The Ramayana: (Interspecies) Romance, Revenge, and a REALLY convoluted plot

When our Adorable Thai Teacher (ATT) invited our class to join her for a performance at the Thai Cultural Centre, T-bone and I couldn’t say no. We didn’t know what we were signing ourselves up for, but we are clearly two farangs in need of a little culture. After a long haul across town, our little class of uncultured-ness met our ATT at a metro station. She had a Thai friend accompanying her, which was a good thing, because manhandling 8 large farang bodies into a rush hour metro car takes some serious effort. We arrived at the Thai Cultural Centre relatively unscathed, and immediately bumped into this dude:

Any time you see guys wearing dresses and bangles, you know you’re in for a good time.

This was a promising sign. He didn’t seem overly impressed by the farang trying to take his picture, but I didn’t let that get me down. In fact, I begged him for another one, and he resigned himself to his fate.

We are both so excited for this moment.

We entered the main hall, which was full of people milling about, preparing themselves for a serious serving of culture. I still had no idea what the evening was about, but I figured the dude in the dress had something to do with it.

Rather than programs, the tables in the lobby were selling lotus flowers.

There was also a display in the centre of the lobby – either a rare artefact or a silent auction.

And really, who wouldn’t want to own a golden carriage?

Soon it was time to find our seats. Unfortunately, they were clearly designed with delicate, cultured Thais in mind, not gigantic Westerners, nor the grunting, obese young boys crammed in next to us. I knew we should have shelled out for better tickets.

One of the two orchestras.

The orchestra, comprised of traditional Thai instruments, began to play, and the curtain lifted. A group of dancers, dressed similarly to the dude I posed with, began their slow, hypnotic motions. While this was fascinating at first, after around 5 minutes, I found myself wishing that they’d speed it up, or throw in a few spins or something. “Please tell me that it won’t be like this all night,” I muttered to T-bone. Clearly, I am desperately in need of culture. Someone must have heard my plea, though, because it turns out that the dancers were just an opening act. The real show was about to begin.

The elaborate stage curtain

Turns out, the show was a re-enactment of the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic. It is incredibly long (7 volumes), and incredibly convoluted. Saturday’s performance detailed only one of the volumes. The show was an appropriately epic combination of fantastic, bizarre, and boring.

Thanks to my excellent camera, it appears that the stage is on fire.

The Fantastic: The costumes and sets were amazing. We weren’t supposed to take photos, but I sneaked a few.* My terrible phone photography doesn’t do it justice, though. The set was incredibly elaborate, as were the special effects. At several points, the actors were suspended from cables during action scenes.

Allow me to interpret this one for you: the two blobs are people.

The Bizarre: Humans and monkeys intermingle freely, and when Hanuman, one of the monkey generals, is searching for his enemy, he dives into the ocean, fights with two fish, and then marries a mermaid. I can’t vouch for this based on personal experience, but the plot seems like a bit of an acid trip.

Masks that are similar to the ones in the play.

The Boring: every scene was extremely long and convoluted. While the basic plot was translated into English on the screens next to the stage, the dialogue and jokes weren’t, so a lot of the meaning was lost on us. Then again, you don’t have to know the language to understand that monkeys and mermaids can love each other.

After a few hours, Todd and I remembered that we had an early morning the next day, and snuck out. We debriefed the epic, bizarre experience over a bowl of noodles with chicken feet.

Because the Ramayana wasn’t weird enough for Todd.

I’m not sure that I feel more cultured after the experience, but I am reminded that Thailand is an extremely strange and wonderful place.

* There was no flash, and besides, I figured that I was creating less disturbance than the grunting piglets children eating popcorn next to me.

Stuff Thai People Like: Sugar!

“Like” is not really an accurate or adequate descriptor of the passion that Thai people feel for sugar. They slurp it through straws, dump it on rice, pour it into drinks, and heap it on noodles. Even for a closet sugar lover like yours truly, Thailand takes it to a new and disturbing level: it’s sorta like a guilty pleasure but with double the guilt and none of the pleasure.

It’s hard to truly convey “sweet” with candid photographs , so you will once more be treated to a photo essay of me’n’T-bone.

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Ahhh. A treat holding treats.

One of the first Thai phrases that we learned was “mai waan” – “not sweet.” It basically comes in handy any time you order anything, including stir fry. Often, however, it is not adequate: when ordering an iced coffee, for example, “mai waan” simply means that the vendor won’t dump additional white sugar into the drink – it still contains a heapin’ helpin’ of sweetened condensed milk. If you ever forget to say “mai waan,” heaven help you. Your teeth will rot out of your head.

