Textures of Lad Prao

More photos from the “oh, yeah, I’m supposed to be maintaining a blog” series … Lad Prao is a traditional neighborhood along the edge of the Lad Prao canal (คลอง, pronounced “khlong”). The neighborhood is slowly being abandoned and demolished for new, higher-income housing.

The demolition, and condition of the buildings generally, provide opportunities for abstract/textural work.

Yeah, we got that

There’s a section of Bangkok’s Chinatown called Talat Noi that is filled with small industrial concerns. You go there for steel construction material, hardware and the like.

It all seems pretty organized until you get to the streets where the used auto parts stores are. Then things get funky.

I have been fascinated by Talat Noi since I first visited it in September. There are scores of stores, one after the other, all selling what look to be the same things. How do all these stores stay in business? How does anyone know what their inventory is? Who buys and sells this junk? Armed with a translator, I decided to find out.

This is T. Rachai. His father came to Bangkok from China to work as a laborer, and then started his auto parts store. Chinese merchants have been active in the area since the early 1900s.

According to one person I interviewed, many of the parts come from Japan, where the government offers disincentives for people to keep older cars. Brokers from Thailand buy containers of used parts in Singapore, where the junkyards ship the parts after they disassemble the cars, and they bring them to Bangkok and sell them to the parts dealers. The dealers apparently make a decent living: they sell parts for 10 percent of the price of new parts, so they have a steady supply of customers; many of the boats that ply the nearby Chao Phraya river actually are retrofitted to use truck and automobile engines, so maritime workers also come in for spare parts; and other brokers down the line (including brokers from countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) might also come in and say “I need 100 transmission pumps for Toyota pickups.” If one shop doesn’t have them – say, they only carry Isuzu parts – another one will. Finally, there’s always the option to sell unused parts for scrap.

Personally, I have a hard time believing that business is good, given how enormous some of these piles of parts are, but I only have my gut to back me up on this. In the meantime, they make for some interesting abstract photographs.

Wat Hua Krabue

Welcome to Wat Hua Krabue, the Temple of the Water Buffalo Head! We visited Wat Hua Krabue recently, enticed by the public domain photos we saw on the internet, such as these:

The story of Wat Hua Krabue is that the chief abbot decided to create a memorial to the Asian water buffalo, which has seen a rapid decline in population as farming has become more mechanized and people have increased their consumption of buffalo meat. The abbott began collecting skulls from nearby farms and slaughterhouses, and – according to one website – now has a collection of over 8,000 skulls that he will use to create a museum to the animal. The abbot apparently has a penchant for collecting things: originally, he collected old Mercedes Benz cars. When we showed up, his collection of votive figures was well in evidence.

Some temples include figures that stand outside and offer the “wai” – a bow with the hands pressed together – to visitors while a greeting plays on a loop from a speaker. For some reason, one of them is dressed like the King of Pop. Meanwhile, a disturbingly realistic monk statue holds a bowl for alms.
That same monk again, seated near the real thing. Or you can offer prayers to, well, whoever these four represent. And for some reason, there is a soldier figure hiding behind some animals.

The temple seems to be pretty syncretic; you can leave offerings in front of the deities of your choice.

Some people, however, prefer to worship Mammon.

But let’s get to the buffalo heads. We asked a two people who worked on the temple grounds where we could find them, but they couldn’t tell us; finally, someone pointed us to a pile of old skulls under a tree near a garbage tip.

The next week, I asked a Thai friend to call the temple and ask where they were. According to her report, the temple decided to move the skulls to the back of the temple, and when they did, some of them were damaged and thrown onto the heap. We never found the rest of them, so I’ll have to look the next time I’m out that way.

Let’s learn Thai! – part 6, in which it gets worse

Thai has three types of consonants: “middle” consonants, which are simply regular consonants; “high” consonants, which follow certain rules; and “low” consonants, which follow certain other rules. Within the low consonant class, there are “single” low consonants and “paired” low consonants. Paired low consonants match the high consonants, so we start with these. For simplicity’s sake, I am including in the below table only the primary consonant, rather than (for example) all the different ways one can make the “s” sound. “kh,” “th” and “ph” are aspirated k, t and p, respectively.

