Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How Queen Saowapha Holds a Snake, by Jennifer Marcus Newton

From the moment we emerge from the cool dark of the Atlanta Hotel into the dead end of Soi 2 Sukhumvit Road, we are soaked—first from the heat and humidity, and then from the sudden downpour that quickly overcomes drains, backing up gray rainwater and oily residue into the street. The rain arrives with its own peculiar odor, while muting the stench of rotting garbage and decaying organic matter piled under the highway overpass. Traffic chokes streets as we make our way single file past the garbage and decay, umbrellas taut overhead, muddy pant cuffs rolled to knees, and toes sliding across the surface of perpetually slick flip-flops.

Bangkok isn’t actually our destination on this journey—it’s a way station, a meeting point, a gateway to a more remote, reflective trip to a Tibetan village inside Shangri-la in the Yunnan Province of southern China. But Bangkok’s vivid nature refuses to stay reticent, as it masterfully weaves and twists colorful fibers into flamboyant tassels on either end of our trip. Ribbons of taxis painted the bright colors of summer pedicures speed down roadways and side streets. Swarms of whirring scooters flow around cars and trucks at stoplights to collect closest to the intersection, then take off en masse at the hint of green. Tuk tuks belch and sputter tourists from market to wat to tailor and back again. Water taxis thrust the city’s workforce through filthy waterways, outlined by shanty structures and vibrant textiles drying in the midday sun.

Really, it’s the smell that never fails to stick with me when I think about Bangkok. Photos and journal entries are steeped in the pungent, reassuring scent of citronella inside the private courtyard gardens of our hotel; in the odor of farm-fresh vegetables and noodles cooking up at May Kaidee‘s vegetarian cooking school and restaurant; and in the most repugnant a smell I’ve ever encountered—the stagnant puddles inside the fish market after a long, hot day of mongering, with castoff fish parts collecting in floor drains and pooling to each side of the walkway and mangy, flea-ridden cats asleep atop boxes and tables, bellies full of gut.

And, of course, there’s the acrid smell of shame craftily sewn into the tight seams of Bangkok.

I take full responsibility. I’m the one who can reliably say “no” in any language and mean it. My flashy American smile is quick to fizzle at the first suggestion of street trickery. Bamboozlers, who soon sense that I’ve actually been around the block and won’t be easily swindled, back away from me with eyes darting to and fro and body rigid like a spooked stray dog.

So I struggle to piece together the string of events leading up to our moment of weakness on this now perfectly cloudless afternoon. I can’t fathom how a ruse this obvious can play out on me, a seasoned traveler. My disappointment hangs heavy from my shoulders. My shame drains the color from busy markets. My sadness silences the sounds of horns and bells. I suddenly realize that I’m neither clever nor streetwise. I’ve easily been used up and tossed aside with the rest of Bangkok’s trash.

Maybe my usually steadfast suspicions have been lulled by the miles of tree-lined streets with plump orchids clinging provocatively to trunks, or by the blocks of fruit vendors showcasing sticky towers of exotic mangosteen, rambutan, and lychee, or by the restorative foot massages outside the dusty courtyard of Wat Pho, just a stone’s throw from the Reclining Buddha, or by the hauntingly familiar Atlanta Hotel, with its timeless writing desks, well-equipped library, and dozing housecats.

Then again, perhaps it’s simply the nauseating stench of the tuk tuk’s exhaust that’s deprived me of oxygen. Or maybe it’s the cunning tale delivered in a mesmerizing Thai-British accent by the friend of the tuk tuk driver, the brother of the monk inside the temple where we’ve just prayed, that poisons my better judgment. Or maybe I place too much trust in government officials who kindly flag down, on a busy street no less, a well-timed tuk tuk driver to whisk us to a little-known wat, free of the glut of wide-waisted tourists. But whatever it is on this ill-fated afternoon, we become the proverbial fools soon parted from our money.

Maybe I should have paid more attention to the signs at the snake farm. In the heart of Bangkok sits a century-old laboratory called Queen Saowapha Memorial Institute. Oddly enough, it’s a popular stop for most tourists, the draw being the dramatically paraded king cobras, Malayan pit vipers, and banded kraits through crowds of white faces. Of course, this is not the main order of business at the snake farm. Workers here put life and limb in daily peril as they extract venom from some of the world’s deadliest snakes. Their work accomplishes two very good and noble things. First, regular milking renders these deadly snakes as harmless as the children who beg tuk tuk-exhausted parents to let impeccably dressed Thai workers drape a Burmese python around their tiny, sunburned necks. Second, the poison is spun into life-saving, anti-venom serums.

The message I overlook, of course, is that one never knows what lurks below the surface; in Thailand, the potential for danger is everywhere. I am late to see the parallels between the snake farm and the venomous network of dollar hounds lurking in front of government buildings, holy temples, and tailor shops. And this is my undoing.

And so we retreat down the now-dark soi to the cool calm of the Atlanta Hotel. Silently we pass the front desk and trudge up concrete steps to finish packing by rolling freshly stitched, grossly overpriced suits alongside muddy khakis and t-shirts in travel-weary backpacks. As we enter our deluxe room that comes with air conditioning and hot water for a few extra dollars a day, I flip the light on and catch a glimpse of an 18-inch reptile as it slips behind a pipe in the bathroom.