn't have sheets? Want to wear a skirt? Do you have to shower in public? Do you need a blanket on the bus? A pillow? Need a handkerchief to cry into when you miss your bus? Need somewhere to wipe the gallons of sweat constantly dripping off your face, or the leftover mango all over your hands?


I think 75% of my facebook pictures feature this Om-ed Yellow-Wonder. I. Love. It.

(It should be noted that I also used it as a tapestry/window insulator when I was living in Chicago. 
Seriously all-purpose.) 


If you have those three things, you are off to a good start. A few other less-essential but often appreciated  products are:  menthol inhalers for smelly bus/train rides or headaches, sanitizer wipes for general use, and tamarind candy for yummy, healthy snacking :)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Drunken ghosts celebrate life

More than 2553 years ago, Buddha went off into the forest for a long time to meditate. Gone for 49 days (but eventually seeking spiritual enlightenment) the folks at home started to worry about him. They were convinced their Prince was dead deep in the forest. But eventually, after days of worry, the enlightened man emerged, and his people were so surprised to see him they thought he was a ghost. On discovering he was the real deal, the villages threw a big "glad you're not dead/ welcome back" party.

Now, I don't know about in the old days in Nepal or India, but Thailand sure knows how to throw Buddha a party. They call it the "Ghost Festival" or "Pee Tha Kon" in Thai.  Everyone dresses up in intricately painted masks made of rice baskets and wood, with matching outlandish costumes.

ghosts in the streets of dansai
too much poking. awkward.
Apparently there are customs and formal traditions involved in this festival, including finding a lucky pearl in the river and listening to 13 of Buddhas sermons.... but I didn't see any of that. It's pretty secondary to what the festival is really about : Dancing around in costume, drinking, and poking one another with huge wooden phalluses they carry around like swords. (There is really no explanation for this other than the Thai sense of humor - I've checked)**.  

During the parade, there were also a few groups of men dressed in blackface - extremely bizarre and offensive, but given the amount of racism in Thai culture, not surprising. (Again, Thai sense of humor is a little off at times, and I found no real reason for these groups to be included in the celebration)  I feel weird about posting these pictures, but I also feel it necessary ? 

ummm this is okay?
The festival took place in beautiful Isaan, Loei Province. This side of the country is less developed, full of rolling hills and rice fields, and was predictably sunny and hot that weekend. The odd thing about visiting Isaan, is that falang are still kind of a novelty. While magnificent ghost masks and spectacle danced around me, I was the one being asked multiple times to have my picture taken with locals. I even saw a few people sneak pics of me on their cellphones while I walked by - it felt nearly paparazzi-esque, and made me pretty uncomfortable. I was there with my other falang friend - and with her pale skin and red hair,  we were very foreign sights for the people of Leoi. 

This ghost-man wanted his pic with the falang, and the falang wanted a pic with the ghost man. Win-win 

Overall, another enchanting weekend of colors and celebration in Amazing Thailand.  While I certainly learned a lot about this Buddhist holiday and the culture of Isaan, the intrigue lies in that I always leave these festivals with more questions than I came with...

**Phalluses or lingam are prevalent in Thai culture, blending together a few different religious customs (In Hinduism, it represents Shiva), but typically symbolizes fertility or power. How this was particularly relevant in this festival wasn't exactly clear. But hey, why not.