Excerpts from “The Bangkok Journal”

I haven’t had time to blog about my Bangkok trip last weekend since I was greeted by work the moment I got off the airport. We arrived in the evening of Sunday and I had to finish writing a three-part lecture which I started working on in the plane and would begin delivering the next day.

The good news is, I kept a travel journal throughout the trip. I wrote whenever and wherever the inspiration hit me — waiting at an airport’s boarding area, walking through the streets of Bangkok, sitting under a Bodhi tree, or simply trying to get some shut eye in our hotel room. Suffice to say, I’ve written an account that may be too much for a blog to contain. What you are about to read are excerpts from that journal, highlighting the key moments of our long weekend in Bangkok, Thailand.

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Continued with the post for the excerpts

1 November 2007

“Past Tense”

Flying to Bangkok from Manila will give you one hour of your life back, but just be prepared to lose it. Thailand is an hour behind Manila, but when it comes to everything else, that one hour is all the advantage the Philippines has over Thailand now.

Upon arriving, I was gripped by an image of what our country could still be. Just going by the size of their airport gave me that hint. And Bangkok City itself, while not far from Metro Manila, somehow beat faster. Drivers drive faster. Food orders come quicker. Even traffic moves faster. Or is it just me and that feeling of being overcome by the difference of this new place?

I doubt it. Because even louder than the differences are the similarities. I find the Thai people to be a curious mix of Chinese and Malay. And their grasp of the English language is more similar to the Chinese. But then there are the “pure” Thais, or those who appear mostly Malay but with large Indian-like eyes. I suppose all these idiosyncrasies can be attributed to Thailand’s geographic location — they are right in the middle of India and China!

My first ‘exploration’ of the city was rather mundane. My sister wanted something to eat, and so we left the confines of our hotel to walk around the malls in our immediate vicinity. On the way out, we were stopped by this overly friendly Thai peddling us a restaurant, a tour and more. At that point I had to double check that I was indeed in Bangkok. This salesmanship is not something alien to us in Manila. It did not end there though. As we entered this mall that dubbed itself the fashion mall in Bangkok, I wasn’t that surprised to discover a glorified tiangge, a beefed up Greenhills Shopping Center complete with the piles upon piles of clothes, SALE signs, and timid salesladies who all have that look that goes,”I should be elsewhere, but what does Thailand really offer me?” (I see that question in our Filipino salesladies too — asking of the Philippines, of course.) And yet in all these similarities I encountered another difference though this time it came more as a barrier — language.

The irony isn’t lost on me. That all of us, despite sharing the same roots in Southeast Asia, are powerfully divided by language. And it’s even more ironic to note that, for all the good it has done, only English can link us and just barely at that. But of course, these did not hamper my mom and sister’s shopping experience. Money talks and it sounds like this, “you have shoe size, we buy.” Oh, here in Bangkok, they have shoe size.

Walking back from that mall now, we navigated a very brief sidewalk but in that short expanse we had a good peek and smell of what Thailand has to offer — whether it be counterfeit Polo shirts, oversized mangoes, toasted buns or fried tofu. And yet even while I was among them, they still felt too far away. Of course, it doesn’t take much to ask how much or to buy, but I always feel that as long as I fail to immerse myself in their language, I will never be truly part of their world. There will remain too many stories left untold. What I hope to experience one day is a real immersion, the type where I would be forced to learn a language to survive, and to be one with the people before I become none at all.

— writing from Rm 2029, Amari Watergate, Petchburi Road, Bangkok

3 November 2007

“Nation, Religion and King”

Yesterday was relatively uneventful. Either that or it was the least touristy we could get, and I don’t mean that in the publishable travelogue sense. It was my sister’s birthday and we booked a tour to Ayutthaya the next day, so we decided to take it easy. We put Bangkok’s reputation to task — that it is the shopping capital of Asia — and it may just be. I really don’t appreciate these bazaars unless they showcase things which can only be found in Thailand — and by that I don’t mean key chains with Thai landmarks, knock-off Buddha statues, or elephant figurines made out of tin cans. It’s all fine and dandy I suppose but then I’m a pragmatic shopper — I get what I need (or at times marginally want) and bail. Either that, or I’m just waiting to get blown away by ‘authentic Thai wares’ — whatever that is. It’s just that in this counterfeit, capitalist economy we have it’s hard to say what’s real anymore. Perhaps outside Bangkok, but that’s for another time. After all, we are in it.

