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A Night in Asylum

I am a businessman who travels for work. I can’t give my name or that of my company because, should those particulars be discovered, the following account would certainly call either my honesty or sanity into question, a circumstance that would be disastrous for one who relies for a living on public trust. Although every word is (unfortunately) true, and ought to be known for reasons of general weal, I shrink from attaching my ‘brand’ to the matter. In fact, I have never told any of my intimates and, except for setting the matter down here in black and white, intend to take my secret to the grave.

I understand, especially given the incredible nature of the events hereafter described, that a reader might require some description of me, the better to weigh my words and judge of their truth. As I said, I am a businessman. At the time this episode took place I was a middle-aged bachelor with a solid career of 20 years in the same company wherein I now work. I was, and remain, unremarkable in appearance in manner. An acquaintance jokes that if he were called into a morgue to identify my body, he would hesitate to make a positive identification as there are so many who look exactly like me—a person of average build, brown hair cut short, clean-shaven, clothes tidy and innocuous. As for my personality, well, in this matter too there is little to distinguish me from the herd. If anything, I might be considered to have even less imaginative or emotional than others, having a respect for Truth that makes it actually painful to consciously deviate from verifiable fact.

 

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On the occasion in question I was visiting a mid-sized city on the West Coast. I will not mention the name of the city, partly for the reasons given above—that is, particulars might help identify me–but also from the sense of dread that it inspires in me yet. As it is pertinent to my story, however, I will give the name of the apartment building: Asylum.

 

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Fool that I was, when I saw that sign, I smiled. I briefly thought my secretary (who made the booking) had played a practical joke on me, but soon dismissed the idea. After all, apart from the image conjured up by that word – of Bedlam, disjointed raving of lobotomized shufflers in pyjamas—the original sense surely claimed precedence: a haven, a sanctuary—this was after all an appropriate name for a temporary home away from home.

After I punched in the entry code at the metal gate, it swung open to admit me and then closed with a heavy clang at my back. Following the directions my secretary had sent, I found the first staircase and climbed up to the third floor. Here, as on each floor, were three doors: one in front of me and one on either side. My apartment was in the middle.

Stepping inside, I quickly took stock of the place. It was modest but clean and wholly adequate to my needs, with a kitchenette, a small table and chair, a couch and large television. The bedroom included a large bed and ample wardrobe for storing my suitcase. And the bathroom was also quite acceptable.

What’s more, unusual for a dwelling in the middle of a city, the view from the living room window was quaint to the point of eccentricity. Across the parking lot, opposite Asylum, was a strange building, an architectural mishmash from the nineteenth century with a neoclassical façade, gables and two tall brick chimneys. As I stood looking out at it, I saw a figure in one of the attic windows. I couldn’t tell for certain, as he or she was lit from behind by some weak yellow light, and I could only just make out a thin silhouette, but the figure seemed to be looking straight back at me. My eyesight is really not very good. There was, though, something about the figure that struck me as unpleasant. I couldn’t say exactly what it was except that the way it leaned forward and kept its gaze fixed on me suggested the kind of single-minded eagerness and intensity of a thin eagle contemplating a rabbit. Annoyed and uneasy, I rolled the blinds down and turned on the television news. Gradually, the strange image began to fade from my mind.

 

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I spent most of the evening preparing for a business presentation I was to give the following morning. After that, I ate at a small restaurant close to the hotel and returned to my rooms at about nine o’clock, planning to have an early night.

As I was setting out my clothes and things for the next morning, I heard some movement upstairs and that the soundproofing in the building was flimsy, to say the least. I could hear—and feel–every footstep, every closed door and cupboard, and the sound (though not the substance) of every conversation. If I have a fault, it’s that sounds do have the capacity to irritate me. The person or people upstairs were rather active. At first, I thought it was a child playing, and this made the sound more acceptable as it is only natural that a child who has been cooped up at school or day will want to let off steam.

Eventually, though, after an hour of rough-housing, it occurred to me that the child seemed to be extraordinarily active and much heavier than most. The walls trembled at each step as he or she scampered here and there. I began to wonder if it was not a child at all, but a very large dog. But then, if it was a dog, there would surely be the sound of toenails tapping on the floor? When the sound and trembling of the weird dance upstairs continued for another hour, I took a broom and tapped sharply on the ceiling three times. The sound ceased and, satisfied, I poured out a glass of water to keep beside my bed.

As I was crossing the room with the water, there came a huge and terrifying ‘THUMP’ directly above my head. My hand flew up in the air and the water splashed onto the floor, and my heart leapt in my chest. It was immediately clear that whatever was over me was no child nor dog. If it was a man, he must have been enormous. I admit, in my shaken condition, the thought occurred to me And if it is not a man?

 

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The sound made me freeze for several moments—I thought the world was ending. Then I retrieved a mop to soak up the spilt water. Just as I was finishing up the mopping, the sound came again: ‘THUMP’—just as loud and catastrophic as it had been before. And, several moments later, it came again and I feared the ceiling might cave in.

I stood there in shock, not knowing quite what to do. Call the police? How ridiculous. Go upstairs and confront the person? I didn’t have the nerve! So, cowardly though it may have been, I did nothing, preferring to ignore it and carry on to the bedroom, hoping that whoever or whatever it was upstairs would fall asleep and so end its persecution of me.

In bed, I calmed myself down by reading Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for Personal Excellence by Alexandre Harvard. I like to read improving literature every night before sleeping as I believe it is a time when the mind is particularly receptive to new ideas and can be reinforced by dreams.

As I was reading, however, I was distracted by the sound of a television in the apartment to my left. It was turned up very loud, as if whoever was watching it was deaf. As always, I’d prudently brought earplugs and now put them in, but even so the sound was intrusive enough that I could still hear it. I resolved, if it was still on in one hour and if I was still awake at that time, then I would knock on my neighbor’s door to ask them to turn it down. To tell the truth, I was a little ashamed of my earlier timidity and determined to exhibit the leadership I’d been reading about, particularly ‘courage: staying the course and resisting pressures of all kinds.’

Exactly one hour later, I pulled my earplugs out to see if the television was still playing. At first, I thought that it was because I heard the rise and fall of voices, but after a few moments I realized that it was only one voice and it didn’t sound like a television at all but a solitary, repetitive chant. The longer I listened, the less I liked it, and yet I found that I could not stop listening. It had the cadence of a prayer, as if whoever was uttering the sound was imploring or summoning unholy assistance. Yet at the same time, it did not convey the serenity of faith but rather the darkness of desperation. On and on it droned, and it seemed as if whoever was uttering that dreary, wordless hymn had forgotten the necessity of drawing breath.

 

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Quite suddenly, then, I heard a whimper. This, I was certain, came from a dog and (quite naturally considering the circumstances), the creature seemed nervous, not to say terrified. My soul shrank within me and my mind busied itself wondering the scene that was unfolding in the room just next to mine, separated from me only by a flimsy wall.

As I listened, appalled, the humming sound gradually transformed into something different, a kind of aural whirlwind that caught me up, helpless, in its progress. At first it seemed like the rising and crashing waves of a furious storm at sea. Then it became the clamor of approaching hooves, as of a cavalry charge. It morphed into the laborious tilting of a great planet, then into the beating of a giant heart. Each manifestation grew from the same seed—that terrible seesawing, the rhythmic tug of war between being and unbeing. It went on and on, and felt paralyzed, as if nailed to the bed, unable to resist the awe-inspiring and dreadful sensations the sounds aroused in me.

 

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Eventually, decades later perhaps, the sun rose and the sound diminished with the darkness. If you strained to hear it, you could—it was always there. But now other sounds of the new day were demanding attention: birds, traffic, children’s voices, radios and the cumulative murmur of hundreds, thousands of people and animals rising and moving. And yet, now I knew, it was always, always there.

I did not remain in the hotel. I dressed and packed quickly and left immediately for the train station. As I waited for my Uber, I happened to glance up at the window of the ghastly old house across the way and shuddered: there at the window was a figure in a dressing gown, and it appeared to be waving and smiling at me.

 

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A Tiny Taste of Tokyo 2020

A lot of aspects of Japan’s culture appeal strongly to me. The beautiful Kanji script, wabi-sabi, the serene and sad painting and literature, the Japanese artisan’s obsessive attention to detail, bonsai, sashiko, artistic quirkiness, an identification with the cute and tiny, forest-bathing and sushi. And, of course, the national obsession with cream puffs. So I was thrilled when a trans-Pacific flight offered the perfect excuse to stop in Tokyo for a few days.

 

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Arrival

The first thing I noticed at Narita Airport were banners advertising Toto toilets. These space-age bogs are fitted with heated seats, music buttons to disguise unsavory noises, water jets every which way and various other bells and whistles that put your average dunny literally in the shit house. I know because they are everywhere: in the airport, in parks, in malls. For all I know, there is nowhere in Japan that you are not forced to have a luxury bathroom experience.

 

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After marveling at this toilet technology and collecting our luggage, we left most of it at the Japan Airlines Counter so we wouldn’t have to drag it around for three days. Then we got on the Kei Sei Electric Railway from the station just downstairs from the Arrivals Hall—it was a 90-minute comfortable ride direct to Asakusa, the area where we were staying.

