One night in Bangkok
"Are you going to Bangkok all by yourself?" asked the young lady at the EVA Air check-in desk.
"Yes," I replied somewhat curious why it was noteworthy. After all, I had always gone to Bangkok alone.
"You are very brave and very lucky," she said with a slight twinge of envy.
After I checked in, I turned around and noticed that all passengers behind me were men and travelling in pairs or groups.
What can one do with less than 24 hours in Bangkok?
Fresh out of college, I bought a round-the-world ticket to include three days in Bangkok. As we were landing, I turned to the Thai lady sitting in the aisle seat, with whom I had not spoken since the commencement of our flight three hours earlier. "Do you know where the YMCA is?" She was aghast that I, a single woman, should decide to venture at dusk to find such an accommodation. Her kindness and generosity extended to this day, eighteen years later.
Her assistant Jew and the driver had been waiting for me for one-and-a-half hours. My friend had an appointment and asked if I wanted to kill time by shopping. I declined, preferring instead to have lunch and take a rest. Inside the air conditioned mini-van I got the chance to adjust to the 40 degree Celsius weather. April was the beginning of the hot season.
Almost an hour from Bangkok airport, we stopped for lunch. I could have been satisfied with my favourite dish som tam (green papaya salad) and sticky rice with Thai iced tea, but Jew also ordered ground pork with mint and onions, grilled fish, barbecued chicken wings, and tom yam goong (hot and sour prawn soup).
This version of green papaya salad included fermented black crab, a delicacy of Chiang Mai up in the north. The salad was my first Thai dish, introduced by my friend June Verburg back on Okinawa. She had taught me how to make it, and with green papayas and tiny chili's growing in our garden I had practised making it with zest. When the dish arrived, I wished the portion was bigger and, selfishly, that no one else would touch it, leaving it all for me to indulge in.
It's the second time that I've swum alone in this large pool without a single soul in sight. How lucky I am, I thought, to be treated to such a haven of space, peace, and nature! To be surrounded by palm trees, jasmine flowers, orchids, lakes, birds, far away from the madding crowd, that's the kind of gift I'd like to be able to extend to an overseas visitor. Coincidentally every time I arrive in Bangkok, I'm always short of sleep and extremely exhausted.
At five o'clock, after a good nap, I met up with my friend and her mother and mentor. Looking better than ever, she suggested that we visit a nearby Buddhist temple to consult with a monk. We took off our shoes and waited for the second eldest monk to appear. While I wasn't prepared for this, I already had many questions that needed answering.
"There is always a gain and loss in every transaction," I began. "Sometimes we don't know what we will end up sacrificing when we get what we want. Even after much prior analysis, we can't always be sure what we will lose in the process of gaining what we want. What is the best approach forward?"
My friend translated my question into Thai. After a brief pause, the monk replied that there are four positive and negative things that come in pairs and these are the laws of nature and you must learn to accept them.
1) Something you get without much effort and something you will not get even with much effort
2) When you get a good position or recognition in your society, then you no longer get good position or recognition in your society. In other words, you will not always remain in a good position.
3) There are people who say good things about you and there are people who say bad things about you.
4) You are either happy or you are suffering. You can't always be happy.
Later I asked how one can get out of a black hole. The monk described it like this:
"Suppose you are very thirsty, and you have lost your way in a deep forest. As you keep walking, you become more tired and more thirsty. It's like falling into a black hole with no end in sight. Suddenly you see some greenery. Even though you are still thirsty, you feel better. You feel hope. Then you see a pond. Even though you still haven't seen evidence that the water exists and is drinkable, you feel much better. There is more hope. Already you are coming out of the black hole feeling better."
In other words, the solution to getting out of a downward spiral is to get some hope, that ray of sunshine however small it may be.
I didn't need to ask anymore because the monk could sense the path of my enquiry. He said that problems are opportunities to learn. However, they cannot always be tackled by the intellect alone. He has seen many highly educated people trying to solve their problems with logic and get frustrated with it.
"First, love yourself. Have faith. Understand and accept the universal laws of nature. Read Buddhist teachings."
21 April 2004 Wednesday