One benefit of being ‘on location’ to do field research for my new novel is that the landscape is filled with ‘Show, don’t tell’ moments. For instance, I could write pages about how revered Thai Budhist monks are in Thailand. Or I could simply describe the priority seating signs in airport waiting lounges and on the Skytrain:
Or maybe I could describe the supermarket shelves of ‘Temple Ware’ offerings for monks, conveniently packaged in saffron-coloured Tupperware:
I could further elaborate on how Thai Buddhism is grafted on to older animist traditions, the world believed to be inhabited by spirits who must be appeased. I could explain how little sarn phraphoum are built wherever a new buiding is erected so the land spirits will not get jealous; that the spirit house must be situated so that the shadow of the main house does not fall on it; that the spirits must be fed daily with offerings. I could explain how diferent spirits require cigarettes, or sweets, horses or dancing girls. Or I could describe watching a person arrange the offerings on a spirit house at the start of a new day, as I did in Phuket: the lighting of incense and candles; the care taken to open packages of food and bottles of soft drink, making a special trip for drinking straws to put in the bottles; the time taken to drape various statues with fresh garlands of jasmine and marigolds.
I could talk about Bangkok’s polytheism and multiculturalism. Or I could make passing reference to different kinds of shrines in shopping centres and on the streets:
Even something as simply as a ‘no durians’ sign on the door to a restaurant in Chonburi speaks volumes about the place.
It’s the little things that set a place aside, showing the particularities of culture, religion, geography, even climate. It’s also comforting to focus on the little things when the bigger picture in Thailand is so uncertain, as it is at this time.
I saw a sign outside a department store the other day that said, ‘Shop, eat, drink and be merry’. I’m sure it was meant to encourage consumerism and possibly enjoyment of the festive season, rather than to invoke the other half of the Biblical saying ‘…for tomorrow we die.’ Whether unintended or not, it captures something of the anxious mood in Bangkok.
Perhaps this mood also accounts in part for the voluminous offerings made to appease the spirits, the frequent pauses made by passers by to wai at the various shrines.
Little things provide hope when the big picture is overwhelming.