Zun Zun Chet

There’s nothing like Asia to get the juices going.

No matter how many times I come, there’s always something new, or bizarre, or just plain fascinating. Now that I’m into tones, I enquired about Thai tones; they have five, one more than Mandarin.

The problem is the words are so nuanced that it’s impossible to tell them apart without a trained ear. It’s really like musical profficiency.

China is represented on a grand scale in Bangkok, with multiple busloads of tourists from the mainland and Taiwan, escaping a particularly severe winter. My hotel is deserted in the evening, its five restaurants às moscas, as the Portuguese saying goes. In other words, left to the flies. Or in this case, the mozzies—Thai mozzies are a cool breed, they don’t zzz past your ear like the overstressed European mosquitoes, desperate to get to work. They drift around, lazily letting themselves get killed—no need here for the aerobatics of the Red Baron, the famed German fighter ace from World War I.

The ones that survive seem to tickle you gently, as if proposing a massage, while the proboscis does the deed.

In the lobby, a terrible duo, another wonderful Asian pleasure, murders Hotel California for the tenth time. They sing tonally, rather than tune(full)ly, because they don’t know the words or what they mean. They just know sounds that when grouped become Glenn Frey & Co. in full swing.

Still the Chinese are missing. They depart up dawn’s crack on a fleet of buses, and return late, exhausted and happy, enriched by gigabytes of snapshots.

But in the morning there’s evidence of their passing—they swoop through the breakfast room like the army of Genghis Khan, leaving behind an empty wasteland. I scaled this to the world copper supply, and there is cause for concern!

For a few days I’ve been working in a building near the Bangkok aquarium. Apparently the water was a meter high during the flood, and the aquarium had to be completely refurbished. Looking around, I can’t imagine how the water could be that high, because the land is so flat—must have been the mother of all floods.

When I arrived yesterday morning, the usual asphalt road inside the complex had morphed into the Friday morning market, and it was impossible to get close to the building without navigating the stalls. Of course the entry point is street food, three parallel rows of stalls that serve everything from grilled squid to barbecued pig’s trotters.

The prawn stall was a particular example of innovation. The stallholder had installed two trays of live prawns, complete with an aerator to provide oxygen. Sitting beside him, his wife commanded a large barbecue area of the split oil drum variety—on the side, just off the coals but no doubt a little warm, a group of unfortunate decapods awaited their turn on the assembly line. To the center, the coals glowed merrily as the prawns turned from their grey-brown color to yummy cooked red.

Street food in Thailand: the prawn assembly line.

Street food in Thailand: the prawn assembly line.

More victuals, bras, USB sticks, and herbal remedies were on display. Toys imitating U.S. Bradley tanks and Apache choppers, fawcets, men’s shirts of dubious pedigree…

My Thai is limited to a few words, but it does include the ability to count. I’m amazed at how much you can do when you know numbers, and this time I discovered the word for zero—zun. Zero for me is very important, as it was for the astronomers of The India Road. James Bond is therefore zun zun chet—I’m not sure who found this most amusing, me or the locals that heard me pronounce it in tone-deaf Thai.

My impression, now as in previous visits, if of an exceptionally gentle people. Traffic continues to be smelly, noisy, and static, but the locals put on a brave face and suck it up—even with face masks. If the traffic thickens a little, you face two hours to cover a mile or two, and when you ask someone how far away they live, you’re told a time rather than a distance.

And of course there’s the footprint, and the smell, of Asia everywhere. Exceptional poverty mixed with smiles, sewage, courage for the big snd small fights of everyday life. It’s the Asia of street food, shops of opportunity that remain open while the restaurants trade, hoping for bycatch from satisfied patrons.

Like every country, people are consumed by their local news. The papers report a landmark lawsuit involving lead poisoning. The court awarded the plaintiffs four million baht due to delays in cleaning up a local water source. Lead is extremely toxic—it causes saturnism, a debilitating condition that affects the central nervous system.

These issues have vanished in the West, since regulation and outsourcing have pretty much eliminated human victims of heavy metals. Landmark in this case translates into one hundred thousand dollars for about twenty victims, giving each the princely sum of five grand. I think this puts the problem into perspective. I’ll bet serious money that the case didn’t make a byline in the Western press.

The greatest concern right now is Thailand’s record on human trafficking, including child labor—principally because the U.S. will impose economic sanctions if a further inspection is failed.  Today was children’s day in Thailand, but I’m pretty sure for a bunch of kids it was business as usual. Count your blessings, kiss your kids, help if you can.

Southeast Asia is all about contrasts; when I receive my laundry, there are two stapled notes from the cleaners. They inform me of risks to my clothing due to two major hurdles—rips and stains. To make it absolutely clear, there’s a digital photo attached, and an explanation of how my shirt will face destruction not seen since the Chinese marched through the breakfast room.

Then again, a trip to the restroom in a government institute reveals another level of technology: the toilet is of the Mao variety—good place to practise your situps. Apparently the constipated chairman carried his own porcelainware abroad, since he was unable to deliver a number two in Western comfort.

American Standard toilet, here seen with an ecofriendly power-shower..

American Standard toilet, here seen complete with an ecofriendly power-shower…

Toilet paper is not a feature, instead pinpoint accuracy is required to ensure a successful exit strategy. One can only imagine what disasters have taken place when the unsuspecting foreigner is struck down by the revenge of the red chili. I balk at the prospect of digital evidence from the hi-tech laundry company!

A decade ago, I used to say you needed to understand three things in life, no matter what you did: English, economics, and computers. These days that’s all still true.

But there’s one more thing I need to add: Asia.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: