IS WOOD BUDDHIST?
Regardless of what your guidebook might say, I know that Bangkok has just three seasons worth concerning yourself with: the rainy season - which reminds me of Miami, where you can almost set your watch by the thunderstorms that roll in every afternoon after picking up water from the Florida Everglades - the cool and dry season where high pressure fronts periodically work their way down from China; followed by the hot and dry season, where even the Thais don't smile nearly so much (except for the children who don't have to go to school this time of year).
If you can make it through the scorchingly dry 3-month stretch from March to mid-May, then you've survived the worst of it and things are going to get better, temperature wise. It's no coincidence that Songkran Festival (Thai New Year) - where Thais of all ages soak themselves with water employing a gauntlet of devices from regular pails and garden hoses to fancy squirt guns - happens to fall in the middle of April and lasts for three long sunny days (I've actually seen the Bangkok sky without a single cloud in it for 3 solid months during one particular dry season) It's true water is said to be lucky in Thailand, but its more tangible value is to cool off whomever happens to be passing by.
Even though the majority of the year the weather is dry, most foreigners tend to picture nonstop rain when they think of Thailand. Elephants come to mind a close second. This notion probably began back when Southeast Asia was referred to as "Monsoon Asia" by the first European sailors and missionaries who ventured here by sea not long after Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope (at the southern tip of Africa) and found a new way to India.
|Hanoi During Summer Monsoon|
But in truth, for three or four back-to-back months, it's possible to go without seeing even one of those high thin wispy clouds that refuse to shed so much as a drop of water. In practical terms, this means there can be absolutely nothing between you and that punishing sun except for whatever shade you manage to find, anything from the corrugated tin awning of a deteriorating hut alongside a secluded canal to the shadow of a tall, gleaming, 100-story skyscraper near Siam Square. Shade is relief no matter what material is responsible for providing it and like the monks who will eat any gift of food (even meat) that the laypeople bring to the temples in the mornings, I am grateful for any kind of shade and which is why I will never question where it comes from in the middle of the day.
For 2 hours on either side of noon, you won't see Thais risking their health without a good reason, and definitely no small animals milling about the temple grounds, either. They'll all be snoozing in the shade somewhere, which is why I finally wised up and quit looking for temple cats during that time of day and instead began spending my afternoons in the comfort of my squalid guesthouse reviewing all the photographs from the previous day's rounds. It was a lot more pleasant and I may have even extended my lifespan by a good year or two that way.
The streets of downtown Bangkok can become so deserted during the heat of the day that I sometimes got the feeling of being in one of those science fiction movies where the main character is the last person on earth after some epidemic or a thermonuclear holocaust (the pavement generates waves of heat that rise like ghostly products of atomic fission) while zig-zagging my way from temple to temple around the city like a ball caught inside a pinball machine. Thais are somewhere else during that time of day, even the ones whose skins are better equipped to handle ultraviolet radiation, because they know that their epidermis would shrivel before they're 30 just like a fair-skinned foreigner's would. Whatever it is one needs to do while the sun is directly over your head in April can almost always wait.
Being a creature of habit on a budget, whenever I found myself back in Bangkok, I usually stayed in the same area near Khao San Road. This famous couple of blocks is not only more affordable than most tourist areas in Bangkok -- I'm thinking of Siam Square or Bang Rak -- but it's also well located -- a stone's throw from the longest river in Thailand, the Chao Phraya -- and also a 15 or 20 minute walk to the most important temple in the kingdom: Wat Phra Kaeo, where the ancient Emerald Buddha is protected.
From there you can stroll along a sidewalk by the river down to Wat Po, which I like even more not only because the entrance fee is about a quarter of Wat Phra Kaeo's fee, but they don't make you put on pants that look like potato sacks just to get into the temple if you happen to be wearing shorts, not to mention the fact that the place is not as cramped and doesn't seem designed for sightseeing the way Wat Phra Kaeo can come off as, either. Wat Po is on the banks of the Chao Phraya River and from my guesthouse it's possible to take one of those boats with the orange flag fluttering on the stern downstream to Wat Po, then transfer to the ferry over to the opposite side of the river where Wat Arun is and if you get there early enough you can discover for yourself why the other name for Wat Arun is "Temple of the Dawn".
|Wat Po in Bangkok|
Some guesthouses make use of the sun and a cold shower at night in one of these guesthouses is not actually going to be cold at all, especially in April. In fact, in some places where their water cistern is on top of their roof and painted black, the supposedly "cold" water might actually be so hot it can scald you a little and I wouldn't be able to stand being in a steady stream of it for more than a few seconds at a time without coming out looking like a lobster.
The ancient historian Seutonius claimed that the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar "found Rome a city of bricks but left it a city of marble". This same situation seems to be happening in Bangkok under the current leadership except that, instead of bricks it's wood and tin that's slowly but surely being replaced by concrete. Concrete certainly has its advantages as far as durability and cost, but it also has an inherent propensity for holding in the heat so much better than wood does, and that can be a real problem when you're trying to sleep at night, even after you've turned the fan on high and tossed off all your sheets down onto the floor.
Existing in the tropics means wood doesn't last nearly as long as it does in more temperate climes. Writing paper is made from wood and this is probably why most of what we know about Southeast Asia before the 1800's comes not from the Thais, the Burmese, nor the Cambodians themselves, but from outsiders like the Chinese and the Arabs and even the occasional European adventurer such as Marco Polo that happened through. It's estimated that the Angkor Empire had close to a million inhabitants living in and around Angkor Wat, unfortunately since they all lived in wooden huts, their homes have long since vanished and we only know about them by the depressions in the earth where each family created suitable places for rice cultivation.
The Chinese are the only people on Earth who can boast having the world's oldest continuous writing system, and it might be because their paper lasted so much longer in their drier northern latitudes. In Thailand and other countries closer to the very wet Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (or ITCZ, near the thermal equator where the trade winds meet), it was the monks who were charged with keeping important records and they often recorded these events onto palm leaves, or wooden boards, or even a kind of "paper" they made by smashing and pulverizing the bark of trees with a stone. Having a background in microbiology, I can attest to the fact that fungi and other decomposers that live in the soil have a field day in continuous humidity and warmth for months on end. This kind of writing surface probably reminds them of the soil from whence they arose and sporulated.
In fact, in all of Southeast Asia the most ancient indigenous writing archeologists have found are inscriptions chiseled onto stone walls of temples like the Angkor Wat complex and the writing happens to be in Sanskrit, another one of the imports from southern India. Most of Southeast Asia was "Indianized" starting around the time of Christ, but got into higher gear with the expanding Gupta Empire around the AD 400s thanks to traders and missionaries from Sri Lanka and other areas in the south. This is why, even today Thailand still has thirteen Brahman priests in the royal household and they can be seen presiding over important ceremonies in the palace. In truth, some historians think Indianization can be traced back even further because decorative Indian beads have been found in Southeast Asia dating to just a few decades after the death of the Buddha around 483 BC.
Even though Thailand has had its own writing system -- derived in the late 1200's from Khmer script, which itself is of the southern Brahmic style -- if something wasn't written down on stone, it wasn't going to last, hence the dearth in ancient Thai literature. Even today, nearly everything we know about the kings of the Angkor Empire in Cambodia comes from 1200-year old carvings on stone temple walls there.
I overheard a guide inside Wat Po telling his group of serious German tourists recently that traditionally, temples in this part of the world were always made of wood not only because stone was rare, but because wood was so impermanent, which fits in well with Buddhist philosophy.
I haven't gotten around to it yet, but have often been tempted to ask a venerable monk what he thinks of his new temple being made of concrete. He might answer that most of Bangkok is concrete and paved over now, so perhaps it's fitting. Maybe someday I'll have the nerve to bring it up to him. Buddhists are supposed to believe that anything we think of as permanent is really an illusion and that we shouldn't try to cling to it. What I do know is that the more I experience in life, the more I lean towards The Enlightened One's outlook myself. Perhaps just "fitting in" is maybe not so far from his teachings anyway. As the Buddha is supposed to have instructed his followers: "Travel through life like water though water", which I have always taken as another way of saying that it's best in life not to make too much of a fuss over anything if you don't have to.
One thing that slowly dawns on even the most casual observer in Southeast Asia is that it's nearly impossible to go without seeing any kind of lacquerware in the markets, especially the markets where the percentage of tourists can rival that of the locals selling and buying stuff. Coating the outside of wood with sap from wild lacquer trees was a clever idea that really caught on in this part of the world since - similar to varnish - layering an object with tree resin is a way of keeping the moisture out of the wood. In fact, this form of preservation is not only practical, but aesthetically pleasing as well. Like noodles and chopsticks, the art of making lacquerware is another Chinese import Southeast Asians have taken to, and even Marco Polo was quite taken by it when he visited China in the 13th century and described to Europeans (whom had never seen lacquerware) how the Mongols would drink wine together from this giant lacquered bowl.
In the ancient city of Bagan in Myanmar one morning I rented an E-bike and found myself out in the middle of what I took to be nowhere - mostly goats grazing in misty sesame seed fields dotted with 10th century stone temples on the horizon -- and then got coaxed into a hut by an especially persuasive middle-aged woman. Having tippy-toed out of my guesthouse so early that the staff hadn't had time to get breakfast ready, I was extremely thirsty and she had hustled me in under the guise of getting me off my feet, having a cold Pepsi, and just relaxing. While on his way to China, Marco Polo would sometimes force-feed his camels water so that, if his party were to run out of it in the desert, they could make the animals regurgitate this excess water for themselves and, since I didn't have any camels to regurgitate or even a plastic bottle of spring water, I took her up on the offer.
Instead I was being led into someone's web. There was no cold Pepsi in sight and her "hut" turned out to be the family lacquerware business. Hanging from the ceiling were countless long, thin, strips of bamboo and sitting in a chair in a corner (the chair was also made of bamboo) was an ancient woman who must have been in her 90's, smoking a cigar -- I immediately took her to be the grandmother. She was coiling these paper-thin bamboo strips up and around into the shape of a bowl while another family member, probably the daughter of my abductor, was weaving some of the wider bamboo strips into what looked to be a tray to hold the grandmother's bowls, but I wasn't sure and I didn't want to seem too interested in any of this. I still had a film of sweat burning both my eyes and a parched throat that felt like sandpaper, after all.
I'm not really into collecting nicknacks since I live out of a backpack and so was more interested in taking photos of her shop, but didn't want to insult her by not first purchasing anything so that's why I have no images of the factory to share. I had realized by about this time that, while half-asleep, I had tiptoed out of my guesthouse so early, I'd forgotten my wallet so I couldn't buy anything even if I wanted to. In the corner of a small dirt floor pounded room - several bamboo bowls were drying after having been coated maybe 30 times with the water-repellent tree sap. My abductor explained that since the bamboo strips were cut so thin, it made them more flexible, allowing the strips to be shaped into almost any utensil. In the back room were lacquerware boxes someone could use for storing jewelry or other valuables, several bowls of various sizes that fit snugly inside each other so they could be stacked easily, an assortment of umbrellas and even a few musical instruments. After this impromptu introduction into the world of lacquerware, when I finally got back to Yangon a week later, I started noticing lacquerware everywhere, even furniture coated with the stuff in the main market of Yangon called Bogyoke Aung San.
It was only after I got back to having decent internet service in Thailand that I could find out more about this cottage industry, and how centuries ago it was in temples and monasteries similar to Wat Po that doors, pillars, and even the alms bowls of the monks, were made of bamboo coated with lacquer to waterproof it so it would stand up to centuries of time and the ever-present humid air of the tropics.
The oldest lacquerware that's ever been found is a wooden bowl unearthed in China and dated to around 4000 BC, which is something like 100 generations older than the oldest pyramids in Egypt. (Some historians will tell you that it was really boats that were the first things waterproofed with tree sap in China) Chiang Mai, in mountainous northern Thailand, is situated on an ancient overland trading route between China and India and the Burmese - who always knew a good thing when they conquered it - in the mid 1500's brought back a dozen or so artisans from Chiang Mai extremely gifted at making lacquerware.
Not only the Burmese, but the Thais as well as the Khmer valued captives won in battles against their neighboring kingdoms. Why? Labor. These were people who could serve as slaves and concubines and such. It's because labor was always in short supply in this part of the world and some historians speculate this might have been due to malaria and other diseases being endemic in the tropics, at least when compared to China, which has always had a much larger peasant population than any Southeast Asian king could ever have hoped for. Malaria could also be the reason why the Chinese never colonized Southeast Asia beyond northern Vietnam. (Today Thailand has more than twice the population that China had during Marco Polo's time)
Burmese lacquerware these days is still supposed to be made the traditional way and the woman in the lacquerware factory explained how to recognize fakes by the fact that the outside of genuine Burmese lacquerware always turns black after drying, even though the sap the item is coated with is initially straw colored, as when the sap leaves the tree.
Coating woodwork with lacquer was fashionable in China by the end of the Zhou Dynasty as the Chinese craftsmen knew that this tree sap was not only water-resistant, but submerging lacquer in water rather than letting it air-dry actually hastens its hardening. In fact, it even becomes acid-resistant.
Lacquer is Mother Natures version of a water-repellent "plastic" and trees like the Melanorrhoea hold the 200-million year old recipe for making it deep inside their cells, inscribed not in Sanskrit chiseled onto temple walls, but as a specific sequence of DNA bases within their chromosomes. In fact some of the first plastics in Europe were made from natural products like the cellulose from cotton plants.
Cellulose is a biochemist's term for what most of us simply call "wood". This is the molecule that naturally coats the outside of all plant cells and provides them with strength to stand upright and makes wood such a sturdy building material for people to make useful stuff out of like temples. The first practical use of cellulose was for the same reason sap in China was collected 6000 years ago: it makes an extremely effective waterproofing substance for all your fabrics when it it turned (by chemists) into celluloid. Along with vulcanized rubber, celluloid would become the best "plastic" the Western world had ever come up with, which happened back in the 1850's.
It was better living through organic chemistry in Victorian times, and these clever celluloids were also versatile enough to use inside of cameras as a flexible photographic film, which was a considerable improvement over having to rely on large and fragile glass plate negatives, the kind Matthew Brady would have used to photograph Abraham Lincoln for example. The Eastman Kodak company began using celluloid film instead of glass plate negatives in their cameras as early as 1889.
These natural plastics were made by dissolving fluffy white cotton plants with nitric acid, creating an explosive (also called nitrocellulose, or gun cotton) and projectors in movie theaters sometimes blew up when film made from this type of celluloid became unstable thanks to the extreme heat of the projector's light. What happens during the chemical reaction to make celluloid is that the nitrogen atoms in the acid grab onto the oxygen atoms in the cellulose and this weakens the cellulose so it can be molded into different shapes, and even become transparent sometimes (which is a good property for film to have). Unfortunately, these same nitrogen groups are also so reactive that they want to literally "fall back off" the oxygen atoms of the cellulose rather quickly and this formation of nitrogen gas in an instant creates an explosion (a similar chemical reaction happens inside the air bags of cars when involved in a collision).
Nitrocellulose was used as film in the American movie industry all the way until the 1950's when the nitrogen-type was finally replaced by a safer acetate-type of cellulose. Today nearly all plastics - from pens and sewer pipes to raincoats and furniture - are made from fossil fuels as the starting material instead of cellulose from plants. It's interesting to recall that fossil fuels like oil and coal are the remains of plants and animals that lived around the time of the dinosaurs, meaning that when you drive your car, it's engine is running on a little bit of dinosaur and fern plant complements of energy from the sun.
One of the ways that historians are pretty confident the Thai people originated somewhere in southern China is by their building style, which is so distinctive that it's sometimes referred to as "Tai" (did you notice that the "h" is missing?). It's because the word Tai refers to a culture as much as it does to a people, and 75% of all Thais today belong to the ethnic group known as "Tai". The other 25% or so are probably going to be members of one of the 6 major hill tribes: the Karen, Yao, Hmong, Lahu, Akha, or Lisu from Tibet.
There are Tai tribes spread out all over Southeast Asia, from Vietnam to Myanmar, and some still live in the hills of Vietnam not far from where the French colonists lost their last great battle of Diem Bien Phu and they speak a language very similar to modern Thai. They also build their houses on wooden stilts just like the Tais still do in Thailand, Laos, and parts of Myanmar.
Two other characteristics that the Tai culture is known for are wet-rice cultivation, and having villages each with its own chieftain. If you're a rice-cultivating society, you need good top-down organization because rice production is labor intensive compared to growing wheat and most other crops. Tai culture is also known for its adaptability, which is why they had no trouble incorporating the design of 10th century temples from the Angkor Empire of Cambodia into their own 13th century temples at Sukothai in northern Thailand. Sometimes, when I sit back and review my photos of temples, I have a difficult time telling if the picture was taken in Cambodia or in Thailand for this very reason. Khmer and Thai temples can look that much alike.
|Monk's Stilt House in Laos|
There are several advantages to having your house up on stilts, not least of which is you can avoid the flooding of nearby canals and rivers. But being high up also allows you to avoid snakes and other critters that crawl around on the ground, as well as providing shade underneath the house where you can do chores like weaving and basketmaking, all this without any walls that would otherwise block the welcoming cool cross breezes during the heat of the day.
If you ever trek through the mountainous jungles of northern Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam you'll come across these Tai-style stilt houses and nearly each will have at least one snoozing pig chained to a post underneath the house. Since pigs eat practically anything, and don't require a lot of room to walk around like a cow does, they are especially well adapted to the wet soil and hilly terrain of Southeast Asia. It's why pigs were domesticated in China and why you're about 50 times more likely to come across someone selling pork fried rice on the sidewalks of Bangkok than grilled beef salad. Thais have a real fondness for pork and you're equally as likely to find them eating it for breakfast as you are for dinner. This doesn't do me any good since I gave up all red meat back in graduate school, however I still crave it whenever I pass through the smoke of a vendor grilling chunks of pork on long wooden sticks.
It's not by accident that McDonalds restaurants originated in the West rather than in Beijing. Cows were domesticated in flatter, drier places like Africa and the Middle East and became popular in Europe because there was more room for cattle to roam around and graze in those kinds of places. Southeast Asia is wetter and more claustrophobic, more hemmed in by mountains than most places on earth. After all, it's because of the Himalayan Mountains that rivers like the Mekong begin as a trickle high up in Tibet and Nepal. Even the longest river in Thailand, the Chao Phraya, begins its life at the foot of the Himalaya.
