In an earlier post, I mentioned taking my character for a walk around Bangkok, imagining how she would experience the city if she was feeling joyful. The following day, I imagined how the same streets would appear to someone feeling anxious and vulnerable. I was inspired in part by watching my nearly-ten-year-old daughter navigate the city less than twenty-four hours after flying in to meet me. She’s a seasoned traveller, albeit too young to remember her previous visits; but even for her, a city like Bangkok takes some adjusting.
A less confident, more fearful person might focus on:
- the gaping holes in the footpath
- the foetid smells — sewerage meets dead things — that waft from drains from beneath ill-fitting grills
- the tangle of electric wires, some floating freely, that festoon pylons and poles and hang like hammocks across to buildings
- the godawful traffic
- the motorcyclists who ride along the footpath with impunity
- the pollution that coats the entire city in a layer of greasy dust
All these things might appear as hazards, even ill omens, to someone in a fragile state of mind.
When I teach writing, I like to say that point of view makes a world of difference — and different worlds out of the same place. For example, when you look at the photo below left, taken in Bangok’s Convent Road, what do you notice first? Is it the insane electrical wiring? The lush, established tree, seemingly growing from the footpath in the middle of the city? Is it the central figure, unusually large for a Thai person, who looks like they’ve just been riding a motorbike wearing a pair of plastic shoes?
I took the photo above right on Ploen Chit Road in one of Bangkok’s busiest shopping districts, taken by how, in such a place, not only could you find an ornate lamp-post, but one decorated with a potted white orchid. Only later was I struck by what some might intepret as ominous portents: the dense electrical wiring, open fuse box (?), the dense slab of concrete — part of the Skytrain infrastructure — that appears to hover overhead, threatening to land like an alien spacecraft… Or is it just me?
I mentioned in a previous post that Miss Nine and I accidentally attended the funeral of Thailand’s highest Buddhist monk, the Supreme Patriarch. In fact, it wasn’t the actual funeral; rather, temples around the country were hosting merit-making and commemorative activities for the public as part of his Holiness’s funeral rites. (The Supreme Patriarch actually died in October 2013 at the age of 100 years; I’m not sure why it has taken more than two years for him to be cremated, nor where his remains have been in the meantime). Miss Nine and I stumbled into a throng of mourners in black when we went to visit Wat Pathum Wanaram earlier in the week.
The large temple compound is surrounded on three sides by towering shopping centres and sits opposite the Thai Police Headquarters on Rama 1 Road. During the 2010 political crisis when the redshirts occupied the area, the wat was a place of sanctuary for women and children (though I believe people were shot close by). I wanted to visit with my daughter to see the murals illustrating the tales of Xieng Mieng (in Lao)/Sri Thanonchai (in Thai), stories that we’ve read together. We did eventually find them, but only after agreeing to have free icecreams and iced tea pressed on us as part of than boun (merit-making) for the Supreme Patriarch; I was happy to indulge, knowing that Buddhists believed this would help expedite the holy man’s flight to heaven.
In a classic example of the difference point of view, or perspective, makes to the experience of a place, my journal that night was all about the Xieng Mieng murals and the meditation hall that housed them, an ‘exquisite jewel of a place’, also mentioning my excitement at seeing fortune tellers in the temple compound. Miss Nine’s journal was all about the free icecream and iced tea!