Despite the cold air that kept sneaking into the train whenever the doors opened, the sun was shining, the sky bright blue and dotted with fluffy white clouds. The landscape was prettier and more rural than I’d expected. Near Lake Inba-Nuba you could see Dutch windmills and tulip fields, knolls covered with spinneys, towering bamboo groves and small market gardens.

 

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The Sakura tulip festival starts April 1

 

Floating over the scintillating lake I saw a bird of prey—possibly a hawk or osprey. The effect was very odd considering I’d come expecting a concrete jungle ala Blade Runner.

 

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Skytree

 

When we got to Asakusa station, we popped up one block away from the famous Kaminarimon Gate and right next to the red Azuma bashi Bridge. Across the way we saw the tall Skytree tower and the Asahi Beer HQ, instantly recognizable for the large thingummy sitting on top of one of the office buildings. I thought it looked like a giant golden chilli pepper.

 

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Sushi

Check-in time in Tokyo hotels is generally around four o’clock in the afternoon. Because we were a couple of hours early and hungry, we left our backpack at the hotel with the receptionist and set off in search of lunch.

This was not as easy as you might expect. It was a Sunday afternoon and the place was deserted. Most of the shops were closed, there were very few pedestrians or cars and only a few cyclists. Eventually, after roving for ten blocks, I caught sight of an establishment whose banners were standing proudly outside fluttering in the chilly wind. Sure enough, when we arrived, we saw a menu in the window that told us we’d arrived at a sushi place.

 

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Plastic sushi is a big-selling souvenir 

 

The interior was dark and inhabited by two people who looked utterly astonished to see us: a man with a fillet headband standing behind the counter and a woman in a kimono who might have been his mother.

I saw to our left, that there was a shelf full of shoes.

“Um, I think we need to take our shoes off,” I murmured to John.

As we bent down to untie our shoelaces, the pair looked horrified and the woman approached protesting and making gestures to indicate that we should immediately desist.

Abashed, we went to the wooden bench where she pointed.

The man behind the counter solemnly handed us menus. We read them intently, the blush of shame still fresh on our cheeks. As we did so, the chef carefully placed two rectangular trays in front of us, they looked like symmetrical slabs of slate.

Meanwhile, the woman brought us two hot flannel cloths, which seemed to be for washing our hands. When I finished wiping mine, I carefully folded up the cloth and wondered where to put it. Then it occurred to me that it was supposed to go on that slate tray.

“Here, you have to put the cloth on that tray,” I whispered to John, who’d just left his willy nilly on the bench beside his plate mat. Accordingly, he picked up the cloth and put it dutifully on his tray.

The chef returned, probably to take our orders, but his eye fell on the trays and he froze before he could even lift his pen to his notebook. When the shock had subsided, he glared good and long at each of us, then said (very slowly and clearly) “This not for cloth. This is dish.” Disgusted, he carried the contaminated dishes away, with one final backwards glance of revulsion.

 

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“Oh my God,” I whispered, mortified.

“Do you get the feeling,” John mused, “That we might not be entirely welcome here?”

“Possibly.” My stomach rumbled. “Oh well, we’re here now.” Hunger conquers all. 

The chef returned anon, his jaw clenched in readiness for the next foreign outrage.

“I’ll have Set C please,” I said with a conciliatory smile.

Both of you?” he inquired with a sarcastic lift of one eyebrow.

Oh hell, what was it now? I thought grumpily. Is there some eighth-century Samurai code that a woman can’t order sushi before a man?

“Yes, two,” John nodded, throwing me a warning glance.

Eventually, the chef brought out new dishes, this time containing identical morsels of nigiri sushi: a little mound of rice topped with a translucent piece of white fish and a strip of seaweed. I pincered it with the chopsticks and raised it to my mouth praying that it wouldn’t jump out and splash into the miso soup. Miraculously, I managed it. The result was salty and exciting—vastly superior to any sushi I’d had in my life before. The fish was fishy in the sense that it tasted like it had still been swimming around a minute ago. You could taste the seawater and the texture was silky but firm. Every grain of rice was discrete but held together with the sweetness of mirin. Wasabi was there, but not in thick nose-clubbing clumps—it just melded seamlessly into the whole. I chewed it with extreme pleasure.

The miso soup was also better than usual. It wasn’t even very salty but had flavorful ribbons of seaweed, a hint of sweetness and dice-sized cubes of tofu.

The woman in the kimono brought us green tea in charming ceramic mugs. Mine was in the shape of a dog-faced puffer fish (nothing personal, I hope) and John’s featured the design of a crab.