It was also these same mountains that shielded Thailand, Laos, and Burma, keeping them free from colonization by the Chinese and the Mongols for centuries. Vietnam did come under Chinese control for about 1000 years, but much more on this interesting amalgamation later. The land can be so steep in Thailand that landslides are not uncommon, in fact there was a major one in 1988 that killed 300 here and is why logging is now banned everywhere (to limit erosion). The combination of mountains and monsoons creates spectacular river systems and so traditionally it was a lot easier to get around Southeast Asia by boat than by land and it's been said that most Thais of Chinese descent living in Bangkok's Chinatown can trace their ancestors directly back to someone who arrived to Thailand by boat during the 17 - 1800's.
|Floating Village in Myanmar|
When I first got off the plane in Thailand, it was after midnight and I wasn't about to discriminate between a guesthouse made of wood and one made of concrete block. This worked out because it was July so it still rained for about 20 minutes every afternoon, which cooled things off well enough . . . at least by my standards, anyway. But after my first couple nights with only a fan set to high and blowing directly on me once the dry hot season began on March 23 (it really can begin that abruptly), I relocated to a pleasant wooden 2-story guesthouse down the block because concrete holds the heat absorbed during the day and then slowly liberates it back into the air at night, like a brick pizza oven or one of those stones made of lava that chefs in restaurants heat in the oven and then take out to cook seafood on. This means that the air in a concrete building can actually do the opposite of everything else in nature - get hotter rather than cooler as the night goes on - which can make for a restless evening basting in your own juices. By 2 in the morning I felt like a chicken on a rotisserie.
Moving into a wooden house of course meant more cockroaches since they could get in through the spaces between the wooden boards and windows and any other crack large enough to let sunlight in through during the day, but at least it was cooler and with the lamp underneath the ceiling fan off I couldn't see the roaches anyway. Like a Buddhist, I usually managed to put the insects out of my mind by reassuring myself that they weren't permanent and would probably all be gone by morning. My best advice is to avoid concrete guesthouses in the hot dry season in Bangkok unless they come with air conditioning, which can triple the price of the room since electricity is the biggest single expense for any guesthouse owner in Southeast Asia.
I was reminded of Thailand being in "Monsoon Asia" in a rather interesting way when the weather started to change in early July. The door to my room that I normally kept open whenever I was in would all of a sudden slam shut by itself. The first few times I simply got up and opened the door again, but after a while it became a Vaudeville routine and so I had to change tactics. I never needed a brick to keep the door open before and so I went downstairs and found one in the flowerbed heavy enough to do the job. But I still wasn't completely in the habit of remembering to use the brick, so I'd often forget it and the door would keep on closing and then after about the third or forth time I had to get up and put the brick against the door it finally dawned on me. The summer monsoons were on their way and the prevailing winds were switching their direction.
I vaguely remembered reading something before I left home about the shifting monsoons and how they played such a large role in shaping the history of Southeast Asia, especially along the coasts and islands of present-day Indonesia, Malaysia, parts of Vietnam and the Philippines. It's here that the first foreigners arrived by boat and they seemed to have developed a habit of setting up their trading centers - which eventually grew into city-states - near the mouths of river deltas and I guess it's probably because that's where the fresh water and food was most likely to be found.
As a bit of background, before around 400 C.E. sailing directly from India to China was assumed an impossibility because the Malay Peninsula was the elephant in the living room so to speak -- a land barrier jutting out between the two (if traveling by sea). The only practical option before then, therefore, was the land route, what we now know today as The Silk Road (red). Then, in 413 a Chinese pilgrim named Faxian successfully sailed from Sri Lanka to China and along with his breakthrough in navigation (Faxion, also a Buddhist monk, later wrote a book about his travels) came a better understanding of sailing technology as well as the timing of the monsoons. And in order to successfully navigate the treacherous Malaka Straights, not having an understanding of the monsoons would have been what we call these days a deal breaker. This period in the 5th century coincided with an overall decrease in Indian Ocean piracy as well. It's interesting to note that the emerging necessity for a Maritime Silk Road became more apparent after the Han Dynasty in China fell back in 220 C.E. The power vacuum that resulted led to extreme instability along the land Silk Road, thus making a possible Maritime Silk Road an even more attractive option. Few periods in Chinese history have played as important a role in the future of Southeast Asian cultural development as the Han Dynasty has.
It wasn't long before these sailors, missionaries, and assorted traders from what is today India influenced the indigenous cultures with their Hinduism and strange notions of divine kingship, which is still on display after 1000 years when one carefully observes the numerous stone temples in Cambodia, the construction of which was ordered by the "god-kings" of Angkor - kings with names that sound as elaborate as their temples appear - like Jayavarman VII and Indravarman III. And after a while, kind of like how an infection can start in the leg and move quickly up to the rest of the body if left untreated, these new cultural influences along the coasts migrated inland up river deltas and spilled out onto the broader fertile basins, for example in areas where Bangkok, Yangon, and Saigon sit today.
Not only do monsoon winds change with time, but people can as well, which is why I started traveling and learning about other cultures in middle age even though as a kid I was bored almost to tears during Mr. Hall's social studies class. In fact, all my classes bored me back in the 6th grade and my most enduring memory from when I was a fidgeting student will probably always be staring at the clock on the wall and wondering why the minute hand had to move so slowly while everything else on the other side of the window in the real world was moving at what seemed to me a more appropriate pace.
I do remember looking at a world map whose purpose was to elucidate the ancient trade routes. It was posted on his classroom wall and it was obvious even to an 11-year old that Southeast Asia was situated smack dab in between China and India if traveling by sea, and judging by the arrows drawn on the map, the area seemed to have an incredible amount of sea routes converging around Indonesia for a sailor to choose from back in those days. And in an age without good roads, traveling by boat would have been a lot easier than journeying overland, especially if you were transporting heavy cargo. So if you were going from India to China (or vice versa) back in the 800's, you probably could look forward to a nice long stopover in what is today Indonesia or the southern tip of Malaysia - waiting for the monsoon winds to switch direction.
The Indian Ocean borders the western portion of peninsular Southeast Asia and was home to the earliest sea trade we know of in the world. It's possible the Harappan civilization 2000 years before Christ understood some rudimentary aspects of the local monsoon breezes and used them to propel commercial voyages almost as far as modern day Burma. But sea trade (and immigration) between India and China didn't really get into high gear until sailors on the east coast of India were able to predict the monsoon winds a lot better. Sometime in the 400's, they realized that for 6 months of the year the winds blew out of the southwest, and then the other 6 months they came from the opposite way and blew from the northeast. If they left on the right time of the year, got to where they were going, and then waited somewhere around Indonesia for the winds to switch direction, it made crossing the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea a lot less of a hassle.
So in this way the Malay Peninsula and several islands making up maritime Southeast Asia became a kind of "way station". Before learning this, I always wondered why the British were so interested in establishing ports of call in Singapore and Malaya. It turns out these well protected harbors were not only safe, but convenient places to sit tight and wait for the monsoon winds to change direction.
One of the things I've come to appreciate about world history as an adult is that it can allow seemingly unrelated events in the present to become connected and as a result both make more sense. The annual reversal of winds in Asia helps explain why my first time in Bangkok I was so surprised there were mosques next to Buddhist temples situated on the canals. In the wee hours of the morning, before the sun was even close to making an appearance, often the call to prayer would ring out of the minarets and the street dogs would wake up and begin barking until their chorus of howls rivaled the very sounds that woke them. The dogs would even wake the birds in the trees up and they would start chirping, as if sunrise was coming even though it was still a good 2 hours away. Street dogs in Bangkok have gotten used to a lot of things, but for some reason they never have adjusted to the sounds of the Moslem call to prayer.
Then, after about a minute but what felt more like 20, the melodic singing would stop and one by one the dogs would drift back to sleep and I would get another hour's worth too before the birds started chirping again and I could see the sky begin to turn orange as the sun was definitely coming this time. Sometimes, when I see a beautiful sunrise in this part of the world, I think about the fact that the word in English "Asia" comes to us from the Greek for "sunrise". [the Greek word "asia" originates from the sea-faring Phoenician word "asu" for "east", which may be related to the same earlier ancient Akkadian word "asu" for "to go out, to rise"]
|Mosque and Buddhist Temple on a Canal in Bang Kapi|
Indonesia is not only the 4th largest country in the world (after the USA) population wise - which is not exactly what one might expect - Indonesia being an island nation - but it is also 90% Moslem. How did this happen, exactly? A clue lies in the fact that our word for "monsoon" is actually a corruption of an older Arabic word mausim, which means "season".
Once I was fully awake and had my morning's dose of caffeine down at a coffee shop near the canal, I was able to recall my history classes in more detail, and how I learned that India - like so much of the world along the Silk Road - came under the dominance of Islam in the 1200's. This was the time of the Deli Sultanate and later on the Mughals. For quite a while back in grade school -- because of the similarity in their spellings -- I kept confusing the Moguls with the Mongols, but eventually got it straightened out for good by the time I reached high school and had to start worrying about my grades in order to get into college. My worst nightmare at that time was becoming the only child in our family to not have a degree.
