Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Motherland Visit, Part 8: Living with the Precious

precious |ˈpre sh əs|adjective
(of an object, substance, or resource) of great value; not to be wasted or treated carelessly

Emerald vs. Platinum

Both precious, but in very different ways. One, a gemstone and the mineral that constitutes the famous Emerald Buddha (on show at the Grand Palace). The other, a metal that is the namesake of a multistory, bargain shopping mall.

The Emerald Buddha actually made of Jadeite and has travel the far reaches of South and South East Asia before having come to rest at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha on the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

  • Side story: As found in many tourist destinations, there is a fee difference for locals and tourists. Upon entering the Grand Palace, we got the local price and proceeded towards the “Locals Only” entrance. I understand very simple Thai, but speak less. Once big words come into play, I tend to sit out. So when the guard asked me in Thai if I was foreigner (a word I didn’t recognize), I thought it was over for me. Mom and Dad to the rescue, “I’m from Thailand and am Thai, her mom is Thai, so she’s Thai!” BOOM.

The Grand Palace (Please go to the website, if for nothing else, to see that they call the traditional virtual tour “Virtual Reality”), itself, is exquisite. Actively used by the royal family, I could spend all day here. Built along the Chao Praya River, these series of buildings are a solid, almost textbook, example of Thai architecture and art. I’m no expert and there are lots of resources that go into detail. Believe me, the next library trip will include the search for these books.

Don’t ask me how these dirty, hazy photos happened, probably a combination of old camera, expired film, and minimal knowledge about photography. Either way, I kind of like it.
The Emerald Buddha is coveted among the Thai and a popular tourist attraction. It is a very interesting push and pull when it comes to popular Buddhist tourist attractions. I, for one, could have stayed and meditated in front of the Emerald Buddha all day, but I was sweetly rushed out by my dad and given not so sweet disapproving looks from other folks who have to come to “pray.” The norm, it seems, is to stay in front of the Buddha only for as long as it necessary to make a wish – I kid you not, a common wish is to hit the Thai lotto – and then move along. This hurry-up-and-pray aspect seems to be at odds with the original intention of a place that houses a revered statue. And out of respect, one is not to take pictures, so this is my janky rendition of the Emerald Buddha.
The ceiling is high and the statue sits atop a number of tables of different heights, filled with different symbolic offerings. It literally looks as if it is floating. As it should, rising above the earth-bound desires that clutter our heads. To me, the Emerald Buddha was very much an opportunity not to be wasted or treated carelessly. And I believe that Thai people feel the same. If there ever was a country in which it is easy to be spiritual, Thailand would be it. The connection is deep and integrated into the Thai lifestyle, from “tam boon” – donating food to monks – to having a shrine on site at your house or business to temples on the typical Thai tourist itinerary.

Juxtapose this solid, precious mineral symbol of enlightenment with the six story, clusterf*ck, shopping mall named after a precious metal, Platinum. Having cut my teeth on the vast, multilevel malls of Hong Kong where shopping should be a sport, this was daunting after my time at the Emerald Buddha and the Grand Palace, but not entirely undoable (is this English?). Luckily, I had my brother who was also considered a “big” person in Thailand as well, so I only got a mild complex because I didn’t fit into anything / wasn’t "developing country" skinny. We had fun sharpening our LBZ (LadyBoyZ … with so much drama in the LBZ … it goes on) spotting and haggling skills, zig zagging through the maze of stalls, but all in all the most jarring part of this experience was the feeling that this was also place of worship, if you will.

Even if I did take more than just this photo
they would probably not convey to you how thick and heavy the air was with locals and foreigners clamoring to get the best deals on the knock-offs of the latest styles imported to all of the world’s fashion centers. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to see the chain of events: a huge clothing brand decides to produce their line in Thailand, factories and human hands are responsible for producing the new season, the patterns for these clothes make their way into other factories where slight modifications are made to the pattern, perhaps a lesser fabric is used, et voilà, qua! A commodity that fuels the fire of materialism for people in country is that being exploited for… yep, materialism! I always had a funny feeling that having more superfluous decorations was the industrialized country’s visible and arbitrary tally for moving on up in the economic and social ladder, and it’s places like this that cement the notion. All hail the all mighty dollar. Gross.


Very few things are as precious as our own memories, ripe opportunities, or the fact that nothing is permanent.

