A Visitor in the Land of Smiles and Smells – Bangkok, Thailand

Peeling back several layers of the Thai culture was an inspiring experience. Thai are unified in their absolute support of the King whom is 82 years old and to their devout Buddhist beliefs. There are many temples and perhaps several million shrines of various sizes throughout the country. These shrines are found on the sidewalks of streets, insides stores, restaurants, and others places of commerce. Also in seemingly improbable places like inside bars and nightclubs.

In my experience tattoos are common among younger Thai particularly in urban areas. There is one tattoo that looks every bit like a tiger’s claws scraped down these women’s backs in a vertical direction (when the tattoo is seen from a distance). But up close you can see there is Thai writing in vertical columns.

After speaking with a young lady named Ao, she explained that it is a Buddhist prayer. So at first I’m thinking, “This is the Thai version of the ‘Praying hands’ tattoo that everybody in the hood has tatted on their shoulder or arm.” But then Ao continues, “This tattoo is a Buddhist prayer and it brings both good luck and protection to the person that wears it.” She continued, “It must be tattooed by a Buddha master tattooist or a monk.”

I asked her if she had any tattoos? She said, “I have five visible tattoos and invisible tattoos all over my body.” So, now I’m thinking, “Damn invisible tattoos all over your body, that’s freaky.” So the obvious next question is, “Whats is an invisible tattoo?” She answered, “There are two types of tattoos. Visible using ink and invisible with oil.” She showed my a tiger on her back which is also for protection as well as small little bumps on her forearm from a recent invisible tattoo she had done by a monk in Myanmar. She explained that the bumps go away, but the protection remains. Interesting, I thought.

A monk at a temple.

A monk at a temple.

Another day I was shopping near Beach Road and looking through the somewhat repetitive sequence of t-shirts designed to appeal to the ‘falang’ if you speak Thai or ‘foreigner’ if you speak English. As I was shopping and looking and looking and shopping I heard a faint musical melody slowly approaching and subtly commanding the attention of those nearby as a trains horn demands the attention of everyone in earshot as it approaches the station. When I looked over, it appeared to be a nearly blind Thai man, mid 40′s, of average height maybe 5’9” wearing a tattered green and tan plaid button up short sleeve shirt. He was playing angelic melodies on his accordion. As the man played and walked the vendors dropped coins in his cup. As he passed by on my right-side I followed suit along with a few children. As I attempted to continue shopping I couldn’t stop watching this man (and inadvertently ignoring the vendors).

I watched as a seemingly endless flow of child after child came to drop a few coins in this Music man’s cup. I watched the man move with grace, with only the negligible disturbance that one my expect of a lion when his nap is interrupted by a light afternoon shower. I looked on as the children came from all directions to put coins in his cup. I had never seen anything like this before. I had been in that market and hadn’t noticed 3 kids in thirty minutes and here I am watching the Music man for five minutes and I saw at least twenty children put coins in his cup.

Some of the children paused with bowed head and clasped hands raised slightly higher than their head in brief prayer before walking on. I stood there frozen in time, mute and paralyzed. My thoughts and my mind raced and searched for an explanation, some type of interpretation of what occurred, scouring my mind for understanding, for an answer. I found it, a community that cares, and more importantly teaches the importance of helping others. This is Deference personified. Despite the fact that the givers had little to give, they gave anyway. This is the true definition of deference. I have never admired the Thai more than right now.

Later that night I was heading down to the nightclub area. At night there are many more vendors selling everything from barbecued pig (the whole thing from snout to tail), to shrimp the size of lobster tails, eel, noodles, chicken wraps, fried crickets, fried roaches and other invertebrates with different smells and odors, sweet, strange, familiar, and repulsive. All smells converging just beneath your nostrils and sometimes mixing together and having a party in your nose to your delight or your disdain. Then there are the lights from all the overhead signs for businesses and advertisements competing for your visual attention. The bars with music blasting onto the street for you attention as if it’s some type of ‘Battle of the Bars’ competition was going on. I mean seriously it’s flipping loud! I mean it’s loud like, I wish I brought some noise canceling headphones to the disco with me. Then there are freelance touts trying to sell you on anything from jewelry stores, to tailor shops, to massage parlors, and sex shows. Being a black man they always hit me with the, “Hey bro!” or “What’s up man?” Which is slightly annoying but I dap them up anyway and hit them with some slang they never heard and watch their confused facial expressions as I walk by. Which does two things, one, further their working knowledge of African-American stereotypes and two, keeps me blissfully entertained in the process.

Then I saw a peddler wearing a yellow shirt (maybe that’s why I noticed him) sitting just above the curb of the street in a loose knot of extremities. I approached him. He had a small tray with Wrigley’s mint and Juicy Fruit chewing gum for sale. I stooped down and said, “Sawadee, how are you?” and gradually looked him over. I immediately noticed he was not only barefoot, he had two left feet both laid over completely to the side and pointing towards Mecca – I’m talking due East! Then I thought to myself, “Damn his big toe is on the right side of both feet. This man doesn’t have two left feet (in a figurative manner), he literally has two left legs and two left feet.” His underdeveloped right arm appeared to be that of a six year old boy and his left arm that of a nine year old. His face wrinkled and worn, yet he smiled and responded warmly, “I am fine, No problem.” At that moment the whole backside of both my eyeballs filled with tears. Note, I referred to, “The backside of my eyeballs,” I am a man and yeah I cry occasionally, but never publicly.

Anyways the backside of my eyes swelled with tears. But I continued and asked, “How much for the Juicy Fruit.” He told me, “Twenty baht.” I looked into my pocket but could only find hundred baht notes. I tried to hand him the note, then I noticed that both his wrists were broke in an unnatural collapsed way – his fingertips were merely inches from his elbows. He smiled and allowed his spirit to greet mine, then he motioned for me to take the change from the cup he was holding against his chest with the inside of his left wrist. I reached in and carefully retrieved my change conspicuously while brain storming in a recklessly desperate manner. How could I possibly help him? There were a lot of bills in the cup I thought. I asked, “Do you want me to put some of this money in your pocket?” he replied, “No, it’s okay.” I just wanted to help in some way. So I choose my Juicy Fruit, thanked him, and walked away.

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I thought wow, what a divine spirit inside of that man. He smiled and proclaimed he was fine and was without problems. The man looked like the Most High had been playing a sick game of Mr. Potato Head when she made him. Yet, he rose still and did not allow his deformities to define him. It’s incredibly profound how presumably small and insignificantly kind gestures can make such an enormous impact on one’s life. I thought to myself, he was the silver lining in a dark cloud. I looked for him the next few nights on the same road, but I never saw him again.

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  • Suraj Singh Surya said at 2012-06-13T02:29:02+0000: I like this.

Older comments on A Visitor in the Land of Smiles and Smells – Bangkok, Thailand

Brian Neale
14 April 2010

a very good website

Soeren Boel
14 April 2010

Excellent article,John Stampley – I experience like you are doing the art of pilgrimage. Thank you .. .. .
Best wishes – Søren Boel, Denmark.