The MUGHALS were responsible for the golden age of medieval Indian architecture in the 1600's, the ones with emperors like Shah Jahan, the 5th Mughal ruler who had the Taj Mahal constructed at Agra, while the MONGOLS (on the other hand) reached their zenith in China several hundred years earlier and cobbled together an empire of their own stretching all the way from Japan to Eastern Europe and they were pretty successful at it too (even if they tried and failed to absorb Japan), in fact to this day one in every twelve Asian men carry the same Y-chromosome in all their cells as a Mongol invader did back in the 1200's. Some historians even believe it's possible theirs is the same Y-chromosome that Genghis Khan had himself.
|Photo by: Rohaan Bhatti|
Islam caught on quickly in India maybe because anyone could be a Moslem and I imagine it must have been a convenient loophole out of the caste system for an Indian who had to have grown weary of being considered "untouchable". This is also when Buddhism - despite having arisen in India - went into a decline from which it has never come close to recovering.
Arab traders had set up the trading city of Goa on the west coast of India back in the AD 1000's. This is still over 700 years before the British would colonize India, and the Arab sailors knew the monsoon winds well by then and traded frequently with China by way of the islands.
In the year 1292 - on his way back to Venice after 21 years "on the road" working at the summer palace of Kublai Khan in Xanadu - Marco Polo sailed through the China Sea and around Southeast Asia and on into the Indian Ocean and wrote of what he discovered about the strange weather phenomenon there, saying:
"I must tell you it takes a full year to complete the voyage, setting out in winter and returning in summer. For only two winds blow in these seas, one that wafts them out and one that brings them back; and the former blows in winter, the latter in summer."
In spite of being born and raised in America -- a nation where every school child learns without exception that Christopher Columbus "discovered" America in 1492 -- I'd forgotten that the reason he sailed west rather than east from Spain in that year of our Lord was because of this Arab monopoly on trade in the southern oceans of India and the Orient. The Genoese navigator was one of several explorers inspired by a handwritten copy of The Travels of Marco Polo and was attempting to reach China and later India by sailing west and at the same time avoiding those pesky Arabs just so he could get pepper. Being able to offer your dinner guests pepper was a valuable status symbol in Europe at various times for the aristocracy, probably not that different from owning the latest version of the iPhone or designer jeans is today.
1300 years before Columbus set sail for China, the Greco-Egyptian geographer Ptolemy already knew and wrote about the Malay Peninsula, in fact the Greek word for "east" is "orient", which is how we happened to come by the term, a bit of trivia I'm sure my 6th grade teacher Mr. Hall didn't know or even care about, since I'm convinced now that he was just as bored as I was with school back in those days.
One of the downsides to becoming self-educated is that you inevitably discover facts you'd just as soon not have come across, like how the history of the your own culture isn't what you want it to be sometimes, for it was during my travels in the Orient that I found out about the unsavory spice trade -- practiced by my European ancestors -- in much more detail and that trading in spices in Renaissance Europe proved to be so lucrative that keeping the price of nutmeg high was reason enough for some "Christian" businessmen to justify murder.
In fact the Dutch -- who controlled the Banda Islands of Indonesia -- maintained a monopoly on nutmeg by getting rid of every male islander over the age of 15 through decapitation, a gruesome but effective way of insuring none of them would ever grow nutmeg, and the population on the islands subsequently fell from 15,000 to just 600, which is ironic to me since during my trip to Europe, people from Amsterdam were by far the friendliest on the continent and would stop to ask if I needed directions whenever I had to pull the map out of my backpack, which was often.
So if you were a Southeast Asian merchant or trader in Indonesia and you wanted to take advantage of the lucrative trade routes that the Arabs controlled, you needed to convert to Islam. It's because the Arabs often refused to trade with non-Moslems as they didn't trust them. So people converted and that was why I was awakened by the sounds from the minaret and the dogs barking that morning in Bang Kapi. Bangkok experienced a major building boom in the 1970's and Indonesian laborers came here en masse then and many simply liked it and so stayed on.
In fact, Thailand lays claim to three provinces in the deep south -- down on the Malay Peninsula -- that are mostly Moslem today because they used to be part of an ancient kingdom called the Sultanate of Patani in the 1200's C.E. But it doesn't start there because -- before that according to Chinese travelers -- from the 100's - 700's C.E. this area boarding Malaysia was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom based on trade and I didn't venture down there during my trip since there is currently an insurgency being waged by militant jihadist separatists that has killed over 6,000 just since 2004. Apparently, some of them want their kingdom back.
But if you had been here 70 years before Vasco de Gama made his history-altering trip around Africa during the Ming Dynasty, you would have witnessed fleets of Chinese junks resembling cities floating on the sea -- the Chinese appreciated spices from India too -- hundreds of these junks, many of them up to 400 feet long engaged in the business of trade, carrying fine Ming porcelin and silk to India and pepper back to China. Thanks to feng shui, the Chinese shipbuilders were able to build such efficient ships because they'd taken their inspiration from the insides of a bamboo stem. A bamboo stem, in case you've never seen the insides, is divided into separate compartments, and so they made their ship's hulls virtually unsinkable by designing them the same way, in self-contained sections.
Monsoon winds and rain can mean the difference between survival and extinction and there's a saying in Southeast Asia that translates to something like: "Work hard and wait for the rain." In fact, changes in the patterns of the annual monsoons have resulted in the collapse of entire civilizations towards the west in India. Even today, when the monsoon winds fail to bring sufficient rain to parts of India, electricity generated at hydroelectric plants can become so scarce that only the higher-end hotels and businesses will be able to provide it. It's interesting that Islam did so well on the Malay Peninsula but never got a foothold in either Thailand or Cambodia. Some historians believe there are two reasons: first, the kings of both nations were considered divine reincarnations of the Buddha (or perhaps Shiva), and second, they are both traditionally agricultural, economically, and the Arabs did much better with more diverse cultures with a long history of trade.
In the "Heart of Cambodia" there is a magnificent 6,000 square mile natural water storage basin called the Tonle Sap Lake. Long ago, Cambodia was covered by the Pacific Ocean, but when the seas retreated during the last ice age, some places that were ocean gulf became lakes. The Tonle Sap today is a natural irrigation system fed by a river of the same name, one of only 2 rivers in the world that actually reverses its flow, all because of the summer monsoons. Tonle Sap Lake functions in many roles, but mostly as a natural reservoir, which doubles in size during the summer. This is why the lake sometimes floods parts of the countryside all the way up to the temple walls of Angkor and why the Angkor Empire was able to make its living from farming rice rather than relying on trade with foreigners (unlike maritime Southeast Asia to the south). The rivers, and the large depression in the land due to it once being under the heavy sea, created a naturally moist, fertile plain that fed the Angkor Kingdom.
Because the river is able to reverse its flow and back up into Tonle Sap Lake in the summer, this expansion of the lake takes much of the stress off the more heavily populated Mekong Delta and reduces the chances for flooding downstream there - unlike Vietnam's other major river in the north, the Red River, which creates the Red River Delta and has no pressure-relief valve like Tonle Sap Lake to rely upon. This is why the Red River has been responsible for monumental flooding of northern Vietnam many times in the past. So much rain can be dumped during the summer monsoons that the Tonle Sap actually ignores the force of Earth's gravity and flows uphill. It was the Tonle Sap that gave mainland Southeast Asia the most productive ecosystem, one that allowed the Angkor civilization to grow into the largest pre-industrial society in world history.
While exploring the temples of Southeast Asia, I sometimes forget that the very reason all of this is here is due to knowledge of the regularity of the monsoons and their maritime winds. It made trade in this part of the world seasonal and also brought Buddhist monks to Southeast Asia beginning around the same time the Western Roman Empire was coming to a close in the 5th century C.E.
Having been forced into taking some physics and chemistry courses for my biology degree gave me a bit of insight into what causes the annual reversal of winds known as the monsoons. It has to do mainly with a property called "heat capacity", and it doesn't hurt that Asia is the largest of the 7 continents, meaning it has the ability to produce the most extremes in temperatures and pressures, leading to the most extreme kinds of weather.
What does it mean to say that "land heats up faster than water"? Because it gets hotter quicker than water does during the day, land can also heat the air above it faster. This surface air becomes lighter because it's hotter so it expands (its atoms are moving around faster, which is one definition of heat). And as it does so, it rises. But nature abhors a vacuum, so something has to come in and take the place of all this air that's rising up into the atmosphere above central Asia. This draws the cooler, denser (heavier), wetter air inland from the sea. In effect, marine air creates a cooling "sea breeze" -- an offshore wind -- at the beach during the day and is why it's so easy to get a sunburn without realizing it.
But everything's double-edged (yin/yang) and the fact that land is able to heat up faster also means it will lose this heat faster when the time comes. You probably see where this is going already: the annual reversal of winds.
Water, as opposed to land, is like a sponge when it comes to heat. It takes a lot (5 times more) of heat to raise the temperature of water compared to land. And the water, once it gains this heat, resists giving it up, so for that reason the ocean temperatures tend to stay stable compared to land temperatures, which fluctuates a heck of lot more. This is why living near the ocean means temperatures are more stable, more moderate. I once saw palm trees in Ireland growing near the shore for this very reason.
In the winter, the opposite happens and air over top of the land is colder (there's less sun in the northern latitudes in winter), so it's more dense and the air over the land sinks. This sinking air has to go somewhere, so it goes out to the sea where the water is warmer and the air is now rising. This is the annual reversal of winds that shaped so much of the history of South Asia and is why first-time tourists are often surprised actual Thai food is so spicy. The Indians were the first to discover this meteorological phenomenon and the spicy Thai cuisine so popular these days in the Western world actually came from India carried by the monsoon winds.
Of all the dozen or so nations making up Southeast Asia, none have been more heavily influenced by the Chinese than Vietnam has been. In fact, northern Vietnam was colonized by its much larger neighbor for almost 1000 years before any European ever laid eyes upon its beautiful white-sand beaches and storm-weathered green mountains.
The history of Vietnam at times reminds me of how those of us in the West have tended to look back towards ancient Greece for the roots of our own culture -- ever since the Roman poet Virgil composed the Aeneid around 29 B.C.E -- so probably the first thing an outsider notices after crossing over the boarder from laid-back Cambodia into nervous, can't-wait-to-get-into-the-future-whatever-that-future-happens-to-bring Vietnam, are the imposing billboards everywhere, usually with easy to recognize communist symbols such as the Soviet-style hammer and sickle, or the bright yellow star smack-dab in the middle of a blood-red rectangular flag, or everyone's favorite: the nostalgic pastel renderings of a grandfatherly bearded Ho Chi Minh smiling down while surrounded by a half-circle of laughing, admiring school children.
They all seem as if they were designed by the same committee and it makes you think of authority, like maybe Big Brother is watching, which is probably what the intention was all along. Like most first-timers to Vietnam, I just assumed anyone living with those kinds of constant reminders of authority would be very afraid of breaking the law, but I was soon proven wrong about that.
Several times in Saigon at night I'd been surprised to be offered drugs while walking down one of its side streets. Many of these streets were more like alleyways that seemed to curl back on one another like wet spaghetti and usually it was "marijuana" or "cocaine" whispered nonchalantly by a thin Asian man with a bad complexion, someone who looked as if he'd had a very rough life. He was usually standing in an unlit doorway as I wandered by trying to figure out why I was going in the wrong direction yet again. This immediately brought back to my mind experiences I'd had in the USA with the cocaine cowboys of South Florida, and about how a little bit of knowledge in chemistry can go a long ways towards transforming an entire society. I'm referring to really simple chemistry here, the kind of chemical reactions done in standard glass flasks and bunsen burners almost every day in high school labs around the world, even ones with dirt floors.
When I was working at the eye institute in downtown Miami, I would have to ride my bicycle to work every morning because I was living on a sailboat several miles away. It was moored just past a sandy island dredged up by the city for use as a windbreak on Biscayne Bay. Along the way to work each morning, I had to pass through two rather rough neighborhoods. Southeast Florida is what sociologists call a "stratified community" because it's possible to drive through a wealthy area and then a poorer area, then a wealthy one again, and so on over and over just in the span of a few miles. European tourists who have done a lot of traveling have been known to compare South Florida to what they've encountered in 1970's South Africa.
What I learned while there was that these crime-ridden areas I had to cycle through on my way to work were largely untouched by the cocaine cowboys of the late 1970's and early 80's. These neighborhoods hadn't always been this dangerous because they were ignored. Maybe you've seen the movie Scarface with Al Pacino. Well that movie was not an unrealistic depiction of the wealthier areas of Miami in that time. Cocaine was a swinger's drug back then, confined mostly to parties and discos in the suburbs of South Florida, bedroom communities with names like Boca Raton and Coral Gables. But then, in 1984, someone found a way to turn powdery cocaine into a gas a lot easier when it is heated. And it didn't take much heat to vaporize the chemically-treated cocaine either, just the temperature of a match. This is called free-basing.
Before free-basing, if you tried to heat cocaine it wouldn't smoke at all, no matter how hot you got it. You had to either snort it, eat it, or inject it (which is how the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes got his buzz) to catch a high. But after first dissolving the cocaine powder in some water with baking soda, the dissolved cocaine would magically precipitate back out of solution and re-crystalize into a pretty white ball about the size of a marble right before your eyes. Once washed and dried, this newer form of solid cocaine was now much more volatile - meaning that the molecule had a new lower temperature where it would sublimate into a gas. It even crackled when you heated it, which is why it was dubbed "crack cocaine". It still was the very same cocaine molecule, only altered ever so slightly by the loss of a single tiny atom of hydrogen (thanks to the baking soda, which raised the pH and stole the hydrogen atom from the cocaine during the chemical reaction).
Regular cocaine (in the acid form of the drug) vaporizes at 374 degrees F (190 C) while crack cocaine when it loses its hydrogen atom (and is now in its basic form, which is the opposite of an acid) vaporizes at only 194 F (90 C), and this temperature is actually lower than the boiling point of water. Once in the lungs it takes just 8 seconds for the cocaine molecule to reach the brain, which is about the same amount of time it takes when injected into the blood with a needle. Crack cocaine was not only cheaper and more convenient, it was also much faster than snorting it in through the nose. And did I mention that it was cheaper?
The chemical reaction to turn regular cocaine into crack cocaine was so easy and required so little equipment, junkies could do it in their living rooms. And that simple acid-base chemical reaction is what was most responsible for turning the neighborhoods in Miami and other large cities in the United States into dangerous concrete jungles. I can't imagine what it must have been like to grow up in one of them because just riding my bicycle through during the day was enough to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck at times.
There is a train called the "Reunification Express" that goes all the way from Saigon in southern Vietnam 800 or so miles north to Hanoi, twisting and turning up and down mountains, running along vast sandy shores, underneath dense jungle-clad cliffs, through tunnels, then down again through green rice fields with farmers trailing their plodding water buffaloes, at least that's what the guidebook promised. I was a little nervous because it was my first time on a train for two nights, but sharing a sleeping car with a Vietnamese family in such close quarters ended up allowing me some insights into the culture I'm not sure I could have gotten otherwise as a backpacker.
The car I was assigned to had four berths - two upper and two lower - and I chose one of the top bunks because I'd read somewhere that it was safer. Apparently, it's more difficult for a thief to reach up and grab someone's bag and take off running with it in the middle of the night if your in stuff is stowed in the upper bunk. This made some sense to me since by then I'd noticed that Vietnamese men did tend to be on the shorter side, so that's how I ended up on top. I don't mind the exercise of having to climb up and down all the time, but the downside for me was that the small table and single electrical outlet seemed to belong to whoever owned one of the lower berths.
Regardless, I plugged my iPOD into the socket before the other passengers arrived because I had some documentaries I wanted to watch in case I couldn't get to sleep right away. iPODs nowadays recharge quickly, but still have small viewing screens. The upside is that the human mind has this amazing ability to forget things like the fact that you're looking at something the size of a playing card while at the same time becoming engrossed in a story.
My first memorable experience came complements of a Vietnamese family who immediately dropped their bags and commandeered the other three berths in the cabin within about a minute after they had arrived. For some reason, when I'm on the road I tend to forget that those living in the country I am traveling through also like to take vacations, and this particular family happened to be on their way to the resort area of Nah Trang for the weekend. Nah Trang is well known for its beautiful beaches.
The husband turned out to be a history professor from Saigon and I suspect he saw in me a fortunate opportunity to practice his English, while I saw in him an opportunity to pick his brain a bit and to be honest, as much as I admire David Attenborough, I wasn't really looking forward to squinting at yet another nature documentary from the BBC I'd downloaded for my iPOD.
After the professor's two children -- the one sleeping with their mother had a really bad cough -- and his wife had tucked themselves into the two lower bunks for the evening, he and I sat up and talked, first about America (he wanted to know what I thought of Obama), and then about Vietnam. Like so many Vietnamese, he was curious about what I thought of his country. Among other platitudes, I blithely blurted out something about how convenient it was to be able to take a single train from one end of his country to the other 800 miles. In America, all we have is Amtrak, which is so underused (perhaps for good reason) that it has to be supported in large part by the Federal government.
As soon as I mentioned railroads, his expression changed and the tone of the conversation became quieter and more ominous. That's when he asked me if I'd ever heard of a man named Paul Doumer. When I replied that I hadn't, he began relating to me a story about the clever French colonial governor, someone I had never heard of even though he eventually went on to become the president of France in the early 1900's.
Europeans started colonizing Southeast Asia not long after the Portuguese explorers - who were damn good navigators, by the way - found out about the lateen sail (more on that later) and a way to round the southern tip of Africa in the late 1400's so they could get to India. The reason people like ?? wanted to sail east is the same reason Christopher Columbus around that same time was sailing west. Pepper was popular and expensive and Europeans needed a way to get it while avoiding traveling by land to the Far East along the Silk Road because this route was too easily controlled by the Islamic Empire.
After the Portuguese, came the Spanish to Southeast Asia, then the Dutch, the British, and finally the French, so as you can see, the French were the newcomers and is why the Brits got India which was much closer to Europe, while the French were left carving up the farthest east portion of the area: Vietnam.
One of the things I never understood when I was in grade school was that colonization was supposed to be profitable. I don't know why this simple fact eluded me even though I knew all about the Boston Tea Party and the Stamp Act imposed on American colonists that helped lead up to the Revolutionary War. I though it was just a land grab, but the Europeans actually had entities like the East India Company - corporations with investors and everything - kind of like on Wall Street today.
Anyway, according to the professor, who was sitting on his top bunk opposite me, his feet dangling over the railing near his wife's head, when Paul Doumer arrived in Vietnam in 1897, Vietnam was not turning a profit, and the French needed money badly as they had recently lost a war to Germany and so national pride was on the line too. These were the same people who had produced Napoleon and ruled over most of Europe at one time not so long ago, so I guess it's somewhat understandable to want another empire. They had to keep up with the Brits, after all.
Around that time, the only people who used opium in Vietnam for the most part were Chinese immigrants and maybe some well off foreigners stationed in Saigon. Opium was not a profitable trade item in Vietnam like it had been in China, so the French weren't able to tax it and get loads of money from Vietnamese peasants, like they could collect on rice wine and salt. The Vietnamese just weren't into opium, at least not as the drug had found its way into the body previously.
Doumer was a great organizer, and he changed the entire opium business in Vietnam by first building a giant refinery in Saigon to process cheap, raw, poppy resin sailed in by the shipload from India. And along the way his workers found a simple method to chemically change the opium so it would be faster burning. Now that Doumer had opium that was in smokeable form, he opened up close to 3,000 shops and 1,500 opium dens owned by the government to sell this new high-grade mixture of central-nervous system depressant. And his scheme actually worked. Remarkably well, in fact. The people got hooked on the narcotic (with the added benefit that they became more docile and therefore easier to control) and the French government ended up with a complete monopoly on the trade in Vietnam and the colony became profitable again. Vive la Dourmer. The guy was actually greeted as a hero when he returned home and that's how he rose to become president of France.
There's an important bridge across the Red River in Hanoi called the Long Bien Bridge that you can hike across and was also paid for with opium money and which, for a time, was named after Paul Doumer. American bomber pilots would later use the bridge as a landmark and a target during our own involvement when we took on France's legacy in the 1960's. Doumer would go on to become the first and so far only president of France to be assassinated by someone using a gun, while a little-known revolutionary at the time, Ho Chi Minh, would someday use France's opium trade as a rallying cry for Vietnamese independence.
I can remember from my childhood a good many Americans who hated Ho Chi Minh, usually the very same people who believed capitalism -- and its surrogate globalization -- could do absolutely no wrong. Mr. Hall, my 6th grade teacher who disliked his job almost as much as he disliked children, once berated me for drawing a picture of the North Vietnamese flag on my scrap paper and made me erase it. I didn't tell him I had a cousin who fought in the Vietnam War and I'm still proud of because he believed what he was doing was right not only for his country but for democracy around the world. Still, I can't help thinking how it wasn't all that long ago that cigarette corporations in the USA were still trying to figure out ways of making nicotine even more addictive so consumers would buy more cigarettes. They were also, at the same time, in the business of "manufacturing doubt" about the effects of smoking on our health, knowing full well that the weight of scientific evidence showed otherwise. How many innocent people around the world have our cigarettes killed compared to our bombs, I wondered? Unchecked capitalism isn't so great either sometimes, maybe even worse than communism if the opportunity presents itself in a bright enough colored package. I'd be willing to bet Mr. Hall never took the time to contemplate those things.
With the lights off inside the cabin, we could now clearly see the rolling mountains silhouetted against the full moon outside the small, curtainless window. The foliage and the mountains actually looked as much white as they did green because of the soft moonlight reflecting off the leaves. As the train slowed down to take yet another curve, only his child's occasional cough could be heard clearly. The child's mother was starting to get one too, and I wondered if maybe she picked it up from her child or if it was it the other way around? Sometimes I'm glad I don't have kids, which makes me feel a bit selfish as I write this.
Before calling it a night and in an effort to steer my mind onto something a science nerd like me was more comfortable with - like organic chemistry - I considered how it was a simple enough chemical reaction discovered in the 1870's by an English chemist and that any high school student could easily accomplish today that was able to turn morphine purified from opium poppy plants into a drug called heroin.
The irony is that Charles Wright was actually looking for a less-addictive form of morphine when he got heroin in his laboratory flask instead, a drug which turned out to be 4-times more powerful than morphine was, just by adding two small acetyl groups onto the morphine molecule. An acetyl group consists of two carbon atoms, three hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom joined together, and this simple substitutional change in the morphine molecule's structure made it easier for the drug to slip past the blood-brain barrier and get into the brain. In fact, heroin was still used in cough syrups in the USA up until 1913 when my grandparents were two years old, and as I laid in my bunk trying to drift off to sleep, I couldn't help wondering if they were ever given to any children to keep them from coughing.
SILK IS OF THE TREE
My first trek into the mountains of northern Thailand was on an organized tour arranged with the intention of getting some exercise while visiting several hill tribe villages, but the whole thing was delayed when some skirmishing broke out along the Thai-Myanmar boarder and I had to remain at the guesthouse in Chiang Mai an extra three days. I'd purchased a package deal from TAT -- the Tourism Authority of Thailand -- which included the three-day jungle trek with a guide who was supposed to be a member of the Karen hill tribe and it also came with two nights sleeping in the jungle in a tent, beer not included. When I arrived to Chiang Mai by train from Bangkok, I was still getting over a wicked case of jet lag -- it eventually took a full week for my body to recover -- and at the guesthouse there was this songthew driver who hung out there and apparently had arranged some kind of a deal with the owners where they would allow him to drum up business for his taxi service as long as he looked after the place when it was late at night and the owners and their staff were all asleep.
To make a long story short, the first of my two run-ins with this songthew driver happened when I couldn't sleep the first night and consequently I was every bit as wide awake at two in the morning as if it were twelve noon and I was back home and so I went downstairs to the lobby to read, hoping I'd get tired again. The lobby also doubled as a restaurant - which was of course deserted - except for the driver, the only other one besides me in the whole place that was still awake and he had a mixture of fatigue and surprise on his face, like he'd never seen a foreigner with jet lag before. At this point it still hadn't dawned on me to notice that he was one of the few Thais that never smiled, which would have been my first clue if I'd been paying more attention. I did notice the disappointment on his face when he realized I didn't require his services as a driver.
|Several Monks in a Songthew|
Even though he wasn't smiling, the driver seemed courteous enough and he offered me a cup of coffee. To be polite and also believing I was too wide awake to get any sleep anyway, I accepted the coffee, took about three sips of it, then immediately felt sleepy again. Having jet lag is somewhat like that feeling you sometimes get when you think you might be coming down with a cold or the flu, except that it never develops into a full-blown fever or anything. Jet lag just comes and goes on its own until your body finally adjusts, and so I slipped silently back upstairs to my room hoping for some sleep.
I just assumed the coffee was complimentary, especially since my tour had been delayed by three days, but the driver apparently had other ideas. The next morning, he accused me of trying to steal the coffee, told everyone working at the desk that I was dishonest, and actually gave me a dirty look the rest of my stay whenever I came or went, like I was definitely someone he needed to keep an eye on.
Since he was always looking for more tourist business, he'd stationed himself near the front entrance on a bench and every time I had to leave the guesthouse for something trivial -- like a packet of aspirins or a fruit shake -- I would have to pass by him and he would give me that same cold, disgusted look, as if having to breath in a stale fart, making me feel more and more like a criminal. I was gradually catching onto the fact that not all Thais are nice enough to give strangers the benefit of the doubt, especially some of the ones working on the tourist trail. A few actually seem to harbor contempt for foreigners, even while taking their money. I comforted myself with the knowledge that I'd only accepted the coffee out of politeness and, for the record, I never even finished it, having taken only those first couple of sips.
His opinion apparently didn't carry much sway with the staff at the guesthouse because my second full day there an attractive college-aged woman named Ping who worked behind front desk offered to show me around at the annual Flower Festival on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. At first I flattered myself into thinking it was me she was interested in, but in time I came to realize she saw me more as her Angkrit Adjarn - or English teacher - than as a potential soulmate.
People in Southeast Asia often learn English from a book, or from other Asians, and so it's important for them to know how to pronounce the words correctly since they may never have had the chance to practice conversation with a native speaker before. That's why "cat" can sometimes end up sounding like "chat" when a monk or a nun tries to point me in the direction of the nearest temple cats, or perhaps the opposite occurs, where they think all "c" sounds are hard, and consequently "pencil" can become "painkull". Tutoring Asians is one of the few times as a teacher I've actually had students ask to be corrected and they say the best way to learn a foreign language is to visit the country where it is spoken. This makes some sense considering that -- after 24 years in China -- Marco Polo spoke the Mongol language so fluently, much better than he did his native Italian, that when he finally did return to Venice in 1295, some Venetians actually were convinced he was a Mongol.
|Ping Reading a Book in a Canal Boat|
At first, traveling can sometimes seem like you're walking around on the surface of another planet, but when you're on the road long enough your mind can begin to play tricks and you actually start to believe you're just another face in the crowd, that is until someone comes along and reminds you that you're not -- such as another foreigner asking for directions -- and you suddenly say to yourself "humm...so that is what I look like to other people. No wonder they are always trying to sell me something."
Ping was the first person I met in Thailand that I have fond memories of and we still touch bases once in a while on social media. Since our visit to the festival, there have been many Thais who have helped me out in Thailand, but the first is someone you don't easily forget. She was always conscious of my jet lag, never frowning whenever I had to sit on a bench and just watch the people go by, trying to catch a second or third wind. And in return, I didn't mind listening to her problems working as a front desk clerk at the guesthouse.
"I so tired the people sometime. Some the people, the tour office in Bangkok, they promise air-con when the foreigner sign up for jungle trek. They say, you have air-con in your room. But we no have air-con. So they complain, why I have no air-con? Sorry. Sometime I just want to say to them get away my life." "You mean get out of my life?" "Chai". She looked down at the bench between us with a sad expression and I got the impression that she secretly tortured herself by taking the blame on for their inconvenience.