And in it, I’m still very impressed. While my sister and mom spent the morning in the Platinum Fashion Mall and I played their bodyguard, the afternoon fared much better. We spent most of it in this upscale mall, the Siam Paragon, and I for a while felt concerned that these upscale places really do appeal to me. But how can it not? The sheer size is impressive and that bookstore? Incredible. I checked out Asia Books which is roughly the size of the 2nd floor of Power Books Greenbelt but it definitely has more books. I found a book on Taoism that could very well succeed “The Tao of Pooh” and four other books — a suspense/historical fiction set in Cambodia, and three memoirs with one set in Laos, then Burma, then Cambodia. How wonderful.

Siam Paragon is also impressive for the sheer size and variety of its Gourmet Market. With the assault of an impossible barrage of food with all its smells, colors and succulence, you’ll be convinced that free will is a sham! It is just, quite frankly, impossible to choose between a hundred varieties of ten varieties of nuts, chips, gelatto and meat treats. That is why we decided to go back there before we go home on Sunday.

We ended the day at the Suan Lum night bazaar where I managed to score some nice Thai shirts (or at least shirts made in Thailand) but such is my happiness. After an incredibly filling Thai dinner — is there another such thing in Thailand! — we headed home. Tomorrow will be our trip to Ayutthaya.

Fast forward to now.

I’ve already been resting at the hotel for an hour or two since we got back from Ayutthaya. I have to say, it was definitely one of the lightest tours I’ve ever had. Everything seems to be just so free and easy in this country, but I know only tourists (especially when you have 5-star accommodations) can get away with such a statement.

I wish I learned more from our tour guide, Pat. He is the classic case of good looks, high smarts, but he needs some work as a communicator. I don’t think the language was such a barrier since he spoke relatively good English and I’ve encountered better guides with worse English. The trick, I realized, is not to act like there is a language barrier at all. Relax, be natural and build rapport. After all, Thais, like Filipinos are not the warmest people.

We began our tour of Ayutthaya outside of Ayutthaya in the Bang Pa In Summer Palace of the royal family. Literally translated as the “Village where he met In”, the sprawling and manicured 600-acre compound was built by the son of the king in 1629 in commemoration of his father’s meeting of his mother, In. Somehow, I am not all that impressed by a place with a long history and yet it used up to the present day. This may sound like an odd statement — all things have history! — but what I refer to would be palaces such as these. The constant rebuilding, renovation and maintenance keeps its pulse very tuned to the times. And even if the palace was and is still the residence of the ruling Chakri dynasty, all it takes is a simple name check for me to know that I belong to another dynasty altogether, the Perez. Clearly, this place holds no meaning for me though it definitely does for the Thai people. It is the source of strength of the source of their strength, the King, and thus its importance cannot be understated.

Our second stop was the city of Ayutthaya, the imperial heart of Thailand from the 13th to 18th centuries. It is a heart that still beats for the city and its people remain very much alive. Cars ply the streets and Thai vendors peddle their wares. And yet the city remains such a profound anachronism for among the structures and vestiges of modernity tower the ancient and sublime. The modest cityscape is littered across with the stump of a once powerful empire sanctioned by the Mongols and rivaled by the Khmers and the Burmese. The stupas and stone walls of the ruined city of Ayutthaya remain the landmark of a city frozen in time as everything else around it changes to the beat of modern times.

From 1785 to 1802, Burma ransacked and ruined the city, beheading its thousands of Buddhas and razing the proud stupas and towers into the ground. But on my visit today, all my sister wanted was to ride an elephant, and we did! I will let all my pictures in Ayutthaya speak for my experience. For now, a major thought.