Saree Sangnavarat [my grandfather on my mother's side]
January 24, 1923 – February 22, 1984


In the twenty years I have been gone from Thailand, my memories come in and out of focus, with faces and places fuzzy, then clear, then fuzzy again. The sequence of events jumps from chronological to importance. Morals of stories have changed to emphasize new lessons that hid themselves between the words.

In hindsight, this is memory of Thailand as a pure state of being, uncluttered by the desires to emulating exciting foreign cultures, can be attributed to my youth (at the time) and nostalgic revision. But is also perpetuated now by the hearing of new stories that involve, to my surprise, harsh lines drawn in the sand…

The most touching stories had involved the ever amorphous concept of love that seems so much more powerful because how preciously it was held … across time, distance, cultures and death.

Stories of men and women loving with a quiet fierceness that transcends the rules of traditional marriage and the black and white of wars. A story of a late night ultimatum and familial obligation. A story of an Indian woman for whom love was always slightly out of reach because it was culturally bound, for whom death swept away the life a young Indian man leaving a softness in the wrinkles around her eyes when she looks up. The story of a workaholic who would finds it more acceptable to take work home before the love found at the office…

Stories that involve true sacrifice I had not been told until now, spoken in the fashion of an ancient fable or movie of the past complete with teller’s glossy eyes that never quite meet yours. Memories and stories preciously held in the eyes and mind of the beholder; the common thread being that the idea of those harsh lines in the sand mark the point in which to judge how far one has to go, or conversely, has come. I’ve been throwing back and forth the idea of the power of those harsh lines for a while, and it seemed only fitting that as the winds of time carry forward, they also stir up the sand in such a way that the harsh lines disappear and only where you currently stand remains.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Motherland Visit, Part 7: Thoughts along the Way

Yes, I am one of those Moleskin-carrying travelers… I have no shame. Here are some thoughts collected during my Thailand journey.


Twenty year old Minolta captures
Twenty year old memories
through a hazy lens

I should probably clean that


heavy air
thick with scooter smoke
puffing dark grey clouds as they dart
like squid
streamlined octopi
appendages all tucked in
between the bulk of
four-wheeled vehicles


cool breezes life the weight of humidity
street vendors heighten the sense of humility


three generations of Kliengkloms
laying on their backs
wooden day beds
eyes to the ceiling
silence for just enough time
to catch our breath

there’s a lot of things to take care of



We’re walking down the street towards the beach in Hua Hin and as per usual, my father is being gregarious to all street venders. In passing and with no intention to buy, he casually asks the Tulian dealer where they are from – tapping into a well of knowledge about local Thai fruit – for if they are grown in certain region, they will have a certain taste. With a wave and a fleeting promise of return, my father continues along his way to the slight annoyance of the vender.

Cut to a couple hours later when we are taking a tuk tuk back to hotel. From the tuk tuk we spot the Tulian stand one block ahead of us. We turn to my father and hastle him about his “friend” at the stand and how he was going to get busted for hurting his feelings. And sure enough, as we all turn to look at the stand, the vender waves right at us. BUSTED. And my dad laughs exactly like if he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.


In Thai:

Dad: There should be a price difference between playing golf in the morning versus the afternoon. It’s cheaper in the hot time.
Aunt (his sister): Who wants to hit balls when it’s hot?!
Dad: People that want deals!


George: Dad, why don’t you have some friends around here that we can stay with?
Dad: I don’t have friends. Just ex-girlfriends.


Monday, February 7, 2011

The Motherland Visit, Part 6: Visual Journey to the Thai Countryside

As previously mentioned, we hadn't seen many extended family members for about 20 years. The Thai countryside is stunning. Enough with the words for now.

Cha Chaung Sao

Bat Sanctuary
[Bats under the protection of the Wat Pho Bang Khla]

Moung Kao Village [Purple White Village!] / Parchin Buri Province

This is where the infamous Pig Farm from my youth and my grandfather's ashes are located. This is where I got my first taste for riding scooters. My father had just taken me around the neighborhood on the back of the scooter and there were so many street dogs barking and chasing us. In a panic, I spread my toes and a flip flop was gone in the wind. Back on the farm, I geared up for my first lesson ... that landed me right into a small tree. Twenty years later, I'm back on the scene and never felt so free as when my brother and I took the twin Yamaha 80s out on the countryside.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Motherland Visit, Part 5: Creation and Inspirations vs. Collections and Preservations

“I strongly believe that the morality of the world population is deteriorating. And at the same time I cannot deny the advancement of science that is so valuable to mankind, incomparable in any era. We, Asians, believe that the scientific approach can bring knowledge to human beings. But it cannot elevate the spirit of man. It has only paved the way for materialists in their search for worldly happiness.