The chef, meanwhile, was busying himself with his next creation: little seaweed-baskets of rice and orange roe—tiny balls of slippery sweetness that went down a treat. Next up was smoked eel, which I never in a million years thought I’d like. One bite, though, and I was entranced by its rich, creamy, delicious darkness.

Finally, we faced a kind of cake made out of a sweet, rice-filled omlette, which I didn’t like at all. However, with Tojo standing there with a sharp knife in his hand, I was obviously going to eat it all and not leave a thing.

 

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From then on it was ramen ticket-machines for us. Safer.

 

Sumidagawa River

 

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Running through Asakusa down to Tokyo Bay is the Sumida River. Walking paths stretch alongside it for several kilometers, making it the perfect place to walk, run or simply experience the eerie serenity of this part of one of the world’s mega cities. The paths are beautiful in the understated Japanese way, with the muted colors of winter’s grasses and shrubs, and the pleasing geometry of stones and concrete patterns. There is even quite a lot of birdlife: big cormorants, coots, shelducks, gulls and terns. Along the way, you see monuments set up to villas of the Edo period that used to stand there, or plaques mentioning old large rice warehouses where peasants sent a share of their harvest for Samurai, or photographs of times when it flooded its banks.

 

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The locks are so beautiful they could be temple gates

 

Hama-rikyu Gardens

Another way to experience the river is on the Water Bus . We decided to take this one morning down to the Hama-rikyu Gardens, an historic site that used to belong to the family of Tokugawa Shogun but has been a public park since 1946.

 

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The first thing we saw there was a pretty avenue lined with blossoming plum trees–the Ume garden. Each tree came with its own deadly serious photographer, so I decided to join them with my beat-up little Olympus model.

 

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At the end of the avenue was a little shrine to Kyu-Inabu, complete with a small stone gate, a water container and a stone worn down (I like to think) by centuries of worshipful feet and knees.

 

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Past the temple was a garden of dazzling yellow–flowering rape. Perched on the stalks were large knife-beaked birds with a hint of blue in their foliage–I had no idea what they were. Walking past this scene was a young couple in traditional dress–possibly newlyweds–being diligently followed by a professional photographer.

 

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Beyond them was a huge gangly-branched pine tree, a celebrity in the garden for being more than 300 years old. In keeping with its old-man status, its twisted limbs were propped up on sturdy supports and its trunk wrapped lovingly in what looked like tatami bandages.

 

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At this point in the proceedings, I was extremely ready for breakfast. Spying a small canteen in the bushes, I dragged John over and ordered a couple of coffees, along with a box of glutinous yam cakes, which I didn’t like. I prefer red-bean cakes.

Having refreshed ourselves, we set off for the (rebuilt–it was destroyed in WWII) Pine Teahouse (Matsu-no-ochaya) where the Shogun & Co. used to gaze at the beautiful park scenery. These days this is surrounded by glitzy highrises but the effect is still impressive.

 

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Further on was a salt-water pond, called Shioiri-no-iki (Incoming-tide pond) because it is fed by Tokyo Bay and therefore rises and falls with the tide. Aside from that, it is inhabited by several species of salt-water fish and, crucially, ducks. This is the area where the Shogun and other nobles liked to crouch in hides and shoot at a bunch of ducks. 

 

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Salt-water pond, with a hide visible on the left

 

We didn’t dawdle too long there, though, because our return boat was nearly due to arrive. Instead, we wandered through a short stretch of lovely, tree-shaded paths back to the landing area. 

 

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Thailand Works

During our latest stay in Bangkok, we were lucky to meet some people willing to discuss the history of this region and to introduce us to some of the city’s hidden treasures. One of these kindly souls, a Thai-speaking Briton, took us to the Labor Museum. A small building near Makkasan station run by donation and volunteers, this lovingly curated museum illustrates the history of Thai workers—an accessible and illuminating view of the country’s general history.

 

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Before the nineteenth century, Siamese society adhered to a strict hierarchy, with the King at the top, nai—nobles beneath him (each of which controlled a mueang or fortified town), phrai—commoners or freedmen, and slaves. Phrai were actually not all that different from slaves as they were required to carry out corvée labor and the kinds of work they did was essentially the same as that of slaves. Royal officials would keep tabs on numbers by going about the country conducting mass tattooings for phrai.

 

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Teak logging in teak

 

Thailand has the largest Chinese population of any country outside China—about fourteen percent are ethnically Chinese, though many of them are fully assimilated and identify as Thai. In the late eighteenth century, King Taksin (whose mother was Chinese from Guangdong Province), actively encouraged Chinese immigration and trade. During the nineteenth century, particularly as European powers became aware of Siam’s teak forests (coveted by European shipbuilders), pewter and tin deposits, there was an increased need for cheap labor. Chinese men poured into the country to work rickshaw-pullers, blacksmiths and railroad builders (the first railway line was started in 1891). Because they were usually single, many of them married Thai women. In 1876, the Angyee Riots were a big uprising of Chinese tin miners protesting the fact that mine owners laid off so many of them or even stopped paying them wages.

