Bangkok When the Leaves Turn

After Hua Hin for Elephant Polo
And Before Leaves Turning, Part II

September 17-23, 2001

Monday, September 17, 2001

We returned to Bangkok. Though our immediate skyline remains the same, The Far Eastern Economic Review ... like all the world's weeklies ... shows profile of the changed world.

Wescott also returns here:

Peter of Arbues
DIED 1485

A Spanish inquisitor who was murdered in the cathedral of Saragossa while saying mass. The murderers were Jews; so perhaps something might be said for them.

NEWNES, too:

The latest rankings1 from TRAVEL + LEISURE put my home (The Oriental) as #8 in the world ... though, 2nd in the world2 if you exclude American properties. In any event, The Oriental's Spa is still ranked #1.

Among the world's 'small hotels' Becky's Vault-de-Lugny has fallen completely off the TRAVEL + LEISURE list. Due to the small number of rooms (and guests) per hotel it is very easy for any hotelier to find his or her small property at the top one year ... and right out the window the next.3


1 A readers' poll. Personally, I am skeptical of reader's polls; I think they tend to reflect more of where the reader has recently been than anything to do with the quality of the hotel that is being ranked. In this case, only two of the top 14 hotels are outside the United States.

2 But, #1 in 'mainland' Asia; ahead of Singapore's Four Seasons, Hong Kong's Peninsula and Tokyo's Imperial.

3 Readers' polls, for obvious reasons, are particularly dangerous to small hotels.


PS Today's edition of USA Today carried a report of the King's Cup Tournament in Hua Hin. Included in its reporting was a closing note about the Screwy Tuskers and their plan to participate in the Second Annual event next year.

USA Today


Tuesday, September 18, 2001

Wescott hints1 that this "Joseph" might have been the Christ on a second 'go-round'. It's your guess on this one:

Joseph of Cupertino
SEVENTEENTH CENTURY

Joseph Desa was a carpenter's son, born, by accident, in a stable. In other respects his career bore no resemblance to that of Our Lord. He was a half-wit, and he flew from the door of a church to the altar at a bound, for example, flapping overhead in his brown Franciscan skirt, like a bat, yelling. Sometimes, at night, his exploits shook the entire dormitory, frightening his fellow Franciscans out of bed. Once he flew into an olive tree, lighting on a branch and swaying there like a bird. The only way to make him behave was to take his habit away from him; but he was a great trial at best, and he was expelled from one monastery after another. The common people adored him, of course; his way of preaching to them was brief, brutal, poetical; and he could tell whether or not they were immoral by the way they smelled.

NEWNES:

This morning's Bangkok Post ... like responsible papers the world over ... leads with the story of Wall Street's plunge. And a mighty plunge it was ... and certainly deserving the acres of print that it got. But, sharing the same Post front page, there is a curious column that, if true, could have commodities traders over at the Chicago Board of Trade worrying over which way to go on pork belly contracts. Odd as it may sound, there is now some high level talk going around in high places that pig fat, either bundled in conventional bomb-form or 'aerosolized' into high compression canisters for missile-delivered sprays, might be the perfect retaliatory weapon.

Are corkscrews 'history'? Is there any point to owning them anymore? Those are the questions. Yes and no!2


1 Remember, dear reader, that Wescott wrote this in the early 30's. When "A Calendar of Saints for Unbelievers" was first published in 1932 America was in a terrible depression; its people praying this way and that way. Any perceived slight to their God would have been a damn good reason for tacking the 'slighter' right up on his own little cross. So, today, the reader has to sometimes read the "no" out of a sentence ... or, even, read a "no" into a sentence.

2 During the next nine months three great corkscrew conventions are scheduled to open: Confiscated Corkscrewsone in Atlanta, another in Miami, a third in Oslo. This photograph in today's International Herald Tribune graphically suggests that none will open with anyone holding a corkscrew of any value. As it is now forbidden to carry corkscrews aboard an aircraft in anything other than in checked luggage, only the most despised corkscrews will be allowed by their owners to travel by air. Since there is really no point in getting together just to talk and see each other and catch up on what is happening with old and dear friends, all these meetings will probably be canceled. And, long-held collections will undoubtedly be just tossed out ... .allowed to rust away and crumble to bits alongside old tires and spent cans of paint. Several months ago I predicted that, sometime in the future, these little machines would be tagged in museums as "Use Unknown". Let's revisit Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence": Ellen Olenska, peering into a case of Cesnola antiquities and other fragments from a vanished Illium says: "It seems cruel that after a while nothing matters ... any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labeled: 'Use unknown'."