What, if any, can we Filipinos boast to the world? Intramuros is one, but then is it really ours? If we are to find anything comparable to Ayutthaya or Beijing, it will be impossible. A centralized empire did not grace our shores until the Spaniards came. And since no grand tradition graced our land like Theravada Buddhism graced mainland Southeast Asia, we will have to make do with the Catholic legacy left behind by the Spaniards. In essence, we don’t have something comparable to Ayutthaya or Angkor Wat or the Forbidden City. We lack something with a deep and profound history that could resonate enough through time and space for us to be proud of. Or do we?

No. I think we have a lot to be proud of. In my opinion, we just have to own our history in the same way our Southeast Asian neighbors do. Of course, it is a noble task to discover our pre-colonial history in order to give us a sense of history, but I think this quest is misguided if only its fundamental assumption is flawed. We do have a history. Our Spanish history may feel imposed at times but it is still history. They facilitated the formation of the Philippine nation, a concept which, despite all its flaws, we all continue to own whenever we as a people take control of our destiny. This happened several times in our history — 1896, 1986 and 2001 — and can continue to happen as long as we appreciate what we have and how we made it ours. In a way, I agree that we don’t have a sense of history as a people, but this is only because we deny what is already there.

(NOTE: This was written a week before the Big Binondo Food WOK which greatly reinforces this point about how we recover our history by embracing it… or walking it.)

Alright, that’s it for the historian in me. We ended the tour with a fabulous lunch cruise down the Chao Phraya river from where we finally got a glimpse of Wat Arun. This last night in Bangkok was punctuated by a return to Siam Paragon for a tour of the food court. We treated ourselves to some Chinese pancakes, Thai sausages, and a bag of traditional Thai sweets which I can best describe as open-faced sweet siomai. All these made their way back to the hotel wherein we had a little picnic before we started packing.

Now comes the night. It has been a long day and it’s good to know I still have an hour more than everyone back home. Still, it doesn’t feel enough.

— writing from Rm 2029, Amari Watergate, Petchburi Road, Bangkok

EPILOGUE, written now

Our trip to Bangkok ended as quickly as it was planned. I only knew that we were surely leaving the day before, and I didn’t miss a beat the moment I got back to Manila. On the plane home, I was working on the notes for my lecture the next day and yet I failed to write down the most important part of it. When I finally got to talking about the spread of Buddhism the next day, I surprised myself by spontaneously sharing my experiences in Buddhist Thailand and that gave my lecture a more personal and honest feel.

I am really thankful for my family and all the opportunities to travel. It definitely widens horizons and I felt this most strongly in my renewed interest in all things Southeast Asian. I now finally have an access point to teach Southeast Asia, in the same way that my trip to China inspired me to teach East Asia. My next project? India. I promise myself that once I become financially independent, I will prioritize traveling the world even before I get my first car or house. Also, it feels like a great way to give back to my folks!
But above all, my experiences in Thailand — even though I was just a tourist — inspired me to learn more about our own country. It was this curiosity that made yesterday’s experience in Binondo a really rich one, despite it being such a seemingly ordinary fixture in the lives of most Manileños. I had a lot of questions about the Philippines and Southeast Asia as I walked away from Thailand, and I am glad to say that the tour through our own Chinatown gave me some answers.

We don’t need to look far for our own Ayutthaya. The history of Manila is just as rich and in its own way, just as powerful. In a paragraph above, I assert that we should embrace our history although I say it in very vague terms. But it’s actually just so easy. Walk our streets, take public transportation, and explore the city with fresh, new eyes. I’ve been to many places but all I was ever really looking for I found at home.

And it’s so good to be home.


3 thoughts on “Excerpts from “The Bangkok Journal”

  1. I definitely have to go back.

    We flew there to attend a wedding. Therefore, we had no time to see the sites. Um, I think we did since one of us was able to go to Ayutthaya (she’s taking her masterals in History, therefore the need and the interest to check it out) but we opted to shop. Hehe!

    The highlight for me was the International Relations. Then again, I was at the Marriot Hotel (paid by the bride, thank God. Won’t be able to afford that, haha). In my free time, I observed these Europeans and Asians interacting with one another.

    Plus the Indian Wedding rituals.

    The epiphany I learned from Bangkok is that I have to be stable so I could go to other countries.

    Thanks for this post. I really learned a lot – in a different sense. 🙂

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