 

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Chinese tin smelter

 

King Rama V (1868-1919), Prince Chulalongkorn, was the first Thai monarch to have a western education and to speak English. Although, he is perhaps best known to English-speakers as the ‘King’ of Margaret London’s semi-fictional book Anna and the King of Siam, that book and all of its cinematic manifestations are banned in Thailand for being deemed offensive to the King. He gradually implemented a number of reforms including the abolition of serfdom and the conscription of commoners for slave labor. He is still regarded with particular fondness by Thais today and you often see his portrait hanging in shops and offices.

 

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Underplayed in the Labor Museum was the Siamese Revolution of 1932, a bloodless coup instigated by intellectuals who’d studied abroad, were sick of royal mismanagement and wanted to try new methods of government. These intellectuals gains some popular support, staged a coup and absolute monarchy was changed to constitutional monarchy. Soon afterwards, Pridi Banomyong, one of the tiny group that organized the coup, presented radical economic plans that would involve nationalizing land, public ownership and universal basic income. These plans were rejected by royalists and in 1933 he went into exile, accused of being a Communist. He returned to the country in 1934, but increasingly found himself to the left of his colleagues.

 

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In 1938, Defence Minister Major General Phibun became Prime Minister and the country took a militaristic turn. He passed authoritarian laws that gave the government powers of complete censorship, he had political opponents arrested and exiled, and he launched a demagogic campaign against the Chinese business class. On June 23, 1939, he renamed Siam ‘Phrathet Thai,’ meaning ‘land of the free’ and meant to include Tai-speaking peoples and exclude Chinese. The country’s slogan become ‘Thailand for the Thai.’ Phibun admired leaders who employed a cult of personality, such as Hitler and Mussolini. In places where you would ordinarily expect to find the King’s portrait, he put his own.

 

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In 1940, Phibun delivers an ultranationalistic speech outside the Grand Palace

 

At the outbreak of World War II, Phibun formed an alliance with Japan. Thailand’s government split into two factions: the Phibun Regime and the Free Thai Movement, which included about 90,000 pro-Allied guerillas. As the war progressed, Phibun’s leadership became increasingly unpopular thanks to economic hardship, strategic bombing of Bangkok by Allied Forces and Japanese arrogance towards Thais, whom they treated more as a conquered people than an ally.

 

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The notorious Siam-Burma Railroad, otherwise known as the Death Railroad, was ordered by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to facilitate transport of supplies to Burma. It was built thanks to at least 180,000 laborers and POWs who suffered maltreatment, sickness and starvation. About 100,000 of them died during its construction. English-language accounts by POWs include Railroad of Death by John Coast, Last Man Out, and In the Shadow of Death by Idris James Barwick. In Asia, the railway’s construction is still considered a war crime committed by Japan. The bridge’s construction was the occasion for Pierre Boulle’s book (and the film based on it) called Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai (The Bridge on the River Kwai).

 

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Bridge over the River Kwai by Leo Rawlings, a POW who was involved in the line’s construction (sketch dated to 1943).

 

After World War II, Thailand received financial aid from the USA, partly (no doubt) in return for acting as a staunch anti-Communist ally in the region during the Cold War. Americans effectively gave the green light to coup makers to overthrow Thailand’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong and CIA reports at the time frequently linked the left-leaning Pridi to Chinese Communism and also to the Viet Minh. Naturally, the US was much more comfortable with Phibun, who offered a stable military regime rather than an unpredictable democratic civilian-led government. So the US looked on indulgently as Phibun crushed Pridi supporter and assassinated key members of the opposition, particularly in Isan, in the country’s north-east.

 

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Ironically, according to legend anyway, it was US meddling in Thai politics that was responsible for the creation of one of Thailand’s most famous Communist poets, Somchit Phumisak (Chit for short). The story goes that he was first exposed to Marxism when hired by William J. Gedney, working for the US Embassy, to help translate The Communist Manifesto into Thai. The idea was that if Thai officials could read the thing, they’d take the Communist threat more seriously. Phumisak pretty soon joined the Communist Party and wrote (under pseudonyms) The Face of Thai Feudalism (1957) and several volumes of poetry before being shot to death in a village at the age of 35. In the Labor Museum there is a whole room devoted to poetry and song, and it is dominated by images of this young bespectacled guy. The rest of the room is more or less taken up with paraphernalia related to a folk-band called Caravan, originally student activists who sympathized with Isan farmers. Their songs criticize US interference in Thai politics and celebrate the love between a man and his water buffalo.