/kh/ /ch/ /th/ /ph/ /f/ /s/ /h/

To make it more confusing, high consonants can only have low, falling, and rising tones, while low consonants can only have no, falling, or high tones, and the tone markers for the low consonants are effectively “one off” from the tone markers used for high and middle consonants – i.e., a falling-tone high or middle consonant and a high-tone low consonant get the same tone marker. In some respects, this makes things easy: if you hear a word beginning with “kh” that has a high tone, you know that you have to spell it with the and not the – but it would be easier still just to have one set of letters and one set of rules.

no tone low tone falling tone high tone rising tone
high ข่ ข้
middle ก่ ก้ ก๊ ก๋
low ค่ ค้

My teacher tells me that grammar school students learn this over the course of four years.

Spirit houses 2

Spirit houses in their natural habitat.

In my quest to find out where spirit houses come from, I started with a visit to the website of K.T. Spirit House (http://www.kt-spirithouse.com). Unfortunately, the store is located far outside Bangkok, and the proprietors didn’t answer my email. I considered heading out and taking my chances, but then I found a store in town that sells spirit houses, and the woman running it spoke English so I didn’t have to struggle with Thai to explain my interest. In response to my first question, she told me that hers are made from molded poured concrete, but when I asked whether I could see the factory where the houses are made, she grew cagey and said no, not unless I was buying one.

Fortunately, I remembered seeing a plot of land filled with spirit houses on my first weekend in Bangkok, so I returned there. This is Chokenumsin, a factory that makes spirit houses, Buddhist shrines, and other stone outdoor furnishings. The second-generation owner of Chokenumsin, K. Siriwong Chuwonganant, showed me around the factory, all the while probably wondering why this crazy American with bad Thai language skills wanted to see how spirit houses were made.

Chokenumsin makes the majority of its spirit houses from poured concrete, using fiberglass molds to form the individual pieces, and then putting the pieces together. The shop works in other materials as well, including glass and wood, but the concrete ones are by far the most popular.

Lots of small san pra phum ready to come off the shelf; then you have to buy the people and animals to put in them.

There will be more on this topic later.

Let’s Learn Thai! – part 5, in which we learn more about the Thai alphabet (UPDATED)

At my request, my teacher began to teach me to read and write Thai (rather than rely on a phonetic system of writing in English characters). Be careful what you wish for, may you live in interesting times, all of that.

It turns out that two of the reasons that Thai has so many consonants are that, for example, in addition to the aspirated consonants (“D” as in “dog”) and (“T” as in “Thai”), there is a “DT” sound, , which is its own letter. Some of the other consonants get similar treatments, for instance there is a sound between “B” and “P”. And then there are the final letters: a final “K” can be one of three characters, a final “N” can be one of five characters, a final “P” can be one of four characters, and a final “T” can be one of 15 characters. These typically are used in words that were borrowed from Sanskrit, Khmer and other area languages: when the Thais borrowed a word, they borrowed the letters that went with it, so in total, they ended up with 44 consonants.

The Thai keyboard on an iPhone (shift-key not depressed and depressed). It’s cleverly laid out: the middle columns are the vowel markers and diacriticals and oh my god I must be insane to be studying this language.

The way they are all told apart is that each letter has a different name. Every Thai consonant has a two part name: the “o” part that starts with the sound of the letter, and then a word that contains that letter. Imagine, for example, that you wanted to spell the word “tap.” If you used the regular alphabet, you’d say “T A P.” If you used the NATO phonetic alphabet, you’d say “Tango Alpha Papa.” The analogous way to do it in Thai would be, effectively, to say “T-tango A-alpha P-papa.” You could never say “T-tomato A-alpha P-papa”, even though it sounds the same, because the letter in this word is T-tango. However, the word “try” might correctly be spelled “T-tomato R-romeo Y-yankee,” in which case if you wrote it using the “T-tango” letter instead, someone would correct you.

The next trick to learn is that when Thai people write sentences, they run all the words together. In the top photo, some of the character strings are single words, and some of them are sentences. How do you know if a string of syllables is a word or a sentence? You have to know what each syllable is, because – with the exception of borrowed words – each syllable represents an individual word, and multisyllabic words are compounds of single-syllabic words. (For example, the two-syllable word for “river” comes from the one-syllable word for “mother” and the one-syllable word for “water,” which is quite poetic when you think about it.) Thus, if multiple syllables that are strung together don’t make a word, they compose a sentence.

Next: something else, please.

Let’s Learn Thai! – part 4, an introduction to the alphabet

The dog was sick all morning, throwing up on the Persian rugs (due to a bad reaction to a pain medication we gave him for his arthritis), so I stayed home from Thai class and did a little self-study. My lessons don’t include reading and writing yet, but I want to get a jump on the topic. As it happens, when I learned we were going to Thailand last October, I bought a self-study book on Amazon which I used for three days before putting it away on the shelf. It made no sense to me at the time, but I’m more comfortable with it now, so I picked it up and turned to the writing section.

Thai has 44 consonants and 32 vowels. For reasons I will surely learn later, many of the consonants are different symbols for the same sound, while many of the vowels are diphthongs, but it still seems like too many for any one alphabet.* Thai vowels are written as symbols on the “base” of the consonant they are modifying (rather than standing alone as written symbols, like A-E-I-O-U), so one of the consonants is silent, serving only to “carry” the vowel when the word starts with a vowel sound. This consonant is , simply called “o” (since the consonants are named no, bo, lo, ro, etc., the initial letter of each corresponding to the sound of the consonant).

Now, here’s the tricky part: the placement of the vowel marks depends on the vowel, for example (as I’ve learned so far):

 อา  อี  อู เอ โอ ไอ เอา
 long a long i  long u long e long o ai ao

If you’re paying attention, you’ll have noticed that the vowel symbols for long “a” and long “e”, when combined, don’t make “ae”, but “ao.”

*In Albanian, consonant diphthongs such as “dh”, “gj”, “rr”, and “xh” were also considered individual letters, but there are only nine of them.

Spirit houses 1

Spirit houses, which one sees in front of many houses and businesses in Thailand, are the local version of the Greek proskinitaria that I documented in my book (copies of which, ahem, are still available). Unlike proskinitaria, however, spirit houses, or san pra phum, are intended to provide a home for spirits that could otherwise create trouble for the property owners if they are not cared for and given offerings of flowers or food. Although the Thais are predominantly Buddhist, their culture still reflects an earlier time when animism played an active role in people’s thinking. Hence, every place has spirits that need to be appeased to maintain good fortune. A local tour guide explained that, for example, if someone has an argument with a co-worker at the office, he might go to the san pra phum outside and ask the spirits to stop stirring up trouble.

Spirit houses are generally in the form of a miniature temple, and are sometimes peopled with miniature worshippers and animals. They are placed on a dais or pillar in an auspicious location, usually one chosen in consultation with a Brahmin priest. (There is a separate type of structure called a san ta yai, literally “grandfather-grandmother house,” for the spirits of the people who used to live at the site. They have four legs rather that one, and stand lower than the san pra phum.)

Opulent or plain, there’s a spirit house to fit the budget of every spirit.
A san pra phum and a san ta yai stand side-by-side. Detail on the spirit house figurines. Larger ones have more people and animals.

There are many articles, such as this one, that provide more information on spirit houses: for example, the property owner has to choose the right date during only certain moon phases to invite the spirits into their house, and the type of protection that the spirit house offers depends on the type of wood used in its construction. I also read that the bottles of strawberry Fanta that one sees in front of some spirit houses is a modern-day replacement for the blood of animals that people used to sacrifice to the spirits. Others say that the spirits are vegetarians and don’t want blood, but they do like sweets, and red is a lucky color. I’ll avoid taking sides in this debate; personally, I prefer grape Fanta. But I digress.

Left side: a substitute for animal sacrifice. Right side: not so much.

Spirit houses are photographed and written about by every tourist who comes to Bangkok, so I won’t add to the supply of spirit house-related pixels available on the internet, as such; however, I haven’t seen much about where spirit houses come from, so I’m going to look at that.

Next(-ish): part 2