The Gift Of Sound And Vision

It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for spectacle. But the Chinese New Year festivities in Bangkok were a staggering two-day sensory overload of such immensity as to leave me wondering whether there may not be anything the man-made world can offer that could possibly top it.

Probably, that’s more the effect of the proximity than the fundamental reality. Even if so, it was one hell of an experience.

The first day, Monday, began innocently enough near a temple entrance when this lady offered to let me release one of the cages full of birds for 100 Baht. Brings good luck, she said. Probably not some kind of a scam, I didn’t think, as the Chinese are of course very superstitious. Even so, I declined the offer.

Yoawarat Road had been closed off to traffic, the decorations had been hung…

…the finishing touches were being applied…

…and it was time to party like it was 2555! And in Bangkok, nothing says “party” like a massive street fair. And so, that’s exactly what we got.

The food vendors were everywhere.

The Royal Thai Police were everywhere…

…and mostly appeared to be rather enjoying themselves.

The lions were everywhere.

The people-watching was straight-up phenomenal.

And, of course, the temples were filled to bursting.

The only thing cooler than being in a place and not knowing what the hell is going on is being in a place and not knowing what the hell is going on in a language you don’t understand. Just drop your jaw and soak it all in.

Another case in point here — although even those that do understand the language seemed wholly oblivious to the speaker’s exhortations.

Chinese New Year 02

Along about mid-afternoon, I paused to put on the old five-toed shoes so’s I could go inside and use the pisser. A very nice lady, digging the shoes, began to ask me all sorts of questions about them, me, my travels, and cetera.

Of course, she asked them in Thai. With each new question, after waiting a bit for me to respond, then finally accepting that I’d not understood the question, she’d slap her embarrassed pre-teen daughter on the back of the head; the daughter then dutifully, if reluctantly, acting as interpreter.

At one point, she unfurled a banner depicting a temple that she had “built”. Whether it means she was the architect, or provided some funding, or aided in the labors, or constructed the whole damned thing by her own lonesome self I couldn’t quite work out. But whatever her role had been, she was very happy with herself for having taken it: this much was clear.

Soon enough, it was time to get ready for the parade. “Oh, boy,” thunk I, “this is gonna be great!” Normally, I don’t grok parades in the least. Just not my thing. But, Chinese New Year? Bangkok? This is gonna be great!

The throngs lined the street.

Little Thai flags were distributed.

The precise width of the route was adjusted, then re-adjusted. The anticipation was in the air. Twilight, then darkness, began to take hold.

One hour passed, then maybe even a second. The anticipation grew and grew. Then, finally, it was time!

What I had assumed was the King (but later learned was actually the Queen) sped by in a nice yellow Rolls. No photos allowed, so I can’t show you the speeding by of her majesty. A schoolgirl next to me had surreptitiously turned on her camera and wrapped it in a handkerchief — but when the moment came, she either chickened out, or her conscience got the best of her.

Everybody (myself included) gaily waved our little Thai flags. Some more official vehicles sped by. And then…and then…the crowds dispersed, and the street vendors swooped in to take their place. It was all over! That was the parade!

Crazy weirdo Thais. But they love their royalty, they do.

I decided to go see what was doing in the Big Huge Mega-Temple near the Chinatown gate, arriving just as chairs were being set up in the large courtyard area between structures.

“Oh, boy” thunk I, “Maybe it’ll be a puppet show!” Swear to god, that’s what I thought might be in store. Seems, in retrospect, insane for that to have been my best guess as to the nature of the forthcoming event. Be that as it may, I dutifully sat my ass down, and waited for the show to begin.

Which it soon enough did, in a language I do not understand. Basically, I think it was akin to a Christmas-time Midnight Mass. No puppets, but the big kahuna of the temple (I think is who it was) arrived, and I got slapped by one of the under-monks, and made to sit up straight and get my feet out of the aisle for his passing. (I was far from the only person to suffer this fate!)

The kahuna gave a blessing or two, then departed. That’s him walking back down the aisle at the beginning of this clip.

Chinese New Year 03

You’ll have noticed that the dude on the mic has a very nice singing voice, so the ceremony was enjoyable enough. But after the singing stopped, and the lecturing started up again, I decided to beat a hasty retreat, and head on up to the top of the big house to pay my respects. When in Rome, and all.

It was a nice view from the top, and the enlightened one was there in all his gleaming glory.

Pardon the cynicism, but one can’t help wonder what ol’ Siddhartha would’ve made of the opulence of the surroundings, the enormity of the temples (both the religious temples and the “secular” enormo shopping domes), and the seemingly unchecked devotion to material gain to be found hereabouts? Ah, well: no different from any other religion, I suppose.

Meanwhile, back out at the mainstage (what I’m going to guess was) an incredible Chinese trad/fusion band was busy laying a two-ton whipping right down on the llama’s ass.

It was pretty loud, though, and I figured that it would’ve overloaded my camera’s puny microphone, so here’s some footage of a nearby Thai street band (also great) instead.

Chinese New Year 04

Saw these cats again on the second night, and that time they really knocked me sideways. But by then, my camera’s batteries had already given up the ghost, so that was that.

Also nearby, hordes of people were stuffing moneys into the lion’s maw, and rubbing their pocket-books all up against it — presumably, to bring wealth during the coming year. (No comment from yours truly.)

Out on Yaowarat and environs, it was suppertime.

The annual Georgia/Florida football game may be known as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party”, but Bangkok Chinese New Year is surely the World’s Largest Outdoor Restaurant, one should think. Here’s a glimpse of the action down some little side-alley.

Chinese New Year 05

Once, I thought I’d spied a vendor selling lychees, and begin moving toward him, the tears of absolute joy already welling up in my eye-sockets. Then, it turned out to be fuckin’ strawberries. Boo! Tell you this much: if it had been lychees, I’d have marched my dimpled ass right back to the temple and paid my due respects in triplicate!

The massive human traffic-jam got even more jammed when the throngs again began to line up for a parade down Yaowarat. Some white guys I asked about it said they thought that the Princess was going to drive through. Crazy!

Probably impossible to adequately describe the wondrous magnificence of the decorations, especially at night-time. Difficult to decide, in any given moment, which to marvel at: the street food scene, or the spectacular decor.

Somehow, walking along under this particular section of lanterns brought a feeling of complete serenity (or something like). Our amazing street-musician friend here added a beautiful surreality to the ambiance.

Chinese New Year 06

Alas, the evening needs must eventually come to an end; and so it was time to catch the subway back down to Silom, to wonder the night away at the day’s unquenchable smorgasbord of being.

For one young Chinaman, dreamtime had already arrived.

 

On the second day, Tuesday, only a few blocks of Yaowarat were closed off to traffic. So while the street fair raged on inside (and the decorations seemed to have gotten even more resplendent), the rest of Chinatown was more less business as usual.

The only real signs of the holiday were the old men painting banners (with, I imagine, some manner of New Year’s blessing) to be sold…

…and the beauticians working their magic for the young ladies.

The people-watching was once again to die for. I spotted this-here fellow, and thought he’d make a great subject. Turned out, he was on the beeline for somewhere, and it took me some blocks to get in a position to even take a half-way decent shot. The end result isn’t even anything special; but when this much effort goes into it, you wanna share it with the world any old way!

No surprise by now, the street musicians were kicking ass ten ways from Sunday…

Chinese New Year 07

…and the food vendors were going off. These guys were very literally pounding into shape someĀ  sort of pastry log.

Chinese New Year 08

Second day at the mainstage was all about the Lion tournaments. Wowie-zowie, talk about some mind-bendingly impressive acrobatics!

Chinese New Year 09

Chinese New Year 10

Chinese New Year 11

That white lion was so far off the hook they’ll never get it back on again. The stunts perpetrated after these two clips were, if you could believe it, even more breathtaking than what you’ve seen here; and were accompanied by the occasional blast from a confetti cannon, and a purple smoke-bomb to finish it all off in grand style.