 

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Cover of Caravan album “American Antarai” (1976)

 

October 14 1973, theDay of Sorrow, marked the largest democratic uprising in Thai history. More than 200,000 students gathered in Bangkok to protest against the expulsion of student activists by the Thanom Kittikachorn, the pro-US, anti-Communist junta leader since 1963. When the army moved in to break up the crowd, between 50 and 70 people were killed, with 870 wounded. The effect of the uprising was that Thanom fled and there was an eerie calm until the next far-right junta took power in 1976, soon after another massacre of protests, the Thammasat University massacre.

 

 

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One of the most poignant exhibits in the museum is devoted to the Kader Tragedy of 1993. This was a massive fire in a shoddily built toy factory on the outskirts of Bangkok. Most of the workers were women from poor rural areas. Because there were no fire alarms, sprinklers or fire escapes, the women learned of the fire too late and when they tried to escape they were trapped. Officially, 188 people died and more than 469 were injured, making it the worst industrial fire in history. Outside the museum there is a monument to the victims featuring images of Bart Simpson, as the world was at the height of The Simpsons craze.

 

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Toys salvaged from the fire.

MaxPhht Bangkok

When we arrived in Bangkok, the first thing I noticed was that it would not be practical to run outside. The sky was a sludgy color and the evening sun looked like a bright-orange moon over hazy high-rise silhouettes. Traffic on the expressway next to our hotel stretched bumper-to-bumper day and night. Even the little sideroad had no sidewalk and heavy traffic—a mix of giant tour buses and scooter taxis. The scent of gasoline fumes combined with a pungent smell emanating from a nearby canal made breathing something of a chore. And apart from that, it was 33 degrees centigrade on a cool day.

 

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All the same, I did definitely need to run because running calms me down. Two days before, the Indian government had inexplicably refused John’s visa 24 hours before we were all set to fly there and 48 hours before we were required to leave Sri Lanka. The shock of this unexpected set-back, combined with the mental effort of making new arrangements, had left me fit for a strait-jacket.

 

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Our hotel, which boasted of a fitness center on booking.com, mysteriously did not actually have a fitness center. It also, despite attractive ads featuring martinis in the elevator, did not have a ‘sky bar’, so seeking solace in drink was also out. Luckily, one of the non-imaginary services the hotel did provide was a free shuttle service to any destination within 5 kilometers. Accordingly, I searched for a gym and found something called Maxfit Performance exactly five kilometers from the hotel.

So the next morning I got into the van bright and early dressed in an old T-shirt, a little snug around the middle perhaps, and trackpants. The driver, avoiding choked-up main arteries, took me through a maze of roads and I looked with interest at the goings-on. Children in crisp white blouses and shirts headed off to school. Street-food vendors in wide-brimmed hats grilled tiny sausages, chopped mangoes and papaya, and neatly bagged soups and curries. Stray dogs trotted by the side of the road, expert traffic dodgers. Thousands of scooter riders wove between the cars—some of them carrying an entire family with the father driving, toddler squished in between (sometimes standing up!) and mother behind holding on to the child. Interestingly, there were taxi-scooters, identifiable by official orange vests complete with taxi ID stuck to the front. Women passengers in short skirts sometimes rode side-saddle.

 

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After about half an hour, the van dropped me off at the address I’d given. It seemed to be an upscale, brand-new outdoor mall with a dog-centred theme. There was a dog-food bakery, a pet-accessories store, a tea shop with puppy pictures on the walls. I couldn’t immediately see the gym but the helpful driver asked a cleaning lady and she pointed me up a set of stairs.

At the top, I entered a big room that had zero treadmills or exercycles. There was a group of people jumping around holding weights and a guy in a baseball cap who gave me a big toothy smile and Mickey Mouse wave. I started backing away but before I could get out the door, a young guy with bulky upper arms emerged from his lair and asked if he could help me.

“Hi, I’m Adam,” he said in Australian accent. “Come into the office and we’ll see what we can do for you.”

I followed him. The office also contained a beefy blond fellow, an American named Jake who might have been in the United States Marine Corps and done five million push-ups before breakfast. Adam pointed to a chair and I dutifully sat down.

“What are you looking for today?” he said earnestly.

“I was just wanting somewhere to run,” I said, “With it being so hot,” I waved at the window.

He nodded seriously. I could see him taking in my sloppy attire.

“Have you ever been to a place like this?”

“Er, actually, what kind of place is this?” I asked.

“I’m glad you asked. We provide a service that is just like personal training except that it is done in small, supportive groups. Our customers come from all kinds of different backgrounds—yoga, weightlifting, pilates—and we all learn from each other.”

“Well, I was really looking for somewhere to run in the heat. Do you…run?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Do you have treadmills?” I asked hopefully.

“You can find treadmills in any of the commercial gyms on the street,” he grimaced.

“Oh. OK,” I felt heartened by the implication that there were thousands of them out there. I only had to walk a block before tripping over one.

“So let me tell you a little bit about what we do here. You’ve probably heard of the Body Mass Index, the BMI?”

I nodded.

“Well, where most gyms go wrong is not focusing on the fat-to-muscle ration of the body mass.”

Uh oh, I thought and sucked my stomach in a bit.

“How much do you weigh, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Er, I’m not sure. I haven’t weighed myself recently.”

“Probably 63 kilograms,” he shrugged. “And how tall are you?”

“About a meter sixty-five.”

“Right,” he nodded. “And,” he titled his head and looked at my middle, “Probably fourteen per cent fat.”

“Hmmm,” I said. He had the self-satisfied look of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a top hat, demonstrating his personal-trainer expertise. What really surprised me, though, was that there was no outward evidence of him having any sustained serious injuries. His nose had never been broken, for example. If his job was coolly estimating women’s fat percentage to their faces, it seemed like it would entail grave risks. He was safe with me because I have iron self-control where violent urges are concerned, but another day he would not be so lucky.

 

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A case for the side eye

 

“If you joined us, we’d make a point of measuring your muscle-to-fat ration in order to accurately track your process.”

Over my fat, dead body, I thought.

He produced a folder from his shelf and opened it to a page full of headless female bellies. There was the ab-tastic ideal at the top left and things got fuller and floppier from there.

“Now,” Adam said, “I would say, considering your percentage, you would be somewhere around here,” he jabbed a scientific finger at number eleven, a wobbly paunch that looked like the ‘before’ photo from an infomercial for liposuction.

“Huh,” I said. Inside, I brooded. “What kind of lousy sales pitch is this? This gym should be renamed ‘Masochist Fat Gym’! FFS, I just want to run off some anxiety and now I’m getting lectured about diet by a juvenile steroid casualty! SMGDH.” I’m not saying that there wasn’t justice in young Adam’s remarks. I’m just saying that his approach revealed a lack insight into female psychology, particularly the psychology of a stressed female who just wants to go for a run and doesn’t care to focus on her love handles just at this moment thank you very much.

“The way we measure it,” Adam continued, warming to his subject, “Is with this fat caliper.”

 

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I stared with dull horror at the plastic instrument he was waving around like some kind of deformed lobster pincer. Surely he did not intend to apply it now? If he did, I decided then and there, I would fight him. To the death. Sure he had the big muscles, but I had the crazy. The element of surprise would be an advantage—he’d never see it coming.

“But,” I sputtered, “Why does it matter?”

He looked amazed.

“Less fat means a fitter you,” he explained, as if to a confused child. “If you have a greater ratio of muscle then you will be stronger, faster and fitter. Have you ever done any exercise in the past?”

“Yes, I run,” I said through gritted teeth. Clearly he had not noticed that my T-shirt said ‘Patagonia Marathon’.

“Right!” he smiled brightly. “So with less fat you will be faster.”

“But I don’t want to win any races, I just like running.”

He looked perplexed. He knew I was wrong but I was so wrong that he couldn’t think of any logical way to respond.

“Well, to be honest I just want to run and not do other stuff,” I said, getting up “So I’m not sure this is the right fat–I mean fit–for me.”

“Well, why not sign up for a trial session?” He asked. “What have you got to lose?”

Possible answers: time, money, patience, self-esteem…

“Oh no, I think I’ll just…I’m only here for a few weeks, so I’ll just go to a commercial gym. Thanks very much!” 

As I went down the stairs I thought it was kind of funny that this gym didn’t consider itself commercial. After all, it wasn’t exactly free. What did it think it was? A spiritual gym?

 

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Creators and Destroyers in Colombo’s National Museum

 

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After visiting the National Museum, I had a dream in which a mass murderer walked into a supermarket with an arsenal of antique Sri Lankan weapons. This is not surprising because the museum has a large display of guns and knives in the last room we visited. Also, the daggers are of a shape and design that leaves no doubt as to their eviscerating function. With swords and cutlasses and the like you can always pretend you are just looking at oversized kitchenware. With the wiggly-bladed kriss or the thing with one sharpened horn facing one way, another horn facing the other, or a dagger with a skeleton on its hilt, there is no room for doubt. Even the ceremonial swords are a bit terrifying, with their grimacing red-eyed lions on the hilts.

 

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But most of the museum is not about murder but about god/s and the pursuit of pleasure, peace and painlessness-in-oblivion.

