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T U E S D A Y, M A Y 4 .
The three of us — Catherine, Cathryn, and I-- set out for the hills of Chiang Mai. Looking down our narrow lane, you can lift your eyes a bit and see the dusty blue of the mountains that outlie the city. This entire area ripples like the Asia of your dreams, vertical and layered with terrace after terrace of verdure. Several times this day I felt like I was in a Miyazaki movie.
First on the agenda: elephants. We drove about an hour out of town to a camp where elephants were trained and displayed. There was a brief show, both impressive (the beasts themselves are amazing, especially from this close distance) and grotesque (the "comic" approximations of human behavior are, at this late date, not much more than saddening).
Then to the real treat. We got on. Catherine and I mounted one beast, and Cathryn another behind us, and we set off for an hour through the jungles of Thailand. I took off my sandals, laid my foot directly on the elephant's back, and felt the muscles shifting massively under the tough hairy skin. The ride would have been considered rough if the jostles hadn't been in superslow motion; as it was, I just kept trying to get the theme from Lawrence of Arabia out of my head. We went up impossibly steep hills, and down steeper ones. We slogged through thick mud, eye-level trees, and Miyazaki-brown rivers. We watched green grassy grapefruits of poop parachute out from under the tails of the elephants in front of us. We watched as our elephant's ears went flappy-flappy-flappy against his neck and sometimes our feet. And we tried to imagine what life must have been like for people who, not too long ago, relied on just such transportation through the muggy land. In its slow way, it was actually an efficient means of travel over hills and through rivers.
Along the way, we lumbered through villages that consisted of several thatched huts, numerous scrawny chickens of various hues and states of defeathering, and high shaded platforms on stakes where old women and young girls hawked bright cloth things to the elephant riders.
After recovering our land legs and eating a delicious lunch at a nearby resort, we went to a snake show. Several trainers brought snakes into a center rink and showed off, provoking, avoiding, and manhandling them. Some of the snakes were impressive, one was dead, and all was made light by the announcer who kept up a constant stream of juvenile, highly accented smack talk over an uneven soundtrack consisting entirely of a pump-up version of The Final Countdown. Very entertaining in a way that they did not intend.
On to a final stop before going back to town: an orchid nursery. Thousands of orchid varieties exist in the world, half of them in Thailand, and about a hundred in this nursery. Orchids are interesting to me, especially since reading The Orchid Thief, the Susan Orlean book that brings them to fascinating light, and about which the screenwriter Nicholas Kaufman thought the most interesting feature was his trouble making a movie adaptation. Kaufman notwithstanding, orchids really are amazing creatures. They seem like animals rather than merely flowers. And the variety of them is staggering. We marveled at the dappled, blazing, extravagantly useless lavishness of creation as we walked up and down, up and down, past row after row of orchids that previously only the most intrepid orchid hunter could ever have had the pleasure of seeing.
W E D N E S D A Y, M A Y 5 .
We slept in after yesterday's adventures, and walked to a nearby guesthouse for lunch. We'd been attracted by its neat, quaint, European-style decor, and we remained to enjoy the outstanding food, both international and Thai. Catherine, on seeing the menu, developed a craving for the banana milkshake.
Thailand is in love with fruit drinks. The fruit here is always fresh and delicious, but sometimes the presentation is not to one's taste: they like to salt their fruit drinks, or sugar them, or put ice in them when they shouldn't, or leave ice out when they shouldn't, or add yogurt when they shouldn't. So, Catherine was delighted to taste this perfect blend of banana, milk, and ice. She even got another one. Meanwhile, I couldn't resist the tempting menu item "Lime Squash Juice with Soda." Who knows what mystery will show up on the table? I was simultaneously disappointed and relieved when I got my lime spritzer: no squash, just lime squeezed into soda. Very refreshing.
When we emerged into the lane, the sky was dark and the wind was quickening. It had rained a few times since we'd been here, never more than a couple of minutes, and never a heavy rain. But this looked big. We wanted to find a massage place, though, and cheated time as we shopped around, finally deciding on a big hotelly hotel across the moat. As the door closed behind us, the sky opened and there was a serious and heavy afternoon rain. The lights even went out a couple of times. We'd heard that the rainy season in Thailand started a bit earlier in the north. Sure enough.
It was a nice change from the swelter of Bangkok. And we were at any rate inside a nice hotel that charged a little too much for its massages. We decided to splurge, and Catherine and Cathryn got a two-hour full body massage, while I got my feet rubbed inside out.
Then we made our way to the night market, possibly Chiang Mai's biggest tourist attraction. Most Thai cities have some version of this, but Chiang Mai wins the prize. Block after block of booths with jewelry, watches, tchotchkes, and some of the most beautiful cloth I've ever seen.
We strolled through booths of thick cotton woven in the sturdy honest northern Thai style, booths with pile on pile of Thai silk cloths and scarves, booths with artwork and handicrafts from the neighboring hilltribes. There was some nice food, too. We decided to have dinner, though, at one of the many non-Thai places around here. We passed up the German hofbrauhaus (whose hostess was a Thai woman in a dirndl, a jarring sight), and wound up at a beautiful Indian-food place on a side street.
F R I D A Y, M A Y 7 .
After farewelling Cathryn yesterday, we switched to a luscious little inn floored and walled with some of the best tiles I've ever seen. It was the same place where we'd had lunch and Catherine had had all the banana shakes. We've had more of those banana shakes, and then more. Why do we get so obsessed with these drinks?
Last night there was more furious shopping at the night market, and we slept in and went over to the luxury hotel where we'd gotten massaged the other day. Catherine read (The Beach) and I internetted at the absurd rate of 1 baht per 10 minutes. You'd think that this overpriced hotel (5 to 10 times the cost of our very nice one across the moat) would be overpriced in every way. But then you also get better tomatoes cheaper at the rich folks' grocery store than at the poor folks' one. It's the way of the world: sometimes luxury is cheaper.
We'd figured on night busing to Bangkok tonight, but instead decided we'd take it easy and do it tomorrow. Ah, the pleasures of no itinerary. We've never arrived in any city or town knowing where we're going to stay that night. And every time we've been rewarded with leafy neighborhoods, vibrant street life, island paradises, garden courtyards, neatly tiled inns, wooded beach bungalows, and one prison-walled room that soon filled with the smell of puke. Oh, and one wood-floored, high-ceilinged, rattan-panelled love nest.
So, we stayed another night. Catherine called in from where she was reading, having remembered the other opera we saw this season that she'd forgotten about when we were talking about it earlier: Turandot. Of course. How could I have forgotten? It's one of my favorites, flawed though it is by the inconvenient fact that Puccini died before completing it. Right before the final couple of scenes where everything comes together, he just plopped over. So a faithful follower composed the ending to sound as close as possible to how Puccini would have sounded, but that's sort of like discovering that the governor of California is now Jean-Claude Van Damme.
A few years ago, the publisher commissioned Luciano Berio to do a new ending to it. It was an addition, like I.M. Pei's addition to the Louvre — fitting but frankly new. So if you like Pei's stylish modern inverted pyramid in the midst of all that florid classicism, you'd probably like Berio's new ending. If not, though, not.
I went in later to chat with my bride, and saw what reminded her: a front page story on a performance of Turandot with a new ending by Thai composer Somtow Sucharitkul, to hit the stage in Bangkok next week. Because of international copyright law, no one else can write a new ending till 2024. And furthermore, no one can see or hear this new ending outside of Thailand (a signatory of the Berne Convention) till then. So, to sum up, one of my favorite operas has had a new ending, rumored to be much truer to the original (a restoration as opposed to Berio's ending), to be performed solely in Thailand on the last weekend we'll be in the country.
That's not nearly enough for my charmed life, though. The final night, the 14th, is a Royal Gala in honour of the birthday of HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana. So we're going that night. Hey, why not treat oneself, right? Especially because it just so happens to be the eve of my own birthday. Ahhhhh, life is good.
S U N D A Y, M A Y 9 .
As dawn broke, we arrived in Krung Thep Maha Nakorn Amarn Rattanakosindra Mahindrayudhya Mahadilokpop Noparatana Rajdhani Mahasathan Amorn Piman Avatarn Satit Sakkatultiya Vishnukarn Prasit, a glorious metropolis whose name translates to: "City of Angels, the Great City, the Residence of the Emerald Buddha, the Impregnable City of Holy Indra, the Grand Capital of the World Endowed With Nine Precious Gems, the Happy City, Abounding in a Grand Royal Palace Resembling the Heavenly Abode of Reincarnated Spirits, City Given by Indra and Rebuilt by Vishnukarn."