Sustainability and beauty have no boundary in age. This can be proven by the existence of art, paintings and architecture that were beautifully created by man as lasting treasures and have been handed down to us by our ancestors. Every piece of art is priceless. Some have become world treasures and adored by art lovers. They seem to have no nationality, no religion, no limit in time. Only art has bestowed the refreshing sprit on human beings up to the present day. Therefore, we should give more serious thought and interest to art.”

I am a lover and hater of museums.*

I love that thoughtfully curated spaces of art, science, culture and information exist. I love that they can provide a sense of context, history and awareness to cultural products. I love when they expose me to new, amazing things. I love how there are people with lots and lots of money who want to contribute to art.

I hate that we are so attached to the physical aspects of great works of beauty and innovation that we feel the need to remove it from its context, then put it back into “context” in a potentially sterile, white walled building all in the name of “preservation.” I hate how museums, as physical spaces, live in the reflected glory of the art they are merely housing. I hate how museums have become a substitute for interactive learning.

I generally love specialized exhibits in museums and I generally hate permanent collections. I love what’s inside museums – the creative – and I hate museums themselves – the preservative. I’m weird. I know.

Patrons of Thailand: The Viriyahbhun Family

It cannot be denied that the Viriyahbhun family has contributed greatly to both the creation and preservation of art in Thailand. They are also simultaneously responsible for two perfect examples of why I love and hate museums.

Quick background of the Viriyahbhun family:

They were old money millionaires. They had always been in the automotive industry and they owned the first, and for a while the only, Mercedes Benz dealership in Thailand. They were and are fiercely loyal to Thailand.

Built over the course of 10 years, and completed in 2004, this was my very first encounter with this museum. It is located in Samut Prakan, my father’s province, and very close to where we stayed. This museum was one of the last ones on the “Tour of Thailand.” I saw it from the freeway a bunch of times before I actually stepped foot on the grounds, and from jump, it was an awesome sight to behold.

Here are the important physical details:

The main attraction of the museum is massive, 3-headed elephant standing atop a domed, circular, columned building with a basement. It’s dimensions are 128’ x 39.5’ x 143’ (L x W x H). HUGE! The body weighs 150 tons, the heads weigh 100 tons total.
Model of the museum.

If you want to nerd out with me, I’ve scanned an excerpt from a book I bought that gives a narrative and some visuals about the building of the museum. Fun fact: In order to portray the elephant skin accurately, they used relatively small copper sheets that were put together by hand!
What is more impressive than the pure scale of this project? The thought, intention, and attention to detail are from some place larger than us. For example, this museum has been conceptualized as a model of our universe.

The basement, where the rare antique and valuable artifact collection of the Viriyahbhun family can be found, can be conceptualized as the base level of human desires. Though not described by the curators as such, to me the preservation of these items represents a desire to possess and narrate your “life” after death (e.g., living forever in a legacy through physical items that are pasted through the generations).

The domed, circular building has been purposefully likened to the Earth and decorated with an insane amount of thoughtfulness. First of all, the level of detail of the interior can keep you occupied for days. Between the meticulously hand-pounded tin pillars depicting different religions and the gigantic Ananda Fish (fabled Thai fish that lives under the earth, such that if it were to roll over there would be an devastating earthquake) strategically placed over structural support beams and columns
to the beautiful mosaics made only of broken porcelain bowls, cups, and spoons
to the German stained glass ceiling portraying the earth and the zodiac signs,
you can easily lose your mind – in a good way. Again, the theme of Earth comes shining as much through the natural light from the stained glass ceiling as it does through the symbolism of each aspect of the building.

