Wednesday, 21 September 2016


Storm clouds over Bangkok

Bangkok Love Letter
(Why I’m Not Worried Really)

19 September 2016, Bangkok

Dear Foreign Friend,

There’ve been many weddings & other tribal gatherings this September; the stars must be propitious for attempting lifelong unions.

Reconciliation meanwhile is nowhere in sight. Weddings force us to mingle with varied chatty crowds. From such brief psychic skimming of these light and some not so light (or desperate avoidance of real) conversations; from riding the skytrain, from street vendors, the motorbike taxi guys up the road, and weddings, it’s possible to get a more accurate reading of the city’s emotional state than can be gleaned from the strangely flat, 2D selfie reality contained within a tiny rectangular screen. You’re actually a part of everybody & everything, not merely observing & commenting from afar.

People are waiting. As Mor’s cartoon of a plunging stock market threatened by a thundercloud named Rumour shows, there is a lull in the air as the storm appears to pause, gathering its strength for the coming blow-out. The sky is full of phantasms; spectacular late monsoon clouds stack up, Godzilla-like.

Mor’s cartoon, Bangkok Post, 13 Sept 2016

As a caveman & soundmixer (current occupation), my ear is finely tuned to hear the slightest shade of a giggle or a sigh, as I sit all day on a ratty swivel chair cleaning up sound on ‘Bangkok Joyride 2: Shutdown Bangkok’. The main character’s voice in this film is composed of an orchestra of thousands, occasionally millions, of protesters each with a child’s noise-maker of choice: the hand-shaped clapper with its midget rattlesnakes or dry descending locusts sounds; the ear-splitting whistles of all sizes, each one sending the sound level into the hot zone; each clap & clatter, each shout & laughter requiring its own personal attention. One is forced to be very meticulous.

Voice of Outrage

There is always the lazy way, of course. You could just pull the whole sound line down to its lowest common denominator. But then all the texture, all individuality contained therein, is lost. You’d only hear the screech of those infernal whistles, loud cheering and applause. Doing it with love is tedious but the end result is clean & satisfying. Sudden crystalline sentences leap out from the heaving mass of humanity, against the background wash of a curious buzzing, excited and insectile, like angry bees or the growly bass of hornets bursting from a hive.

This, literally, is the Voice of the People, I soon realised. The faceless silent mass propelled from inertia into an irresistible riptide; anonymous millions morphing into one awe-inspiring entity, the Beast, which, once aroused, cannot be denied. Immersed in its voice day after day, week after week, I become aware that nothing & nobody can resist the Beast, now silent but unquiet. The Beast has a roar unlike anything you’ve ever heard.

Voice of the Beast

‘The Beast’ is not meant here as a derogatory term, as in ‘beastly’ or ‘bestial’. I’m trying to describe the tremendous majesty of the voice I’m hearing & distilling on my timeline. I want to conjure up an entity so huge, so majestic that, as it passes by, the whole world bows down like wheat before the wind.

Individual voices also come with their own distinct challenges.  Dem MP Julin Laksanavisit is the easiest. You can see why he’s so effective. His voice rarely goes into the red. Former PM Abhisit Vejjajiva ought to be easy but his habit of rocking, moving away from the microphone & then closing back in for the kill, poses problems. Yingluck is the most labour-intensive of them all, with an unpredictable pattern of sudden squeaks, nervous slips, odd pauses & movie queen sighs.  Every syllable needs attention. Of course the fact that I never interviewed any of them but got all this from TV news means an extra layer of a murky hiss to be cleaned.

(Whatever I may feel about what she did as Prime Minister, as a filmmaker I have to fall in love with her. Squeaky voice & lack of fluency aside, there’s no question that Yingluck Shinawatra is a scene-stealing movie star, with her classic Northern Girl looks & sensual charisma. That beautiful face, so pale, so stricken, a damsel in distress. It is an image to intoxicate and stun. It has the same power to entrance as that poster of Farrah Fawcette or Marilyn holding down her white skirt with difficulty against a stiff wind from the NY subway. What? Are we so heartless? We’re really going to make her pay for all that corrupted rice, seriously?)

Yingluck’s voice, an exotic soundscape

             Last Sunday I went to the Italian Film Festival to see Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Youth’. How very poignant to hear Michael Caine’s dialogue with the Queen’s Emissary which opens the film, right after the whole audience had just stood up for the Royal Anthem, which (instead of the usual footage of the king working hard) at this cinema is accompanied by portraits of the King in various artists’ studios, redolent with nostalgia for a time already past. 

After refusing to perform a concert for the Queen of England, the Michael Caine character, a composer, says he has nothing against the Queen, in fact “I find monarchy endearing.”  Queen’s Messenger: “How so?” MC: “Because it is so vulnerable.” QM: “In what way?” MC: “One person dies and everything changes.”

People want the King to live forever. But the King is a man. The monarchy, the throne, on the other hand, is an institution that represents our collective soul, the core of the national family. People desperately want him to live forever because they think that he alone is the core, when in fact we, all of us, our collective dreaming, our morphic field, form the essence and sanctity of the national soul, which does not die with one man, however beloved. And being sacred, the national soul can only be embodied by virtue.

In Thailand—in Siam—when we talk of soul and spirits, it’s not in idle speculation. They are as real as you and me, in fact more real, since they endure after we’re gone. They are to be feared, as the recent bone-chilling news story of the bamboo-shoot picker reminds us, as if we need any reminding.

About 2 weeks ago in Chonburi, a middle-aged woman went into a sacred forest to cut bamboo-shoots with several other women. Against their warning that it was taboo, she peed in the forest. As they headed home at the end of the day, she fell behind without anyone noticing. They returned to find her but she had vanished.

That night hundreds of miles away in her home town of Supanburi, she ‘entered her niece’s dream’ to say she (the aunt) had offended the jungle spirits who sent a snake to kill her. She is lying there in plain view but nobody can see the corpse as the spirits have ‘veiled the sight from man.’ Her niece must travel to this forest in Chonburi & perform a ceremony to beg the spirits’ forgiveness. The niece unquestioningly followed the dreamed instructions, and the aunt’s dead body was soon discovered, with puncture wounds indicating that she had been bitten by a snake with very large fangs. This is why all experienced Thai hikers (including myself) always raise our hands in supplication to request permission from the invisible realm before we relieve ourselves in the forest. You never know whose skull or temple ruins you might be peeing on. I hope you realise that I’m not joking.

In our world view, the fairies & the ancestors own the land which they lend to us for this brief moment of our lifetime. We are their respectful guests & temporary caretakers. In the 19th century, after his country “miraculously” escaped conquests as all his neighbours fell to master race empires, King Mongkut (known in Broadway & Hollywood as a dancing barbarian clown in ‘The King & I’) decided to honour the national soul with an icon and a name, ‘Pra Siam Devatiraj’—the Presiding Guardian Angel of Siam. There is a shrine to him at parliament which is usually alive with incense. Small replicas, replete with sword, are also placed inside the spirit houses of private homes & businesses, to represent the ‘Jao Tee’ or spirit of place.

Shopping Mall (MBK) spirit house

         “The King and the Land are One,” is the message of the Holy Grail brought back by Sir Galahad—the knight whose blade is sharp because his heart is pure—to his grief-stricken king (so end your self-pity & perform your duty). That’s why I’m not worried, really. Even as surreptitiously the aunts begin to send their best black clothes to be dry-cleaned, I have decided to surrender to the will of the Beast. Let’s ignore all the white noise and relate to each other as from one gut instinct to another. I know the Beast is wide awake, well-trained and ready for anything.

With Love from Bangkok,
Ing Kanjanavanit


A pioneer of environmental investigative reporting, Ing Kanjanavanit is a filmmaker, painter & bilingual writer, best known in Thai for the cult classic travelogue/handbook for environmental activism, ‘Khang Lhang Postcard’ (‘Behind the Postcard’) under the nom de guerre Lharn Seri Thai (136)—‘Free Thai Descendent/Force 136’, to evoke the Free Thai Movement against fascist forces during World War 2, which fought for the Allies then after the war was betrayed by the Allies. Sadly, she no longer attends Free Thai merit-making rites, not since Thaksin’s redshirts appropriated the name & equated Thaksin with Free Thai leader Pridi Banomyong, which is a travesty & a sacrilege.