What appeared to be a couple of bizarre performance artists with wonderfully beguiling narration, it later turned out, were actually some sort of Festival royalty, I think. Anyway, kinda trippy.

Chinese New Year 12

After the work-day had ended, Yaowarat was closed off to traffic for a good mile or so. Only this time, with no parades to line up for, the whole of the street could be given over to the only thing that matters: street vendors and trinket sellers, Bangkok style! Scratch that: hyper-Bangkok style.

Mix it in with the omnipresent decorations, and it added up, yet again, to a swirling, whirling, onrushing melange of culture the likes of which this-here blogger never has seen. So incredible!

Lots and lots (and lots and lots, and still more lots) of pictures of the scene over at my Flickr page. Go check ’em out, if you will. There are (if I may say so) a very great many wonderful images to be learned.

I was eager to discover for how long this guy would keep repeating this deliciously hypnotic proverb (if proverb it be)…finally figured out that it was a recording.

Chinese New Year 13

There were, by the way, many a Durian to be found. But they were just too expensive for my blood. Also, not very aromatic, making me believe that it’s still too early in the season for them to be of very high quality.

Purchased some watermelon from this fine gentleman…

…which was tasty enough that I just had to purchase me some more. As chance would have it, a piece of watermelon fell onto the road as I was putting the change into my pocket. I bent over and plopped it into my mouth; and the lady behind me on line started freaking out. Jeez, I guess she’s never heard of the two-second rule!

After having dazed and amazed my way down the entire length of the bazaar, I sat for a while to take it all in as the lights began to blink on. I like all of the discrete sounds one can identify in this clip. There’s the song, the monologue, the voices, the motorcycle, and the general murmur and clatter of commerce.

Chinese New Year 14

As darkness took hold, I wandered back down the other side of Yaowarat to see what I would see over on that side of the street, and got involved in the mother of all human traffic jams. No worries, though: just look around and boggle at it all. Entertainment for ages.

Found my way down a side-alley for a bit, and for some many minutes became totally entranced by this master at work.

Chinese New Year 15

Eventually, I did arrive back to the mainstage, where trophies were being awarded to the best of the day’s lioneers. Arrived just at the end, and it looks as though that white lion was indeed the championship winner.

Went and sat down for a bit, and thought maybe I’d seen all there was to be seen. But some little voice told me not to leave just yet. After all, I’d read that I should expect to hear plenty of firecrackers, and had not yet heard a one. Maybe it was almost firecracker time?

Soon enough, the dramatic music coming from the mainstage began to grow even still more dramatic, and I thought I’d may as well stand up and have a look. It was a spectacular dance troupe using an enormous gold runner as a prop. Yes, definitely worth sticking around for.

Then the dance troupe exited, and on came the mega-dragon. So enormous it had to coil itself around and around the stage. It was something to behold. As I say, my camera’s batteries’ juice had long since dripped their last drops. I did manage, with the little bit of re-juice, to get a photo or two…

…as well as a clip of exceedingly brief duration.

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As the dragon was writhing and roiling its way about the stage and the music grew more and more dramatic, a dozen or so operators clad in skin-tight yellow rubberwear (or what have you) gradually went up a free-standing ladder, and the dragon thereby “climbed” its way up to the top, coiling ’round and ’round them. The dragon’s head must’ve been fifty feet above the stage, I guess — I’m so poorly at estimating distances; but suffice to say that it was way up there.

After much fire-breathing and carrying on, the dragon finally uncoiled itself back down to the stage, and then slithered itself all the way on down Yaowarat (an aisle for the purpose having been obligingly cleared by the street-vendors).

I’ve never seen anything like it.

On one hand, I feel like such an un-cultured schmuck for having been utterly ignorant that such a production could possibly take place in this world. On the other, I feel lucky to have witnessed it not only without any preconceptions, but without any conception period: five minutes before it happened, I had no idea that it, or anything like, was going to happen.

After that, I just wandered around in a daze for a few hours beneath the magical lanterns, trying to believe that I had just witnessed what I’d just witnessed. Thailand, wow.

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