Wednesday, September 19, 2001

Wescott, after mulling over his list of spilled lives, gives us a strange pause at the calendar:

Januarius
DIED 304

San Gennaro, the popular Neapolitan saint. To this day, three times a year, his dried blood liquefies when the two antique crystal goblets in which it is kept are brought near his cut-off head either an anomaly in nature or an ecclesiastical secret particularly well-kept.

He protects Naples from eruptions of Vesuvius, and is also invoked against the evil eye.

NEWNES:

Slightly over a week after the events in New York took control of the news, the Bangkok Post has started to run other stories1 on its front page. One of its first carefully considered toe-dips is this chortle producing, nudge-nudge, wink-wink story from the Dark Continent:

SWAZI KING ENFORCES TEENAGE CHASTITY

Swaziland Swaziland's king has forbidden Swazi men from having sex with teenage girls for the next five years and slapped a fine of one cow on those breaking the law, Pure Swazi girlsin a bid to reintroduce chastity and traditional values.

"Those of us who were about to propose love to these girls should wait until the end of the five-year period, the girls will be ready and matured by then," King Mswati III told a crowd that gathered to mark his 33rd birthday.

Lungile Ndlovu, head of the traditional girls' regiment to which all unmarried girls belong, said any girl who falls pregnant out of wedlock over the next five years would be fined one cow, as would the father.

Girls would also be required to wear woolen tassels to signify their virginity.

Swaziland, in southern Africa, is an absolute monarchy, so the king's word amounts to law. Reuters

Most places outside of America do not look at the destruction of the World Trade Towers and the damage to the E-Ring of the Pentagon the same way that Americans see it. Even in countries that have never heard of bin Laden there are a lot of people who look at this destruction (at 'best') as just another big tragic loss of human life2 ... like Chinese floods, famines in Sudan or eruptions of Vesuvius ... that, once read about, can be moved over to the inner pages, if not dropped altogether. At 'worst', it's something that they believe America thoroughly earned because of America's support of Israel. And, without beating around the bush on this ... for a lot of people living outside of the Old Glory ... the bang and the fall was just a really terribly good bit of New York camera luck that is now becoming rerun-tired.

But I am not sure that Americans wouldn't treat this kind of tragedy in a similar way ... provided it happened to the 'right' some-other-country. If Afghanistan had an earthquake that crushed 10,000 ... if Yemen had a plague that did-in 8,000 ... (of course, sometime after we'd seen the great Buddhist statues being blown to little bits; or after we'd seen the Destroyer Cole with its great big new hole). Hey, people here and there and everywhere are just not that different. That old headline from The Times ... "Earthquakes Destroy Southern Europe, English Family's Holiday Ruined" ... that's still the stuff editors write.


1 Yesterday's report of the proposed use of pork-fat as a weapon against the terrorists responsible for the New York tragedy has backfired on the brain behind the unusual proposal. Thai Rak Thai MP Tinawat Maruekapitak was forced to resign from his post. Mr. Tinawat said that he did not mean to offend Muslims. The pig-fat bombs could have pre-empted the use of highly destructive weapons, he said. In another apology, the Reverend Jerry Falwell murmured 'sorry' for saying that "last week's terrorist attacks reflected God's wrath at the American Civil Liberties Union, abortion providers, gay rights supporters and federal judges who banned school prayers".

1 That the rush-into-print death toll from the tower collapses emphasized the terrible loss of lawyers, derivative traders, hedge fund managers and currency arbitrages brokers ... not the Indian canteen workers or the Haitian garage attendants ... well, for sure, this didn't bring immediate swells to the eyes of CNN watchers over here.


Thursday, September 20, 2001

The giant siege engine is rolling back. ALIMAK is in full retreat. In less than a week it will be no more. The Oriental will be free!

Dearest, oh dearest reader, many of you were here with us on that dark frightening morning ... so long ago, so very long ago ... when it all began. Garden Wing Rooms, May 2000When ALIMAK's sappers broke through the wall ... yes, through it, and yes, right into our soft vulnerable underbelly. Do you remember? When we were forced to abandon our breakfast trays? When we had to flee our suites? Fighting our way into down-elevators? When the heartiest of us courageously drew the final battle line at the Garden Wing? Do you remember? Do you remember all those hard months in the Garden Wing; suites cobbled together from single rooms ... room service carts that had to be lifted into rooms?

Well, dear reader, that is now over ... almost, anyway. As Churchill said: "The end of the beginning of the end is here."

NEWNES, rarely the editorialist, never an apologist, doesn't say why Sir Titus found his way into the book. His compiler, Robert Collison, in the first edition (1962)1 says: "Among the names so baldly listed there may be some that at first sight appear obscure or unexciting. The reader who, however, cares to follow these names to their descriptions in the larger dictionaries of national biography and in the national and international encyclopedias will, I believe, invariably find an interesting or unusual story to justify their inclusion." If Salt's single entry is justified ... after reference to these dictionaries and encyclopedias ... then, too, his double entry must stand:

Unlike with yesterday's saint, Wescott, tells us exactly why Eustace is entitled to have September 20th as his very own:

Eustace
SECOND CENTURY
This virtuous pagan, while out hunting, met a white stag with a crucifix planted on its head; and the little divine figure amid the horns was alive and spoke to him, warning him of coming misfortunes, though without telling him how they could be prevented. In due time, pirates carried off his wife. A little later, wandering here and there with his two children, destitute, he swam across a river with the elder, and was in mid-stream, back for the younger, when a wolf carried off one and a lion the other, before his eyes. His wife escaped, his children were rescued; but for fifteen years or so, he did not know it. When at last they were reunited, they were expected to give thanks to the pagan gods, and would not, very naturally; so they were all packed into a bull made of brass and roasted over a great fire.


IN OUR PAGES: 100, 75 and 50 YEARS AGO
[from the International Herald Tribune]
1901: Nation Mourns
CANTON, Ohio The remains of the murdered [President] William McKinley were interred at Canton, Ohio, and the entire country stood still as the mournful procession started from the home of the living to the home of the dead. This morning Mrs. McKinley awoke weak, and immediately fell into a fit of weeping.

1926: Tide of Disaster

JACKSONVILLE Six hundred persons are reported to be dead many of them drowned at Miami Beach and vicinity, with more than 2,000 injured and property damage which will reach $1,000,000,000 as a result of the terrific hurricane which swept the tip of Florida. The disaster, one of the worst in the history of the United States, resulted when the backwash of the storm-lashed ocean reached tidal wave proportions. The streets of Miami are reported under from three to six feet of water. More than twenty large buildings are said to have been demolished, and the business and financial districts of Miami in ruin.

1951: Up in Smoke

AMSTERDAM Consumers in many countries now spend from 3 to 5 per cent of their total income on tobacco products, American delegate John B. Hutson told the World Tobacco Congress. Mr. Hutson, president of Tobacco Associates, Inc., of Washington, D.C., said in a "General Economic Survey" that" the average per capita consumption for all countries has increased slightly during the past 20 years." In recent years consumer preferences for tobacco products have changed greatly. There has been a shift from the use of other tobacco products to that of cigarettes.

What is this number? 1,267,650,600,228,230,000,000,000,000,000


1 In the second edition (1966), Collison says that " ... a number of entries have been replaced [in that edition] by more topical events and developments, and some entries have been amplified or otherwise modified." As the birth and/or death of Titus is not listed in the "Events" section of September 20th ... rather, in the "People" section ... it's safe to assume that his entry was unchanged from the 1962 edition. The "Dictionary" section of NEWNES ... not the "Anniversaries" part ... adds little to Salt's contribution. In full, it reads: "Salt, Sir Titus, English wool manufacturer, b. 1803, d. 1876. "We are told that he was English and that his manufacturing business had to do with wool. His philanthropy is not again mentioned.


Friday, September 21, 2001 (Feast of Saint Matthew)

Less than two weeks ago Watcharee got her Thai driver's license. Today she is going to buy her first car (actually, it will be a gift to her mother).

On the back of the car (and, all new Thai drivers do this) she'll attach a sign:

I am sorry.
But, I am a new driver.

As Bangkokian motorists ... especially drivers of the hornet cabs1 ... are unforgiving of the highway foibles of others, learners here in Thailand are eager to put their apology out-front right away. You know, Europeans tell each other that they are still in the learning mode with a "L" plate ... while Americans, as is their wont in many things, keep their own march up the learning curve a big secret.

In addition, all new cars in Thailand must carry a red license plate. This means that the scarlet car may not be driven after dusk. Presumably, this is the 'official' warning to other road users that the vehicle in their path is being operated by someone who needs their forgiveness for wandering into the wrong lane or for slamming on brakes for no apparent reason.2

But, even before the car is put on the road ... in fact, even before the showroom is visited ... advice from a monk must be sought. In Watcharee's case, today (Friday, September 21, 2001) was thought to be an auspicious time to buy a new car.3 More precisely, the hours between 11 am and 2 pm will be the lucky time. Saturday (tomorrow) is right out! As was yesterday.*

Matthew the Evangelist
FIRST CENTURY
Little is known about the great tax-collector's life after the Ascension. It is supposed that, having written in Syro-Chaldean the Gospel later paraphrased in Greek, he traveled to Egypt and Ethiopia, and there encouraged a princess not to marry the prince who wanted her, and was put to death as a meddler.

