The following travelogue is a fictionalized series of essays. While based on true stories, some of the names have been replaced to protect privacy.
THE TEMPLE CAT
I first noticed it as a stinging sensation - like an insect bite. I jerked my hand back from the cat's belly but my reflexes were unnecessary, as the perpetrator by then was out of arm's reach and galloping away towards the stairs.
Bright red blood in the shape of a half-moon was forming on the back of my hand where the cat had sunk his teeth straight into me with the skill of a surgeon. What struck me the most was how quickly the cat had turned on me. I'd taken my eyes off him for only a second or two, but in that brief moment the docile tomcat that had been lying on his back and playfully inviting me to scratch his belly had transformed himself into a feline Cujo.
In spite of having a degree in biology, I never fully appreciated until that day on my way to the hospital in the backseat of a tuk-tuk just how much blood is required to nourish the human hand.
"No problem" the elderly Thai ladies wearing straw hats were reassuring me after the cat had disappeared down the stairs. Most temple goers in Thailand understand little English, even in a sprawling metropolis like Bangkok, yet the words "No problem", like "okay" and "hello" are universal when a situation like this arises. They were trying to reassure me that the cat wasn't rabid. "No problem. No problem," they kept repeating.
Southeast Asians pay more attention to facial expressions than Westerners tend to and the three must have sensed my shock, trying to keep me calm while I rummaged through my backpack looking for something to slow the bleeding.
Just the day before, I'd read in my guidebook how an alarming number of people die of rabies in Thailand in an average year, partly because children don't always tell their parents when they've been bitten by a stray cat or dog or even a rat, of which there was no shortage of in Bangkok. I knew this because I'd seen a few of them at Chatuchak Market in broad daylight scrambling through the garbage cans belonging to street-food vendors, or snitching the balls of sticky rice offerings next to the spirit houses on concrete pillars, and the vendors never took any notice of the drama unless they happened to catch sight of me recoiling in shock. In fact, rats that live in the fields and fatten up on rice are considered a delicacy in the countryside just outside of Bangkok to the north. Whenever I'm offered a bite of grilled rat while exploring the canals outside the city, I grab at my stomach, make a sour expression, and say "my sab-eye", which means I'm sick. It's the best way I've found so far to get out of sampling rodent meat without offending Thai hospitality.
Sometimes, when a monk adopts a stray cat they allow the cat to live indoors where it's safer, maybe even sleep together with them, but unfortunately this particular tomcat had no collar on, which should have been my first red flag. Before reaching down to scratch his belly, I also should have been alerted by the scratch marks across his nose and the notches in an otherwise triangular ear, either of which would have been a giveaway of doing previous battles with feral cats that breach the temple walls in order to pick through food leftover from the monks' breakfast. I had no one to blame and I wasn't even angry with the cat. I should have been more careful and bad things can happen on the road, no matter how aware someone tries to be. I suppose that's why traveler's insurance exists. Even Marco Polo got deathly sick on his journey through Asia while making his way east from his home in Venice, Italy. Marco was only seventeen back in AD 1271 and apparently he thought for certain he was going to die before even stepping foot in China. He recovered and I figured so would I.
On the tuk-tuk ride to the nearest hospital - my hand wrapped in the t-shirt I usually use as a cushion for the Nikon D300 whenever I carry it loosely in my daypack - we'd gotten swallowed up by traffic, which meant I'd had time to reflect on how I'd gotten to this point, trying to figure out how a 44-year old American had made his way not only to Southeast Asia, but all the way out to an obscure temple that was not on any map, a full hour bus ride from the tourist section of Bangkok. I was far enough outside the metropolitan area that green rice paddies, sod farms, and tree-shaded canals, rather than sweeping rectangular concrete apartment buildings and billboards were providing my visual distraction while we sat motionless in gridlock.
|Tuk-Tuk Taxi in Bangkok|
The temple I had the run-in with the cat was far enough off the tourist trail that I wasn't surprised the tuk-tuk driver - who was outside the temple reading a newspaper, apparently waiting for a local fare - didn't know any English, but the one thing I did have going for me was that a t-shirt soaked in blood is still the universal symbol for "get me to the nearest doctor ASAP", so there was no need to look in the back of the guidebook for the proper Thai word for doctor, which happens to be maw in case you were wondering.
One of the advantages of hiring a tuk-tuk in Thailand is that they're small and nimble enough that they can usually squeeze in between cars and buses with the enviable grace of a motorbike, but on this particular afternoon the vehicles were packed in like sardines, bumper-to-bumper, so it was obvious that we were weren't going anywhere soon. This being my seventh month on the road, by now I'd heard stories of 20-something backpackers bribing tuk-tuk drivers in Bangkok to race one another - tempting fate with a few extra dollars - to beat the opposing team's driver. Maybe it's because I had mellowed into middle age, but it seemed to me that when you're several thousand miles from home, there should already be enough excitement in your life that you don't need to up the stakes by getting into races on third-world roads. Thailand has the 2nd highest accident fatality rate after Libya.
Just a year earlier I had been putting in 10-hour days in a laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher at a university in Miami, Florida. After finishing my Ph.D. work in biochemistry I'd been hired on for a 2-year fellowship to learn all the ins and outs of a disease called retinitis pigmentosa, or RP for short. RP is an especially cruel genetic disease - as genetic diseases go - where the light-sensing cells in the backs of patient's eyes flicker out one-by-one and many go blind before they even reach their 30s. In this day and age where engineers can land a space probe to within a few miles of a crater on the surface of Mars, there is still no cure for RP, not even anything that can slow it down in any significant way. But rather than trying to get genes inside of rat retinal cells, I was now twelve time zones away, wide awake and bleeding all because of a feral animal that looked like it could have been rabid, while everyone else I knew was sound asleep in their beds. How did this happen, I wondered?
My fellowship at the university had ended abruptly when my PI (or Principle Investigator), a tenured professor, had finally accepted the fact that he wasn't going to be able to pressure me into following his false line of inquiry anymore. Unbeknownst to him, it had become apparent to me that he was one of the dishonest parasites in science, which is why I had lost all respect for his work. I'm kind of ashamed to admit it now, but I never actually told him what I thought of his dishonesty to his face.
Months earlier, I had stopped reading his previous journal articles in the field of RP research. Why waste time and have to nurse eyestrain when you know the guy who published his "results" no doubt cut corners to obtain his findings, almost as if he had a grudge against science? Rather than going quietly (as I did), while sitting in that tuk-tuk at the traffic light outside of Bangkok and bleeding into an old t-shirt, I now wished I'd gone ahead and turned him into the university's ethics board. But then I reasoned how it would have mostly been his word against mine, and on top of that I still felt some misplaced sense of loyalty since he was the only one to offer me a job straight out of graduate school, as naive as that probably sounds.
I was afraid to squeeze my makeshift bandage any harder to see if I could still feel pain as the shirt was by now saturated with blood, and I thought about how, after three months in Thailand, I still hadn't gotten used to cars driving on the left side of the road. In fact, the first time I was nearly killed on this trip was just my second week in the country while walking across a street outside Bangkok in a suburb called Nonthaburi, forgot which way traffic went, felt a sudden gust of wind on my face as a motorbike zipped past me from my blind side doing what must have been 50 miles per hour, close enough that if I'd been just an inch or so further out into the road I would have been flattened like a tortilla roll. As the bike sped off into the distance, all I could think of was that I'd left my passport back at the guesthouse and so no one from the embassy would have been able to identify my body at the hospital if I had gotten killed. From then on, I not only carried my passport everywhere, but always looked both ways before crossing any street no matter how deserted it appeared at first glance.
For a Buddhist country, tuk-tuk drivers can sometimes seem out of place as they tend to become rather impatient when stuck in traffic and just as I was starting to feel light-headed from all the exhaust emanating from the bus directly in front of us, the signal changed and all the tuk-tuks and motorbikes surged towards the head of traffic again as if taking part in some absurd race. As the two of us bounced along past rice fields, the fresh air was waking me up again, and I thought about how discouraged I'd gotten after losing my fellowship at the university, and how, when I tried to tell other postdocs about my experiences in this guy's lab, they simply shrugged and looked at me, as if to say "Are you really so naive that you're just now figuring out that's the way science is done in the real world?" Since then, the more I look around at others in scientific research, the more I begin to believe deception is the rule rather than the exception, which is exactly the opposite of everything I'd been led to believe about science.
Years before my negative experiences in his lab, as an undergrad while coaxing my sleep-deprived mind through through two semesters of organic chemistry with mass quantities of caffeine and putting up with the stench of formaldahyde that I never quite got used to in comparative anatomy labs with their reliably sticky floors, professors in white lab coats who had dedicated their lives to science were people to be admired, almost like priests or missionaries.
Along with science, history was one of my favorite subjects in school and so, before leaving Miami, I'd sent away for a guidebook that, according to its reviews on Amazon's website, was chock full of information on Southeast Asian history, and it was because of this guidebook that I wasted little time getting to the nearest hospital.
One of the more interesting sidebars in this particular guidebook caught my attention the previous night while sitting in the market having dinner. It told of Thailand's monarchy and how - even as late as 1910 - the king had over 150 concubines in his harem. In fact, his father King Mongkut had 82 children by 32 different wives. If you've seen the movie The King and I, then you probably know of King Mongkut who was played by Yul Brynner, even if most of the book that the movie was based on was fiction.
Getting back to the point, in 1911 there was a Thai princess who was bitten by a wild dog in Nakhon Pathom; not a rare occurance back then, and just a stone's throw from the very temple where I had my run in with the feral tomcat. Even today, Thailand has around 10 million stray dogs, most of which will ignore you unless you happen to be carrying hot food in your hands, and as recently as the 1990s two hundred Thais a year still died of rabies. In 1911, everyone in the palace knew this particular dog was rabid and it was just a matter of time before the unfortunate little girl would suffer her gruesome fate. But as luck would have it, a branch of the world-famous Pasteur Institute had recently opened its doors just two countries to the east in Saigon, Vietnam in 1891. Named for Louis Pasteur - discoverer of the first vaccine for rabies - it's location in Southeast Asia meant it was now possible for someone bitten by a rabid dog in Thailand to be treated, provided they got the vaccinations quickly enough. The story would have had a happy ending if only the poor girl hadn't missed the last boat to Vietnam. She died of rabies three months later.
|Street Dog in Bangkok|
Europeans, according to my guidebook, have been known to refer to Thais as the "Danes of Southeast Asia" - maybe because of their famous sunny dispositions - unlike the more stoic Vietnamese who are called (ironically enough) the "Americans of Southeast Asia" because of their industrious tendencies, which may have rubbed off way back when Vietnam was colonized by the Chinese for nearly 1000 years. In fact, you'll often see Thailand referred to as "LOS" by backpackers; the Internet abbreviation for the "Land of Smiles".
My middle-aged driver was a family man. It was obvious by the picture of his two children taped to the tuk-tuk's steel dashboard, and typical of Thai drivers he was pulling out all the stops, trying to get me to the nearest hospital as fast as the highway spirits would allow. I appreciated this, even though on several occasions he almost flipped us after just catching the edges of a pothole or swerving to miss the occasional vendor from an outlying village hawking flowers in the center of the road.
By now, the cat bite had gone from a painful stinging sensation to a less worrisome dull, throbbing feeling and at least the t-shirt wasn't getting any heavier, so I relaxed as best I could, leaned back into the seat, and changed the afternoon's topic to considering what it was that brought me to graduate school and an eventual Ph.D. in medicine in the first place.
Back in high school one of the only humanities classes I looked forward to was graphic arts. Maybe it was because their department had a darkroom and I had just gotten a Hasselblad film camera for Christmas. This was at a time when digital cameras cost about as much as a personal computer. I reconciled using film by the fact that even the Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon didn't take along digital cameras because they didn't have them back in the 1960's. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin snapped photos of each other while exploring the Sea of Tranquility using a plain old Hasselblad 500EL film camera attached to a 60mm Zeiss lens just like I had.
It's true that photography increased my popularity with some of the girls back in high school - especially when I expanded my horizons into underwater photography - but biology kept drawing me back, promising rewards of a more intellectual kind. Back when I was 7 or 8 I'd somehow gotten it into my head that if I could understand why animals knew what to do - like salmon returning to the same stream to spawn in Alaska, or monarch butterflies migrating over 3000 miles from Canada to Mexico each winter - that it would be like seeing into the mind of God.
In fact, I probably would have become a zoologist instead of switching majors and veering off into medical research if my father hadn't died of stomach cancer at the young age of 46 during my first year of college. But I guess deep down in my reductionist heart, I never lost hope that someday I would know the mind of God, even if it turned out to be found within the confines of a single cell.
So in the fall of 1995 I found myself in a graduate program, skipping the masters and going straight for a Ph.D., which I didn't even know was possible until I read a brochure advertising the program I eventually ended up in on the wall of the careers office at my university.
By the time the tuk-tuk driver was pulling into the hospital's driveway - the hospital took up three-quarters of a strip-mall and was carpet-less magazine-less and without even a waiting room as far as I could tell - I was becoming a little more optimistic. The bleeding had all but stopped, meaning that the cat's razor-sharp incisors had missed nicking any important arteries. One of the benefits of having a blood-soaked bandage is that there is no wait because if there was a line at the hospital that afternoon, I was being taken at the head of it. Within about 20 minutes, the nurse had cleaned all the dried blood off, revealing a few small puncture wounds and some localized swelling. The human hand is a remarkable instrument, and I wiggled my index finger to make sure I was still able to operate the shutter button on the camera as easily as I could before the accident.
The rabies vaccine these days is grown inside of monkey kidney cells harvested from the bottom of a plastic flask in a lab. Once enough of them have reproduced, the cells are infected with a weakened version of the rabies virus. Using monkey kidney cells is safer than what they used to use (nerve cells) to grow the virus in and so is not like the old rabies vaccines, which were a hell of a lot more painful to administer. I received a regular shot in the upper arm muscle, and the hospital bill for everything came to only 1200 baht, which is about $30 US. I was planning on taking the bus, but the tuk-tuk driver was still waiting for me even though I thought I'd made it clear he could leave - maybe he thought I needed more looking after - and so I hired him to whisk me the rest of the way to Koh San Road where my guesthouse was.
I still had 4 more injections to receive over the next 4 weeks and while we were getting closer to the city, I began wondering if maybe I wasn't accident prone. It's true, the cat had gone rogue on me but I couldn't help remembering how, back when I was in Miami, I'd gone and burned myself with an extremely powerful ultraviolet light-producing lamp. We routinely use ultraviolet light to detect DNA whenever it is in the presence of a fluorescent dye (called ethidium bromide). DNA is ordinarily invisible when you're working with it in the lab and you have to take it on faith that you actually have any in your test tube, but after DNA binds to this particular dye molecule, the DNA lights up (i.e. it fluoresces) a distinctive orange color, except that I didn't know the lamp was as intense as it turned out to be and so I didn't bother putting any safety glasses on. All I needed was to check to see whether the bright orange band representing the DNA fragment was present (or not) within the gel. If it was, it would indicate that the gene I'd engineered had been successfully cloned (i.e. copied) inside the bacterium. The DNA band was present, which was the good news that day. The bad news I wouldn't find out about until the middle of the night while lying in bed trying to get back to sleep.
|What DNA looks like under UV-light|
That two minutes of intense short-wavelength light was enough to do it, but I didn't feel the damage until I woke with the worst burning sensation I've ever had, and in both my eyes, as if red pepper had been rubbed into them. After feeling on the wall for the light switch, I found it and flicked on the light only to discover that everything in the room appeared cloudy, as if I was looking through a window in winter dusted with frost. In a cold panic, I ran outside and flagged down a taxi, getting myself to the nearest hospital, still unaware of why I was rapidly losing my vision in the middle of the night.
As I was on the examination table in the ER discussing my symptoms with the doctor, it occurred to me what probably happened, so I mentioned my using the UV light in the lab without safety glasses. He agreed that had to be the case. I'd basically subjected myself to an intense sunburn on both my corneas. He prescribed some eyedrops and some OTC pain relievers during the brief five minutes he saw me.
I'd been expecting a single bill but instead got three separate ones. The first was from the physician, the second from the emergency room, and the third I'm still not sure to this day what it was for. At any rate, the whole 5 minutes came to over $500, but at least my eyes did return to normal after a couple of days, and my hunch is that they probably would have done so even if I hadn't reached my health insurance's deductible due to a single trip to a hospital's emergency room in the US.
When it was time to get my gear sorted out for the trip, I made a beeline for the best camera shop in Miami not having made up my mind of what, exactly, I wanted, which is probably the most fun way to shop for a new lens. I knew I'd be getting a Nikon camera because I already owned their consumer-grade Coolpix point-and-shoot and was instantly smitten by what I saw...not least because of the vivid colors. It was my first digital camera and since then I never looked back, not even in a nostalgic way, to film again.
I had nothing against film Hassies, or using a digital Canon for that matter, it's just that I never had a Canon camera so I simply stayed with Nikon. The D300 fell into my price range, so that made it easier to decide on. It practically guarantees professional-looking 12 mega-pixel photos, but was still straightforward enough for non-pros like me to pick up how to use in about a day of wandering around Southeast Florida's Gold Coast taking practice snapshots of sailboats, coconut palm trees, and the occasional windsurfer.
As for lenses, I was open to suggestions. Since I'd be traveling, one obvious interest would be in street photography, but I also wanted to take pictures inside of Buddhist temples. Even though I've never been religious, for some reason temples in Asia always exerted a pull on me. Maybe it was because I found myself at a crossroads in life, still there's something about the devout that I've found interesting since I can remember, maybe it's the intensity of emotion that comes through in a photograph and I knew that emotion on a subject's face can make all the difference.
So when the salesman slapped on a fisheye lens - the Nikon 10.5mm / f2.8 - I knew immediately that I'd be walking out with it. I saw the world in a whole new way I didn't think was possible through a viewfinder. It was actually possible, while pointing the camera directly ahead, to get my toes in the photograph in the same frame as a ceiling fan, the lens had that wide of an angle. In spite of the obvious distortion at the edges, I wanted it.
