Sunday, November 20, 2016

Headless Buddhas and Floating Markets

Our first full day in Bangkok was not actually in Bangkok, but 40 miles north in the ancient capitol city of Ayutthaya. Pronounced “Ayudaya” (or “Iudea”), it was a sprawling, cultural center, royal residence, and seat of regional power from the 1300s to 1700s. Early Dutch ambassadors to the court of King Narai in the 1600s particularly remarked on the carefully planned city layout, and masterful use of rivers and canals for trade and logistics (and when the Dutch are impressed by your locks, you’ve done something right). Our understanding from the (somewhat scant) information at the site is that the city sat at the confluence of three rivers, and used the rivers, tidal flood plain, and purpose-built canals for a sort of water pressure arbitrage, resulting in an ability to shunt the flow of water at will around many miles of waterways. So, something like Amsterdam, Versailles, and Venice, rolled into one. They could even use the system for defense, arranging flows to flood surrounding fields at high tide and making the city effectively un-siegable, so add Mont Saint Michel to that list too.

Our first stop in Ayutthaya was, appropriately, a temple: Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Many of the best preserved ruins in the city are the ancient wats, of which there are 26 in the roughly twelve square miles of the old city center. The wats are striking -- my first impression was dominated by the sense of utterly exotic “otherness”. The tiered and spired prangs and stupas can’t be mistaken for any other culture; even if you don’t immediately recognize them as Buddhist, one glance is enough to know that we’re not in Kansas anymore. After the initial tableau sinks in, the next thing to notice are the Buddhas: 120 seated Buddhas ring the outmost wall, and every single one is missing its head. The signage at the site itself handwaves as much as is possible for a sign at a national historic landmark, something to the effect that the Buddhas once had heads, but now do not. Preston and I were both struck by the degree to which this seems to sweep a tremendously significant cultural event under the proverbial rug. The actual event was the sacking and razing of the entire city of Ayutthaya by the Burmese, in 1767. In addition to destroying the town, they desecrated the wats, making a particular effort to decapitate the Buddhas. In Thai and Buddhist culture, this is even a graver insult than it seems: the head is considered the most sacred and elevated part of the body so even touching someone’s head would be taken as deeply disrespectful (decapitation, of course, rather overshadows that).In Krystal and my travels, we found that Europeans don’t seem to miss a chance to point fingers about who has been setting fire to their city. Whatever the exact reason for glossing over the history lesson, we agreed that its notable absence says something just as interesting about the culture as its presence would have said about history.

After Wat Chaiwatthanaram, our next stop was to check off one of the reasons we were here in the first place: elephants. The Ayutthaya Royal Elephant Kraal, once a place for capturing and taming elephants as working animals, now houses a conservation program called Elephantstay. We’ve done the reading on elephant treatment and exploitation, as well as ethical managing of the animals. Some of the things I read suggested that elephants were innately not ridable and required brutal treatments to break before being suitable for riders. However, a lengthy conversation with a young animal conservationist at Elephantstay suggests that the situation is much more nuanced. She mentioned that one of the major challenges of running a conservation effort in the modern age is fending off ill-informed critiques and hate campaigns from self-proclaimed animal rights activists. Working elephants continue to be culturally important, and their utility to jungle people creates incentive to maintain habitat and a viable population. Conservation and breeding programs also need captive elephants to be visible and celebrated in order to create public awareness needed to fund species-wide efforts. I didn’t have time in our brief conversation to raise the question of the crushing process, but it’s clear that the relationship between laboring animals and conservation is complex. If it’s any barometer, the passion from the Elephantstay folks combined with their success (including scientific papers and 66 successful births) suggests that their view is well worth listening to.

Our final stop of the afternoon was the floating market. Nothing historical, just fun and funky and a bit touristy, but aimed more at Thai tourists than internationals. Previously, our local contact had provided advice for farang eating in Thailand; if the place has more than one table, it's probably a reasonably safe bet. A single table place, in his estimation, is the same kind of place that'll chill the fish on ice, and happily serve the same ice in your drink. With that as our working definition of a gringo-safe lunch spot we waded into the market. Eventually the smell of food and (unintelligible) shouts of a hawker drew us across a bridge and under a low canopy. Something grilling? Check. Noodles? Check. More than one table? Check. No other white folks? Er... check. We came for real Thai food, let's do this. As we sat down (shoes off, cross-legged on the floor, natch; in for a penny, in for a pound), a young woman showed up with menus. As we started to peruse, another young woman with another menu. Then a man, then a flurry of people and menus seemingly appearing from everywhere, and a shouting din as they all pressed for the merits of their various dishes. Our estimation had been wrong -- it wasn't a single restaurant but an all-out noodles-and-curry brawl from individual vendors. Our orders were met by counter-offers and one-upmanship (Why chicken? My shrimp better! No two rice, three!); I felt like I was one wrong hand gesture away from accidentally buying soybean futures or a hundred shares of a derivative swap. Eventually, orders placed, they all retired to their corners and within minutes dishes made their way from small stalls and even anchored boats to our table. Oh, and the woman with no menus at all and just a steady drumbeat of "LE-OH, LE-OH"? Yeah, turns out LEO is beer. Yes please. So -- a tableful of handmade dishes, enough rice to make it respectable, and beer for 5? That'll be 520 thai baht... or about $14.50 USD. Thailand, I think you and me are gonna get along just fine.