Bangkok, 15 April 2015

Call me a sourpuss, a killjoy, a party-pooper, even an old fart, but I really cannot find anything positive to say about the Songkran festival which is in full swing at the moment here in Thailand. For those of my readers who may not be familiar with Songkran, it is Thailand’s festival of the new year. Actually, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia all celebrate the same festival, even if it has a different name in Myanmar and Cambodia (Thingyan and Chaul Chnam Thmey) – not surprising really, since all these countries follow more or less the same traditional Buddhist calendar.

Thais celebrate Songkran by squirting, spraying, and generally throwing water on everyone and everything, in one vast water party.

Songkran water festival in Bangkok, Thailand



Songkran in Bangkok, Thailand

To cap it all, people slather themselves – and others – with a white paste (shades of Myanmar).

white paste on face-1

white paste on face-2

Those who are young, or who have an infantile sense of humour (aïe, my sourpussedness is coming to the surface), find all this hugely entertaining. Shrieks and laughter echo up and down the streets. Clothes are soaked, but no matter, it’s the hottest time of the year, they will dry out in a flash. And off goes another bucket of water!

Of course, for sourpusses like me, who have to get to meetings with officials in nice clothes or have to go to the office to work and who would prefer not to sit in a puddle at their desk, it is a trial to navigate the streets and dodge the pails of water, the hoses, the water guns. And anyway, it’s just so … damned childish to enjoy throwing water at people! (aïe, my party-poopery is coming to the fore: “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”)

What I find really irritating is that all this water throwing is a stupid, facile, totally post-modern corruption of the original festival. Water has a very important role in Thai society, as it does in many cultures. Clean water is the symbol of purity and peace. At the new year, it is used to wash away the dirt of the old year and allow one to start the new year clean and fresh. During the three days of the festival, clean water is poured over statues of the Buddha to clean them. That same water, in some way sanctified by its contact with the Buddha, is sprinkled over family and friends, again as a symbol of cleansing oneself for the year to come. Part of the tradition has younger people sprinkling water on their elders.

In a variation on this last tradition, yesterday in the office my secretary shyly asked me if I would be willing to take part in a ceremony where my colleagues would sprinkle water on my hands, in my role as the head or “elder” of the office. I was glad to, I announced, feeling that this at least gave some meaning to the silly goings-on outside my window. So at the appointed time, my colleagues solemnly – if somewhat self-consciously – processed into my office. A silver bowl filled with clean water strewn with petals was placed on the table, and one by one – eldest first – they came up, knelt in the Thai fashion, and poured a small cup of water over my hands, while wishing me a happy new year. I wished them and their families a happy and prosperous new year in return.

When I came home for lunch, I noticed that a statue of the Buddha had been set up in the lobby, with a bowl of water nearby. Why not? I thought. I might as well go the whole hog. So I offered the statue a traditional if rather awkward namaste and poured a cupful of water over him.


Water festival-1: (in
Water festival-2: (in
Water festival-3: (in
Water festival-4: (in
White paste on face-1: (in
White paste on face-2: (in


Bangkok, 12 April 2015

When we moved into our apartment here in Bangkok, we found that a previous tenant had left a wind chime hanging on the balcony, in front of the living room, ready to tinkle with every passing breeze – and since many breezes pass up and down the river which flows by our building, it tinkled quite a lot.

I was charmed, my wife less so. It is true that its more-or-less constant tinkling became rather intrusive to our life in the living room. My wife was for removing it completely. As a compromise, I moved it to the end of the balcony, keeping company to the King Rama VII Bridge (about which I’ve written earlier). From there, its chimes would be less sonically importunate, and it might, I hoped, keep the pesky pigeons from resting on the balcony railing.
wind chime bangkok 001
The former worked, the latter didn’t; true to form, the pigeons simply ignore the chimes and continue to land – and poop – on the railing.

My wife and I had first come across wind chimes some 35 years ago, during a visit we made to a Buddhist temple situated in the Catskill mountains to the north of New York City. We were spending a few days in the Catskills, getting our small children out of the city and into some fresh air. By chance, during a drive around the countryside, we came across a sign indicating the way to the temple. Intrigued, we followed the sign and found ourselves with this before us.
buddhist temple catskills
A very nice (American) Buddhist nun took us on a tour, and afterwards, while wandering around the temple’s outhouses, we came across the wind chime, tinkling quietly in the wind.

We recently came across a more religious version of wind chimes in Myanmar, where almost universally stupas are topped with a complicated crown that includes, among other things, a circle of little bells at its base which nod with every passing breeze.
07-kakku 007
In consequence, our visits to the stupa forests around Inle lake were accompanied by an almost constant quiet background tinkle whose level rose and fell as breezes snaked their way languidly between the stupas. Their purpose, I read, is to ward off evil spirits. This seems to be the primary raison-d’être of wind chimes in this part of the world, another example of something beautiful inspired by fear. Sad, really.

As I read around for this post, I discovered that a certain set of wind chimes – at Mizusawa railway station in Ōshū, Japan, to be precise – were one of the 100 soundscapes of Japan officially designated as such by the Ministry of Environment. Soundscapes! Now, that is something I had never heard of. And my research – and consequently this post – went off on a tangent. I’ve been like a dog who while following the scent of a fox, suddenly comes across the scent of a boar and races off in a different direction.

Soundscapes, I read, are sounds that “describe a place, a sonic identity, a sonic memory, but always a sound that is pertinent to a place”.  I’ve scanned the list of official 100 soundscapes of Japan (chosen, by the way, very democratically from a pool of candidates created after the Ministry of Environment called on the citizenry to submit their favourite soundscapes). Apart from the wind chimes in Mizusawa station, I see drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Japanese crane sanctuary in Tsurui, singing frogs and wild birds of the Hirose River, ship whistles for the New Year at Yokohama Port, reed fields at the mouth of the Kitakami River, pinewoods sighing in the wind in Noshiro, the approach to Kawasaki Daishi Temple, a cicada chorus in Honda-no-Mori Forest, sand eel fishing at Tarumi port, and on and on. Any reader who is interested in the whole list can go to the Wikipedia entry.

Wow … 100 soundscapes that somehow define a country … Well, I guess Mynamarians might choose the tinkle of bells in their stupa forests as one of their soundscapes. But I can’t decide their soundscapes for them. As an Englishman, though (OK, half an Englishman but let’s not quibble), I could have a go at choosing some soundscapes for the UK.

So what sounds define the UK? Well, the national psyche is very much defined by its being an island, so soundscapes of the sea are an obvious choice. There’s the sound of the water itself: the quiet hiss of seawater running over a shingle beach like the one my grandmother used to take us grandchildren to in Norfolk, or the splintering of waves against sea-cliffs which my wife and I heard in the Orkneys, or even the howl of the wind racing inland on the back of a big winter storm. But there’s also the cries of the innumerable seabirds and other wildlife which inhabit the UK’s coasts. And then there are the human-related noises linked to the sea: the sharp orders of the skipper followed by the thunderous clap of sails resetting on a sail boat as it turns about, the blast of a siren and the churning of water as a ship moves out of port, the lugubrious sound of a fog horn, but also the chatter on a crowded beach on a summer’s day.

Staying with water, rain is also definitely part of the British psyche, so a soundscape of falling rain seems called for: not the hard, dense tropical rain we have here in Bangkok, but a softer rain that goes on and on (and on …). And then there is the sound of all those brooks and streams which criss-cross the country as they hurry down over rock and fallen log: I have a particularly vivid sonic memory from my childhood of the brook which bordered our school’s playing fields.

Talking of playing fields, these evoke for me countless sonic memories: the crack of cricket bat against ball (such an English sound! although Americans may have a cousin in baseball’s bat against ball), the thud of foot against ball, the encouraging cheers of onlookers, which in football and other commercially organized sporting events has now swelled into the chanting of the stadium (this must be one of the few truly international soundscapes), and, strangely enough because I’m not really into horses, the thunder of hooves on soft turf as race horses come round the bend into the final straight. Horse racing also evokes in me a very specific sonic memory of the TV commentator: “and it’s Blue Blazes in the lead!, and Desperate Straights is coming hard up on the inside!!, but Blue Blazes is holding the lead!!!, …” and so the voice would continue to rise to a crescendo until the finishing line was crossed, when it would fall away to normal levels. Probably not specifically an English soundscape but to me always a memory of my English youth: Saturday afternoon in front of the telly.

Going back to nature, wind is a constant in the British Isles, so we must have wind soundscapes in the collection: trees soughing in the wind; wind rustling grass, sedges, heather; the dry clacking of leafless branch on leafless branch in a strong wind. Trees lead me to birds, which hold a special place in the British heart. A dawn chorus in summer would be a definite entry, but so could the songs of any number of birds. I would definitely want to have a lake soundscape with a loon calling out – I have such a strong childhood memory of that.

The Japanese Ministry held its competition for the 100 soundscapes of Japan as a way of reminding the Japanese of their country’s natural sounds. I have sympathy for that: we are so surrounded in our daily, highly urbanized, lives with a cacophony of artificial sounds that we no longer hear Nature. But still, there are soundscapes made up of man-made sounds which so “describe a place, a sonic identity, a sonic memory”, to requote the definition, that they cannot be left out from this compendium of national sounds which I am sketching out. My personal entries would be two. One is the sound which London Underground trains make when they are halted, waiting to go. The electric engine goes into some sort of standby mode, emitting a very particular sound which I have never heard anywhere else. When I hear that noise, I know I’m back in London. The second such sound is from the diesel engine of the old double decker buses. These emitted a particular throaty rasp which I would immediately recognize anywhere. Alas, I think this soundscape now belongs to history. Today’s double deckers must have a newer engine, for I hear that throaty rasp no longer.

I cannot finish my list without mentioning the UK’s regional accents. I’ve always loved the wide variety of accents you find in the UK. It just fascinates me that the same language can be pronounced in so many different ways. I don’t know if regional accents count as soundscapes, but you certainly can’t find a more British sound than a Yorkshire accent, or a Somerset accent, or a Welsh accent, or one of the Scottish accents, just to cite the ones I am most familiar with. Whenever I hear a British regional accent on the streets or in the shopping malls of Bangkok, I turn around and smile. That’s home …

My wife has been telling me that we should think of spending six months in the UK after I retire. I’m inclined to agree. It would allow me to reconnect not only with the sights but also the sounds of my once-native land.


Buddhist temple Catskills: (in

Other photos: mine


Bangkok, 5 April 2015

Picking up on the theme of my last post, the application of cosmetics to certain parts of the face (eyebrows in that case), I feel that I should also comment on one fashion statement which I have come across in this part of the world and which, contrary to the fashion of strong eyebrows that seems to be sweeping the world, I hardly see being adopted any time soon away from its place of birth. The part of the world in question is Myanmar, and the fashion statement in question is the daubing by women (but not only) of their cheeks with a beige-coloured paste.
Yangon, Burma, Myanmar. Streets.It really is something that foreigners cannot fail to notice the moment they arrive in Myanmar, and indeed the internet is full of comments along the lines of “what on earth is that stuff on the women’s faces?”  The last time my wife and I were in the country, I finally got around to asking what this stuff was exactly. Thanatka, I was told (or thanat-ka, or thanaka, or thanakha; transliteration of Burmese words into English is quite approximate, rather like Shakespeare spelling his own name in three or four different ways – but I digress). Our hotel had a little exhibition on thanatka in the lobby, which frankly didn’t explain anything at all. Time to scour the internet, and as is normally the case Wikipedia threw up some useful material.

First, the why: why are women (and children to some degree) putting thanatka on? The answer seems to be primarily for beauty, rather like Amerindians paint their faces as decoration.
amerindian with painted faceIndeed, while the photo which starts this post has the lady in question just giving herself a brushstroke’s worth of thanatka on each cheek, others seem far more creative. Painted leaves seem popular (although I wonder if this is simply catering to the tourist trade?)
painted leaveswhile simple whorls
whorlsor circles also appear frequently in the cannon.
circlesIt seems that thanatka is not only about beauty. It is also said to provide protection from sunburn. But then I would have thought that application to the whole face would be more appropriate, the way I slathered sunscreen on every piece of my exposed skin during our recent trip to Myanmar. Claims are also made that it removes acne, and there are “before and after” photos to that effect on the net – although, rather strangely, of white people only. It is also claimed to have anti-fungal properties, although luckily there are no “before and after” pictures of that.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, they say, and I have to assume that Myanmar men find this wash of beige on their women’s cheeks attractive. After all, Myanmar women have been pasting themselves in this way for at least 700 years. Personally, though, I find it difficult to see anything beautiful in the habit. Every time I see one of these ladies, my instinctive reaction is to think “Ooh, they need to wash their faces”.  Of course, it’s not as if European women don’t paint (or powder) their faces. Rouging one’s cheeks is a fashion that goes back centuries, as attested by all those portrait paintings hanging in various museums of Europe of aristocratic ladies or royal mistresses (or both) with nicely rouged cheeks. For instance, this slightly racy painting of Nell Gwynn, mistress to Charles II of England, shows her with lovely red cheeks (and strong eyebrows, I am pleased to see, given my last post!)
nell gwynn(as I mentioned in an earlier post, there was a time when European aristocratic men also liberally rouged their cheeks)

The fashion statement has continued. For instance, I still remember from my youth those little powder cases which every woman had in their handbag, and which they would whip out from time to time to rouge their cheeks or generally give their face a powdering over.
powder caseAnd as far as I can make out, the fashion still goes strong. Women with cosmetically highlighted cheeks are a dime a dozen on any street in the world (except Myanmar …), although the powder case has given way to other delivery mechanisms.

But there is a difference, no? These women were and are highlighting the natural colouring of their cheeks. Myanmar women, on the other hand, are just daubing themselves. I wonder if the original idea was not simply to make the skin look paler, that universal obsession of women in all Asian countries.

Now for the what: what exactly is thanatka? It is an exceedingly natural cosmetic, made from grinding the bark, wood, or roots of a tree together with a small amount of water.
thanatka preparation 003As modernism marches through the country, a Myanmar lady can go to her supermarket and buy a jar of ready-made product. But she can also still go out and buy the wood (with this particular seller advertising her wares)
wood for saleas well as the stone grinder, and make it at home. No doubt the artisanal aspects of the trade will die out soon.

I finish by saluting the humble trees at the start of the chain: the thanatka tree (a species of Murraya)
thanakta treewith these particular individuals standing in front of some venerable temple, as well as the theethee tree (Limonia acidissima)
theethee treeI just hope that in the rush to slather their faces with paste, the Myanmarians are not chopping these trees down with wild abandon, thus denuding the landscape in the process. Beauty, however defined, is not worth that.


Woman with painted cheeks: (in
Woman Amerindian: (in
Thanatka painted leaves: (in
Thanatka whorls:é-birmanie.jpg (in
Thanatka circles: (in
Nell Gwynn: (in
Woman with powder case: (in
Thanatka preparation: (in
Thanatka wood: (in
Murraya tree: (in
Theethee tree: (in