You don't have to call it that every time you talk about it, fortunately. Everyone just shortens it to the first part, Krung Thep. Everyone, that is, except foreigners, who keep calling it by the out-of-date name of one riverside district, as if all non-Americans referred to Boston as Plymouth.
Bangkok. Oriental setting. Whether the city knows what the city is getting, you'll just have to find out later, because I have just become distracted by a very beautiful woman and must now kiss her.
Well then. Back to business. Bangkok, like most other cities of its kind, is one of those places where the glamour and the culture and the kicky energy are worth the dirt, squalor, and crowds, at least for as long as your visit lasts. You can get to most places nearby by tuk-tuk. The tuk-tuk is the grandson of the rickshaw, the son being the pedicab, which is a cross between a rickshaw and a giant tricycle, and which you can still find in smaller towns. The tuk-tuk is a cross between a rickshaw and a turbolawnmower, a charming minicab that zips around making a trail of blue smoke and the sound that gives it its name.
However, we discovered that, for any distance further than a couple of km, it's actually not only nicer to take a taxi — quieter, air-conditioned, non-smelly, no haggling about the price — but actually cheaper, because taxis are metered (that is, if you get a metered taxi; if not, you're back to haggling). It's another one of those luxury-is-cheaper situations.
People in Thailand dress very nicely. Not fashionably or flashily, as in Milan or Buenos Aires, but nicely, like your grandparents did in public. The men wear trousers and long-sleeved shirts, and often ties. The women wear nice shirts and slacks, and often jacket-and-skirt suits, like a dowdier version of what you might wear to the office. All of which is amusing, given that travelers in Thailand often wear the traditional Thai wrap-around pants, sarongs, sandals, and cotton Thai peasant shirts, with an embroidered bag over the shoulder. You see hundreds of these people on Khao San Road, drinking up the local culture, served by Thais in white shirts, black slacks, and bowties. This reversal happens in America, too: the hotel clerk wears what used to be called a lounge suit, while his rich customer wears what used to be called work pants and an undershirt.
Two of the more well-dressed people you see in Thailand, everywhere, from Chiang Mai in the north to Nakhon Si Thammurat in the south, are the King and Queen, who just celebrated their coronation this month while we were here. Their images are posted on the walls of hardware stores, restaurants, medical clinics, kitchens, and movie screens, where, before the show begins, the entire audience in your theater shuffles to its feet as music swells under a Hallmarky, and stunningly well produced, montage of tear-jerking images of the king at work, at rest, and posing for portraits. Judging strictly by the photo count, Rama IX is more popular in Thailand than Jesus in Mexico.
What's odd here is not necessarily the veneration of one's leader, though it would be difficult to imagine such images of George Bush, alone or with his wife, adorning people's walls. The oddness is deeper: how young the king is in all these photos. Catherine and I have figured that the most recent picture we've seen of the king is over 20 years old. In most of them, he's in his early 20s, which dates the pictures to the early 1950s. Why not a more updated image of the king? Certainly Queen Elizabeth maintains a contemporary public image. And, stranger, imagine seeing a picture of a 20 year old George Bush: of course you wouldn't, because he didn't become president till he was in his 50s, and won't be president much into his 60s, if that. The very display, then, of an old image of a current leader is tied into the fact of monarchy.
T U E S D A Y, M A Y 1 1 .
The past couple of days have been leisurely and loverly. Our little guesthouse in the library district is just far enough from, and just close enough to, everything.
We made an evening journey to Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, which sparkles in a different way than its garish neighbor at the Royal Palace down the river. This is because every one of its spires is covered by bits of porcelain, not manufactured for this purpose, but ingeniously recycled. Centuries ago, ships used hundreds of tons of old broken china as ballast, and then unloaded it when they docked here in Krung Thep.
So when it came time to build Wat Arun, they just covered the chedis in those beautiful broken bits that now gleam in the sun. Close up, you can see the individual china patterns. Fascinating!
Outside the Wat area, in the accompanying house of worship, Catherine stopped and did about half an hour's worth of tai chi in a rather astonishing setting, while I went in and took a look at the interior, with a particularly well-proportioned golden Buddha, surrounded by a dizzying floor-to-ceiling mural.