The museum is a huge two-storied white building sitting on a huge manicured lawn, with a couple of banyan trees off to the side. The first thing you see as you walk in the entrance is this granite Buddha from Anurādhapura (800 AD), in Samadhi pose–Samadhi is a word indicating single-pointedness of mind. This statue, called the Toluvila Buddha after the name of the village where a team led by the British archeologist Harry Charles Purvis Bell uncovered it during a 1900 dig, is one of the island’s best-preserved ancient statues.

 

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Today about 70% of Sri Lanka’s population are Theravada Buddhists. The religion was introduced to Sri Lanka around the third century BCE, and Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any country on earth. Anurādhapura, one of the island’s ancient capitals and a city that has been continuously inhabited since the 10th century BCE, was the center of Theravada Buddhism for many centuries and is a rich source of beautiful objects partly because royals and nobles commissioned fine sculptures and works of art in order to adorn the temples and monasteries. The museum had several rooms devoted to statues depicting the Buddha in various poses, as well as Bodhisattvas (embodiments of compassion). My favorite Buddha pose was the reclining one, since it seemed to lend a kind of spiritual aspect to my love of naps.

 

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Ganesha’s vehicle, a mouse.

 

Next came the Hindu gods—about 12.6% of the population is Hindu, almost all of them Tamil – an ethnic group native to Sri Lanka and genetically closely related to the Sinhalese. Hinduism was the first religion to be practiced here. Today, most Hindus on the island are Shaivist, which means they worship Shiva, the god who danced the world into being, as their primary creator. The island’s greatest period of Hindu activity was between 985 and 1014 CE under the Chola Dynasty, when wealthy Tamil nobles built their own temples and statues. My favorite Hindu statues were of Ganesh, the son of Shiva and Parvati. He is known as the Remover of Obstacles, and as the god of domestic harmony and success. In the form of Ganesh Gajanana he has as his ‘vehicle’ a mouse named Krauncha.

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Beyond relics and treasures of the island’s two major religions, there are reminders of other influences that have visited the island for centuries: Arabic inscriptions, Chinese pottery, Roman coins, Portuguese drawings, Dutch pipes and British photographs.

Upstairs is the most amazing thing in the whole museum: reproductions of gorgeous frescos from the giant rock fortress of Sigiriya, ‘Lion rock.’ The story of Sigiriya is blood-chilling. According to the Cūḷavaṃsa, a chronicle that covers the 4th to the 19th century (that is partly available in English here), Kashyapa I was not in line for the throne but acquired it through the expedient of staging a coup and having his father Dhatusena imprisoned. The real heir fled because he believed, probably with good reason, that he would be assassinated. Meanwhile, newly ascended to the throne, Kashyapa believed his dad had hidden some treasure and let him out of prison to show him where he put it. Dhatusena led him to a large irrigation tank, saying it was the only treasure he had. Enraged, Kashyapa walled his father up and left him to die. This behavior turned the public against him. They called him Pithru Ghathaka Kashyapa, ‘Kashyapa the Patricide’. Afraid they would help the rightful heir to attack him, Kashyapa moved here:

 

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He made it even more defensible with a moat and ramparts. Not only that, he planted a huge garden around the rock, including fountains and pools, supplied with water by a complex irrigation system. The entrance to the Sky Palace was via a staircase built into the rock, which was carved around it to look like a crouching lion—the entrance was through the lion’s chest.

 

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The frescos, painted during his rule, show beautiful maidens with flowers. According to Dr. Edwin Ariyadasa, the maidens are a kind of divine welcome committee in the form of Apsara, cloud goddesses dancing and scattering flowers as a welcome to (non-hostile) visitors to the palace.

 

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Another memorable room was the one reserved for Kolam masks. A kolam is a comic folk play in which masked actors tell a story through dance, mime and dialogue. There was one playing on a TV in a little movie theater. A couple of unmasked drummers sat off to the side and would strike up a conversation with the grotesque masked caricatures that appeared on stage. The conversation was all in Sinhalese (I think), but you could get a sense of the characters through their voices and posture—one, for example, seemed to be an unhealthy old lady who whined a lot. Another seemed to be a very angry man. After a bit of banter between the masked character and the drummer, music started up and the character would dance in a frenzy.

 

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Policemen masks

 

There was a lot more to the museum than I have described here: textiles, explanations of agricultural practices, musical instruments and jewelry to name just a tiny fraction of objects. In fact there’s a whole other museum next door–the National Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, though, we have limited museum endurance and hurried through whole rooms near the end, desperate for a sit-down and cold drink. That wasn’t the museum’s fault, though. If you are ever in Colombo I would recommend a visit.