Another first for me that day happened at the silk farm exhibit. It was interactive and I'd never seen anyone pop a fat white grub into their mouth and pinch it between their teeth in such a way that the juice would squirt down their throat, which is what the guide did. One of the advantages to being in the silk industry is that your workforce not only manufactures a world class textile fiber for you, but they are also edible after being boiled out of their silken abodes.
The silkworm's cocoon is composed of one long thread of silk, and that slender fiber was so valuable to the Chinese that they somehow managed to keep their method of how to unravel a cocoon a secret for two millennia. The story goes that the Yellow Empress of China was drinking hot tea one morning under a mulberry tree. This was 2,700 years ago when a white cocoon suddenly fell into her cup and began to unravel all by itself. Eventually, the Chinese were so successful at selecting the best silk-producing worms that the adult moths to this day have lost the ability to fly and have simply evolved into becoming egg-laying machines. The silkworm larvae used in "sericulture" these days morph into adult moths that then go around laying eggs on mulberry leaves and that's about all they are required to do until they succumb to old age in about five days.
It's one thing to watch a YouTube video on how something like silk production is done, quite another altogether when you can not only see it taking place, but also feel the heat and smell the aroma of the byproducts of the process. When it's possible to watch the expressions on the faces of the workers who are fully immersed in these ancient methods, stirring a steaming hot cauldron full of white cocoons floating on top using a wooden paddle, or spinning smaller fibers into larger ones by pumping a rickety loom with their feet, you get a whole different take on things.
Like most men, I'm fully capable of going through my entire day without ever once reflecting on what kind of material my clothing is made of. Whether my shirt is 50% cotton or 100% or even polyester, it makes little difference to me. Even so, at one point I did begin pondering how, for this kind of colossal effort to make a product, what better proof that silk was a pretty influential trade item than the kimono that was taking shape in front of me. In fact, silk is one of the main reasons the ancient Romans -- around Julius Caesar's time in first century B.C.E. -- became crazy about Chinese textiles. It's also why Marco Polo happened to be in Asia in the first place -- for 24 long years, actually -- keeping his eyes wide open for the finest Chinese silks. When the Mongol leader Kublai Khan threatened to cross the Yangtze River in 1259, he was offered 200,000 bolts of the finest silk by the Song Dynasty's minister as part of the ransom for a peace agreement with the Chinese, which the great khan later accepted.
The girl who ran the exhibit was also a student but her English was not nearly as confident as Ping's so Ping ended up translating for me much of what she explained about the silk industry. I learned that the caterpillars that make the silk will eat the leaves from only one type of plant - a mulberry tree - and that it takes around 5,000 silkworms to just make enough silk for a single kimono, and that these grubs have to eat a ton of leaves to acquire enough nutrition to spit out 12 pounds of silk, and that all this silk comes streaming out of the creature's head as a liquid, secreted from two salivary glands.
After a few minutes of this, I began to understand why nylon was invented in the 1900's. The price of silk skyrocketed due to World War II, which disrupted trade between Asia and the West, meaning that Americans were clamoring for silk or some similar material. One of the great things about silk - and very difficult to imitate with manmade polymers - has always been that it is soft and smooth, and yet not at all slippery. Silk also holds a dye well and keeps you warm when it's cool, and allows you to stay cool when it's hot outside. Pretty admirable for a biological substance that can last for well over 100 years as long as you take proper care of it. In fact, there are certain kinds of moths that consider silk protein a delicacy, which is another reason why not only nylon, but mothballs were also invented by the West.
When the girl finished with our group, Ping and I walked around the silk factory exhibit by ourselves and looked at the posters, half of which were in Thai, the other half in English. I learned that the earliest evidence of a silk industry comes from China around 3600 B.C.E., as some of the material was used to wrap an infant for burial, and that it's possible to delay the silkworms from hatching by putting their eggs in the refrigerator until you're ready to feed the progeny with leaves. A silkworm cocoon is spun by the worm in two days as a single thread of protein over half a mile in length, and the worm while still in its larval stage will consume so much leaf material that it increases in body weight 10,000 times before spinning its cocoon and turning into a moth. That's the equivalent of the average person gaining enough pounds to equal the weight of a fully-loaded 747 jetliner.
As a biology student, while art history may have bored me into a persistent vegetative state, insects never could. I sometimes pictured them as science fiction creatures, aliens from another planet capable of morphing into all sorts of bizarre forms. Since insects are also classed as arthropods, it means they all must wear their skeletons on the outside of their bodies. The upshot of having an exoskeleton is that it was far easier for invertebrates like this to evolve into an amazing variety of shapes and sizes. It's why the variety of insect bodies (as well as other arthropods like spiders and crustaceans) are so interesting to look at and collect. They run the gamut, everything from round ladybugs to long and slender walking sticks, some insects so small as to be barely detectable with the human eye (a fairy fly), to dragon flies that lived over 300 million years ago (called Meganeura) and had a wingspan of a slight bit over 2 feet (65cm). And yet all insects make due with exactly 6 legs.
Realizing this, it's not so surprising that there are nearly 1 million different species of insects, which account for 80% of all animal types on the Earth. We vertebrates, which account for less than 3% of all animal species, on the other hand tend to be boring and have the same basic layout. Why? Because it's a lot more difficult for evolution to change a body plan when its bones are situated on the inside. It's as if our skeletons are set in concrete compared to those of insects.
The poster dealing with Thailand explained that the silk thread the caterpillar makes is not strong enough to be used by itself, so Thai workers have to join around a dozen thin threads to make one fiber that can be woven into a garment and that it takes a skilled worker 40 hours to hand-reel a single pound of silk into fibers for weaving. The Thais traditionally made silk fabrics only in their free time, like when the planting, irrigating, and harvesting of rice was completed.
Even today, the most expensive Thai silks are hand-reeled and woven because when an actual person does all the work the patterns become more personal, almost like a fingerprint. Unlike most commodities in the modern world, imperfections are still valued in Thai silk, considered a reflection of the rural Thai woman who made the garment and yet paradoxically, the Thai royal court in ancient times actually preferred garments made of Chinese silk rather than those from their own culture.
It's interesting how cultures to the south often have looked north for their technology and inspiration. Even today, one of the first things a visitor to Bangkok notices after being confronted by thousands of billboards and posters -- hawking everything from cell phones to soft drinks -- is the preponderance of smiling youths with Chinese features, rather than the more commonly seen, darker-skinned Thais. I had a Thai friend tell me one time (without my asking) that she thought lighter skin on a Thai looked "cleaner" to her (she herself was dark). I'm not sure if the same holds true for other Thais as I've never brought up the subject, however if the ubiquitousness of lightening ingredients in deodorant and skin conditioner on pharmacy shelves is any indication, I'd have to guess that the sentiment is pretty widespread.
Marco Polo described silkworms in China as being so numerous and loud when they munched on mulberry leaves that it sounded to him like rain falling on a bamboo roof. While he was in China trying to track down the finest silks, he would have used the Mongol word for it, which was "sirkek", while the Chinese called silk cloth "sichou". He would have already been well aware of silk fabrics before traveling to China at the age of 17 because in Venice and other city-states in Italy, silk had been made since the 1100's (India had silk technology even earlier, around 800 years before,while Korea had it by 200 B.C.E.). It's because Venice got the technology (and the worms, I assume) from Constantinople, who in turn got it from some monks who smuggled silkworm eggs out of China around 550 C.E. by hiding them inside hollowed out bamboo canes. They were intended as a gift for the Emperor of the Byzantines, Justinian I. France became a center (at Lyon) starting in the 1400's and silk production became mechanized in Europe sometime in the 1600's.
Ironically, it was an American businessman and former spy during World War II who -- as Time magazine claimed in 1958 -- "almost single handedly saved Thailand's vital silk industry from extinction". Before Jim Thompson built his silk empire in Bangkok along a quiet canal in a neighborhood called Pathumwan, Thai silk wasn't nearly as well known as it is today. I would later visit his estate which is now a museum along that same canal, the place where in 1958 he had antique Thai houses over 100 year old taken apart and floated down the Chao Phrya River from Ayutthaya, where he reassembled them so he could have a beautiful and authentic backdrop to show off his extensive collection of art from all over Southeast Asia.
He got his big break in 1951 when the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I came out and quickly became a hit. The fashion designer for the show was a friend and she used only genuine Thai silk fabrics for the costumes. Thompson was known for introducing stronger and faster dyes, cut his silk from unusually long cloths, and his bright jewel tones juxtaposed with dramatic color combinations became Thai silk's trademark. Some people even went so far as to claim that Jim Thompson "gave Thai culture back to the Thais" since he was so active in preserving what he found of the traditions in Southeast Asia.
Thompson never wanted a large factory and instead employed only local Thai women and they made his silk fabrics across the canal in their homes, keeping silk production in Thailand literally a cottage-industry. Even the way his landscaping is arranged around his houses and canal are supposed to be the same as when he left Thailand on his last trip out of the country. Almost as well known for his silks is the fact that Jim Thompson disappeared mysteriously while hiking in the jungles of Malaysia in 1967. In fact, his disappearance triggered one of the biggest land searches in the history of Southeast Asia - which lasted 11 days and included not only the army, but Gurkhas, missionaries, and hundreds of school children.