The salesman didn't need to tell me about all the craftsmanship that goes into making a dedicated lens with such a small f-number (2.8), and I remember how he kept calling it a "fast lens", another term I was unfamiliar with from my photography days. I could see after looking through the viewfinder that the lens was high quality, but what exactly did he mean by a "fast lens"? Having already told him I knew about photography, I was too embarrassed to ask what a "fast lens" was.
As soon as I got home, the first thing I did was google "what is a fast lens" and discovered that due to its relatively large aperture (i.e. the hole when the diaphragm is wide open, like our pupil is when it's dark outside) it's called "fast" because you can use a faster shutter speed under the same low light conditions that a lens with a smaller aperture would need a lot longer shutter speed to achieve. Being small, unobtrusive, and "fast", the fisheye lens should be good for photographing the interior of temples without having to use a flash and being as unobtrusive to worshipers as possible.
As for the word "fisheye", another google search revealed that this term was first used by a scientist in 1906 for the way a fish sees the ocean like a panorama. The first practical use for the fisheye lens wasn't by a marine biologist though, but by a meteorologist, in order to study cloud formation in the 1920's, which is why you might sometimes hear fisheye lenses being referred to as "whole-sky lenses".
As a biologist with a strong background in vision, I knew something about the eyes of a fish. In fact, our eye as well as those of all vertebrates (which includes frogs, snakes, birds, and polar bears) was invented by fish during the Cambrian Explosion some 540 million years ago. My first project back in graduate school, in fact, was sequencing the DNA of cavefish from Mexico, which happen to be blinder than a bat.
If every one of us were able to look back into our family trees to, say 200 million generations ago, our ancestors would have had gills and a tail because they were fish. Yep, there's no doubt about it among evolutionary biologists. In fact, as disconcerting as it may feel, you and I both had gills and a tail at one time during our development inside the womb, but they eventually morphed into a top lip, a jaw, and a palate, before we were born. Sometimes things can go awry during development and babies are actually born with a gill slit or two in their necks simply because they never closed up entirely. It's not all that unusual for a person to be born with gill slits, actually.
Even though we're both vertebrates and therefore have the same kind of "camera eye", a human's eye and a fish's eye are quite different in the way they focus images, and is why all fish are nearsighted compared to land vertebrates like us. Their retinas are fine (in fact, most can see more colors than we can) because it all has to do with lenses.
|Vertebrate (bird) Camera Eye|
The retina in the eye can be likened to the film (or an electronic CCD chip) inside a camera. This tissue lays against the back of the eyeball and when we want to focus an image on the retina, our lens is what changes shape. Our eye's lens actually bends a little, using special muscles attached to it. But for a fish, when it has to focus on an object, the fish needs to move its lens in or out (using its own special muscle), not unlike the way a camera's telephoto lens moves in and out to change its focus. A fish's lens is dense, too, and doesn't hardly bend at all. In fact, they're so round and hard that people have been known to take the lenses out of a fish's eyes and play with them as if they were marbles!
The physics of light and the way it travels through different substances can get somewhat complicated, but as far as vision, most bending of light is done with our outer covering of the eye called the cornea. Being on land means that air is the substance that touches the surface of our eye, while a fish, which of course lives in water, has water touching the outside of its eye. Since the density of water and the density of the eye are about the same, a fish is unable to use its cornea to bend light very much. Air, on the other hand, is a lot less dense than an eye, which means light can do a lot more bending (refraction) when it passes through the cornea of a land vertebrate like us. A fish's cornea does practically no bending at all, which means it needs its lens to do all its focusing. Our lens is mainly for "fine-tuning" of light bending, since most of our eye's focusing is done by our corneas.
|Vertebrate (fish) Camera Eye|
Another advantage we have over most fish is that we can adjust the size of our pupils. Except for sharks and rays, most fish are unable to change the diameter of this hole that allows light in. That's because, sometimes when a fish needs to focus on an object that is far away, it will move its lens so far forward, the fish's lens can protrude right through its own pupil, which strikes me as kind of painful.
On the other hand, that goldfish you had as a kid could have seen a wider range of colors than its owner, even into the ultraviolet range. Don't feel bad because I can't see ultraviolet light either. If I could, I wouldn't have unknowingly burned my corneas that day in the lab trying to catch a glimpse of the DNA. Fish are actually quite amazing and there are some species, like anchovies, that can even detect polarized light, probably so they can better tell where the surface of the ocean is, but no one knows for sure why they evolved the ability to see polarized light.
Gathering light is more important if you happen to frequent dark places. Fish that inhabit the deep sea tend to have larger eyes, simply so they can gather more light. This is equally true for land animals. The tarsier is a nocturnal primate that lives in trees in Southeast Asia and has eyes that rival its brain in size. The record for eye size doesn't go to any vertebrate though, but to a mollusk. The giant squid can have eyes up to 11 inches (27 cm) in diameter, or about the size of a soccer ball, which gives me a whole new thing to think about when I order the deep-fried calamari.
I should mention that, being a vertebrate myself, I'm biased towards having a camera eye, but in actuality, there are invertebrates like spiders with 8 eyes, or insects like the dragonfly that have excellent vision and can see 360 degrees without moving its head because, with two round compound eyes, it essentially has 60,000 separate lenses each with its own retina. But more on the eyes of invertebrates a little later.
|Most Invertebrates (except for some cephalopods) make due without camera eyes|
While on the Southeast Asian trip, I would eventually come to rely on my fisheye lens so much, I'd go for days without taking it off the camera. There was one fly in the ointment, though, about the fisheye and I didn't realize it until several months later. The lens I bought was a "dx" lens, meaning it is specific for Nikon's digital cameras fitted with a smaller chip. If I ever decided to upgrade to a full-frame digital camera (i.e. one with a larger chip), like the D810, I'd need to buy another lens. At the time I acquired my dx lens, full frame digital cameras were a lot more expensive, and in truth I didn't even know there was a difference in chips or what a full-frame camera was. I just thought all chips inside digital cameras were the same dimensions. Wrong. And like most things, full-frame cameras have come down in price in recent years. In my opinion, there's little reason for professionals to stick with a dx camera anymore. Full-frame cameras are better.
Historically, the Germans have a reputation for making the best lenses (Zeiss, Leica, etc) not so much because they invented the best quality glass, but because the science of optics happened to be more advanced in Germany in the 1800s. Snell's law equation and other advances in physics gave them a head start in the field. Their lead in optics wasn't all down to mathematics, though, because German physicists were the first to isolate pure light of just a single wavelength (due to advances in spectroscopy. Spectroscopy is also how they discovered that the sun has helium in it). The ability to use pure single-color light meant that they could take extremely accurate measurements of their lens's glass after they produced them to check for any defects in the glass.
But if you were a European and wanted the very best glass during the Renaissance, you would have called on the Venetians. In 1609, an Italian there named Galileo made one of the first - and definitely the best at that time - telescopes while residing in Venice employing Venetian glassmakers to make his double lenses.
But actually, lenses (and the very first telescope) before Galileo were made by the Dutch, but once they made a telescope, word spread quickly and it was only within a few months that Galileo had his own working telescope. The guy was a genius, and I only wish I'd worked for someone like him after getting my degree because he was ahead of his time. It's why he's often called the Father of Modern Physics. And when you live in a city like Venice based on maritime trade and surrounded by water, being able to spot ships coming and going from a long way off can be a really high priority for your protection.
Galileo, being the clever experimentalist that he was, soon trained his telescope on the moon and some planets, discovering craters on the Earth's moon and he even finds other tiny moons circling the planet Jupiter, and a whole lot more, so much so that in 1610 he publishes this book about his findings called "The Starry Messenger", which becomes an instant bestseller all over Europe (thanks also to a German called Guttenberg and his improvements with the printing press around the 1450s).
Isaac Newton in England would later become so inspired by Galileo's book that, in 1668 he invents a totally new kind of telescope that didn't even need a lens, but used a mirror instead, which is the kind of focusing device the reflecting telescope we call the Hubble Space Telescope is equipped with today.
Now is where I can work the story back to King Mongkut of Siam (as you might recall, he was the Thai king who had 32 wives and 82 children). It's hard to travel around Thailand today without learning something about him, as King Mongkut (who is also called Rama IV) is easily one of the top 5 most revered monarchs in all of Thai history, which goes back almost a 1000 years, so I guess that's really saying something.
Before Mongkut, Thai kings were not very...well...accessible. In fact, before the 1850s it was actually a crime just to gaze at a king's face. When Thai kings and other members of his immediate family walked by, you were supposed to divert your eyes if you were a commoner back then. But King Mongkut was . . . well . . . different. He even allowed ordinary Thais to take part in the business of trade with foreigners, which would eventually change the entire structure of their society. Maybe I have Mongkut to thank for Thailand being probably the most welcoming society I have yet to visit when it comes to foreigners.
Like most Thai men, before assuming his responsibilities as monarch, Mongkut ordained as a monk, which is where he was exposed to western science from all these traveling sailors and missionaries who regularly visited the temple, which explains how he could be celibate for 27 years before ascending the throne in 1851. He also started the first Thai-owned newspaper in Bangkok while he was a monk at the monastery.
In the next decade of his reign - that would be the 1860's - Southeast Asia was destined to see the largest seismic shift in power since the Mongol invasion way back in the 1200's. This would be the dawning of European colonization of Southeast Asia. The French were taking Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the east, while the British were busy fighting for space and influence in Burma out west - and Mongkut was quick to realize that Thailand, being situated in the middle of Southeast Asia, was pretty vulnerable. Called Siam back then, there was no question in King Mongkut's mind that Thailand was next in the crosshairs of these colonial expansionists.
So King Mongkut starts proposing a slew of progressive acts such as banning forced marriages (prior to this, a man could sell his wife to pay a debt off), letting his guards wear shirts (when he first came to the throne, men in the palace had to go around bare-chested so anyone could see if they had weapons on them), and he thought that all Thais should know about geography (most Thai adults thought the earth was flat simply because they learned Buddhist scripture in the temples and took it literally). To say that the guy was a real reformer is putting it mildly.
During his time as a monk, Mongkut had become proficient in mathematics and later as king he applied math to his studies in astronomy and was able to predict the exact longitude and latitude that a solar eclipse was going to occur in 1868. In an effort to reform the Buddhist monks and convince them that they should switch to Western methods of measurement, he went to see, first hand the solar eclipse he had predicted, which happened south of Hua Hin, in some remote Thai province I'm not sure the name of.
Unfortunately, not until 1897 would Western science figure out that mosquitoes carry malaria and Mongkut was bitten by one of these bloodthirsty invertebrates during the 1868 expedition. He died in the palace in Bangkok two weeks later. Today one of Mongkut's nicknames in Thailand is "The Father of Science and Technology" and the 50 baht Thai banknote has Mongkut's seated image and with his telescope in the background. In honor of Mongkut, the Thai royal family ever since his reign has made a tradition of cultivating this special interest in science, including one of the current princesses, who actually holds a Ph.D. in chemistry. Even though it seems surprising to imagine now, thanks to Mongkut's foresight, people were riding around Bangkok in electric trams starting in 1894, long before they had any tuk-tuks.
Marco Polo was one of the first Europeans to see paper money. When he visited China in the 13th century, he witnessed currency made from crushed mulberry bark, "a kind of paper money". Marco was amazed that it circulated as though it were gold or silver. The Chinese had already been exchanging it for almost 300 years.
While resting up during the heat of the day in a temple and thumbing through my guidebook, I found out later on that tropical diseases in the southern parts of Southeast Asia may have been why the Champa civilization lasted as long as it did, and why the Chinese never colonized anywhere below northern Vietnam, but more on that later when I get to Vietnam. The Chinese didn't think much of maritime Southeast Asia, apparently.
After reading up on Thailand at a few travel blogs, I'd somehow gotten the impression there wasn't much in the capital city, mostly congestion and other headaches. I guess that would have been my impression too if I'd only stayed a day - like most western tourists do - before heading off to the north on a jungle trek based out of Chiang Mai, or maybe down south to lay on the white sand beaches of the islands off the coast of the Malay Peninsula (much of the movie The Beach was filmed there on an island called Koh Phi Phi Ley).
Maybe it was mostly the exuberance of the first time visitor, but a curious thing happened the longer I was in this city built on top of what used to be a swamp. Everywhere I went, I found something to photograph, which in hindsight shouldn't have been surprising since Bangkok - laid out in the shape of a squid - is so large it has swallowed up several good-sized cities like Nontoburi and Rangsit, in fact it extends its tentacles into no less than 6 adjacent Thai provinces.
Anyone who passes through Bangkok and doesn't at least take a water taxi ride on the river down to Chinatown has done a disservice in my opinion and has no business claiming to have seen Bangkok or running it down on a travel website. Just 150 years ago, most Thais in Bangkok had to live on the river, unless the king gave them land, which he sometimes did to build temples and encourage foreign investment. Chinatown exists today in Bangkok along the river because of a donation of land by King Mongut (Rama IV) in the mid-1800's.
On the way to the main tourist area by the river, I came across the amulet dealers sitting in a line on the sidewalk stretching for at least 2 city blocks, their backs resting against the facades of the buildings. Each seller strategically laid out dozens of clay and metal amulets on a blanket or a piece of plastic, many guaranteed to be activated by a magic spell promising protection from devious spirits. Some amulets were made over a century ago by a "very good monk", or so I was often told. Amulets as well as tattoos are still believed by many to protect the wearer against everything from snake bites to gunshot wounds, and the guidebook claimed that if I looked hard enough, I'd find antique amulets carved from tiger's teeth and elephant tusks and that soldiers in ancient times proudly wore amulets like these instead of shields into battle.
The belief in invisible spirits controlling the events in someone's life comes from an ancient (and some would say primitive) religion called "animism". As for me, I've always felt that any of the major religions could be considered primitive because they rely more on faith rather than science. According to a book I read recently, Buddhism meshed so easily with animism (that was already established in Southeast Asia) because each are concerned with totally different aspects of human existence. While Buddhism concentrates on ways of achieving social harmony through righteous action, animism is more focused on less higher factors like day-to-day living. For example, Thais often beep their horns out of respect as they drive past a sacred fig tree growing in the middle of a road because sacred fig trees could have spirits residing inside them. There's not much sense in offending a spirit that could feel disrespected and then seek revenge.
|Amulet Dealer in Bangkok|
Eating street food is another daily ritual that happens all over Southeast Asia. It's been said that Bangkok has over 100,000 street vendors on sidewalks, in front of stores, and inside alleyways. The government tried thinning their ranks not long ago because they were blocking pedestrians, or so it was claimed, but Thais have gotten used to paying only 30 baht (around $1 US) for a meal, and the plan was shelved, fortunately for me. As I passed a woman grilling bananas sliced in half lengthwise in front of a McDonalds within sight of the Monument to Democracy, I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if she was an American and tried that stunt in front of this multi-national corporation back home. My guess is that she'd get the cops called on her in about 20 minutes.
One question that could be answered on so many levels is: why is Thai food so spicy, even though chili peppers weren't introduced into Asia until the 1600s? I asked a college-aged girl working behind the desk at my guesthouse that question. She seemed more interested in enrolling me in her aunt's cooking school, one of many on the same block as my guesthouse. Her reply (as best I can remember) was "very healthy for you", which made some sense since it is true the Chinese have believed for centuries that foods with lot of "heat" in them must have medicinal value.
Interestingly, some recent studies have backed this view up in the West. It's also true that when you live in a hot climate, anything that gets you sweating will have a cooling effect on the body. Hot spices may also function as a preservative, capable of inhibiting the growth of bacteria. Along with Buddhism, curry is also a valued import from India, arriving in Thailand via trade routes established across the Indian Ocean some 15 to 20 centuries ago.
|Street Food Vendor in Bangkok|
When I was tutoring premed students back in grad school, I basically went by what the textbook said: that the only 4 tastes the human tongue is capable of detecting are sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Everything went along fine until one day a student asked me about "spicy". I didn't know at the time or I would have given him the correct explanation, which is that a molecule in some spicy foods called capsaicin is able to bind to and activate the same protein receptors on our tongues that heat is able to activate, which leads to the sensation of pain in the brain. Mice genetically engineered to lack this same pain receptor gene are unable to tell when they're getting too hot and will eventually suffer from heat exhaustion, the poor things. But the truth is, giving rodents select genetic diseases is an invention of the late 20th century that has revealed an incredible amount of information about our own genes.
Supposing I had given the correct answer, my curious student probably would have then asked why we have pain receptors on our tongues in the first place. The answer is so that we can tell if we've accidentally bitten our tongue, or maybe chewed on a rock or something detrimental in an age before dental insurance. Teeth are expensive, biologically, to make and maintain and it wouldn't be a good idea to go around breaking them all the time. Plants have taken advantage of the fact that we mammals have these pain receptors in our mouths and have made molecules like capsaicin for millions of years to discourage us animals from using them as a salad bar. Most plants would much rather reproduce than get eaten.
This botanical strategy didn't work perfectly because it turns out one species of mammal would evolve that deliberately exposes its mouth to pain-causing molecules for pleasure . . . we humans. On the other hand, pepper plants encourage birds to eat their peppers because birds swallow their seeds whole and spread them around in their droppings farther and wider (we mammals have teeth that crush and destroy a pepper seed).
Knowing all that now, it probably won't come as a surprise that the birds have a version of pain receptor in their mouths that is able to ignore capsaicin, all of which means that, just because plants don't have a brain doesn't mean they're stupid. Not to get too far off the subject, but there's one member in the mint plant family that makes a molecule that can activate the receptors in the noses of mammals that normally detect cooler temperatures, which is why my grandmother used to put menthol underneath my nose whenever I had a cold as a kid.
The young woman I was talking with at the guesthouse was majoring in biology, and I only wished her English had been better because I really wanted to tell her about a recent theory I came across in a research journal that may help explain why Thais are able to withstand super hot foods, the kind that rank high on the Scoville scale and that often sends foreigners like me running for first aid in the form of a glass of ice water. The research comes from a new field in molecular biology called "epigenetics".
Epigenetics is an exciting area of research that involves changes in DNA that happens in response to a stimulus. This alteration in the DNA can be triggered by our environment and we can even pass onto our children these subtle changes in the structure of our chromosomes. Not so long ago, this kind of thinking would have been heresy in biology circles. It used to be assumed that the only way DNA could change would be to mutate it, which means altering the actual sequence of the units making up DNA's 4-base code (the A's, G's, C's and T's).
Then a scientist - I think his last name was Jirle, or maybe Jirtle - did an interesting experiment using mice back in 2000. He and his colleagues were working with a special kind of mouse that has yellow fur and gains a lot of weight as an adult. They knew these characteristics were caused by their genes because the offspring of the mice would always look the same, having yellow coats and bodies resembling plump little pincushions.
Then, they fed the mother mouse a food containing a chemical (classed as a "methyl donor" for readers with an interest in organic chemistry) and her offspring all changed. The next generation of mice were no longer yellow or fat. In fact, they all looked like normal mice. And it turns out that some of these kinds of chemicals that can alter the way genes function are found naturally in some spicy foods such as onions and curry. The plot thickens. What Jirtle found and why his work is so important is that it's very possible what you eat today could someday alter the function of the genes your grandchildren will inherit from you in the future. The whole field of epigenetics is somewhat Lamarckian in a way, which is why it wasn't accepted right off the bat by mainstream geneticists.
One line of thinking is that Thai people are able to handle spicy foods because the genes that direct the making of the pain receptors on their tongues are not as active as the genes are in someone like me who grew up eating at McDonalds, and it's all simply because their ancestors ate spicier foods, which then altered the "expression" of their and their descendant's genes (but without permanently mutating any of the DNA. In other words, the effect is reversible and if the Thai were suddenly to all quit eating spicy food, eventually their pain receptors would return again to previous levels, like people in the west). That's epigenetics.
Since then, researchers have even gone on to show that mother rats who lick their babies more than usual can actually change the chemical makeup of the DNA in the brains of their babies. An incredible example of environment changing genetics without actually changing (mutating) the sequence of the DNA.
Thais pay more attention to detail when preparing food. They respect texture, honor and revere freshness of ingredients, even the overall aroma (they will use roasted and crushed peanuts just for texture).
|Thai Street Food is a Practical Way to Stretch a Budget|
One day while waiting for a bus in Bangkok I had an interesting conversation with two backpackers from California - a young woman with her boyfriend in tow. They were on their way back home and claimed to have eaten at 7-11 convenience stores their entire month in Thailand. It seems they made the mistake of visiting a morning market in Chinatown their first day and were exposed to all kinds of sights and smells they weren't prepared for, including bullfrogs gasping for air on their backs with their intestines cut out and slung over their bellies, floors slippery with fish guts and scales, women sorting through pails of bugs still every bit alive and even crawling up their arms. These insects reminded them of giant cockroaches and the women wipe them off their arms as casually as if removing too much sweat. When you walk through almost any provincial market in Thailand (many of which are alongside canals), you realize that Thais don't like to let things go to waste.
Besides the amulet dealers, there were at least a dozen other reasons to take my camera along on my way down to the Chao Phraya River, such as the Buddhist nuns in outdoor kitchens of Wat Chanasongkram busily preparing lunch for the monks, the older style orange and white buses with Thais going to work in the morning, it all made for some decent wide-angle shots. I read in a photography magazine while loitering in Asia Books that the best way to assure good photography is to put yourself in the right circumstances where you can't miss. This was pretty good advice and that one sentence has served me well over the years.
Like hundreds of temples in Bangkok, the nuns were cooking on tables, which along with chairs, were not introduced into Thailand until King Mongkut's reign, while his son in 1897 encouraged the use of the first forks and spoons. Before then, Thais ate on the floor while sitting on mats and they used their hands Indian style, not Chinese-style with chopsticks like a lot of foreigners tend to assume.
|Nuns at Wat Chanasongkram in Bangkok|
I didn't realize it then, but cities like Bangkok, Yangon, Saigon, Hanoi, Phnom Penh (and soon Vientiane) are a Western phenomenon - an intended side effect of European colonization and the Industrial Revolution, both of which began in the late 1600's.
As recently as World War II, Bangkok only had a population of about 800,000 - slightly more than Charlotte, North Carolina today. But by 1970 - due in large part to the US military building new highways in Thailand during the Vietnam War in order to move troops and equipment around - that number had grown to 3 million. Today Bangkok has over 13 million people and is still expanding into rice fields, while the city itself is sinking, with some areas already a full 3 feet below sea level. Change has been taking place here on a massive scale. No wonder so many older Thais today - like the 3 ladies who tried to calm my nerves in the temple after my run-in with the tomcat - feel somewhat bewildered that they're losing their culture and trading it for Western values.
Traditionally - except for rivers like the Chao Phraya - there were few ways to get into cities like Bangkok. Unless they were able-bodied men "enlisted" by a king or nobleman to build a temple or dig a canal somewhere, or maybe to fend off an invasion by the Burmese or maybe the Khmer in Cambodia, Thais throughout much of their history pretty much stayed within a few miles of the villages where they were born and raised.
One of the advantages to walking in Bangkok is that most of its 400 temples tend to be located near the river or on canals since water was how monks got to the temple back before automobiles were invented and people started paving everything. In fact, Bangkok was once known as the "Venice of the East" before so many of the canals were filled in to make roads. Ironically, traveling by boat these days is often faster than by car or bus in the city. The loss of so many canals has also made the city more prone to flooding during the rainy season because the overflow has fewer places to go.
|Bangkok Was Once Known as "Venice of the East"|
It's interesting that, as with Venice, water has played a major role in Bangkok's defense as well as in its commerce.
The longer I stayed in Bangkok, the more tricks I picked up that made day-to-day life easier. For example, the further you get off the tourist trail, the more likely a friendly monk will have time to practice English after offering a bottle of spring water and a danish wrapped in cellophane on a hot day as you're walking around, the kind of temple with almost no trees and that if it were in downtown Bangkok it would double as a parking lot during the weekday. That monk in the countryside might even unlock a building or two and show you the murals and statues that are usually off limits to tourists and even Thais during the heat of the day.
