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.