Above the “Earth” is the 3-headed elephant itself. I certainly was at no vantage point to get the scale of the elephant, but these I could not help.
The elephant is a sacred animal in many cultures, especially south Asian countries. There are a number of excellent resources that explain the cultural symbolism of elephants, the most easily recalled being the Hindu deity of Ganesh. Erawan is just the Thai name of Airavata, the Hindu mythological white elephant with multiple heads who is most commonly associated with rain and water. I sort of have an affinity toward elephants, so you can imagine why I was drawn to this museum.

Visitors may enter into the hollow abdomen of the Erawan, or as I think of it, ascension into enlightenment. In order to ascend to the belly, you must climb a flight of narrow, spiral stairs (You’re actually climbing up one of the elephant's legs, don't worry there's an elevator in one of the other legs!) painted with other earthly creatures ascending with you. It is very calming for being such a small space. The belly has a rounded ceiling and walls with a beautiful mural of the universe at its height. The lighting is in shades of blue and yellow. Directly ahead is a walking Buddha image and a number of their antiques lining the walls. This space is very minimal and more like a temple rather than a museum.

While the external, physical structure of the building and the Erawan is impressive by it sheer size, it’s ultimately the internal architecture, the internal story as symbolized by painstakingly handcrafted works of art and the ascension into space, that sparks an internal feeling of calmness that is truly inspiring.

Last time I remember feeling like this was at Leigh McCloskey’s studio.

Another museum credited to the Viriyahbhun family, the Ancient City is also located in Samut Prakan and is literally, a tour through some of Thailand and SE Asia’s history. Originally conceived as a golf course with miniatures of significant Thai monuments as backdrops to the holes, this is now a 200-acre historical journey. An interactive map can be found here.

Of the 116 mini-monuments, there are a mix of scaled down replications, reconstructions from life, and creative representations. Here are some of my favorites:
Mini-Miniatures of the Ancient City

Sumeru Mountain
Mythological center of the world / universe with the Ananda fish.

Pavilion of the Enlightened
Physical manifestation of the idea that there are many paths to reach Nirvana in Mahayana Buddhism

As you can see, I was drawn to the creative representations. Again, the patented Viriyahbhun thought and planning was intact, (e.g., the shape of the Ancient City in the shape of Thailand and the attention to detail for all the replications, reconstructions, and representations), but something felt funny to me.

I couldn’t place my finger on it until I was loaded up in the golf cart (bicycles were available for rent as well, you could bring your car in for a fee), started driving around the massive grounds and finding myself staring a perfectly scaled down version of a culturally significant Thai monument… As I cocked my head, my eyes got wide and it all became clear…
I was in the unintentional Thai Disneyland... where anything could happen. And it still kind of creeps me out.

Again, while the intention of the Viriyahbhun family was positive, their execution is a perfect example of why museums bother me. It is an emphasis on collection and artificial preservation. In faking it, taking it out of historical context, placing replications of actual places next to creative representations of ideas, the Ancient City explicitly asks you to suspend reality to experience a sort of hyper reality, where it gets a little too real.**

The city itself is not ancient (building began in the 1960s) and in fact, neither are the “sites.” Since many of the monuments of which the Ancient City’s sites are based are physically rooted to a distant location, there is literally a removal of reverence and historical context. Plus, I can’t imagine that most people are inspired to visit the actual monument after seeing it in the Ancient City!

While not as blatant as
A.K.A. Wax Museum, but you have to love the Thai name

but the Ancient City comes eerily close.

It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate

The Erawan Museum. The Ancient City. Both born of the Viriyahbhun’s desire to contribute to and preserve the Thai heritage, but both symbolizing two very different ideas.

Evidenced, even in their guidebook covers
one can imagine that the Erawan Museum is truly a product of the creative process and inspires. The whole structure is a work of art, not just a place to house precious artifacts. The Ancient City is literally a collection of artifacts removed from context and miniaturized with the intention of preservation. Obviously, I am biased towards the creative and inspiring, but again, I understand the very human desire for collection and preservation. Museums in all their incarnations will always be a part of my life and, while I may grumble, I am grateful for having been exposed to both the Erawan Museum and the Ancient City.

* Look, I’m trying to practice loving kindness and compassion and I know hate is a strong word. Dislike, feel uncomfortable or annoyed are perhaps more accurate descriptions of how I feel towards museums, but I need two easily understandable, equally valenced, polar-opposite meaning words. Cut me some slack.

** For an excellent essay in this very idea, please see Chapter 1 in Umberto Eco’s Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality.