About a year ago, I arrived in Bangkok. I’d just learnt what a pannier was. I had never tasted (or seen) a rambutan before. Back then, I was surprised to see kids on motorcycles:
How green was my 2016 self! Over the coming months, I would scoff loads of rambutans, dragon eyes, and the controversial durian (I’m a fan). I would learn the legend of the Rambutan Prince thanks to some friendly puppeteers.
In my life so far, one constant: looking back a year ago and going ‘How little I knew then! Look where I am now — what a difference!’. This might be, like, the human experience, or…is it just me? 🙂
Either way, to commemorate the delight of all that discovery, here’s a found poem — some notes I made at the time, that have sparked this post.
kinds of transport
pimped out bicycles
other assorted bicycles
back of trucks
baby on motorsigh
(complete families, not savant baby alone!)
In Thailand, people say moto sigh short for motorcycle (in Cambodia, it’s just moto) which struck me as beautiful. Not sure why I’ve only included ‘backs of’ trucks, think I was picturing what I see in front of me as I cycle, trying to separate out what initially seemed just an endless rush of wheels and imminent death.
By the time we got to Laos, cycling past these vehicles had become pretty normal. So, too, had wobbling along on my bike on a narrow shoulder between a massive truck and a herd of cows (or a few water buffalo). Luckily, truck drivers in Laos are not as often high on meth as they are in Cambodia (8 out of 10 are under the influence).
In Cambodia, I stayed on by myself, and took a job teaching English to lovely (mostly) Khmer (mostly) kids and adults. I rode my bicycle to work every day, and tiny babies on motos became quotidian to me, as did a notable omission from my brainstorm: motos expanded into food vendors (if you haven’t seen them, there are some pictures in this great list of observations by foreigners).
When my aunt came to visit we travelled mostly by bus. My aunt had been fully informed of the truck driver/meth situation thanks to my big mouth, so when we bought bus tickets she would carefully pick out the seat where she calculated that we had most chance of surviving a crash. Every time a truck came into sight on one of these bus journeys, my aunt would sit up, narrow her eyes, and stare the driver down as it approached. Maybe her vigilance kept us safe on Cambodia’s dangerous roads, maybe it was just luck, but we went to Siem Reap, Kratie and Kep from my base in Phnom Penh with no problems, mashallah.
Kep was a fascinating place, a seaside town full of salt and shadows. It has a number of abandoned French colonial buildings and the silence rings shrill in the air after Phnom Penh. It was one of the last Khmer Rouge strongholds. At night, my aunt and I discussed taking the newly restored train back rather than the bus, only to stumble across the train’s grim history . The Khmer Rouge hid in the forest covered mountains close to our hotel, ambushing and killing foreigners as recently as the 90s. My aunt read out articles on this aloud while she smoked cigarettes and I drank sugary nescafe. As we sat on the verandah, listening to the sea lap, and looking out into the black night, we opted to take the bus home to PP instead.
I woke up early and swam in both the pool and the sea before our journey back. Here’s a couple of the ubiquitous frangipanis that were always falling from their bushes: piling onto the ground, landing in the water, so much loveliness..
…asked a question on a job application, unexpectedly. I heaved a sigh and rolled my eyes (combining these two skills has taken years of practice). Then I started thinking…and found it hard to stop. Thinking has not always encouraged by jobs I’ve had in the past; in some cases it’s been actively discouraged. Nevertheless, I decided to collect (literally) these thoughts right now, copy-pasted from the application form, to be continued at a later date.
Theatre distorts our reality and reflects it back to us. It can jolt us awake (and, yes, sometimes it can put us to sleep, too). Theatre broadens our experience of life, by letting us empathise with people and worlds other than our own. It also sharpens our understanding of ourselves and gives us perspective, through bringing us to watch something similar take place, to someone else, at a remove.*
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
When I worked at Wyndham’s Theatre, I was lucky enough to see this play many times. I’ve never forgotten the feeling of waiting in the dark with that line echoing in the shared breath of the silent audience as Hector reaches out for, but doesn’t quite touch, Dakin’s hand.
Infused as this play is with camp (the French brothel scene, the songs), concerned as it is with the relationship between appearance and authenticity (Irwin’s ‘gobbits’ vs Hector’s passion), The History Boys does not just pay homage to the poetry it so often refers to. It brings poetry onto the stage to explore the relationship between theatre and books; to examine the place of the theatrical art form within literature.
In a meta-theatrical turn, that moment of Hector nearly touching Dakin’s hand, while talking about how literature can touch one, enacted exactly the kind of magic theatre is capable of. Thus “a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things” recognised by an audience brings us both outside ourselves and into ourselves, through a particular method that has to do with physicality as well as words, that has to do with magnifying moments through space and rhythm and lived bodies, and that might allow the small, transformative touch of connection.
*(The excellent film ‘Other People’ (2016) also plays with the idea — inherent in its form — of experience lived vs experience seen, but in film it happens in a slightly different way to theatre).
Puppet Master Mann Kosal has been working in Sbek Thom — Cambodian shadow puppetry — for over 20 years. Sovanna Phum Arts Association, the shadow puppet theatre that Kosal founded with Delphine Kassam in 1993, has won gold medals on the international circuit. Yet in June, the 56 year old puppeteer announced that he is on the verge of giving it all up to become a tuk-tuk driver.
What could prompt such an unlikely late-life career change?
Sbek Thom was declared a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage in 2005. Out of five Sbek Thom troupes nationwide, only one is funded by the Ministry of Culture. Master Kosal was originally trained by a member of this government-approved troupe, but Sovanna Phum receives no government or NGO funding. Master Kosal recently had to sell his car and some of his puppets to pay his hospital bills, as he suffers from chronic back pain — each of the detailed puppets is hand-carved from enormous sheets of cowhide (Sbek Thom literally translates to ‘large leather’). Meanwhile, since Ms Kassam’s departure for personal reasons in the 2000s, she was not replaced by anyone in the role of marketing, advertising, and outreach. Now, income from ticket sales is simply not enough to keep up with rent hikes and expenditure, says Kosal.
Different country, same struggle for the shadow puppets. D and I spent a full day with the skilled and passionate members of Semathai Marionette Arts for Social Foundation when we first arrived in Bangkok. We went to an international school to watch a performance of the legend of the Rambutan prince — who hides his golden body inside an ugly shell — a fascinating show complete with ghosts, long-tongued giants, playful birds, and an astonishing, mesmerising puppet childbirth scene. We had lunch with the crew afterwards, and then travelled in their mini-van to their workshop, where puppeteer Piewnam Chalermyart gave us a personalised tour of the premises, and introduced to each lovingly rendered (usually in wood, woodpowder and resin) puppet. Each puppet had its own name and story, and those not made onsite hailed from all over: India, Myanmar, Prague…all places Semathai have performed.
This tiny Chinese acrobat — one of a family of three — has a removable mask. She was also sporting a wreath of white flowers around her neck. When I noticed the floral wreath, Piewnam removed it and explained it had been left there from a recent occasion when all the puppets made offerings to Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god who watches over performers, including this gorgeous family of humans and puppets. Semathai have won international awards for their plays, including “Best Artistic Creation” at the 2013 World Puppet Carnival in Prague, the “Prix Michael Meschke Award” in Sweden, and more. They regularly hold seminars, performances, and puppet workshops for youth all across Thailand. They are a crucial organisation in preserving the Thai art form of puppetry in all its splendour and diversity, and keeping it fresh.
Official records state that there are more than six forms of puppet theatre across Thailand. But according to Stephen Thomas, an actor and translator/dramaturg who has been part of Semathai for the last four years, this estimate overlooks variants of Shadow Puppet theatre. The official documenters would have only have been privy to the version of Shadow Puppetry that was performed for royalty, and to puppetry’s urban variations, which tend to be string and rod style puppets. But there are many more forms of Shadow Puppet theatre, such as Naung Talung and Nung Buk-Tea which were not recognised or supported, yet this art form has been thriving for over 500 years in the rural areas of Thailand, in markets, towns and villages far from the eyes of the elite record-keepers.
As D and I sat in Semathai’s office, making our way through a plate of sweet, chewy rambutan and clicking through the list of Semathai’s shows on their website, we noticed a huge stack of pink-covered DVDS at the side of the room. Piewnam paused, then explained with a sigh that these were copies of a documentary Semathai had made, more than two years ago. Fed up with the scholarly neglect of their artform, Semathai theatre conducted its own research on puppetry, recording more than 61 troupes across Thailand. At the 2014 Harmony World Puppet Festival that Semathai organised in Bangkok, they then presented this research to the Ministry of Culture, who assured them that the DVDs would be distrubuted in schools and libraries across the country. Two years later, the government continues to assure Semathai that it will distribute the DVDs “soon”. Meanwhile, this invaluable resource detailing the diversity and traditions of contemporary Thai pupptery, sits in towering pink piles, gathering dust in an office on the outskirts of Bangkok.
In Laos, a worn hand-lettered notice attached to a street sign happened to alert D and I to the nearby Théâtre d’Ombres de Champasak. We were right outside the information centre, so we went to enquire about the shadow puppet show that was mentioned on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Phou Mi, who works at the information centre, is also one of the main forces behind the puppet theatre, and he regretfully informed D and I that as we were in Laos in the off-season, there were no puppet shows to be had. But he invited us to come back after the information centre closed at 6pm. Phou Mi used to be a high school teacher but gave it up to work educating people about about, and preserving, the music and folklore of Laos.
Phou Mi is one of a dedicated team of fourteen people, who present puppet shows with English and French synopsises, and Laos music. Théâtre d’Ombres de Champasak belong to ATOC – the Association du Théâtres des Ombres. They rely on scant tourist revenue, and funding from bodies such as the French Embassy.
We came back to the information centre as it was getting dark, and a monsoon began pelting down outside. The puppets are very old, Phou Mi told us, carved by…maybe his grandfathers’ grandfather, and each contains a spirit. Phou Mi walked over to a large wooden chest. This is where they sleep, he said. They must always be laid out with the Hermit — the respected elder — on top to keep order, or there would be trouble: when he left the room he would hear the puppets talking and fighting . Each time, before the chest is opened, the puppeteers pray to ask permission, and make offerings. Prior to each performance they also pray for the show to have liveliness and verisimilitude — and for noone to forget their part. It would be easy to do: the fourteen actors play all the parts, and they also sing and play all the musical instruments to accompany the traditional Laotian songs which bookend the show. So after we had prayed and paid our respects to the puppets Phou Mi showed us the beautiful old pieces one by one and told us the story of each character, before they were all carefully replaced in their wooden chest, with the Hermit on the top, of course.
Laos is a desperately poor nation, like Cambodia, and both countries are still recovering from years of illegal American bombing. Cambodian arts were devastated under the brutal Khmer Rouge Regime: around 90% of artists were murdered during that period. Foreign tourists can at least help to focus international attention on the art of the region, and provide a some revenue to struggling arts organisations such as Shadow Puppet Theatres. But the young people of SE Asia also must be engaged to keep this fascinating, unique art form alive.
Enter the Rithy sisters, Lomorpich and Lomorkesor. The two girls have been volunteering with Mast Kosal since 2012. Now they are spearheading a campaign to save Sovanna Phum, with workshops, shows and an online fundraising initiative that asks for 5 thousand riels (around $1.25 USD) from donors. There’s an array of beautiful gifts for those who can put in a little bit more, too.
Click here to find out more, and take action to save the Shadow Puppets!
The campaign was successful ! Lomorpich and Lomorkesor reached their $30, 000 goal (although that doesn’t appear on the indiegogo campaign it was announced in a daily paper) and Sovanna Phum will stay open!
I spent today in a workshop at n o w h e r e gallery, with Master Kosal and other members of Sovanna Phum, learning how to make Sbeak Touch shadow puppets. These are smaller than Sbeak Thom, and similarly beautiful and intricate. They are used for all kinds of stories, while Sbeak Thom is usually used for the stories from the Indian epic The Ramayana (called Reamker in Khmer). The complete Ramayana requires 500 Sbeak Thom puppets; Sovanna Phum currently have 300, including 20-30 from the 1970s.
The puppeteers hand-select the cow hides from the slaughterhouse. The hide is stretched, tanned, thinned, and cleaned. It is then dyed with treebark, dried over 2-4 days, and carefully shaved. Then begins the cutting-out process, which took me, a newbie, more than 5 hours for a Sbeak Touch puppet, but of course, after decades of practice, the masters have it down to a mere 3 or so hours (!).
Here’s my almost finished product. You can actually buy your own beautiful handcarved puppet from Sovanna Phum as part of the indiegogo fundraising campaign. I recommend it to all my friends, as I am definitely not parting with mine! 🙂
I normally abstain from food posts, but this baby is an entire lifetime’s worth of food posts in one go. Well, the past few months, which feel like a lifetime…
You’re lucky. It could be photos of my cupcakes every Wednesday, but — hell no. Consider this, instead, my attempt at baking: a brief retrospective of some of our more memorable meals while cycling in SE Asia, randomly selected from what I could download from the cloud.
I hope the result nourishes you in some way!
This is a coffee stall by the side of the road in Laos. Coffee here is strong: usually mixed up with condensed milk, and then poured over ice. Totally delicious. Perfect when you’ve been riding in the heat. There are heaps of little carts selling coffee in the cities, but in more remote regions we also passed a lot of coffee stands, often completely charming, each one unique.
We knew we had a long ride ahead of us, so to begin our journey from Saraburi to Chatturat, we left very early. It was still dark. I am not well acquainted with this time of day, nor do I wish to be. Most people seemed to think –and I’d agree– that it was the ideal time for sleeping. But the few people who were on the road would sometimes yell out ‘good luck!’ to us, which was by now familiar, but always nice.
We cycled on, our legs pushing us forward, echoed by the slow progress of the little blue dot on google maps. We went past temples, lush green foliage, spirit houses. We suddenly met some rather startling cows (we took photos not featured in this blog post as cows are friends, not food 😛 ) and were confused about which direction to turn (not as a result of the cows, as the syntax might suggest. Rather, a result of google maps getting a bit shifty).
As we passed a temple, some local women invited us in to pray, and provided with offerings to give to The Buddha, and a piece of string was tied around each of our wrists in a welcome blessing. D and I were amazed, and grateful…but we were also starting to get really hungry. We’d been cycling for a few hours on no breakfast. We ended up circling back to where we’d been and then noticed this stall with fried bananas and sweet potato chips (D’s favourite). What a perfect breakfast!
The lady who ran the stall had a long chat with us and insisted on giving us more than we paid for. We were almost to full to cycle. We set off again, legs sore, almost in pain from so much banana.
Worth it. Totally worth it. A+++ would gorge self again.
Unimpressive, right? Unhealthy, okay, okay. What are you, my mother? (Well, actually, since you’re reading this blog the chances of that are quite high.)
But these noodles are dripping with metaphor (nom nom) indicative as they are of the kindness of so many of the people we met on our journey, especially in Chaiyaphum.
Our new friend Tongja sought these out especially from a vegetarian store for D and I. I took a photo not because of the radiant colours but so I could find them again. It was such a thoughtful gesture. And these noodles really made a difference on those days we couldn’t easily find vegetarian food. One time in Laos a family almost short circuited their house, borrowing an electric wok from a neighbour for us to cook these…but that’s another story for another day…
Another gift. Wiwat, who generously volunteered to guide us round Chaiyaphum explained that these desserts are coloured and flavoured using natural ingredients: the purple one uses butterfly pea flower (I also had quite a startling, but nice, drink from this). The green one uses pandan – somewhat similar to vanilla, commom in baking etc here. The pink one noone was sure of the name of the flower, but it was a flower. I have it on good authority that the ‘correct’ way to eat these is to dramatically peel off one layer at a time, count it aloud in Thai, and then drop it into your mouth from a height. 😉
Since arriving, and living, in Phnom Penh I’ve realised fried bananas are the norm. I’m also used to the cacophony of smells such as these fish drying in the sun. There’s great fruit available, which can be made into great fruit juice very easily (as in one picturd shop). I enjoy dining whilst smirking at the English in the menu at one of my favourite vegetarian cafes, Mercy House — it offers “Pleasantly Cool Drinks” and “Mushroom Frying”, both of which are super tasty. I eat there a lot, and also frequent a few other really great veggie restaurants and French bakeries all perilously close to my work. But if I overindulge, I can always go on a face-diet, as the back of this tuk tuk reminds me…
Which brings me to my final food memory in this trip down gourmadaise lane. And a question that will resonate for year to come:
WHAT WERE THEY?
D and I were in Laos, near Wat Phu. We had both gotten very ill. We were barely able to do anything except sleep, google malaria (ah, yes, Laos is a high risk zone it turns out), walk or cycle to the closest place with food, and bemoan our fate. These guesthouses seem to often double as cafes, but ours was…better as a guesthouse. It was a great guesthouse.
After a typically yummy meal at a place near (N.B. but separate from) our residence I was feeling kind of daring, or perhaps it was the fever. Whatever the reason, even though I’d just had bread, morning glory, some papaya, and some incredible Vietnamese coffee (grainy, black ,sweet), I felt like branching out. So we pointed to something called Fried Banana Lao Lao (or similar) on the menu. We’d had good experiences with fried banana and fried things are usually my friend, and you couldn’t go too far wrong with banana, right?
Wrong, dear reader. Very, very wrong.
The amiable waitress emerged holding the bananas. The bananas were ON FIRE.
The waitress placed the plates on the table and nodded as if to say ‘you’re on your own now’, then she abruptly left.
D and I watched the bananas crackle in their blue flames.
“Oh yeah, we do this with Christmas pudding. It never works though. Usually someone has drunk all the rum by then. And I’ve had halloumi on fire in ouzo, and like…baked Alaska, I think they burn that”
Thus began my calm, rambling lecture on the topic of flaming foodstuffs I have known, in an attempt to regain control of the situation. It was pretty early in the morning. The smell of this food was odd. We waited. And waited. The flames didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Eventually we blew out the flames. D prodded one of the banana pieces with a fork.
I took a bite of one of the less charred bits. The taste reminded me of metholated spirits and the smell of burning tyres. D took a bite, gingerly, and seemed to reach the same conclusion.
“They wouldn’t serve it if it wasn’t food, right?” she said to me.
“Of course not.” I replied, trying to look convinced. (In the sober light of day, also known as the slightly tipsy light of 11.58 pm, my official advice is now that if you have to question whether it’s food, it’s best not to continue eating it.)
We ploughed ahead, with what little gusto we had rapidly diminishing.
We still had a massive pile of the zombie bananas to go. A chef eyeing us from beyond the counter. A cultural experience to encounter.
One of many incidents in our family mythology takes place at my cousin’s birthday party, featuring overwhelmingly rich ice cream sundaes. The other attendees had all ordered their enormous sundaes with much excitement, and then one by one, they all abandoned their desserts. Bloated, giggly, the other girls looked on in amazement as I performed the Herculean feat of not only working through my own sundae, but, bolstered by my success, then proceeded to finish every single one of the melting half-eaten sundaes on the table. I don’t know if it’s anything to be proud of, but I have a reputation to uphold.
So I kept doggedly trying to work my way through the pile of doom, forkful by forkful, ( I had also convinced myself there was alcohol content in there somewhere: burning destroys most of it but there is still a small percentage, and judging by the taste of the spirit used to cook the bananas, it had been high in alcohol content, if it was not in fact just pure rubbing alcohol).
After the skin in my mouth started to pucker up I became concerned about long term damage and stopped eating. It was then we saw that most of the charred residue was comprised of the tiny, singed, bodies of ants…
Thailand, Cambodia and Laos all are famous for their wonderful food. But we managed to venture off the beaten track and find something truly memorable. Intrepid!
My parents have a Border Collie named Marty. Marty’s life, as far as I can tell, consists of fetching sticks, fetching balls, and following people around, dropping objects in front of them while staring mournfully into their eyes, until they crumble and throw him a ball or a stick.
They always crumble.
Border Collies are very task-oriented. Marty lives next to a dairy farm but has never been put to work as a sheepdog. He hasn’t dared to round up the one obese, bad-tempered, and extremely sedentary sheep that lives in a paddock below the house.
But as a sheepdog, Marty clearly has a lot of misplaced talent and drive. His devotion to fetching is such that at social gatherings (a.k.a large groups of potential ball or stick throwers) he has to be shut away in another part of the house, as he has been known to become overexcited and fetch until he literally collapses from exhaustion, foaming at the mouth. Similarly, if there is an open fire, he runs around the flames in crazed circles, emitting high-pitched shrieks as he tries to round up the sparks.
I miss him.
Adjusting to life in Bangkok had been rough of late, so D and I decided to treat ourselves to some quality time with husky dogs at the promisingly named TRUELOVE@NEVERLAND CAFÉ.
As someone called “Backbone Ken” on Trip Advisor summed it up: “What is the feel when surrounded by dozen of Husky?? Is fantastic!!”
The cafe is in a pleasant part of Bangkok, and after taking the sky-train, we walked under a frangipani tree, and stopped to put the flower behind our ears.
We arrived at “True Love Cafe” feeling very optimistic, very decorated, and very ready for a fantastic feel surrounded by huskies.
We were greeted by a lovely smiley lady at the front desk.
350 baht (about $10 USD) gets you a coffee, a cake or ice cream cake, and allocated snuggle time with the huskies.
In the café, the attention to detail was truly laudable. Huskies were everywhere.
At the specified time (3:30PM for us) the staff fed the huskies an apparently delicious meal of boiled carrots (!) and then opened the gates to let the visitors in.
The main pen had an array of dogs besides huskies: Australian shepherds, and, um, …other ones. It quickly filled up with happy patrons, who closed in on the rather disinterested-seeming dogs.
Everyone wanted photos with the dogs. People seemed more focused on taking photos with the dogs than on the dogs themselves. I watched, making acerbic commentary in my head for an audience of myself, bemoaning how difficult it is for my image-obsessed generation to enjoy the moment and have authentic experiences, etc etc.
D and I headed out of the main pen and into a secondary pen, which had just a few huskies. Some girls next to me began interacting with the dogs in a very photogenic fashion. I was aware of D’s photographic eye (and iphone camera lens) trained on me as I patted the dogs self-consciously. They were mostly turned away from me, looking out into the main pen where the other dogs were.
Something suddenly plunged deep into my armpit from behind. Fortunately, it turned out to be the nose of a husky. I felt a wave of pity for the creature. He came out looking dazed but elated, and wandered away.
I felt slightly violated but optimistic. The huskies were now beginning to willingly approach me. Soon they would surround me adoringly as I pranced in the middle of a fluffy husky circle.
It was happening! Another husky came up and stopped by us!
“Good boy,” I said, adjusting my hair, as D lifted the phone to capture this interaction.
The dog lifted its leg and let loose a stream of pee right by our bags, then moved on.
A boy in uniform materialised and cleaned up the pee with a mop, glaring at me as if I was the culprit of the urine puddle.
I ignored the boy and cuddled up to one of the more chill Australian Shepherds. D snapped this shot:
I found myself getting swept up the cuteness of it all. Getting, in fact, kind of competitive.
I wanted a selfie. Not just any selfie. A good selfie. The best selfie.
THE BEST SELFIE WITH THE CUTEST DOG OF THEM ALL.
I found a likely husky. It stared out into the main pen, slavering slightly, and ignoring me as I made faces next to its head. In a moment of creative inspiration, I put the frangipani behind the dog’s ear.
I heard a faint “no, no.” I looked around and the boy in uniform had appeared again. He was shaking his head.
Either he disapproved of my aesthetic decisions and was plumping for an iris or begonia, or he was concerned I was compromising the dog’s masculinity with my feminine accoutrements, or there was some sort of “no dressing the dogs up in hilarious accessories” regulation.
Assuming the latter, I complied, nobly (I thought) forgoing what may have been an excellent artistic statement, because I had a sudden image of D and I going down in history as the only two Farangs to be forcibly ejected from a doggy-café.
D and I patted the backs of the dogs for a while. A large husky, big, and calm seeming, came and sat next to us.
At last D and I were Getting Interacted with a quiet, fluid-free, and friendly dog! We patted the husky dutifully until – ugh! – we jerked our hands away sharply at the same time. We glanced for a moment at each other, then returned to gaze at the pink doggy penis that extended slowly to a horrifying length.
The frangipani fell out of my hair onto the ground.
Before I could intervene, the dog gobbled up the frangipani.
The boy from earlier appeared and the dog looked at me smugly as the last of the frangipani disappeared into its mouth.
The boy frowned and pulled the dog away. I tried to convey through mime that the frangipani was not intended for the dog to eat, that I would never encourage an animal to consume a frangipani.
My mime was unsuccessful. We patted the huskies a little bit more, but it was hard to ignore the steely gaze of the boy, who continued to watch me very closely for further signs of illicit canine floral smuggling.
We went back into the main pen.
That’s when I saw him.
My perfect dog. The ideal dog for a selfie. The ideal dog for life. The floofiest floof that ever floofed.
More powder puff than canine, he was more delicately built and puppy-like than the oafish other dogs with whom he was forced to mingle, but he wasn’t too small either.
He explored the main pen, sprightly, curious, drawing admiring crowds of café patrons wherever he strutted with his tiny adorable paws. I was hooked.
Intuiting that this would take a while, D sat patiently under a tree. I crouched down to unthreatening small-doggy height — big smile on my face, hand extended for sniffing — and made my move.
Thus began twenty minutes of trying to look casual as I sidled towards the Floof. Each time I got within a metre he would trot away, oblivious to my outstretched arms; whereupon I would try not to look crestfallen, but half-heartedly caress the closest dog. I stood with this other dog as long as it took to fulfilling the requisite amount of pats to hide that I was only making do with this less floofy, imperfect animal.
Several attempts and most of the other dogs later, I gave up and joined D under the tree.
Then I saw Floof approaching, out of the corner of my eye.
“HE’S COMING THIS WAY,” D hissed in the voice of someone trying hard to stay calm. She was sitting straight up, eyes wide.
It was as if we were at a fancy party and the queen of a small European country had just entered.
Be cool, be cool, I told myself. With as little movement as possible, I passed the phone to D, hissing “GET THIS SHOT”.
D nodded and set her jaw determinedly. I stood up, slowly, slowly. Floof was just out of reach.
I walked towards Floof, then stayed very still and made eye contact with him for the first time. I think he smiled.
I extended my hand. He took a dainty sniff.
He took a few steps forward. I took a few steps forward.
This was going splendidly.
Then, it wasn’t.
As suddenly as our courtship began, it threatened to end. Floof began to look around the pen detachedly, as if he’d just seen a minor celebrity or a plate of canapés that he’d rather engage with.