NEWNES:

This morning's International Herald Tribune carried several full-page ads. One twin-pager from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia tooted everything about the Kingdom: its oil, its banks and its gas industry ... oh, yes ... and a one sentence condolence confirming opposition to "all forms of terrorism". The other ... a much splashier one ... from the World Gold Council, exhorted readers to "Glow With Gold" ... perhaps a timely nudge to money fleeing the equity markets?

What is THIS number? 28,581,588,208,609,100,000,000

The withdrawal of ALIMAK continues.


* FLASH from the monks: the most auspicious time for the car purchase will be at precisely 1:29 pm today. I am not joking! Watcharee, her Mom, her uncle and her cousin are now parked near the Isuzu dealer ... awaiting the sweep of the minute hand.

1 Called that, partially because of the distinctive color combination (green and yellow) of their cabs ... but, really it has much more to do with the aggressive nature of their drivers.

2 All new cars have to carry the red plate ... even those driven by seasoned operators. Perhaps this has something to do with the distrust of things too fresh out of the box. Watcharee was vague when questioned.

3 Frankly, I think this puts Watcharee ... or any prospective car buyer ... in an unfortunate bargaining position vis-a-via the dealer.

4 Like on the day that Kennedy was assassinated, I remember precisely where I was when Haakon died. I was in a friend's apartment in Madison, Wisconsin. I was drinking a beer, reading a magazine. My friend's girl friend came into the apartment and said: "Your king is dead."


Saturday, September 22, 2001 (Maurice, Reliever of Gout and Cramps)

I love the International Herald Tribune.

This, from its back page:

"The man who introduced the nation to The Twist now has meatier goals. Chubby Checker brought his new brand of beef jerky to several grocery stores in Omaha, Nebraska, but fans had other things on their minds. Checker spent most of his visit signing autographs, posing for pictures and chatting with fans. Checker debuted "The Twist" his cover of the song by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters1 in August 1960."

IN OUR PAGES: 75 YEARS AGO
(from the International Herald Tribune)
1926: Barber's End

LONDON Man may yet conquer the chief bugbear of his daily life to wit, the morning shave. This is the hope held out by Mr. H. C. Brooke, English naturalist, who is conducting experiments looking toward the time when the barber shop will be a thing of the past and man will no longer need hair-cuts nor women's shingled locks will need to be trimmed. It is all a matter of heredity, according to Mr. Brooke, who, in collaboration with Dr. F. A. E. Crew, of Edinburgh University, is performing strange pranks with mice. Mr. Brooke has bred a strain of mice which, when sixteen days old, become bald. When a few days older, the mice lose fur along their backs. Then it all goes, leaving them coatless.

NEWNES:

Wescott ... well, yes ... fine work:

Maurice and His Men
DIED 287

This heroic Maurice was an officer of the Theban Legion, with six thousand and sixty-six, or perhaps only six hundred men under him all Christians, and, when asked to take part in some imperial religious rite, all mutinous. The rest of the army was then ordered to kill one out of every ten of them until those who were left were ready to obey orders. The entire company had to be killed. It was easy work: Maurice kept them in order until his turn came.

He is the saint of infantry, and helps in cases of gout and cramp.

Wescott2 quickly resumes full stride:

Digna and Emerita
THIRD CENTURY

It appears that these saints never lived, but simply resulted from a copyist's mistake. An early hagiographer said of some other female saint that she was 'digna et merita'; and in later manuscripts these two ladies appeared, with half the first lady's life-history, which soon developed very circumstantially.

Today the only person at the Bamboo Bar is an elderly Lebanese. He sells industrial inks; he is an alcoholic. Sheltering his Chivas Regal with his hands he doesn't appear terribly concerned about his lonely place; he may even welcome it. Granted, it's still before noon ... but, even then ... in weeks past, anyway ... there usually were a few more guests in the bar looking for that first leg-up on the day. But, this whole war thing has scared away everyone ... even the early drinkers. Except him.

