Currently I'm sitting on the sofa in our flat, with Sinister the cat spread fluffily all over the next cushion, and David playing Dwarf Fortress on the seat next to him. Sinister is snoring, which is my favourite sound in the whole world. Every so often I reach over and fuzzle his face, not just his cheeks and ears but the whole thing including his closed eyes and gums and the sides of his nose, which for some bizarre reason he loves. I think he and his brother Dexter missed us while we were away.
We travelled to Bangkok on a Thursday and returned on a Thursday, which threw planning of Gamespace meetups, which occur every second Thursday, into chaos but at least meant having three quiet days for recovery afterwards, as I don't work on Fridays. I've mostly spent that time reading Revenant Gun and flailing about it on Twitter; a friend I recently met on there responded to my tweets about it by saying that it's been their special interest since they binged all three novels in a week, so it's not just me! I never (used to) re-read books, but I've read Ninefox Gambit and Raven Strategem twice each now, and am looking forward to a second go at Revenant Gun. The experience has been illuminating. Each second read-through has been faster than the original, but possibly even more enjoyable. I might have been missing out all these years.
We've also played Stellaris and some Innovation, a game our friends Axelle and Christopher introduced us to, which is somewhat like a card-game version of Civilization. It's small, cheap and very replayable.
I don't know why I got out of the habit of blogging—this is easy. I've already written four paragraphs before getting on to Thailand. ... Oh, right, it's because I get into the habit of describing everything in such detail that writing about a week's holiday seems like an interminable task.
Bangkok, then! I was there because my talk about Hypothesis was accepted to PyCon Thailand. David came because me going by myself, for a weekend, would have been very silly. The conference was only two days, during which he had adventures without me, and we had four days around it to explore together.
My talk went okay, though I panicked at one point when it seemed to be going too quickly—I couldn't see my speaker notes, and had forgotten several things I meant to say, but I did remember them in the end. I was also out of sorts from having messed up my antidepressant schedule and being in withdrawal. Don't do that! People said nice things about the talk, so it can't have been terrible in fact.
Some people on the internet seem to think that Bangkok is a boring city for tourists, only full of temples and malls (there are a lot of malls, with disappointingly little Giant Food), but we found lots to keep us occupied. I especially wanted to see Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, from the opposite bank of the river as the sun went down, having read Yukio Mishima's The Temple of Dawn in preparation for the trip. We managed to do that—from a rooftop bar—on the first evening. It was a stunning sight. I don't recommend the book, which is my least favourite Mishima so far, being one-third abstruse Buddhist philosophy (plus exoticising of Thai and Indian people) and one-half a deeply uninteresting account of a middle-aged man lusting after a beautiful teenage girl.
The temperature was around 30°C all day, every day, and as steamy as a running shower. I found it surprisingly easy to cope with, especially in the evenings after the sun went down or when a rainshower hit. Air conditioning, on the Sky Train or in malls and hotels, became an entirely new sensual pleasure; so did the shock of warm air on leaving those places, knees cold and hands trembling. Mostly, we took the metro system (suspended far above the city on enormous concrete pillars) or used Grab, the local Uber equivalent. Actual taxis were ubiquitous but, though all the guidebooks tell you to instruct the driver to run the meter, none of them say what do do when the driver refuses, so we were generally overcharged. The best way to get around of all is by canal or river boat. The commuter boats for locals charge 9 or 15 baht, respectively, for a single ticket (23-38p) and they run fast. On the canals, especially, the boat speeds up to the pier as if determined to slam sideways into it. One or two Thai women, their faces wrapped in scarfs and heads protected by helmets, spring from the six-inch rim of the boat onto the concrete, whip a rope around the pilings, and almost immediately whip it free and jump back onto the boat. In the meantime, passengers have scurried aboard. You buy your ticket from the conductor and take your seat, if there is one, or stand between the loud motor and the edge of the boat, watching a jumble of houses and trees pass by and the thrown-up water spray over the bow and up onto the towpath.