In the evening, we journeyed to the Flower Market. It's just that: rows and rows and rows of fresh flowers, all down an entire avenue. The prices are staggeringly low. For just a few bucks, Catherine and I bought a hotelroomfull of flowers. Jasmine, orchids, stuff we'd never seen before. The room is a fragrant riot. Catherine is so responsive to the smell of fresh flowers that it's a delight to have them around just for their effect on her.
T H U R S D A Y, M A Y 1 3 .
After a fun afternoon of jewelry shopping (the jeweler paid for our lunch as well as the car they sent to pick us up), we went to Wat Pho, home of the Reclining Buddha, officially the largest dang thing in the country. The picture at the top of this page is a right-side-up picture of it. Here's a clip I took inside — sorry, our camera only does avi and not mpeg. Truly a huge huge hunk of gold. And he looks quite serene, leaning like that.
Then we visited the Golden Buddha at Wat Taimit. It's nearly 600 years old, but was only discovered to be gold in 1955. This is not because monks are slow, but rather because it was covered in plaster and everyone thought it was a plaster Buddha. Apparently, this fooled the marauding invaders as effectively as the Emerald Buddha did. It also fooled everyone else till 1955, when they were moving it and some of the plaster chipped off, revealing a pure gold Buddha that's so shiny Catherine and I have a hard time believing it's really gold. Catherine wondered as well whether everyone else in the country with a plaster Budhha started chipping away at it. Tempting, no?
We were right on the verge of Chinatown, so we went in and strolled among the garish booths of tacky stuff and delicious or disgusting or mysterious food. We passed a seller of durian, the legendary fruit that looks like a medieval instrument of torture, and is widely reputed to be fantastically delicious but horribly stinky, like tasting a divine ambrosia in a restroom at the city zoo. Our classy hotel in Chiang Mai actually prohibited the fruit. We bought some, though, and tasted it. Delicious! And not too stinky, either. Catherine and I couldn't figure out what people's complaint was. Ah, well, de gustibus.
The odd food recap: durian, sugar cane juice, fried morning glory, fresh [still green] peppercorns, chrysanthemum soda, rosella, zalacca, rambutan, and don't forget the red beans in hot ginger syrup. Here's a clip of a typical thirty seconds on a Krung Thep street: tuk-tuks passing by, food vendors selling some mysterious grilled fruit, along with smushed grilled bananas, some delicious-smelling sizzling thing, and across the street glass noodles and dark wormlike jelly noodles that really don't taste good.
But it's all delicious, isn't it?
Later that evening, we finally decided to see if I wanted to have a suit made for me. We found a respectable tailor who had, among other things, a stash of gorgeous khaki-colored gabardine, made of cashmere. Feels like Kate Winslet's belly. Has a slight sheen. Falls beautifully.
So I told the guy my ideas for the shape and cut of it. He wants it to be much lower rise than I usually like, but I think What the heck. Also, he said he could have it in a day, if I came back for a few fittings. So, we're off.
F R I D A Y, M A Y 1 4 .
Friday! one of our last days here, and the day of my birthday present opera! We lazed around a bit, had a delicious brunch, and went off to Khao San Road to do a bit of shopping and visit the tailor. Boy, that waistline is low! But the tailor insists that I be fashionable, against my usual inclinations. This means the suit won't be in style for too long, but it's actually in style now, which isn't a bad thing.
Catherine and I arranged a baroque schedule, timed to the second, that allowed me to actually return to our tailor and get the suit so I could wear it to the opera tonight. Well, the whole thing went entirely bad, but turned out entirely fine. Taxis were late, misunderstandings were had, and traffic was stopped dead in its tracks, so that a 15 minute journey to the opera house took Catherine and me — each in separate taxis, neither knowing whether the other one would make it — a full hour.
Nevertheless. She got there, and I got there, dashingly suited, in plenty of time. Catherine looked fabulous, in the green embroidered napkin top and white pants, hair pulled back, that tall slender body vibrating with beauty.
The opera itself turned out just great. It would have been greater to see the newly completed thing done by a major opera house, like Berlin or the Met or Covent Garden. (Of course, Berlin and Covent Garden would set the opera in present-day Sarajevo, and the Met wouldn't do the new ending, so there you have it.)