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Such as when I purchased this Strawberry drink. I don’t normally throw food away. Then again, I don’t normally drink straight high-fructose corn syrup.

Shugah-lovin’ seems to go without saying in Thai culture. When our Thai teacher taught us how to say “more,” she used the following example: “if you want more sugar in your coffee for example, just say “nam taang yuu yuu.” All of us stared blankly at her: what sudden mental illness would ever induce you to ask a Thai coffee vendor to add more sugar??

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Don’t you dare answer that question.

Even foods that are traditionally savoury often contain sugar. I have ordered noodle dishes that were so sweet that I couldn’t finish them, and this is one gal who loves a good sweet/salty/fatty combo. I have also watched Thai friends dump sugar all over their Pad Thai. Cuz maybe the MSG didn’t give it enough flavour…

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Or maybe she just wanted to support a local industry

It is strange to see an entire population of generally thin people obsessed with an eating habit that is associated with obesity and disease in the West. Based on statements I have overheard other farangs make, there is an assumption that Thai people don’t have diabetes or other related disorders. This, however, is not true – diabetes is a significant problem in Thailand. In addition, according to this study, around 50% of diabetics are undiagnosed. Given the rates of sugar consumption that I’ve observed, I wonder if the problem is even more widespread than this study suggests.*

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Stop encouraging people to eat sugar, Todd!

As someone who comes from a land of people obsessed with doughnuts and poutine, I don’t have much credibility, but come on, Thailand. Let’s get a grip on this before my teeth rot out of my head, thereby negating my braces investment.

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Or I give birth to a sugar baby

* In case anyone wants to poke holes in my argument – yes, I realize that sugar consumption is only one factor influencing diabetes rates

Thai Culture Class (aka: The Teachers Get Schooled)

We have spent the past three days in Thai culture class. Strangely enough, the Thai government doesn’t want just any foreign doofuses teaching at the nation’s schools: it wants certified doofuses, and it wants them certified in country. This involves a process that is simultaneously arduous and simplistic. Arduous, because it involves a 20 hour course on top of all the hours that the teachers have spent applying for various forms of documentation. Simplistic, because half the activities involve arts’n’crafts and show’n’tell. We completed our training today, and I feel certified.*

Christmas came early! Note the extreme delicacy and sophistication of my hand and feet positions.

It was originally unclear whether I should participate in the course. I’m not a teacher, nor do I particularly wish to become one. However, should my job search prove futile, I may end up substitute teaching at the school, and so the administration decided that I should take the class along with the real teachers. Going to work with T-bone was a new experience, and one that I’m not sure he’d recommend, though I found it entertaining. Let’s call it “marital enrichment.”

Todd was super pumped for marriage time with all our new best friends!

Thai school involved several distinct activities. The first involved listening to our adorable Thai teachers explain a l.e.n.g.t.h.y. series of powerpoint presentations. Their English is good, but not totally fluent, and they tend to insert a variety of Thai expressions such as “Ka,” “mm-Ka,” and “Ah-Ka.” This is soothing, but sometimes difficult to follow. A sample sentence:

“The Thai people, they love the King very much, Kaaa. I feel, ah-Ka, that the King is very mmm-Ka, wonderful. Ah-Ka. Kaaaaaa”

The second portion of the class centred on Thai Language Learning. I’ve sat in many language classes throughout the years, but never one that focused on a tonal language. I’ve heard French and German slaughtered pretty thoroughly, but nothing like the utter annihilation that the Thai language experienced in the mouths of this batch of North Americans. Imagine someone who’s demented, tone deaf, and illiterate trying to sing an opera score. Total carnage.

Our Thai teachers using cartoon worms to teach us Thai vowels. This was far too advanced.

The third and most crucial portion of our class involved arts and crafts. We learned to make fish mobiles out of banana leaves, “love sticks” out of flowers, and kites out of paper and straws. I caught a glimpse of my lost childhood (mostly years 3 and 4), and I found myself spontaneously singing the clean-up song.** Our apartment is now decorated with mobiles of dead fish (we couldn’t figure out how to make them dangle upright), rotting “love sticks,” and mangled kites. They blend in nicely with our New Style Trend decor.

Look moms! Look at our wonderful crafts! Also, look at Todd’s foul, $2 hair cut.

This afternoon, we officially graduated. We now have a complete and perfect understanding of the Thai culture, and the government is ready to inflict us on unsuspecting students. Kaaaaaa.

*Or perhaps certifiable…

**For the uninitiated: “clean up, clean up, everybody do your share, clean up, clean up… “ to be repeated ad nauseum