On the negative side, the further you get from other tourists, the more likely that temple will have a dozen or two dogs laying around, easily startled, and not used to seeing foreigners. They will consider you an immediate threat. What usually happens is that the one nearest the gate will wake up as you enter and alert the other dogs by barking. This sets off a chain reaction until the barking reaches critical mass and the whole place resembles a kennel at feeding time. I soon learned to bend down and go through the motions like I was picking up a stone and that usually kept most at a distance until a monk could come along and quiet everything down.
Even experienced travelers are often struck by the bewildering assortment of temples in Bangkok, some like the Chinese temples can be the size of a small hut, while others with monks residing in them (called "wats" as they are also monasteries as well as temples) can be the size of professional football stadiums, and there so many others in between these two extremes that it's surprisingly easy to forget which ones you have already seen.
Some temples have elementary schools (the Buddha was a teacher) while others may have a market with lottery ticket and t-shirt sellers and food stalls providing the devout with everything from candles and incense to pad thai and corn-on-the-cob roasted on a grill until the kernels acquire a black varnish.
No matter how many temples I photograph, I've never gotten used to using tripods. Having gotten into underwater photography in Biscayne Bay in Miami, I never needed one, so I guess I avoided ever needing to learn. Every photographer has their own style and being on the spontaneous side, having to fiddle with screws and sliding poles when I see an opportunity for a photo sucks. But hand-holding a jiggling camera is still a serious problem when it comes to picture clarity and after 3 weeks on the road in Asia, I became pretty good at resting my camera whenever possible on something steady, whether it was a marble floor, the arm of a chair, my body while leaning against a wall, or even on top of my head believe it or not. It was obvious when I reviewed my photos every evening in the market at dinner that the clearest photos were invariably the ones taken when I had the camera resting on something besides my just two hands.
THE BUDDHA LIFE
One of the reasons Buddhism was a philosophy that could easily adapt to other cultures in Southeast Asia is that there has never been any central authority issuing dogma. When Kublai Khan took over the rest of China, for example, one of his reforms was making Buddhism the state religion. When Marco Polo visited Sri Lanka as a representative of Kublai Khan he became fascinated with the life of the Buddha. To this day, it could be said that India's most enduring export to all of Southeast Asia has been Buddhism, where a person's identity is determined "not by birth but by worth" as they like to say.
On at least 3 separate occasions while wandering around the temples in Thailand, I was asked to take part in the ceremony involving a young Thai man being ordained as a monk, all while having absolutely no idea of what I was doing or why. To be honest, ordinations usually take place early in the morning and I usually wasn't in the mood for celebrations, but it's difficult to say no to 150 smiling faces of friends and relatives of someone who is on his way to one of the most important events in his life. And when I considered that the celebrants had probably been up all night drinking and feasting, I made a calculated decision to along with it all because it seemed easier.
Buddhist ordinations in Thailand present an interesting contrast because extroverts for a day are throwing a party in the midst of a tranquil monastery grounds usually devoted to internal contemplation. The friends and family of the man being ordained will parade around the temple singing and perhaps dancing in circles while a band on wagon with a loud speakers blair Thai music.
|Ordination Parade to the Temple|
Eventually, after three circumambulations of the temple, the group proceeds inside where it's shady and the kneeling and praying begins. the soon-to-be monks are now looking serious while they show off their memorized chanting (in an ancient language called Pali that is as far away from their native tongue as English is) to a group of older monks who are facing these young men and kneeling and listening intently, and this is where I usually slipped out the back door of the temple, because when you can't understand a word of what's going on, the novelty of staring at stained glass windows and paintings on the ceilings can wear off in a hurry.
After about an hour, the men who are now considered monks exchange their white robes for orange or saffron ones, and they take up their shiny new alms bowls. He is now a member of the Sangha, or monkhood. It used to be that a newly ordained monk would stay and meditate in the temple for at least a month before returning to normal life (the king who just passed, Rama IX, was a monk for 15 days in honor of his grandmother, in 1956). But nowadays, with western lifestyles encroaching everywhere into Thai life, they often don't have that kind of time because of their jobs, so they probably do it for only 10 days over a vacation.
This is one of the few times my guidebook let me down because I couldn't find any information about ordinations. I would only learn later while loitering again in the English language bookstore in the mall that what I took part in was a reenactment of the Buddha's life some 2,500 years ago. My hints were all around me during the celebration, including the paintings on the walls of the temple, scenes which depict the prince Siddhartha from the moment of his conception right through his enlightenment and becoming the Buddha under the bodhi tree, until his death at the age of 80.
The men were recreating the day the prince left his father's palace to find out how to end human suffering. My only goal at that age was trying not to flunk geometry II for the second time so I could graduate high school with my class. The young men on their way to the temple were being carried on their family member's shoulders because when Prince Siddhartha left the palace, he was riding on a horse.
As long as he is over 20, doesn't have a communicable disease, is not in debt, and has permission from his parents, a Thai man will become a monk. Since it is an ancient tradition that monks in Southeast Asia should stay in the temple during the 3 month rainy season, a popular time for the ordination is usually in August.
One day about a week after my arrival in Thailand, I had arranged to meet up with a Thai university student who promised to guide me around and explain what some of the objects in a typical Thai temple meant. I was doing her a favor too because she wanted to practice some of her English pronunciations. Thais have a tough time with the consonant sound "sh" for some reason, similar to me when it comes to trying to roll my r's when speaking Spanish (which I finally gave up on).
The temple I chose was near a canal in Bangkok, but what I didn't know was that there were so many temples on this leg of the canal that she was at a different one looking all over for me, while I was doing the same in mine just two blocks away, looking for her. Finally, in desperation and with sweat rolling down my forehead, falling into my eyes and stinging both of them, I handed my mobile phone to a monk and asked him to explain to her where I was. Later when we met up she was quite upset with me because I didn't tell her ahead of time that she would be speaking with a monk on the phone. It seems Thai people are supposed to use "special words", as she put it, when addressing a monk, something I didn't know and she apparently took very seriously. All monks also have a formal name in Thailand. . ."Pra Song".