There are all kinds of theories about his disappearance, but the one that stood out in my mind most postulates that Thompson had a heart attack while hiking and some monks came along, found him, and carried his body all the way to a monastery so they could meditate upon it. This rumor probably got started because it is true that people will sometimes donate their bodies to temples for the monks and nuns to meditate around, allowing them to more easily reflect on life's impermanence. I even saw this for myself once while photographing Wat Saket in Bangkok. At the time I thought it was a funeral, albeit a bit unusual since the elderly woman was laid out on a slab rather than in a coffin. Her long gray hair cascading down past the slab and onto the floor is still etched in my mind. I later learned that what I witnessed is called "corpse meditation".
Not far from Wat Saket is a prison that is closed now, but the monks used to get the bodies of executed prisoners from the prison many years ago for this purpose. The Buddha, when he was dying 2500 years ago, urged his followers to look at his body, which was wasting due to an intestinal ailment. He told them to remember it so they would better understand their own mortality.
While working towards my Ph.D. in graduate school, I was required to perform some "protein chemistry" in the lab. As a "DNA person" I was fortunate I had already learned something about proteins in general from my undergraduate years -- namely fibroin -- which is the protein that silk is made out of, even though I've never actually worked with (or even worn) silk in my life. It's because there are two well known proteins that are held up in all biochemistry textbooks -- the "poster children" for the structures of all other proteins -- silk from insects and hemoglobin from the blood of mammals.
Every protein known to biology is made up of long chains of building blocks (called amino acids), constructed inside cells kind of like pearls are strung together to make a necklace, except that proteins once made will fold into all kinds of interesting shapes. This is so they can go about their appointed tasks, both inside and outside the cell. There's a saying in structural biology that "form follows function", which means that the way a protein is shaped determines what kind of job it does, not unlike the way a hammer is shaped flat on its end to better pound in a nail, while a screwdriver has a pointed shape so it can turn a screw better.
The job of the hemoglobin protein is to carry around oxygen in the blood, so it's fortunate for us that hemoglobin is able to fold up into a kind of ball-shape to keep water out. This globular structure allows the protein to protect the oxygen molecule as well as the iron atom that binds to the oxygen buried in the heart of the hemoglobin. On the other hand, the job of the silk protein made by silkworms is for protection (silk is also used for catching insects in the case of spiders), so fibroin always has a fundamentally different shape than hemoglobin, even though both proteins are made out of long strings of amino acids. They have different shapes because both proteins have different responsibilities.
It turns out that all of the 20,000 or so different proteins that go into making up human beings (or most any other animal on earth for that matter) carry with them some fraction of "silk-like" or "hemoglobin-like" structure within their own structures. In other words, if you learn about silk and hemoglobin featured in a college textbook, in a way you are learning about the structures of all other proteins known to biology. Nearly all other proteins on earth - whether they're from an elephant or an ant or an oak tree - have either all or parts of their structure similar to silk, and other parts of their structure similar to hemoglobin.
From the models of the two proteins below, you can see that the protein hemoglobin folds up into a waterproof ball, while silk looks more like the way two halves of a zipper come together, except that, instead of two zippers, there are many others that all keep going within the same plane, and this special structure can help make the silk protein "stretchy".
|Hemoglobin Protein. Notice that the long chain is divided into many coiled rods that are folded in on one another.|
|The Silk protein even looks elastic with its folded chains in the form of sheets, like many zippers side by side.|
At the Flower Festival near Chiang Mai, the girl in charge of the silk farm exhibit had explained how one way to tell genuine Thai silk from artificial silk is by the smell it gives off when you burn it. If you singe a bit of the silk and it smells like human hair burning (hair is also made of a protective protein called keratin), then it's probably going to be genuine. If, on the other hand, it smells like plastic when it burns, you've got a manmade polymer like nylon on your hands. A month later at a museum in Bangkok, I watched as a woman in the gift shop demonstrated the "wedding ring test", whereby real silk when you run it through a wedding ring will glide effortlessly through it, while fake silk almost always bunches up.
At this point in the afternoon as we sat on a bench during one of the many breaks I needed to recover from the jet lag, I decided to test Ping's conversational English by relating to her the story of the French chemist Louis Pasteur and how he came to be working with silkworms in the south of France in the 1860's. He was there partly to save France's silk industry, but also because he was looking for further proof of something he had already become convinced of while working with beer and wine: that microbes like bacteria can actually cause diseases sometimes. Louis Pasteur's curiosity about silkworm diseases is the reason he is today often called the "Father of Modern Germ Theory".
France in the 1860's -- the same decade they began colonizing southern Vietnam -- had already developed a significant silk industry, except that all their silkworms were now dying of a strange new and lethal disease. The farmers called on Louis Pasteur -- already a well known French chemist by this time -- to help them out. The man had previously rose to prominence throughout Europe by saving France's wine industry, discovering that he could prevent wine from turning bitter simply by heating it in a controlled fashion to just 55 C, which would kill most of the germs from the air that tended to contaminate wine, but without boiling the wine, which would have killed the flavor. So the people thought he could work his magic on the silkworm industry, too. Their worms kept getting these black spots on their bodies, as if they'd been dusted with pepper, which is also why they called the disease "pebrine", the local French word for "pepper".
So after a bit of convincing, Pasteur finally agrees to leave Paris, even though he's never worked with a silkworm in his life. The man is, after all a chemist and not a biologist, and he takes his wife and three students along too. And the first thing that happens when he gets there is that Pasteur goes up a blind alley, believing he has identified the microbes causing the disease when in fact he really hasn't.
Going up blind alleys happens a lot in science, much more often than most people outside research will ever know, trust me. This is because most medical journals refuse to publish negative results. Everyone likes to read a good story, even scientists, and negative results are . . . well . . . kind of negative. After explaining to Ping that "blind alley" is just another idiom in English for "being lost" and Pasteur didn't really go blind, I continued on with the story because, other than the occasional idiom, she was keeping up with me pretty good. I was impressed. She understood English a lot better than she spoke it.
What happened was that Pasteur - naturally enough - assumed it was the microbes causing the black spots to appear that was killing the worms, so he goes ahead and tells the silkworm farmers to kill all their worm eggs laid by moths that had the spots. This doesn't help. In fact, he actually makes things worse for everybody because the worms keep on dying. Then, as if that's not bad enough, Pasteur has a stroke at the age of 45, a stroke of rotten luck that leaves the left side of his body paralyzed.
When I was teaching biology labs in graduate school and there was extra time to fill before the bell rang, I would sometimes play a guessing game with my students. I'd give them a quote from a famous scientist to see how long it took before they figured it out. If they couldn't guess his or her name, I'd start giving them clues, one by one, until the lightbulb finally went on above their heads.
For example, I might start off with asking them which scientist it was who said "The only thing that can bring joy is work". Then I'd start ticking off more clues, like how "this scientist was paralyzed from a stroke at age 45, and yet he insisted on continuing his work even while bedridden" and "his wife and assistants would actually put the lab on wheels and bring it to his bedside so he could continue working on silkworm disease" and "he founded an institute that still bears his name. He was the first person to develop a manmade vaccine. It was for rabies." By then, someone would have guessed that it was Pasteur.
So after the blind alley and the stroke, Pasteur keeps working on the worms -- he was nothing if not tenacious -- until he realizes he's actually been studying two different diseases all along. It wasn't the more obvious black spots that was killing the worms. It was another microbe inside the worm's digestive tract. When the healthy worms ate the droppings from an infected worm on a leaf, they caught the disease. It was kind of like some human intestinal diseases, which can cause diarrhea. The worms were dying from dehydration not unlike people can after ingesting cholera-causing bacteria in water. Once Pasteur was able to identify the microbes causing the actual disease, he could tell the farmers how to get rid of the diseased worms, and that's how he saved France's silk industry.
After six years working on silkworm diseases, Pasteur later went on -- in spite of his stroke -- to develop vaccines for chicken cholera, anthrax, and finally rabies. His pioneering work on vaccines allowed him to gain insight into how, exposing an animal to the weakened form of a germ, can allow their bodies to fight off stronger germs of the same type if later exposed to them. As a trained chemist, Pasteur probably wasn't afraid of dabbling in biology because he'd already realized that all the sciences are really about looking for patterns and making connections, whether it's in biology, chemistry, physics, or astronomy. All science is mostly about finding patterns.
Before Pasteur's work, most physicians for over a thousand years thought diseases were caused by fluid imbalances within the body. Few believed something as insignificant-looking as a microbe could kill an entire animal. Before turning to silkworm diseases, his only other proof that microbes could be troublemakers was in contamination of wine, beer, and milk. Pasteur realized that heat could kill the microbes and prevent spoilage in those beverages. But that was about it. On the other hand, with the silkworms he was able to show that microbes could cause disease in an animal and that is why Louis Pasteur is credited as being perhaps the most important person to establish that germ theory was correct, and that microbes really could cause diseases in humans.
When I was in a temple in the north of Thailand close to the boarder with Myanmar, I once asked a monk what the significance of the lotus bud was in Buddhism since I'd already read in guidebooks and on the Internet several conflicting reasons. For example that the lotus bud is a phallic symbol, or that the lotus bud represents enlightenment since the plant sends its bud high up into the air above everything else mundane at the surface of the pond, where it then blooms. But this monk simply quoted the Buddha who once said to his followers that "if we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change."
While sitting on the bench next to Ping at the Flower Festival in Chiang Mai, I was reminded of something Louis Pasteur once said along those same lines. He once told his followers that "A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world."