Tuesday December 25th and I’m looking around me at the normal Asian hustle bustle and writing to you from a place where you’d never know it was Christmas day..
Hey, I’m always in a hurry to bust a move from the grossly distracting grip of what I perceive to be a rather culturally bankrupt economic empire of our Judaeo-Christian world (hence the Bar Mitzvah and debit card..), so I can’t complain.
Oh my God, it’s starting to happen, I'm sounding like all of these miserable ex-pats around here of whom I dred listening to when they talk at me and spew their discontent and feelings of betrayal about the US people and Government.
I like what Eddie Wilson told me last year about listening.
Eddie: I’m loosing my damn hearing!
Ben: That’s too bad Eddie. Are you gonna get a hearing aid?
Eddie: Hell no!
Ben: why not?
Eddie: Cuz every time I say huh? I wished I hadn’t.
So with that, here is another profound anecdote by my literary hero that puts it all in perspective and stops my wining in its tracks..
"It has always seemed strange to me...The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system.• And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second." - John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
Okay, okay already…. I’ll make a New Year’s resolution to try and stay more occupied in a wider dimension…
But seriously folks….
I’d bet after all that mumbo jumbo you’d like to see some nice pictures wouldn’t you?…Well here you go then…
Most from Laos, I'm playing catch up..
Pretty little garden Hoa Phi
Painters at the Spirit house factory
Looks like Charles Umlauf was here.
Local Luang Prabang kids play on Russian anti aircraft gun turret at Phusi Monestary on top of Mt. Phusi.
The monks that I missed at 6AM...Wrong street.
The Monks that I didn't miss on the right street at 5:57AM the next morning..
My favorite Lao coffee shop serves up green tea chaser.
Going up country by boat in search of the illusive Hoa Phi.
Spirit of the clothesline.
Kids at the factory
Prepping some Mekong seaweed to fry up with sesame seeds and dried orange slices mmmmm Good!
Self portrait with wee wee looking on.
4 ft long "monitor lizard" at Lumpini park, BKK
Commie commie commie pinko pinko pinko
Linda, Link & his faithful dog "Go" at Big Brother Mouse H.Q.
Local paper maker defies gravity.
Man of the forrest sells me his crossbow & bamboo arrows.
Carry on luggage includes crossbow. Approved by Laoland security.
I had fun working on a song idea this morning in my journal as I was anticipating my next destination on the east bound train out of Bangkok to Surin, I’ll write it for you in a minute, but first I have to tell you a little bit about this place that I am going to, that is really special to me.
Surin is one of the oldest capital cities of Thailand where the Khmer (Cambodians) established the city about 2,000 years ago. Surin's people are a broad mix of ethnicities, including Thai, Khmer, Lao and the local Suay, who prefer to be called “Guey” people, who have been known for generations for their expertise in training elephants. – that’s why the great “Elephant Round-up” is there. Patti and I found the people of Surin to be particularly sweet and hospitable. We had a great time there thanks to our DJ friend, Jazz who is from the area. She will be meeting me at the train station this afternoon around 5PM. I am riding on the memory of elephants and returning with unformed plans to reconstruct some vestige of the past with resources of the present…
Suddenly I think maybe I’m borrowing from Terry Allen’s “New Deli Freight Train” Whatever…Mine’s called “Old Bangkok Fate Train”….
As I write in that “aircon” train that I was fantasizing about earlier with that song idea…
Sweatin’ here waitin’ on an aircon train
Phnom Penh is the end of the line
and there’s no chance of rain.
Only two seasons,
hot and hotter
and whatever you do,
don’t drink the water.
Beads of sweat, they explode
When they hit the ground
Just like my plans
Wherever I’m bound
But ain’t that it?
Ain’t that about as good as it gets?
And the heavy clouds hanging over my head
They don’t give me no shade
as I sit here counting the odds
of the bets that I’ve made.
Countin’ the odds for the bets I’ve made
Eight take my money
and one gets paid.
But it’s all worth it when the day is done
Cause I’ll win this war
Despite the battles I’ve won.
Two years ago when Patti and I were here in Asia, I vowed to come back and do this spirit house documentary book idea. Being that I had foolishly left my camera in my car out at the lake house the night before we were to leave, I spent some time scouting and staking out these locations as we traveled with plans to come back with a good camera and interview people…So, here I am. I obviously really like these little things and I think that they are very cool. And I am especially moved by the power of a collective of people’s beliefs in things and concepts. I even wanted to try and haul one of these heavy-ass things back home back with us…
What I remember most about why I got so serious about this project is that I needed to complete this amazing five month trip for myself somehow. I felt that I never really got to exert any of my creative force in a way that I needed to as far as expressing our trip in an artistic way. It was very frustrating and these feelings got all pent up with no viable option for an outlet.
I also recall the approbation for my feelings of detachment that I had acquired as a traveler upon our return to “Crazy land”. I knew that since I’ve become too lazy to meditate all the time, I’d be needing another detachment refresher to wash away the stains of our spiritually bankrupt masses and solidaritary of petty discontentedness in our glutinous, news addicted society..Oooh, that was harsh!
Maybe I need to stay a little longer….
The theme of my trip becomes realized in these wise words of Neil Young as they serendipitously came to me via my ipod as I am rolling down the track and writing, I have to bring it to you as Mr. Young’s words are far more efficient than mine..That’s what we pay him for, right?
“World on a String”
You know I loose
You know I win
You know I call for this shape I’m in.
It’s just a game
You see me play
Only real in the way
that I feel from day to day
Although the answer is not unknown
I’m searching, searching and how I’ve grown
It’s not alright to say good bye,
and the world on a string
doesn’t mean a thing.
Pretty awesome song huh?! It’s a nice one to play.
You know, I am really not one to follow through very well with this kind of long haul planning ..Unlike my friend Bill Browder who claims he’s a “slow starter and a strong finisher”..I’m quite the opposite, I’ve been labeled “an idea man” by nice folks and a “quitter” by the others. I like to think of myself as more of a “sprinter” as my shamanic “power animal” IS the cheetah… My Patti is as surprised as I am that I have actually pulled this off and stuck to my guns and really done this far flung adventure in spite of it all.
Speaking of “in spite of it all”…About three weeks or so before my departure date I received the daunting news that my studio’s landlord had died and the building had been sold….Holy F?%#@#G $H!T!!!!! NOT NOW!
Even though I knew it was coming down the pike, and I even spent most of last year building a new but tiny shop out at the lake, I thought it was going to be about another two years or so before I was going to have to deal with this...
After a week or so of emotional waves like there was a death in the family, I felt like I’d pretty much landed on my feet thanks to Gary Martin (my brother by attrition, next door neighbor and partner in the building all along) who was chanting Lou Reed’s mantra to me which says that whatever comes, it’ll be better than before..
Even still, I resigned to shorten the length of this trip by 20 days so I could rare back and get a good handle on this whopper of a transition while still holding to my original initiative to do this book idea and get right with the “detachment thing”…As my dear & wise Autumn says..”champions adjust”.
There’s nothing like living out of a backpack for two months to get you to let go of your stuff….
I’m not finding the time to get back to all of the places that I’d hoped to, but what’s better than a plan has been the open ended ability to go where the wind of spontaneity takes me. As long as my favorites, Laos, Surin and Burma happen, That’s fine by me. I was thinking that I have left just enough time on the outside to get to either Hanoi or Chiang Mai before I leave the continent, but a few days ago I heard from a guy that he was buying up rainforest in southern Thailand in order to protect it from it’s bordering inhabitants who are illegally clear cutting and poisoning the old growth forests to gain land deeper and deeper into the jungle. There is only one way to stop them beyond buying the land and that is to get monks to designate the trees that frame the forest as “spiritual” and wrap them in ribbons to show this. That will stop them. So I’m liking the connection of that story.
We’ll see. Whatever, I’m just happy today to be going where I’m going, meeting who I’m meeting and making a few nice pictures along the way with my fabulous new lens. The difference of that alone is amazing!
So here are some more pictures for you…
5PM. Wow, I have a great memory that instantly came into focus as I sat on the tile steps that indicated to my ass how hot the day had been. I was scanning the many scooters for the only familiar face in this part of the country as tuk tuk and bicycle rickshaw drivers sweetly hawked me for a ride…”Where you go, where you go?
After about 10 minutes Jazz and her smart and friendly Canadian boyfriend Tom arrived as I easily recognized her smiling face.
Jazz arranged a tuk tuk to take me to a very nice hotel that she was sweet enough to find for me. Hot shower, aircon and a big clean bed that is as hard as a flat rock..(actually, I’ve never experienced a mattress quite so hard.)I like it, there’s just enough give to keep the ribs from bruising. All for 360 baht! That’s just a little more than $10 bucks.
I especially liked the big carved wooden elephants and elephant spirit house in the lobby.
Jazz had to go and interview the governor of the Surin Province on the radio about the election…It looks like they have re-elected their version of “George Bush” and that means that Taksin (that’s his name) will probably be coming out of exile and back into power after a coup d'état endorsed by the king that threw his corrupt ass out of office and the country over a year ago due to the violent countrywide protests that he ensued from changing a capital gains tax to nothing just 24 hrs before he sold millions of dollars worth of his stock in a Singapore telecom company.
I have to tell you what Thana Lauhakaikul, The great former art professor from UT who lives here in Bangkok now told me when we visited last week…
Ben: Jeez Thana, It’d be so cool if we had a King that we could love in America like you Thai’s do here in Thailand.
Thana: You do, Burger King!
Oh yes Surin…
It became a cool-ish night with a big ol’ cornbread moon, or maybe I should say “rice cake moon”.
Jazz and Tom returned from the radio station with a big appetite so we went to a very lovely outdoor garden restaurant with pretty flowering plants and candles everywhere she proceeded to order some pretty “full on” Thai fare, like whole fried fish salad toped with cubes of fried fish and chunks of raw cucumber, garlic and ginger..Oh man, that was without a doubt the most intense food that I have ever experienced!. Holy cow, I don’t think there’s a mosquito or a vampire that would touch me with a ten foot pole right now…Then she ordered us a dish made of fried and mashed black, fermented eggs topped with cooked Thai basil…Now that was good, well let’s say that it was at least a relief from all of that garlic and ginger! I tell you what, these guys can handle some serious complexity and intensity at the same time with their taste buds..I think it’s similar to their ear’s ability to hear all of those tones in the language. I understand that people who speak tonal languages like this come by “perfect pitch” much easier than those who don’t.…That said, I’m thinking that the western experience of sensuality is lagging way behind these guys..
The friendship feels good between me and Jazz. Like Surin reminds me of Victoria, she strangely feels like old family.
I think this place is a positive karmic vortex for me. I don’t know what is, but it feels so nice to be here again..Maybe I was an elephant in my last life or something..I just don’t know what to make of this homey feeling…
This morning came for me at about 6:30. That’s when I should always be up and walking around with the camera because most of the San Phra Phum face east…The morning light when it’s low is exquisitely golden in color and when it glistens on a glittery spirit house, it is quite breath taking.
I had a wonderful time just walking with my camera this morning as I was hoping for a good cup of Thai coffee and a little breakfast. I came upon a spirit house shop! This place was packed to the gills with all of the colorful figures that occupy the San Phra Phum. I was in heaven! Where to begin…The worst part of it all was that I couldn’t communicate with the shop keeper who must have lived there because she emerged with a head full of big ol’ multi- colored rollers in her hair and some kind of white creamy stuff all over her face..I really wanted to get her portrait with all of these dolls but she wouldn’t have anything to do with it. I resigned to the idea of bringing Jazz back there with me later. There’s so much to see and experience in the world if you’re in the right frame of mind..I savored the moments of this short walk like it was my last day on Earth..Why? I just don’t know..It’s this place I tells ya!
Breakfast was a foot long carved bamboo skewer with four steaming hot little grilled bananas on it..Dry and tough on the outside and gooey sweet on the inside..Just like me, right Patti??!
It was getting to be time to get back to the hotel to meet Jazz and Tom so we could get on with the day that I was leaving up to Jazz to plan.
Tom arrived at the hotel as planed and told me that Jazz, had to go by the radio station to ask her boss for permission to take the day off, so he and I walked there to meet up with her. I remember this place from two years when Jazz found me and Patti on the streets having the time of our lives. We were feeding and playing with some of the 300 of these glorious giant grey angels that were running loose on the streets towards the famous “elephant buffet” ….(that’s right)… This buffet is so enormous, all jammed packed with huge beautiful fruit and vegetable arrangements that it is in the Guinness book of world records. Jazz says that she was attracted to our joy in that moment. She approached Patti as I was very busy loving on a sweet little 800 lb. baby elephant and feeding her hand fulls of little cucumbers..They have a great sense of humor these ones.
After she and Patti and Jazz talked for a while and we were introduced, she told us that she was a DJ and asked if we would let her interview us on the radio, I don’t usually jump in front of Patti while she’s pondering an answer to an invitation, but out for fear of her potential modest refusal, I piped up without hesitation as though my life depended on it..WHY OF COURSE JAZZ, WE’D BE HAPPY TO, IT WOULD BE SUCH AN HONOR!!!
And so there you have it, I was suddenly possessed by my chutzpah which took over and did the talking. Like they say, “who needs dignity when you can have show business”….What can I say?
The rest is history, it was a great interview and we have kept up with Jazz ever since. I think that it’s really wonderful making friends and maintaining relations as best as you can at home an all over the world.
So here we were walking back into that old radio station where Patti told Jazz how it was two long years ago.... (I loved seeing my wife on the air, it kind of turned me on…)
92.8 FM on your dial broadcasts to 1.5 million people in the area. I was really excited to hear this figure as Jazz was playing my CD today and interviewing me about it and then about the Spirit house book idea for the better part of an hour. It was quite a deep conversation and Jazz did a fabulous job of translating. (I could just tell). But my favorite part was when it came to the second track which is a love song for Patti called “Like I do” and I got to tell her that to a million and a half people..This place, I swear….It’s just unbelievable!
Patti, did you feel it??
So from the Radio station we rented a tuk tuk and went down to the big elephant landmark in the canter of town where the big buffet is served every year. The back drop to the table setting is still there along with the permanent Elephant spirit house in the middle of the main street “roundy round”. It is framed by two giant white tusks that must be 25 feet tall…So cool.
In the park next to there, is a herd of maybe seven life-size and very realistic concrete elephants and their mahouts. A mahout is an elephant’s sole keeper-rider. All of the life size painted concrete mahouts are mounted on the elephants as though they are riding them and they are all interconnected by a sacred string that runs through each one of their hands.
Sharing the grassy lawn with the elephants and their mahouts is a special san phra phum that houses a really thick and raggedy looking section of rope that is or was used with elephants..I don’t know any details about that yet, but I hope to.
I always really felt like it would be a good thing for me to come back to Surin, I just didn’t know exactly why, but I sure am finding out now..Just like I didn’t know exactly why I was buying the house at 1608 Linscomb Avenue..I just knew that a really good reason would follow the action…. So there you have it..
The heart is very smart, it pays to listen…
From there we went to the Weerawatyothin high school to meet up with a teacher that Patti and I met during the pachyderm parade in a very similar way to Jazz.
Mr. Jenraja Okdeang is a teacher at the high school. He brilliantly versed about the local culture and is a keen builder of exact replicas of ancient carriages and other beautiful things anthropological. Jenraja is an extremely polite man and despite his sore throat and prior engagements, he still granted us audience while I recorded him speaking very eloquently in Thai (says Jazz) about spirit houses and related folklore. And then ended by saying “you are very lucky”.
No shit Sherlock!
Tonight we go to another nice moonlit dinner somewhere by the city canal, and then it’s early to bed to get up early tomorrow morning to take a 90 minute bus ride to the elephant village. I CAN’T WAIT! I hope Longda is there. She was the first elephant that Patti and I met when we got off the train..She gave us a ride to the hotel that first night, it was awesome. We were floating along above the streets looking into second storey windows…That was the best..But what was even more amazing than that was that Longda would find us in the crowded elephant procession several times the next day and bump us and make a little elephant grunt as to say “hi there friends” That was totally one of the most wonderful animal – human connection moments I have ever had in my life. That, and the time that I went with Michael Levin to Monterrey California.
Mike was only an electrical engineer back then and he wanted to work with John Lilly who was teaching dolphins to read and speak the alphabet and simple words inside of a large swimming pool with a big TV screen mounted in the side for the dolphins to look at letters and words. Inside of a workshed next to the pool, there was an Apple computer that acted as an interface which would transform the low pitch of the human voice to a high frequency that the dolphin can hear and visa versa.
Mike went inside for his interview while I got to stay out by the pool with these two sentient beings named Rose and Joe. I could immediately feel a very intelligent presence as I just sat as quietly as I could by the side of the pool. Rose would circle and come close to me. Then she’d roll over slightly so as to get a look at me. It was obvious that she was curious who I was, and when our eyes met, I recall feeling shy and looking away as though someone was staring at me. Now ol’ Joe, he didn’t seem interested at all for quite a while and then he moseyed over to see what all of the fuss was about. I got the feeling that Joe was a kind of edgy dude…Maybe a little grumpy, I don’t know, maybe it was bothering him that I was a boy..Whatever Joe!
Anyway, the toy of choice for these two was of all things, a bowling ball and they would swim around with it on the tip of their nose faster than gravity could make it drop, and then they would do this kind of volley game between themselves. It was phenomenal to watch. Then I guess Joe warmed up to me because he brought the bowling ball over to me by balancing it on the tip of his nose. The water was pretty far down from the edge of the poolside and I couldn’t stretch my arms far enough down to grasp the heavy black ball with my hands, so Joe ever so patiently lifted that ball even higher out of the water, still balancing it on his nose up to where I could take it from him. That was the most amazing bonding moments ever for me. I was by far the dumb weak one and Joe was totally in charge. He was with out a doubt, a very highly evolved benevolent creature. I’ll never forget him or Longda for as long as I live.
I hope that it happens again tomorrow. I am always up for a good dose of sentient angel critter time.
More about that as I’m on the train heading back to BKK to get my Myanmar visa and get ready for Burma! I might have to get back here to Surin before I go home…I don’t know, I can decide later.
Granny says, “always leave a party when it’s hot”…
Peter Faulk as Mahout.
Oldest living Mahout.
It was a hot, dusty and slow open bus ride for about 60 KM out to the Village and I was definitely ready to be there when we arrived. The village is just that. It consists of a lot of elephants who live there and the people (Mahout) who also live there and take care of them. We were greeted by the chief of the village. Thanks to Jazz, who had interviewed him on the radio several times, we got the VIP treatment. VIP treatment caused us to be privy to my getting personal audience with the oldest living Mahout in the world! His presence was as powerful, sweet and gentle as the elephants themselves. This 79 year old is the master Mahout because he has personally captured and brought into captivity, thirty two wild elephants from the surrounding jungle in his lifetime..That’s inconceivable to most.
I asked him the most obvious question: “How do you catch a wild elephant?”
Here’s what I understand so far (without playing the tape back) from Jazz’ interpretation of his answer:
First, it’s good to be with an elephant who comes from a large family because an elephant in the wild will only be attracted by or interested in another that is from his family. If this connection is established between a domesticated and a wild elephant, then a communication between them will likely begin to happen. When that happens they will be drawn closer together in the wild but I think that when the wild elephant senses that presence of the Mahout he will spook and begin to run away. When that happens, the Mahout and his elephant will chase the wild one until it is really tired. When the wild elephant finally stops to rest, the domesticated elephant approaches him and after a short time they bond and become friends. When that happens, the wild elephant no longer senses danger so the Mahout slips a really strong rope made of braided Water buffalo raw hide around him and then he follows them back to the village for domestication..Whatever that means?..Judging by the sweet way that they seem to treat them there, it doesn’t look so bad. I don’t think that they capture wild elephants anymore I believe that the younger ones are descendants of the old captured ones..
The next question was about the contents of the enormous “Pa Kam” (elephant spirit house) that is filled with things like sacred elephant rope lassos made of water buffalo hide, wooden elephants, candles, incense, and many other really cool looking relics that I couldn’t identify, and also any hunting rituals that are involved with the spirit house itself:
The night before the hunt is to begin, the master Mahout sleeps in the spirit house all other mahout will sleep around the Pa Kam and facing him. There is a lot more to this but I can’t remember, I’ll have to review the tape later, so I’ll know.
While on the fly like this I can only retain so much info. Ask me later…
Did you know that the elephant’s brain is outside his skull??? It’s right in front of the ears and just under the skin! Who’d a thunk it?
Aren’t these old mahouts beautiful in their hunting garb…
(I like the one on the far left, he looks like Peter Faulk).
Then we had the grand tour of just cruising through the normal daily activities of the elephant and mahout of taking baths, swimming in the river and generally hanging out in the shade eating 1/3rd of their body weight which they do every day. I asked if there might be any souvenirs that I could buy to support the place and be able to take something home to remember the experience by. The chief smiled and replied “The elephant will paint a Tee shirt for you”…Wow, you’re kidding!??! This really was the VIP treatment. We were the only ones there so this was just for us.
Oldest living master Mahout - How he hunted elephants in the jungles of Thailand (0463 pt.1
Oldest living master Mahout - How he hunted elephants in the jungles of Thailand (0464) pt.2
Oldest living master Mahout - How he hunted elephants in the jungles of Thailand Part 3 The oldest living Mahout - catching elephants in the Southeast Asian jungle. Everyone in the group must help each other and wait until all hunters have caught an elephant. Interviewer: Jazz (0465) pt.3
The oldest living Mahout - catching elephants in the Southeast Asian jungle. Elephants live together with Mahouts at their home. Who can learn to be a Mahout? Interviewer Jazz (4066) Part 4.
Why they are the great master mahouts of SE Asia. (4067) Pt 5.
Thank you and forgivness ceremony to elephants by praying to their bones. Interviewer/translator: Jazz (0468)Pt 6.
The oldest living master Mahouts In their traditional hunting outfits. Interviewer/translator: Jazz (0469) Pt. 7
Oldest living Mahouts blow hornIn full traditional dress one master mahout demonstrates how he notifies others of whereabouts in the jungle while blasting the #1 master's left ear...( 0470) Pt. 8
Pet is a very talented artist with a personal signature of abstract impressionism.. and he is only 2 years old! It is very inspiring to watch him transform the canvas with such adept and deliberate strokes. I think Patti will be moved by his work.
It was a little tough to get him to sign it though, I guess it’s because elephant’s don’t have that kind of ego.
Pet and I took quite a liking to each other, It was obvious that we had a good thing going and after his expression session, we quickly moved into a very friendly and funny love fest exchange.
Getting to know you...
Getting to know all about you!
Please take my little hand in yours..
What a great day that one was! I reviewed it in my mind as Tom and I rode all the way home on the top of the bus, which he showed me to be the best seats in the house, and the only place to ride! The view is spectacular and there’s quite a nice breeze at 50 mph.
Well there’s a lot more but that’s about all I can do for now. My eyeballs are bugging out and my ass is numb again from sitting here for the last 4 hours, so I’m going to go get a massage and start packing for Burma..I leave tomorrow at 4AM!!!
There’s no email from there, so I’ll be back on with lots of news after the 13th
So Happy New Year Ya’ll!