DESTINATIONS Travel

S words from Bangkok

Thai culture has four S words worth learning to understand it a bit more.

“Why go to Onnut Road?” the taxi driver asks me, “when you can go to the airport and take the BTS from there?”

“Is it open?” I ask him about the Bangkok Transit System (BTS) airport link, connecting downtown to the airport some 40 kilometers away.

He nods. “Saduak maak gua,” he adds. It’s more convenient.

But when we get there, taped over the sign for the monorail station is a sign saying it’s closed. Too panicked to get angry at the cab driver or myself, I run to another taxi. The second cab takes me from the airport through the arterial roads that pour thousands of cars each day into the heart of Bangkok. A problem solver, the second taxi driver decides to take me to a metro station instead of the BTS, so I don’t have to change trains.

Tuktuks line the exit at the Hualamphong metro station, but I head for the motorbikes. Faster. Cheaper. Right now I am looking for saduak, a convenient way to get to the dance theater, where I am photographing a rehearsal of dance scenes based on the Ramayana. I want to get there as quickly as possible. It is a good choice, for Chinatown traffic is tight.

Once my kneecap almost brushes a rusty bus fender. My breathing grows shallow and quick, but we arrive at the dance theater with time to spare, and I finally exhale. I rush into the air-conditioned room where the rehearsals for scenes from the Ramayana are about to begin, thankful for the cold air.

At the rehearsals for Thai traditional dance based on the Ramayana.

The long sleeved shirt sticks to my back. Thai summer temperatures can reach over 40 Celsius, but I want to be suphaap, or polite. To suffer through discomfort is to be polite; to suffer inconvenience is to be courteous. Still sweating, I greet the performers, bringing my hands together in front of my face in the Thai gesture of greeting called a wai. Suphaap.

Rehearsals over, I flag a tuktuk. Evening traffic is thick and so are the diesel fumes. A motorbike stops beside us, and the woman riding it twirls a white frangipani flower to her nose. I envy her fragrant little world.

Woman on motorbike with frangipani.

We lunge our way to the Express Boat Service. For 14 Baht (less than U$0.25), I cross the river to Wang Lang Pier 10. Boat passengers spill into a market. People swarm the food stalls hunting for dinner. Dinner comes in little bags or paper boxes, cheap, easy to take home. Saduak and also sabay, relaxed. Market dinners don’t involve pots and pans and dish washing.

Baked fish at the market.

In another theater by the river, other diners eat in regulated dim light, waiting for the evening’s promised dances. A lithe man dances solo with cloth he makes billow over precise postures as a Thai flute wrings out a plea. The dancer smiles, and so does the audience. They are feeling it: fun and joy, or sanuk, the Thai reason for doing just about anything. Anything not sanuk is not worth doing; even work has to feel sanuk. (That’s one reason why I love Thailand so much.) The dancer ends his set with a red paper umbrella spewing out confetti as he twirls it, whirling in a skirt and mask, feet thumping the floor.

Across the tables, I glance at the audience. A man smiles into his camcorder and speaks to his wife. The young blonde couple forget to sip their beers. I put my camera down on my lap, and clap, clap with the rest.

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