The lights at the Shangri-La Hotel are few. The lobby is aglow, so are the windows from its restaurants; but from the rooms upstairs ... the paying ones: the ones that really count ... they are mostly dark. The Peninsula is a different story: a clever computer program allows its front desk to pretend that the hotel is running at 80% booking ... or 100%, or 60% or whatever percentage the hotel wants ... flip the switch to one notch and so many lights pop on; flip to another and different ones turn on ... and so on.

Here at The Oriental business is OFF. Everywhere I look the place is empty.

What is this number? 4,869,332,672


1 While Hank Ballard and the Midnighters still warrant coverage by the world's press, what happened to their ... at the time ... equally famous contemporaries: Milton Milquetoast and His Dancing Thimbles?

2 Wescott does not tell us why some days are blessed (or cursed) with more than one saint. Perhaps, as in the case of meaner mortals, some are less worthy than others ... and it takes more than one ladle-dip to come up with enough 'goodness' to make the day not stand out as a strange blip on the calendar.


PS They appeared to be three 'droppings' from a bird ... in the middle of the hood. White, with jagged edges ... about a quarter inch in diameter; quite close to each other. They were not. They were blessings from a monk; yes, the very same monk who told Watcharee that yesterday, 1:30 pm (South East Asian time), would be the most auspicious time for the purchase of Mom's3 new car. The scarlet license plates ... fore and aft ... warn other road users that the driver may be expected to do the unexpected. Watcharee and her cousin are seen pointing to the 'danger' plate.


3 Watcharee's mom does not know how to drive; and, she has no intention of ever learning how to drive. The vehicle will largely be a lawn ornament. Perhaps she will occasionally sit in it to listen to the radio. And, on hot days its air-conditioning may give comfort. If the power steering unit is left unengaged the turning wheel itself could be used for building arm muscles.


Sunday, September 23, 2001 (Autumnal Equinox)

The elephants are back!

"Is it a one-time thing or are they here for good?"

That's the question on everyone's lips; and no one seems to have the answer. But readers of my pages will fondly remember the days when these great beasts wandered the streets of Bangkok with impunity ... when they were a common sight around Patpong; when the area 'working girls' would happily blow part of their 'shift' money1 on bunches of bananas so that these giant but gentle animals could have a proper meal.

"Tell us more."

Though not quite as exciting as seeing a covey of Patpongettes at charity work ... it was ... well, 'warming', to watch the crew from White Shirts rush from their foot massage stations, bahts in hand, to buy feed for this wandering pachyderm.

"We meant 'more' about the Patpong girls ... not the elephants."

Perhaps this, from Wescott, will do:

Thelca
FIRST CENTURY

St. Paul came to Iconium in Lycaonia where this girl lived, and took lodgings in a house across the street. She spent all her time at the window waiting to see him and trying to hear what he said, and would pay no attention to anyone or anything else. Unfortunately, she was engaged to be married; her jealous lover complained to the police; Paul was arrested. Thelca, having bribed the jailor with her ear-rings, sat in the prison at the man of genius's feet, listening. When this was discovered, he was beaten and driven out of town; the infatuated girl, who was to have been burned at the stake, managed to get away and join him elsewhere. He was arrested again, and she was thrown to the lions in an arena: the lions would not touch her. She met her irresistible friend a third time. But his sublime business soon took him far away; certainly she was an embarrassing convert; for one reason or another, she was left behind.

Then the poor loving creature settled in the mountainous district near her home and grew famous as a healer. The local physicians whose practice she took away met in conference, very cleverly concluded that her secret was having kept her virginity, and sent vigorous ruffians to undo the chaste charms that were costing them money. But Thelca fled into the rock, or amid the rocks, leaving just a piece of her veil in their venally libidinous hands. There, in a secret stronghold, she lived to be ninety years old.

The church honours her as the first female martyr, though in fact she was not a martyr at all unless many escapes from death be equivalent to dying, or unless the saddest and perhaps noblest sort of womanly passion be regarded as martyrdom enough.

Though everyone in analysis knows that Sigmund Freud died 'today' in 1939, only our NEWNES notes Dodsley's passing:

Locally, Thailand prepares for war:

CABINET TOLD TO GO JACKET-FREE screamed this morning's front page of the Bangkok Post.

"Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said yesterday the ministers would leave their ties on to maintain an air of officialdom, but by doing away with the jackets the ministers would be able to lower the temperature of their office air-conditioners and save energy."

Bizarro is in the warning mode.

Finally, a hint about the really big 'numbers' that I have been leaving with you: first, get a sheet of paper (make sure it is a large one) and prepare to do some folding.


1 "This one's for Jumbo!", as she squeezed her eyes shut and allowed her loins to be thrust repeatedly into the shuddering mattress.


Next: Part II

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