He began to trot away again.
“Come here, darling! Come here!” I said.”Darling!”
He hastened his angelic step.
A howl “OH NOOO YOU DON’T”- came, I think, from me.
Café patrons looked up from their huskies and their coffees. Trying to maintain my dignity I broke into a light sprint towards the Floof.
Things quickly disintegrated from there.
There was some barking. There was some running. I can’t say who did what but I know that the scene ended with me walking away empty-handed, attempting to project the air of one impervious to doggy charms. Just a person who had indulged a spontaneous whim to undertake spot of jogging.
Floof sat down in the middle of a circle of people, and started grooming himself.
The cafe patrons were ushered out of the main pen, but not before a weird epigraph to the whole husky “interacting”experience where the dogs, yelping for their carrots (or perhaps baying for human blood?) ran together in a terrifying parade back to their cages, which were piled together in a hall.
Then the dogs had all disappeared and it was just us, the patrons, washing our hands and taking the strange blue things off our feet.
D and I sat down inside the cafe to enjoy our post-husky coffee and cake. The cake was from San Francisco, which was unexpected.
We left the cafe and walked back past the frangipani tree again. D picked up a couple of flowers and gave one to me. As we approached the sky-train station, a bus went past, full of women who started yelling “hello, hello!” to us.
D ran after the bus and threw her frangipani to the women, eliciting screams and applause as they caught it.
D stood waving gallantly to her fans as the bus drew away.
I stood in the shade, holding my wilting frangipani, imagining various scenarios where we snuck back at midnight with a ginormous bucket of boiled carrots and lured the little Floof out from the hall of cages.
I put the frangipani behind my ear and took a selfie, imagining a Floofy little face beside me. It wasn’t the same.
We didn’t do much research. D and I wanted to find a dentist to have a cleaning. A quick Google search ended in a hasty decision:
“This one speaks English and has good reviews, how bad can it be?”
We were about to find out.
Dr Sunil Dental Clinic made it very easy. A phone call (in English), and we were booked for the next day. They would pick us up from the BTS (urban train network) station — a welcome offer after one too many instances of trying to find places ourselves. D and I have navigating Bangkok by foot down to a fine art now, and we generally undertake it around midday, when the sun is at its hottest. In tandem, we squint up at the Thai street signs, then down into the tiny google maps on our each of our phones, frowning and correcting each other’s Thai pronunciation. Then we spend a moment debating which way the blue dot is moving, as sweat rolls down our necks, motorbikes whizz past onto the pavement perilously close to our toes, and tuk tuk drivers move around us in an ever-tightening circle crying “hello! hello! where you want to go?” Only then do we nod to each other and stride confidently back in the direction from which we came, ready to repeat the full performance at the next intersection.
So, yes, please, we would like to be picked up from the BTS Station. We were to stand by a post office and look for a man with a cardboard sign bearing our names.
I’d heard about Thailand’s proficiency in the area of cosmetic surgery, especially through trans friends. I’d heard about the sex tourist industry, of course, the unsavoury machinations of which are all too apparent to the innocent Kiwi wayfarer searching for an *actual* massage. I’d heard mutterings, also, about a burgeoning dental tourism industry, through articles like this one. I just didn’t know exactly what that would entail for the consumer. I assumed it meant accessible, affordable dental care. It was, I suppose: it was affordable (1,600 THB each, about 67 NZD) and it was accessible (the phone call, the BTS pick-up). It was many other things, too…
On Saturday, D and I duly exited the appropriate BTS station (google maps had to make a brief appearance while we found the post office but then was thankfully relegated to a back pocket) noticed that the post office was closed, and stood outside it. We waited on the corner, looking for the sign with our name, feeling extremely out of place as we tried to hunch our large white bodies into the slice of shadow that fell from the meagre eaves of the post office, and was already occupied by the usual variety of people, bicycles, stalls and motorcycles on any Bangkok pavement. After fifteen minutes and another phone call, our driver appeared. He was friendly and smiling, and clad in an orange polo shirt that said “Dr Sunil Dental Clinic ” (incidentally, polo shirts seem to be big in Bangkok men’s fashion). The “Doctor” inspired immediate trust in us, and we followed the orange shirted stranger down a long street and around the corner into a parked car.
The car was air conditioned: one of those small details you notice in a Bangkok summer. On the back of the driver’s seat was draped a long black piece of fabric. The fabric held several waters encased in individual plastic cups, each one branded, like the driver: “Dr Sunil Dental Clinic”. Unfortunately, the waters had been sitting in the black fabric, inside a very hot car, in the sun. I was so thirsty I drank one anyway. D declined. It tasted like what it was: a piping hot cup of carcinogens. I wondered whether it was more destructive to my health to drink warm plastic-infused water, or to continually dehydrate myself as I keep doing in Bangkok. With such cheery thoughts to occupy me, it seemed very little time until we were entering a gated compound and being driven up to the door of a magisterial estate.
The first thing I saw was a large statue of a gold tooth. Before I had time to squeak to D “look!” four men, branded in orange polo shirts to match our driver, surrounded the car and opened our doors (there were only two of us, so two of the men served a purely decorative function).
We were ushered into a lobby with overstuffed couches and glitzy chandeliers hanging from every conceivable surface. In places where a whole chandelier might be impractible, there was just a row of sparkly things. If the branding hadn’t made it abundantly clear that we were in Dr Sunil Dental Clinic, I might have thought we were frequenting a cut-price replica of the Hungarian State Opera house.
One wall was getting renovated so only had adverts for the Dr Sunil apartments nearby, the other wall had photos of celebrities, or people who looked like celebrities (very white teeth). Every other wall was gold, of course.
There was a fridge full of the Dr flavoured water, and a list of available beverages on the table. Prominently displayed were four large ringbinders full of happy white customers with even whiter teeth giving the thumbs up (they hadn’t made it onto the celebrity wall).
Next to the payment desk: a life-size cardboard cutout of Dr Sunil himself, presiding jovially, and rather eerily, over the whole affair.
We were given blue shoe coverings that looked like a shower cap had made very sterile love to a dishrag. When these were in place, we were taken into a little surgery and told of the various special deals available to us, should we choose to upgrade from dental cleaning to a cleaning plus whitening “special offer” or one of their other wide range of cosmetic dentistry packages. The man imparting this information was polite, and not too pushy. But it was not what I expect at a dentist (though by this time I had realised my barometer of what is standard dentistry procedure was useless). I was allowed to take photos of Dr Sunil’s Golden Lobby, and Dr Sunil’s Golden Statue of a Tooth, but I was not allowed to take any snaps of the identical interior decorating within each room of the surgery itself — what were they trying to hide? The machinery used??
I was taken behind a curtain (very wizard of Oz) and into another little room to pay. I grabbed two cold waters and put them in my bag to make sure I was getting my money’s worth. Then we were promptly shown upstairs.
Upstairs was gold, and to get there from the gold lobby, we had to climb a winding staircase (gold). Awaiting us were some more pictures of Dr Sunil & glamorous co adorning the walls in between the chandeliers.
A white lady dozed by a fan reading a novel that wasn’t by Dan Brown, but ought to have been.
I sat on a row of chairs opposite fan lady as D went in. I nervously read my compendium of NZ short stories, or pretended to.
After 20 minutes, D came out, looking dazed and upset.
“How was it?” I tried to communicate to D with my eyes as she approached.
“Come with me,” the nurse said quickly.
D was staring into the space in front of her. My eyes were proving inadequate communicative tools in this situation.
“How was it?” I whispered to D, using words this time.
She just shook her head and whispered back, or into the empty room in front of us,
“Oh my god.”
“What?” I said “What?” but the nurse intervened, moving to stand between D and I, and said again, with a slightly menacing smile, that I should come with her. Now.
I looked back over my shoulder at D as I was taken into the room. The nurse was joined by another nurse. They were both wearing green scrubs and hygenic masks.
They gestured for me to sit on the chair. Then covered my face with a towel.
There was a small hole in the towel and through that the nurses performed the cleaning. At least, I think it was a cleaning. They probably did a good job or, okay, an adequate job, but it was fairly disconcerting to be under a towel and unable to see anything or express myself. I did express pain a couple of times — they “cleaned” my lip and it bled slightly. I think they were polishing, too. It must have been polishing my lip that made it bleed. It’s all a bit of a blur.
Then it was over. No appearance from Dr Sunil. No one took our photo to put on the wall.
The nurses bowed and I was ejected from the room and suddenly as I had entered it. The fan lady had disappeared, no doubt into one of the little rooms further down the gold corridor, or else she had become one of the photos on the wall, Dorian Gray style, or perhaps she was a hallucination and there was only the fan, gently moving the chandeliers.
Another nurse-like figure appeared and bowed to us. D and I followed him, no longer questioning anything now, just walking silently down the gold steps into the gold lobby and out the door.
There were the four orange polo shirted men to guide us back into the waiting car. D and I sat side by side in the back seat without saying anything. I pulled out the two Dr Sunil waters from my bag — not cold anymore, but not warm –and we drank.