At any rate, even though it would have been nice to have the heavy hitters singing, the modest regional opera company of Bangkok turned in a fine performance, and the production was superb. The costumes were all traditional — and, this being Thailand, actually traditional — and the set designs, while a bit underbudgeted, were beautifully done. But what really stood out was the choreo. Unlike so many regional companies in America, who have the companies just stand around and sing, even during the big scenes, this one had actual choreography, again tied to traditional Thai culture. It made some of the scenes, like the Act I song of the moon, sparkle with magic like they always should. Refreshing, and beautiful to see. It's why we go to opera.
The guys playing court jesters Ping, Pang, and Pong hammed it up with Seussian physical comedy, but then really delivered their Homesick Song nicely. Sweet, quiet, and tinged with gentle regret and longing. I'd been humming the main theme since we arrived in town. Our charming guesthouse is gorgeously wooden top to bottom, with rattan panelling in the rooms, and deeply polished dark wood floors and walls. So, anticipating the big night all week, I'd put new words to the song's theme:
So they did a charming job in those important roles. Unfortunately, our Calaf, Marc Deaton, though handsome and a good singer, wasn't quite as up to it as one wishes. He never tanked, though. In the production's one bit of Eurofolly, he was wearing what looked like a biker outfit. With his long streaming blond hair, he actually looked like a refugee from an 80s heavy metal video. And he had a bad habit of gearing up for high notes like a heaving weightlifter. Nonetheless, he got through it pretty well, and nailed Nessun Dorma. Our Turandot, Jessica Hsing-an Chen, was splendid, the best voice of the evening.
In intermissions, the sponsoring beer company had a little reception waiting outside with complimentary beer and munchies. Nice. Why can't they do that in America?
Now for the fun part. Toward the end of Act III, there began to be a rustle of excitement in the crowd as the new part approached. Sure enough, Liu died, and we entered new territory. Somtow Sucharitkul's new music sounded pretty much like Puccini, except it had a slight movie-soundtrack tinge to it — classical-ish, but a bit of a pop sheen to it. I didn't mind much at all, though, because the emotional content was right there. It's so missing from the original guy's ending. When the ice princess Turandot begins to fall in love with the rough outsider prince Calaf, the music and the script take you right there, with generous references to earlier parts of the opera expertly woven in.
And dramatic masterstrokes abound. Part of the deal they've all bet their lives on revolves around Calaf's name not being known. He reveals it to her, though, thus putting himself on the line if she decides to make it known. Will she be in love enough with him to keep it secret? Or will she tell all, and see his head lopped off? The usual ending has her exclaiming in triumph, "I know his name! His name is LOVE!!!!" And the music blazes. But the heart does not. For some reason, Puccini's protégé managed to botch this part, giving it the same overblown nothingness that we see in those summer blockbusters where all they do is save the world. Sucharitkul takes it the opposite direction. The princess whispers the line, with a minimum of orchestral accompaniment, and the effect is at once intimate and overwhelming. His name is ... love. Yeahhh. Beautiful. That kind of sensitivity marked Sucharitkul's entire addition.
The powerful combination of gorgeousness and emotional power remained to the final notes. There's a five-note theme that represents the draconian direness of the princess's rule:
Those are the first notes of the opera, and they're brought in at various points to underscore this kingdom's exotic brutality. Is it tied to the princess's vow to hate men? Or does it represent the cruelty of her riddle, the obstacle she places in front of her suitors? Both, I think, and more. It's most often played by spiky winds and percussion, and it sounds like nothing you've ever heard: even a century later, it's bracingly modern.
The final chorus is a rejoicing scene that has the royal court, and the city of Peking, celebrating the princess's giving in to love. But her giving in is also a holding to her highest principles, just as her "downfall," her caving to the demands of love, is actually an elevation. (Remember that she could have "won" by revealing his name, or "lost" by refusing to reveal it; and that she took the third way instead, the true path to love.) In the familiar version, it's a blandly grand recap of Nessun Dorma with musical fireworks and cannons. Sucharitkul does it big as well, using Puccini's outlined themes as did the earlier version. But this time, he scales it down while building it up. The orchestra is a bit out of balance, which makes it loom. And then, on the final notes, as the chorus hits its C major chord, that original theme comes back in, same notes, but transformed into a triumphant fanfare in the low brass: