TUGGING AT MY HEARTSTRINGS

Bangkok, 9 October 2014

Our living room is small, but it has a magic view on the Chao Phraya River. Two of the living room’s walls are all glass and allow us a wonderful view up and down the river.

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My wife and I maximize this view every morning by dragging our table out onto the narrow balcony which wraps around our living room and taking our breakfast – tea, cereal, and tropical fruit – all the while watching the parade of boats moving up and down the river.

Let’s be clear, the boats we see are not as handsome as these 1920s yachts.

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I suppose the most striking boat we see are the long-tailed boats which skim across the river’s surface, their huge roaring motors in the stern peremptorily signaling their presence to one and all.

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The water buses that ply the river aren’t so showy, but their raked bow gives them a certain allure.

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My heart, though, goes out to the lowly ugly tugs which rumble slowly up and down the river dragging trains of barges behind them – slowly, so very slowly when the barges are full, slightly more jauntily when they are empty.

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I sit there, watching them tug and strain, and will them on: “Go, little tug, go! You can do it! Attaboy!”

They may work hard, but these tugs are no shrinking violets. No drab work clothes for them. No siree, their owners paint them strong, happy colors, to signal how proud they are of their work partners. I mean, look at them!

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As these tugboats pass, flaunting their color schemes, I can’t help but think dreamily of the tugboats of my youth, like Theodore the Tugboat

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or Little Toot the Tugboat

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or even Scuffy the Tugboat

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Toot, toot!! Tug away, fellas! Job well done! I hope you get a rest and a good lube job in the evening. Toot, toot!!

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Views of Chao Phraya river: my photos
1920s yachts: http://abrushwithsail.blogspot.com/2012/06/grand-yachts-of-1920s.html
long-tailed boat: http://swissnomads.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/long-tail-boat.jpg
water bus: my wife’s photo
tub boat and barges: my photo and http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/47654772
colourful tugboats: my wife’s photos
Theodore the Tugboat: http://www.mtcw.ca/theodoretugboat/Tours.php
Little Toot the Tugboat: http://blog.keloland.com/lund/blog/2010/12/20/aunt-leilas-records/
Scuffy the Tugboat: http://www.betterworldbooks.com/scuffy-the-tugboat-sail-away-id-0375826963.aspx

SOUNDS OF BANGKOK

Bangkok, 19 September 2014

Well, we’ve finally moved to Bangkok. We’ve found ourselves a place on the Chao Phraya river, literally overlooking it. The open water gives rise to constant breeze which we can channel through the apartment by a judicious opening of various windows, obviating the need for air-conditioning – a minor miracle in this heavily air-conditioned city. When, as now, the evening’s storm clouds come rolling in, that breeze will rise to a stiff sou’-wester’ threatening to blow every light object into the river below and sends us scurrying around the apartment closing windows and doors. At these moments, I find myself back on my grandmother’s sailing boat, with her at the tiller imperiously ordering me and any other grandchild around to lash down everything movable as the summer storm rips over us and the boat starts to lean over at a precipitous angle.

During the day, that same breeze wafts into our living room all the noises of the river and its banks: the deep grumble of the tug boats slowly pulling the heavily laden barges upriver, the growl of the water-buses as they tack back and forth across the river from stop to stop, the creaking and groaning from the landing piers lining the bank as the wash of passing ships sends their platforms oscillating, the slightly atonal call to prayer from a mosque somewhere on the far bank, the more profane call to evening aerobics in a small park just downriver, the occasional siren from a police car racing over one of the nearby bridges, and just the ordinary household noises rising out of the houses below our balcony.

But for me, two sounds stand out from this medley. One is the piercing whistling used by the water bus conductors to guide the drivers when they berth at stops. I haven’t yet understood the signaling, but somehow the conductor makes the driver understand when to reverse the engine to slow down, then idle it, then start it again to move off from the stop. As I listen and watch, fascinated, I am suddenly back in Hyde Park looking on at a competition of Welsh shepherds using whistling to guide their sheep dogs into driving a flock of sheep from one place to another (I’m not sure the drivers of the water buses would appreciate being compared to sheep dogs).

The other sound is the cry of a bird. It is very distinctive. It starts with a low cry, which is followed in rapid succession by a series of ever higher and more piercing cries, finally reaching a crescendo and dying out. I have asked my Thai staff what the bird is called. They are still wrestling with the Thai name, let alone the English name. In the meantime, I am calling it the Fake Orgasm Bird. It reminds me every time of a night I spent in a cheap hotel in Geneva (cheap for Geneva, expensive for anywhere else), where I was woken up in the early hours by a Lady of the Night who was pleasing her customer by oohing and aahing at the top of her lungs. She sounded exactly like my Bangkok bird.

Postscript 22 November 2014:

I have finally identified my mystery bird! It is the Asian koel. For those who might be interested in its call, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TU3T6jikQqg.

PEOPLE ON THE MOVE

Bangkok, 27 July 2014

Well, I’ve received my transfer orders. I’m moving to Bangkok to take over our office there. So my wife and I have been down in Bangkok for the last week, looking for a place to stay. For the moment, we’re renting an apartment which we got through AirBnB. It gives right onto the Chao Phraya River, which runs through the middle of the city and around which the city grew. So as we have breakfast in the morning before we go out apartment-hunting we can watch the traffic on the river: the empty barges, riding high

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the full barges, with water to their gunwales

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the express boats crowded with commuters darting in between as they weave their way from bank to bank.

ships on river 001

But what also catches my eye is this temple on the other side of the river

temple across the river 001

and it always reminds me of … China. Or rather, a certain corner of China, the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. This is way down in the south of Yunnan province, squeezed between Laos to the East and Myanmar to the West. A few years back, we spent a Dragon Boat Festival holiday in the prefecture’s main town, Jinghong, in a beautiful house which was built from elements scavenged from traditional houses that were being torn down in China’s rush to modernity.

Yourantai-interior

It too gave on a river, the Mekong in this case (although the Chinese don’t call it that; it’s the Lancang River to them), and there too we could gaze down on the river while having our breakfast.

Yourantai-view of the river

The temples in Jinghong are built in the same style as the one I see across my breakfast table, or at least the newer establishments are.

Mange-Buddhist-Temple-Jinghong-XishuangBanna

The older temples in the area are somewhat more sobre.

temple Xishuangbanna

This very obvious echoing of the Thai style has a simple reason. The Thai people (Dai people in this part of the world, hence the name of the prefecture) originally came from southern China. Then, for reasons which may have to do with the southwards migration of the Han Chinese, a portion of them upped sticks in the first millennium AD and started wandering south through Laos and Myanmar until they settled in what is now Thailand. But they left echoes of their culture behind, reflected in the designs of the temples but also in the language – many of the signs in Jinghong are in Thai as well as in Chinese.

The local culture (Thai and non-Thai; the ethnic mix in this part of the world is quite bewildering) is threatened with submersion in the Han culture – recall that this is why the Thais probably originally started migrating southwards. Until the 1950s there were few Han Chinese in this part of Yunnan – they were afraid of the malaria, which was then endemic. But the Chinese communists vigorously promoted programmes which eradicated the malaria. They then brought in poverty-stricken migrants from other parts of China and put them to work cutting down the jungle and planting rubber trees in its place, so now the hills around Jinghong are monotonously covered with acre after acre of rubber trees. These are all clones from the same genetic line. Those who know about these things predict that sooner or later (probably sooner rather than later) a rubber tree virus from Brazil will arrive here and wipe out every single rubber tree: an environmental disaster of epic proportions.

In the meantime, the descendants of the miserably poor Chinese who were sent to Xishuangbanna to plant and tap all those rubber trees still live in miserably poor Chinese villages, scorned and resented by the local populations.

As I look at the temple across the river and reflect on all these historic movements of people, I am reminded of the current tensions in Thailand caused by more recent movements, tensions between migrants from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, who do the dirty, poorly paying jobs which the locals no longer want to do, and the Thais, who have conveniently forgotten (if they were ever taught) that they too were once migrants.

“Plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, as Jean-Baptiste Karr, a French journalist and novelist, said back in 1849, and as my French grandmother was fond of quoting: the more things change, the more they stay the same. So true.

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Chao Phraya river pics: mine
Yourantai-interior: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/01/b9/8b/a5/les-repas-dans-un-cadre.jpg [in http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g528741-d1749170-i28937125-Yourantai_B_B-Jinghong_Yunnan.html%5D
Yourantai-river view: http://www.cielyunnan.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Yourantai-24.jpg [in http://www.cielyunnan.com/hotels/hotels-xishuangbanna/xishuangbanna-yourantai-resort/%5D
Buddhist temple Jinghong: http://www.yunnanadventure.com/UploadFiles/Yunnan-Attractions/Xishuangbanna-Attractions/Mange-Buddhist-Temple-Jinghong-XishuangBanna.jpg [in http://www.yunnanadventure.com/attraction-p156-mange-buddhist-temple-jinghong-city
Temple Xishuangbanna: http://www.wildchina.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/img_8570.jpg [in http://www.wildchina.com/es/multimedia/wildchina-blog-details/yunnan-hiking-in-xishuangbanna%5D