Siam I Am

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Siam Chronicles 9 - Our Parlay with the Malay

24 hours in Penang

“It can’t be up that way,” Alex shook his head, a definitive no. We were seeking the path to Kek Lok Si temple, and the stretch of stalls that tunneled up the hill, crushed and suffocated with hawkers and gawkers, garlanded with all the gumboils of garishness, seemed a most minatory ascent. But there is always a test a before the temple, of course it was up that way, the gauntlet must be tholed by the bold.
Clawing and kicking, we swam the crowd. Voices exploded from the insensate clot around us like landmines, and these shamans of hokum were through asking.
You WANT ice-cream. No, but if I could get one of those spinning crystal pagodas that emits ear-piercing Asian pop, I’ve got a nephew with a birthday coming up whose been nothing but bad.
You WANT t-shirts. No, but you’ve got fifty hectalitres of dried cephalopod in every possible flavor assortment, and I’ve got a great hunger for all things suctiony.
You WANT puppets. Perhaps, but I’d rather try my luck with smuggling those sacks of scorpions and endangered tiger’s paw through customs.
You WANT tapestry of dogs playing billiards. Yes, actually, you augur my heart’s desires. How much and will you throw in that psychedelic Ganesha clock to seal the deal?
In short anything and everything you’ve never wanted limned our path while we coerced our way over the heaped masses swathed in saris, passionately perorating for a good price for these atrocities - hopefully to gather them together and lovingly burn them in a ceremony commemorating the continuance of global good taste.
Let’s not dwell on that tortuous journey any longer. Let’s just lie and say we achieved the temple quickly and easily, in good spirits and not at all despising our fellow cows.
We mumped our devotion to the sacred turtles who were thronging the pagoda in piles with all due diligence, we skulked the garden grounds with the monitor lizards, we browsed the solemn explication of the swastikas from another time adorning the statuary.
Then we dreaded going down again.

Snake temple was slithering with pit vipers, black with yellow stripes and eyes bisecting the blood red walls. Legend has it that incense keeps them drugged and docile, and, fact or fiction, as homage to this most poisonous of snakes they do in fact employ the largest sticks of incense I have ever seen in all my life – fully five feet tall and four inches around, hot pink and blowing enough smoke to knock a giant cross-eyed into a mountain.

The city outside burbled and clamored like loose change in a washing machine as Alex and I sat sessile, playing gin rummy and drinking something called Buccaneer’s whiskey in the echoing expanse of the hallway. An octogenarian labored up the staircase, “There’s going to be a storm,” he adumbrated, smiling in creases, “A big storm,” then padded off into the penumbra of the receding vaults.
As if on cue, a blast of wind blew open the wormed wooden shutters with a bang, carrying heat, the smell of dust, rain, disinfectant, and a brief blue view of close cluttered streets, alive with rain, running, and cantonese characters pulsing in neon coruscation, scumbled soft in gloaming and storm. Our cards caught in the current to prang and lodge into the curious mixture of massive art deco armoires and plastic lawn furniture that so uniquely characterized the hundred year hotel. The thunder and rain with their peal and douse puddled the marble floors in moments as we slipped to grip the shutters and brace them fast against the island storm.

Kuala Lumpur or Armeggedon?
“It’s the burning in Sumatra,” the businessman explained with a tidy gesture of dismissal, “900 fires and counting. Until it clears up, well…” he shrugged and held his portmanteau close as the elevator pinged open, wishing us luck as he made his escape. In the lobby, sardined with an Indian family of epic proportions, the smell of fire was already penetrating into our clothing and hair. The front doors slid open with a hiss, revealing a vision of the apocalypse.
It was a bit like a major US city - clean, full of sky-scrapers, ultra-modern. It was a bit, in fact, like San Francisco, under a scrim of a heavy fog - if you had a packet of smoldering matches stuffed securely up each nostril and a roaring hair fire in your lungs. We came and left when the toxicity was designated “very-dangerous,” a few days before it ticked over into “deadly.”
But, on the upswing, Kuala Lumpur has both a monorail AND a spaceneedle.

A Moment in Malacca
I was running under a swarm of dragonflies on the hill of St. Paul's church and the city flared out below in a patchwork of color. It was an oneiric whirl of images - the orange of the insects, the blue of the sky, the green of the field and the red brick of the ruin cascading into the city's labrynth of cobalt, carmine, and saffron, ringed round merrily by the turqouise sea. The light and color, dizzying in that moment, were scrimshawed on my psyche, like a secret map to sunshine for days of murk and grays.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Siam Chronicles 8 - The Headless Trees of Koh Phi Phi

A Pocketful of Stumbles in the Dark

The turbulent shouting began to mizzle through the midnight streets just as we were luffing into a most welcome bed. Within seconds the whole town was pullulated with commotion - my first irrational thought was that a massive brawl had broken out. I began pulling on some clothes, but Alex instead threw the blanket over his head with a well phrased imprecation. Then a strange quiet fell outside, I paused to listen. Suddenly the shoddy door came alive with concussive knocking. The shaky messenger was short in stature and words, dropping a quick "Tsunami alert, get out now," before he sprinted on to the next dimly lit doorway.
In less than a minute we were out the door, entrained in the wake of a shadowy aggregation of grim locals flowing silently up a dark crevass via an extemporaneous ladder. The weathered rope in question was not a welcome sight. I never had to climb the Fabled Gym Class Rope, and if I had I would have assiduously failed - possibly with unbecoming gusto. But with the help of brave souls who were staying behind to shepherd the less agile up the incline, in a heave I was up and scambling to the top of the mountain, scraping through the jungle's dark reticulum of thorns and branches, often on my hands and knees. Flashlight! Why didn't I bring a flashlight? I thought, as I slipped or tripped and fell on my butt again and again. This was apparently a common oversight, as the dull blue glow of LED lights from sporadic cell-phones, casting sickeningly swaying shadows through the muffled corridor of leaves, were our only fleeting guides in an acclivous headlong dash through the brush, stumbling over pits and stumps, and up, up, up.
I have never climbed a mountain so fast in my life.
At the top a huddled group hummed with terrified whispers - there had been a 7.3 earthquake in Phuket. The mosque's loudspeakers had been converted into an alarm system, issuing the official government warning with calm and unnaturally tinny tones that threaded through the hushed and heavy air in that aphotic clearing. The only movement, the only sound in that stifling well of trees, were the mosquitoes, thick as fog, obscuring the bleak gibbous moon framed in the fuliginous branches, their termagent whine implacable.
After an unknowable amount of time the first drained bits of chatter began. It was all locals up there, survivors of the tragedy, and a Dutch couple, very young, very afraid. I began an asinine colloquy with them about god knows what to keep their mind from their fear. The pallid red-headed girl was fairly quaking with it, teeth chattering in the heat, I heard myself talking spewing some drivel about Amsterdam's museums, but it seemed to be working.
Over an hour later the unceremonious all's clear came, and we made our halting way back down, helping each other, taking our time. At the bottom the sentinels of Koh Phi Phi were waiting, a handful of headless palm trees, grosgrain pillars to the sky, a lingering reminder amidst the palimpsest rubble swath of the destruction and tragedy of the waves.
No one slept that night, horrifying memories flooding some, blossoming élan vital pulsing through the rest - Alex and I and the young Dutch couple ran laughing through the dark waves, and pulled up a rough-hewn bench amidst a sea of candlelit faces to drink overpriced beer and speak of future plans.