On the first day, we visited the Jim Thompson House, the Thai residence of an American ex-CIA agent who, after WWII, brought the Thai silk industry back from the brink of extinction. You can tour the house, which he created by moving six old Thai buildings onto some land by a canal, and hear the story of his life and mysterious disappearance from a guide. An American collecting Asian art, moving into a traditional Asian industry and profiting sounds colonialist as fuck, but at least according to the information at the House—which eventually passed into the possession of the Thai government and is run by a foundation—Thompson really respected the work of his employees and made their working lives better. The buildings are surrounded by rainforest plants and in the moist air, everything smelled beautiful, like the tropical house at the botanic gardens. (Because it's a garden in the tropics.) I had a butterfly pea and lime cooler there, which came out with a lower, pale green layer and an upper one of deep, glowing violet.
We took a day to visit temples, because you have to dress appropriately (arms covered to the elbow, legs past the knee), though from the number of visitors wearing borrowed sarongs, this isn't universally known. At Wat Phra Kaew in the Grand Palace complex, we saw the Emerald Buddha, tiny in contrast to its surroundings of golden standing Buddhas and regalia. I loved the intricate tiled patterns on the religious buildings there, and the enormous mural around the entire inner wall of the Wat, showing the events of the Ramakian (Thai Ramayana), including Hanuman bridging a crevasse with his tail, a fortress covered by the tongue of a demon, and mermaids building a bridge to the island of Langka where the demon king imprisoned Sita.
We had Thai tea-flavoured ice cream there and then went to Wat Pho, my favourite religious site we visited, and not just because it had so many beautiful cats wandering around, all healthy-looking, fed and watered. The centrepiece of the Wat is the famous Reclining Buddha, but I found the many chedis (stupas) more interesting. They hold the ashes of princes of the Chakri dynasty. Four of them stand apart, 42 metres high, one each for Rama I, II, III and IV. They're also covered in beautiful, three-dimensional tiles and are stunning.
Although we didn't go inside, because a ceremony was in progress, we looked in through the open doors of the ubosot (ordination hall). Dozens of monks in orange robes were chanting, their deep tuneful voices keeping a rhythm I couldn't follow; it was a beautiful sound. At the end of the hymn, they barely paused, but started the next one—noticeably quieter. One of the monks sitting in the back row looked over to his neighbour, gestured for his hymnbook, and flipped it to the necessary page for him.
Bangkok's malls are inescapable, though we did our best. Apparently eating in their huge food courts is a necessary experience. One walk through was enough for me: so loud and busy and flashy! As for street food, I wasn't really sure when food became street food exactly. There are stands everywhere selling juice, fruit and grilled things on sticks, and cafés and tiny restaurants everywhere, which over the course of the evening expand to fill all possible space. At night, the pavement of our way home was covered in a double row of tables and chairs, plus a kitchen and even space to wash up. We ate noodles from a similar place at midnight once, and it was the best pad thai I've ever had. Mostly, though, we ate dinner in bars or restaurants (I hesitate to write this because as a millennial, I'm 'supposed' to be seeking ever more gritty and authentic experiences, whatever that means. There were plenty of Thai people at most of these places; does that make it authentic?).
Anyway, when we realised one day that it was our twelfth anniversary, we booked dinner at the restaurant of the fanciest hotel I've ever been into. I didn't realise there were places so luxurious. The restaurant was in a separate, traditional-style building near the river's edge and served us a set meal of representative, delicious Thai food, as well as fine cocktails. I had one with tom yam ingredients in it and it was amazing. The next night we took a boat trip from another luxury hotel, where they served us a comparable many-course meal as we travelled from one end of the city to the other and back, as well as an extremely good Thai white wine. (Did you know there was Thai wine? I am glad to have discovered this.) David and I agreed that staying in a moderately nice hotel and eating at fancy ones was definitely the correct way around to do things.
Many, or perhaps all, of the bridges we went under were lit up yellow and purple, the colours of the King and Queen. Every large building in the centre of the city had swagged ribbons along its walls in yellow/white or yellow/purple, and almost every corner had a ten-foot-tall blown-up photograph of the King in a cement frame, with various decorations and garlands in front of it. A tower near our hotel had an LED screen running around its summit, which blasted out the messages LONG LIVE THE KING and LONG LIVE THE QUEEN. These were only a few manifestations of the reverence the Thai royal family is held in. Aside from the royals, the oppressive nature of current Thai politics is depressing and rather shocking, but the only person who told me about this was an Austrian guy at the speakers' and volunteers' dinner, who's lived in Bangkok for six years and is married to a Thai woman. He looked over his shoulder before speaking, because even criticising the institution of monarchy will get you in trouble. I won't write further about this as you'll learn much more by reading articles by people who are actually experts, but it was on my mind throughout the trip. Having said that, when I had that conversation with the Austrian guy, the others at the table were British, Australian, American and Indian... none of us have much to be glad about at the moment, politically.
On our final full day in the city, we went to museums. Having the opportunity to visit the Siriraj Medical Museum (warning: pictures of dead bodies and parasites), I felt I had really better take it, but I'm not sure how much I can recommend the experience! The museum is really six small galleries, spread between two buildings of the large Siriraj Hospital; for a small extra fee, you can also go to the Siriraj Bimuksan Museum, which covers the history of the hospital, Thai medicine, and the history of the area where the hospital is built. That was worthwhile and completely safe for the squeamish. We only visited three of the galleries of the Medical Museum. Skip the block-quoted paragraphs if you're squeamish about human remains.
First is the Pathology Museum, where you first see a real iron lung and then, stepping around a wall, are confronted with half a dozen or so foetuses, preserved in jars. Each has some unusual pathology: harlequin ichthyosis, cyclopianism and so on. The other rooms explain, in Thai, about heart disease and various cancers.
The second museum is the Songkram Niyongsam Forensics Museum. There is a large walk-through display, with waxworks, about the 2004 tsunami and the necessary medical and forensic work afterwards. Then you pass along a wall with dozens of skulls in glass cases, many with bullet holes or other damage, as well as unlabelled ribs, vertebrae, and femurs. Autopsy photos illustrate gruesome deaths. The main room contains vast numbers of damaged organs and bones, helpfully labelled in English as well as Thai, and several full mummified bodies. One of these is See Uey Sae Ung. The skeleton of Songkram Niyongsam himself, a famous forensics expert, has a case of its own. There is a room full of touchable exhibits for visually-impaired people, which includes an urn burial replica, a replica of one of the preserved murderers' corpses, a replica brain and some real Neolithic stone tools. I was glad they had hand sanitiser at the desk. shudder
The Parasitology Museum is bright and modern by contrast, with colourful exhibits and platters of imitation food, but... it's a parasitology museum. There's only so friendly you can make it.
Strangely enough, I managed to eat lunch fine afterwards, but I think neither David nor I had the stomach to visit the galleries in the second building. Instead we went to the Siriraj Bimuksan Museum and then headed back for a quick rest at our hotel.
In the evening, we went to Maggie Choo's, a speakeasy-style bar in an old bank vault. It's dark and intimate and very stylish. The smaller chambers of the vault have been repurposed as private rooms. As we took our seats at the bar, I realised to my surprise that there were a couple of young women in red cheongsams lounging in a space above it! They also took turns swinging idly on swings hung from the ceiling at two points in the room, and at one point, during a break for the band, performed a dance with fans. It was strange because this was certainly not the kind of bar where I expected to see beautiful girls performing; it was just pretending to be that kind of bar, in 1842 to be precise, and they were performing as beautiful girls performing as beautiful girls. One of them was wearing an Apple watch, which flashed its approval of her step count as she snapped her fan shut.
I think that's most of what we did in Bangkok. I loved the huge variety in scales of the city: there are enormous skyscrapers, some with bars at the top with panoramic views that are incredible at night, the black snake of the river curving through the lights that otherwise stretch from horizon to horizon, but there are also fractal layers of architecture beneath that, from malls and temple compounds to hole-in-the-wall stores, an entire floor of glittering cubical electronic-goods stalls in the old MBK mall, pushcarts selling grilled meat and rows of lottery-ticket sellers on stools lining the streets. Everything is somewhat grimy from the air pollution—some buildings are so black that I thought on first glance that they'd been burnt out—but walking around, it only felt about as dirty as London or Budapest. People are everywhere but traffic on the streets, trainlines and canals flows regardless. (In a slight echo of the polar bear incident last year, mind, I found out that while we were there two people died in a brawl between rival motorcycle-taxi gangs.)
I couldn't see myself living there, but I would be happy to go back if life took me that way again.
Well, I guess that's today's daily entry done! Next up, I will probably read some of Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, which I started about 30% because of the title, to be honest. I expect tomorrow's post to be 95% shorter than this one.