The Clouds Burst
A trash fire burned outside Lumpini Park. It was a desolate scene, with a line of soldiers visible in the smoky and seething distance, and the boom of gunfire seemed to come from every direction. A man rode up on a motorcycle, his face masked like a highwayman, and in one hand he carried a huge Thai flag that nearly touched the ground. Expertly he steered his motorcycle around and around the trash fire, and the flag waved quietly in the smoke. Plumes of it—a fog of war—rose into the air all around Rajprasong, from piles of tires set afire to keep back the soldiers, on that first day of the siege.
Security forces moved to tighten their cordon. They built walls of sandbags and razor wire and pointed their rifles out from the rubble. Weighted in battle armor, they thudded across the highway overpass that runs along the southern end of Lumpini Park. Traffic still crawled behind them, and a local audience turned out to stand along the pedestrian overpasses near the battleground. They came in spite of the government’s warnings, in spite of the echo of gunfire and crash of explosions, and even though it was a Friday. They had to see it.
The Red Shirts hid behind their tires and spears, a space between soldier and rebel, a desolation of stones and broken glass, which closed suddenly, capriciously, violently, at several points along the circuitous front. Red Shirts mounted on motorcycles and scooters formed a rebel cavalry that rushed in squadrons at the army barricades, and then lurched back around into the encampment, with a Parthian shot of bottles or fireworks. In one place the mob overran some of the security forces and captured three army trucks. The mob pulled out the drivers and held them and beat them, and the mob set fire to one of the trucks, and the mob cheered in a lustful frenzy, a cheer that became a solid drone, as the soldiers watched from some cold distance through the transparent screen of their riot shields, through the leveled scopes of their rifles.
A squadron of mounted Red Shirts formed outside the protest area, and in the afternoon they made a desperate charge to enter it, carrying food and water and more makeshift weapons. They rode straight at the police barricades near the Victory Monument. People went out onto the balconies of their gentrified apartments to watch the smoky tumult, like the balconies of an opera house, running up a wall of the Coliseum. Gunshots! Five observers knocked down on the lower balcony, some screaming, some still. Lo, the soldiers shout, “Get off the balcony!” metallic over the loudspeakers.
A bomb exploded in the rally site just after six. It sounded like someone had dropped a dumpster out the window of one of the skyscrapers that surrounded Rajprasong—the Intercontinental or the Grand Hyatt or CentralWorld. The captains jumped down off the stage and were dog-piled by their bodyguards. Everyone was terrified, and justly, for sixteen people were injured in the blast. Another 21 were poisoned by some mysterious player handing out cups of free coffee. And another 141 people were wounded and sixteen were killed in the fighting. The security forces had their orders to start with rubber bullets and with shots over the heads of the rebels, but most of them were recent conscripts from the provinces, and the only order that mattered was the one authorizing soldiers to use their weapons in self-defense. Well, what do orders matter anyway?
Both comrades and medics feared the government’s snipers and left dead and wounded lying in the streets for hours untended, as the battle lines ebbed and flowed. The military prevented ambulances from entering the arena. Emergency medical technicians had to shuffle out in a duck-walk and carry the wounded on stretchers to the perimeter, from whence they could be driven to any of Bangkok’s fine modern hospitals. One EMT was shot off his motorbike by a soldier, and he later died.
Four journalists were also wounded in the first three days. Two were Thais and one was a Canadian, who was shot several times but survived. The Red Shirts told other journalists and photographers to come back—they would be safe within the rally site, and surely someone had to see this. Someone had to watch. Where would Jesus be, if not one Evangelist had attended the Crucifixion?
So ended the first day, though the war continued into the night. Spats of gunfire in the alleyways. Explosions in Lumpini Park. Cries from all quarters. A woman’s broadcasted voice, tinny and uncertain: “For your own safety, please stay indoors.” Thomas Fuller, the man who saw Seh Daeng die, lay flat as an eastern supplicant on the deck of his apartment. He wore body armor and a Kevlar helmet, relics from his coverage of the Iraq War, and watched as the city he thought he knew descended into madness. He wrote this as he lay there:
A city with floor-to-ceiling windows is a confident city. Sheets of glass, unlike the thick walls and tiny windows of centuries past, send a message: We are not worried about what lurks outside. But from my desk, it seems as if Bangkok’s architecture has outpaced its political maturity. Who in Bangkok today would feel confident behind a wall of glass when explosions rip through the night?By morning of the second day the protest area showed all the signs of medieval siege: confusion, bickering, and pestilence. Trash piled up, and flies descended on Rajprasong thick as doom. The government did not withdraw its portable toilets, for the noble cause of sanitation. As for the workers assigned with cleaning and maintaining them, they came back bruised after being assaulted by the Red Shirts, as servants of the tyrant, and could not be made to return. Imagine a frightened child in red, shielding his eyes with one hand and waving a stick with the other.
Bangkok today has many more high-rise condominiums and much more luxury than the city I knew 15 years ago, but is plagued by its dysfunctional politics. Is there any other city in the world today that has so many cloth-napkin restaurants, spas—and periodic grenade attacks? How many other world capitals have streets filled with fleets of luxury cars and armies of protesters apparently willing to die for their convictions?
“We are afraid for the soldiers, too,” said a nurse at one of the Red Shirt first aid stations, a tearful old woman named Jenny Tan, expressing the saddest sentiment of a nation divided. “The soldiers are our sons. We are mother, father, sister, brother. So we don’t want any of them to die. Very, very sad. Very, very sad for Thailand.”
Women and those too young or too old to fight huddled in the guarded center of the intersection. They would not leave, though the Thai Red Cross and Unicef pleaded with them. The captain Nattawut moved the children and their families into the grounds of a nearby temple, but the women who wanted to fight remained before the Pratunam stage. One old woman said, “No matter what happens, I’ll never leave the rally. Our friends have died for us, so we’ll never leave others for the sake of personal safety.” In the temple another old mother named Sangwaan said, “Everybody is united. Nobody wants to back off. I don’t fear death.”
What do you say to that, Reader? What do you say to a mother when you tell her, Death is coming for you and your child, and she replies, I’m waiting—what can you possibly say?
I visited the area around Rajprasong, blockaded at every street by policemen, the streets empty. A family crept up to one of the security stations and reached over the barbed wire to hand the soldiers bags of food. It was a dead place. There was trash piled on every corner, oozing out into the gutter. All the long lines of stores were closed up with steel shutters, except for one curious stall which continued putting together altars of Buddha in crimson and gold as if nothing special were happening within a hundred miles.
The government continued to wail about harder stances. “We cannot turn back,” quoth Abhisit, slick as ice on Thai TV, “We cannot let the country remain in this condition, where people do not respect the law. Ending the rally is the only way to prevent calamity.” Hello, calamity? Calamity is upon you, Prime Minister! Your city burns! Your nation is disgraced! Even if you ordered all your soldiers back and sent the Red Shirts such an appeasing offer of peace that only a fool would refuse it, the soldiers would not move and the Red Shirts would refuse, because this is mightier than thee. The king is on his deathbed, and the nation crumbles!
The military was committed. On Saturday eight more people were killed and nearly 60 injured, but the soldiers had anticipated blood. There would be no retreat as there had been after the skirmishes of April. This was an all or nothing effort. Somewhere along the line they posted up a banner proclaiming a “Live Fire Zone;” and all along the line the security forces closed in on the barricades, and the Red Shirts fought back with their slings and arrows, and with pipe bombs and improvised flamethrowers. They kept their bags of fish sauce and chili paste in reserve, since food was running low. They began to loot the grocery stores and 7-11s in Rajprasong.
“You are being used as tools,” said Abhisit, but none in Rajprasong heard his words. They heard only the great harangue of Nattawut and Jatuporn and the rest, were too occupied by the desperate struggle to consider the metaphysics of their predicament.
The army called for reinforcements as the battlefield expanded, for more Red Shirt heroes rode to rescue their brothers and sisters. Residents woke up to find their neighborhood a war zone, as the Red Shirts assaulted the cordon along its perimeter, desperate to take supplies into the besieged captains, or to simply join them in their dying agony, for all rebels are born to be martyrs, and what a chance this was! The whole lot of wretches wanted a fight to the death, which was the only topic they could agree upon.
The divided captains held as hostage the commerce of Bangkok, but had issued no demands. Some still wanted to surrender, some to fight to the death. By Saturday they were all terrified. One captain, the man they call Rambo, was seen wearing a woman’s wig in the camp and avoiding photographers. They no longer appeared on the Pratunam sound stage to embolden the battalions with their rousing Mussolini manifestos. The cameras hung loose as abandoned artillery, and the plastic chairs stood empty. The crowds had thinned out and lost their passion to a famine and fear, timid and capable of anything. They fought on the barricades or huddled within and wondered when the snipers would take them.
Nattawut hosted a small council of journalists. He said that it was no longer possible to control some of the protesters, and the journalists duly wrote this down in their notepads, as if it were news to anyone.
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and in a hospital bed across the city, Seh Daeng lay dying. Surgeons removed a blood clot from the cerebrum but said that the brain was inflamed—surely with rage!—where the bullet had passed through it, and Khattiya could die from his injuries. The papers call it “critical condition.” The doctors said things like “almost nil.”
Seh Daeng’s wife had passed away many years ago, but his young daughter Khattiyaa sat by his side, fearful and tearful. With her wide-set eyes wet with tears, she told reporters, “I’m now trying to be as strong as my father.” The major-general’s old classmates from Class 21 of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School arrived to see him, as did Bangkok officials. Seh Daeng awoke for none of them.
MONDAY. The words linger in the corner of the movie screen, filled by the horrible site of a smoking city after four days of war, and it could be your city, Reader, it looks so familiar, with its glass towers and shopping malls and fancy cars. The commercial heart of the city was a warzone of ash and noise. The five-star Dusit Thani Hotel belched smoke from its wounds of a midnight grenade attack. A hundred of its guests cowered in the basement. It was atop this very building that the sniper took aim at Seh Daeng, and it had been used as a base for hundreds of government forces for weeks.
Gunshots and explosions came more frequently. Schools and businesses were closed, the government was shut down, and embassy conferences were cancelled. All over the area, Thais were trapped in their homes. They rushed to the supermarkets and hoarded food. It was not safe anymore. The troops and snipers surrounding Rajprasong had begun to fire with live ammunition at anything moving within the haze of the camp, and the “terrorist element” fought back with lethal force. A soldier was shot and killed near the Dusit Thani, the first soldier to fall in the skirmishes. Thirty-five people had died and 266 had been wounded since the fighting began on Thursday, and on that Monday, the Red Commander, five days wounded, made it thirty-six. Seh Daeng was dead.
The major-general died before he could be stripped of his rank. His body was redressed in his camouflage and taken to a Buddhist temple, where it would lay out for three nights, as Red Shirts tumbled by, shouting, “Seh Daeng, our hero!”
Alas, what fear and panic must wreak, and alas, the careless murder of war, which strikes so random and so rarely pegs the culprits—Apollo’s arrows in the Achaean camp. The bullets take foolish men with wooden swords and greedy hearts, caught up in a conflict too real for them. If he could but speak one last time, if his wounds could ope their ruby lips, I’m sure the Red Commander would have channeled the words of Shakespeare’s noble Brutus, who also fought against tyranny in spite of his love. I know in my heart that Seh Daeng would have said straight from his:
___________________Countrymen,Alas, that they did not listen, that the rebellion climaxed as tragically as it did! Not in any Rapture did it end, but in the worst sort of blood orgy imaginable. O God!
My heart doth joy that yet in all my life
I found no man but he was true to me.
I shall have glory by this losing day,
More than Octavius and Mark Antony
By this vile conquest shall attain unto.
So fare you well at once, for Brutus’ tongue
Hath almost ended his life’s history.
Night hangs upon mine eyes; my bones would rest
That have labored to attain this hour.
There had been so many suggestions of renewed negotiations, shot down each time by the dogs of war who said they would fight to the death. You cannot argue with a battle cry, nor with men incensed beyond reason. Things had gone too far. On Monday the government issued an ultimatum: Leave by three or else. Helicopters dropped pamphlets on the encampment with the news, and the protesters responded with bangfai rockets. Some of them left, escorted out by “men in black.” Of the 100,000 that once packed the intersection, perhaps 5000 Red Shirts remained when the clock struck three. They were mostly men of grim severity, wearing black shirts and red bandanas, the new uniform of the guardsmen.
And there we see one of the grandest tableaus of the campaign: While a few Red Shirts filled small bottles with gasoline and practiced the new tack of hitting them with a golf club, and while small cabals looked up at the department stores where the snipers hid, and while some handed out balls of sticky rice that was the last of the food, and as a monk in saffron led a congregation of guardsmen in prayer, and as trucks full of tires raced out to the perimeter to toss more rubber on the burning pyres while onlookers cheered, the great majority of Red Shirts gathered in the center of Rajprasong and they danced and sang as if it were the end of the world—for all of them knew that the end was nigh and that victory was impossible.
Then the crackdown fell. On Tuesday the army mustered its armored personnel carriers, great wheeled slugs of steel. They overran some of the outlying barricades, and the soldiers dismantled them. Two Red Shirts were shot dead as they tried to set fire to the kerosene-soaked walls. Others were successful, and the day ended with smoke.
A full assault came the following morning. The war engines pushed forward through more barricades, through volleys of grenades, rockets, flamethrowers, petrol bombs, and whatever else the rebels had conjured in their laboratories. They battled under the eaves of luxury hotels and shopping malls and conference centers. They advanced between the Royal Bangkok Sports Club and the Four Seasons. They shot at men under the Holiday Inn.
Four Red Shirts died on Wednesday, as did an Italian photographer, Fabio Pohlengi. The government said that a grenade slew him as he stood next to a policeman, which does not explain the bullet wound through his gut. Witnesses said that he was shot in the back while fleeing with a mob of rebels.
The Red Shirts gathered in Pratunam—what should we do? Jatuporn took the stage in answer. He wore his Gandhi shirt and bore a defeated look as he told the crowd that he would surrender himself—“We cannot resist these savages anymore,” said the captain, and they booed him, the coward. After all his proud words, all his words of blood, Jatuporn now pleaded over their cries, “Please listen to me! Brothers and sisters, I will use the word ‘beg.’ I beg you. We have to end this now,”—but they booed him: they booed him because they knew that to surrender meant to lose everything, meant that they would be dispersed back out to their northern farms, where their children were starving and their fields were dry and there were no prospects, where they would wait for the government to come to arrest them, and then they would vanish and none would ever hear from them again; the urban rich would win, and the haves would take more from the have-nots, and things would go on as they always had, but worse than before because they had failed. They booed, and they began setting fire to Rajprasong.
Just next to the Pratunam stage there was one of the largest department stores in Southeast Asia. Lonely Planet says, "Central World Plaza (cnr Th Ploenchit & Th Ratchadamri) Formerly known as World Trade Center, Central World is Bangkok's glass-paneled embodiment of consumer excess, complete with eight floors of restaurants, beer gardens, cinemas—even an ice-skating rink. The plaza's lifeblood is the Zen [World] department store, which is dotted with high-end fashion brands. Skytrain to Chit Lom."
Zen World! What a wonder was this six-story lifestyle megastore! Level one was titled “The Beauty of Luxury.” Level three was “The Casual Woman’s Zone.” The fourth floor was the destination for metrosexual men, and the sixth floor had a doggie spa and hotel. The peasants of Thailand can barely feed their children with white rice, and they live in bamboo shacks, and somewhere there are Thais who care for nothing but “ultra-chic fitness and aerobic wear” and “non-chalantly stylish smart-casual fashion,” and who are not only unembarrassed by all this, but who cannot understand what these stupid northern rebels are doing in the middle of their metropolis! Aren’t you sick, Reader? Can’t you see why these men and women were mad enough to die?
It was unto this very Zen World, this highest jewel in the crown of capitalism, that the red mobs applied the torch. They stormed it, as the French stormed the Bastille, stormed through the trendy stores—Playground, Manga, MUJI, Flow Now, and Q Concept—and emerged with cell phones and jeans, even as the Parisians emerged with guns from the arsenal; and they set fires behind the gleaming glass facade, doused piles of “ultra-chic” clothes in kerosene and set them ablaze, so that even as the war engines closed in on them, rumbling like the wheels of doom, they could all look up, as the whole emblem of the shopping mall and all its wasteful chic horror was consumed in red flames! Libertas, Fraternitas, Equalitas!
All around the city, all around the nation, Red Shirts responded to the crackdown by lashing out in a similar manner. Thirty-five buildings were ignited, including the Thai stock exchange, two banks, a cinema, and a television station, which was forced to stop broadcasting. In the provinces, they set fire to two city halls, as fresh protests erupted and were summarily crushed. There was a curfew in 24 of Thailand’s 76 provinces. The government broadcasted a calming music video on television: Thai flags, rice paddies, and the beloved king, set to the pop lyrics, “We have to love each other. / We want to see Thais loving each other again, / just like we used to.”
And in Rajprasong, as the suave window displays of Zen World went up in flames, the Red Shirts scattered, frightened children shocked by what they had wrought. The army’s war machines had stopped the advance, but the Red Shirts fled as if routed by pursuing hordes. They left behind bedrolls and slippers and pots of food. They left the generators throbbing, the spotlights shining on the Pratunam stage, the speakers broadcasting noise. When the soldiers and journalists arrived, Rajprasong was abandoned. The uprising was over.
The captains surrendered one by one, or they were captured. Jatuporn turned himself in around noon, along with Nattawut and five other captains. Arisman, who had led the assault in the Battle of the Overpass, and who had previously eluded his captors by jumping out a hotel window, escaped from Rajprasong in a disguise. He was captured Wednesday night and taken to a military base outside Bangkok. Fifty-one people had died in the last stand. Total casualties since April stood at 85 dead and 1,378 injured. As with Black May in 1992, when 52 people died, many others will vanish without account. The government has their pictures and has their names and will visit them later at official convenience.
Abhisit expressed his sorrow over the deaths, though he never apologized for his methods. Those against the Red Shirts called the crackdown legitimate. The Red Shirts themselves were caught up in a fury of just revenge—cries of “Bring down the dictator,” echoes of the slogans that initiated the Bangkok rebellion. Young Khattiyaa Sawasdipol, only daughter of Seh Daeng, said she would take over leadership of the fallen hero's Khattiyatham Party and make her dad's dream come true. Once she had supported the Yellow Shirts, but now she was all Red.
Thai Financial Minister Korn Chatikavanij held a much more revealing conference where he discussed the impact of the protests. Politics, he said, had not risen along with the wealth, and this was the result—the rebellion that had clipped Thailand’s 10 per cent economic growth by 1.5 per cent. “A company is a country, a country is a company,” Thaksin once said, and all that spilt blood can be reduced by his successors to 1.5 per cent—to a fraction of a number, fifteen in a thousand, a mere factor of greater finance, a little spasm of a muscle, easily ignored; a blip on the radar and nothing to worry over, the ministers think, just as the early warning signs of cancer are nothing to worry about. Meanwhile the thing goes from benign to malignant, and the fatal danger grows.
Conflagration in the provinces. The curfew must go on for another week. The old firebrand words are revived—terrorist, criminal, Thaksim!—and Seh Daeng is worshiped in his tomb. No noble heart was he, just a poor wretch with a crooked chivalry, but by God, a modern folk hero is born before our eyes. Burn the joss sticks and raise the red flags! The rebellion lives on, because it is impossible to destroy a culminating feeling, especially one so powerful as the fear and rage of the oppressed. Now the class divide is a scar. There will always be poor men in Thailand, and they will always have a reason to fight.
To this conclusion, I am obliged to add another, for three weeks after the crackdown, I returned to Bangkok and revisited the site. Rajprasong was restored to commercial grandeur. Fresh flowers were planted on the median where the Red Shirts had laid out their bamboo mats for two months of residence. A sign on the skyway said, “Amazing Thailand, Grand Sale 2010, We Love Rajprasong!” What better excuse than class warfare accompanied by horrific massacre to hold a sale? Traffic flowed where the crowds had stood, as oblivious to irony as traffic always is, and Louis Vitton and Burberry and the bank and the cinema had restored their claim to the intersection.
But up on that skyway crossing the busy street, people stopped and stared—wealthy Thais in suits and visiting farang. They leaned on the banisters and stared longer than they had at any piece in a museum, though what they saw eluded meaning as much as a sculpture of pain. Art students sat around in circles doing creative things with their cameras, and all the others just stared out over the cleanup and construction crews. The wall before them was in ruins, the ochre remnants of a sign—“ZEN WO D” with the O hanging down—and the broken glass of a gutted building, full of ash and glory.
Sam asked me one day, as I told them all the story of the end, with wide eyes and a shaking voice, for I had become too invested in this struggle—she asked me, “Which side do you support?” And I got this horrified look and answered, “Neither. The whole thing is a tragedy.”
Four of us were in Bago then. The night before we left I had stayed up until five in the morning talking to Guillaume and Ron, and at eight I had to get up and go. Sam was leading a group of us—Gina of Minnesota, Ron, and myself—to a town just sixty miles northwest of Yangon on the road to Mandalay, a small and busy trade town called Bago. The San Franciscan had only a few days left before her flight out and wanted to spend them seeing something new. The only impediment was the difficulty in moving anywhere in Myanmar.
The trains were government-owned, sold tickets to foreigners only at an inflated price, and took forty hours, anyway. It took us until noon to get out to the Yangon bus station, and there we sat on the kid-sized stools that the Burmans prefer and eating cold noodles and liver while we waited for the next bus to Bago. This took another two hours through arid plains, but the roads aren’t that bad. Most every journey by bus compares well to my time in India.
We arrived in Bago and wrestled our bags out into the muddy station, with some difficulty. Now Gina had backpacked Asia before, but this trip she had these two big rollerbags, one of them heaving with school supplies. She had seen a rural school on a previous visit to Myanmar where the kids were writing their homework out in the dirt, and this time brought pencils and erasers and crayons and notebooks for them. She was herself a teacher, like her mother, who discouraged her from entering such a trying trade as education, but Gina liked teaching kids too much.
Before taking a position at an international school in Saigon, which was her job up until recently, leading field trips into the Cambodian jungle and joining the scooter flotillas of Vietnam—before that, Gina spent two years in the Peace Corps. They dispatched her to Kiribati, a country that nobody has heard of, and which only rarely features on maps of the world, somewhere out in the South Pacific, where the Micronesian islanders live quiet lives, fish the oceans, worship avidly their Jesuit Catholicism, and sometimes ferment toddy from the young coconuts. The men laugh with a swaying, big-bellied bombast, arms waving, mouth open so wide the wisdom teeth show; and the women wail at funerals with a sensational melodrama, fainting across the coffin, tearing their hair and rending their clothes in grief.
Gina worked in an elementary school on Arorae, an island where nothing ever happens, so people retell the old stories over and over again. Remember the time when that man got drunk and rang the village clock in the middle of the night and was kicked off the island? When the fisherman’s son got his wrist caught in the line and the shark pulled him under? When that Western woman sheltered the bloodied wife of a fisherman and shouted at the husband, though he had a knife and was in his right, and made him go away? This, of course, was Gina.
One day a Kiribati lad climbed up to the peak of the school roof and dropped his pants and defecated right there. The teachers were horrified, and they brought two suspects into a backroom for punishment. Corporal punishment was outlawed in Kiribati, but the teachers sometimes forget. When Gina arrived a teacher told her what was happening, and she rushed into the darkened teacher’s lounge. All the other teachers were sitting around the room in a guilty circle. The principal had the two boys suspected of the fecal crime at a desk in the center with their hands out, and he held the long spine of a palm frond, which he would have used as a whip if Gina had not raged into the room and commanded him to stop.
“No you do not!” she cried, all that Minnesota modesty forgotten, as the principal quivered in rage and the teachers looked on with hidden glee,—“You do not touch those kids. I don’t care what they did, you do not touch the kids. If they pooped on the roof, then you make them climb up there and clean it up. Do not lay a hand on them!”
So anyway Gina had this big rollerbag full of school supplies set there in the Bago bus station. A Burman named Aung with an oily, used-car salesman air about him approached me and gave me the card for the Mya Nanda Hotel, which turned out to be recommended in the Bible, so what the hell. Aung agreed to drive us down the road to the hotel free of charge. For that purpose he organized a gang of four scooters. Gina balanced her heavy rollerbag behind the driver of one and sat on the back end of the bike. The rest of us took spots on the backs of other scooters, and we all set off racing down the Yangon – Mandalay Road, weaving past grumbling semis and chugging one-cylinders and top-heavy Joad-wagons and all the flurries of Chinese scooters.
We haggled a long time at the hotel for a triple room with an extra bed. All of us knew what to do and did not say, “Oh come on, take it, it’s only a few dollars,” until the good deal was won. The room had air-conditioning, but the power grid only runs for six hours a day in most Burmese cities. The Burmese say that you cannot be shocked by touching an electrical wire, only by reading the newspaper. Everyone had a generator but gas was too expensive to run the air-conditioning off that. So most of the time we were stuck with a single rotary fan, shaking its head No on the dresser. The lowlands were a heat-drenched hell unless it rained, and then the air cooled off nicely.
Aung hung around the hotel like a job applicant, straight-backed and politely insistent, as we washed our faces and some of our clothes and kept on saying, “What are you going to do? I would like to know your plan. I can arrange a tour, if you like,” but we did not have a plan. On that first day we just wandered through the wonderfully Asian marketplace, all dirt roads, canvas awnings, and wicker baskets full of things you’ve never seen, and we were the only foreign faces in town. We found an open restaurant and ate some food and talked about schooling.
We had made it back to the hotel when the rain started coming down. It lasted only a few hours, and that night we wandered out into the drenched black town, crossing lakes and rivers in the dirty roads. The power was out, as usual, and the only light was the scooter headlights and the excess that spilled out from the teahouses. We stopped in one that was making something like Indian food and ate greasy chapatis and potato curry. There were a lot of men and families sitting there with cups of tea watching the movie on the television in the corner. We followed a trishaw driver with a flashlight down black alleys and along the highway to a beer hall and had a few 50 cent cups, talking about what blame we must sometimes endure, we Americans and Israelis abroad.
Oily Aung woke us up the next morning, knocking on the door and turning on the lights like a summer camp counselor. He sat there off to the side as we ate breakfast. We talked noisily and I slurped down coffee and then we slouched around getting ready for the day. Aung kept sidling in on our nerves and saying, “I’d like to know your plan for the day.”
“We’re backpackers,” said Sam, finally fed up with him,—“We don’t have a plan.”
“Well if you would like to do a tour, I can arrange. There are many sites around Bago. Reclining Buddha, Shwemadaw Pagoda, Hintha Gon Pagoda, Kyaik Pun Pagoda. All around Bago. If you want to see them all, you must have motorbike.”
Eventually, after a great burden of haggling, we got Aung to rent us two of his scooters for $15. Ron drove one and Sam sat on the back, laughing at me because I did not know how to drive a manual bike, and Gina had driven one through the flurry of Vietnam, and so I sat on the back of hers. We drove off east first, around the hundred meter gilded umbrella of the Shwemadaw Pagoda, which required a government ticket, to the Hintha Gon, and we took off our sandals and walked up the covered stairway to the temple, where there was a great statue of Buddha, still and erect as a Pharaoh of Egypt, and smaller ones of the Bodhisattvas, surrounded by mountainous offerings—plates of rice and sweets, flower garlands, bottles of whiskey, and cans of beer. Pictures from the story of Buddha ran all around the ceiling like a comic book.
There was a room off to the side and lower than the sanctum sanctorum, full of musical instruments and musicians warming up, men encircled by drums or cymbals or fiddling with long-stemmed horns. Four dancers in strange garb entered the room, though we could not tell if they were women or only dressed like them. The musicians began a wild cacophonous noise, and the dancers wove their way with waving arms across the room and past the statues. They danced all together and then one at a time, and then a man pinned thousand kyut notes to their dresses and they danced more.
We wandered out after a while back down the stairs and drove across town. We had tea and steamed dumplings full of meat and onions or bean curd at a teahouse by the side of the busy road, then turned off down a side road. After stopping at a quiet wooded monastery, where I smoked cheroots with some Burmans while Ron and Sam taught their kids the “rock on” hand sign, we drove down past the Four Figure Pagoda to a massive reclining Buddha, a hundred meters tall, with a toe as big as me, lying sideways in a field with his head set on his elbow. There was another more famous one, the Schwethalyaung Buddha, housed in a huge tin building, at the end of a long hall full of vendors, but it was all covered in bamboo sheets as it was repainted.
The last place we visited was the Shwegugale Paya, at the end of the road that curled past that lethargic giant and off into the bamboo. The pagoda curved up to a high golden peak, and a courtyard ran around the white limestone base, with bamboo stands and muddy fields further out, and the road going off into the countryside. The sky looked like an apocalypse. I knew it was going to rain, as we went over to inspect the building, so I found a dry place for my Calcutta loafers and kept my helmet with me.
Sure enough, even as we neared the door, even as we leapt within it, the rain swept down on us in increasing torrents, which became like cataracts of the Nile, billowed out over the plains. Sam and Gina went out to dance through it, and Ron and I sat sensibly in the cavernous interior, beneath the three meter high Buddha, gold and enlightened. Soon the women came back, and we all sat there on the bamboo mats listening to the monsoon. What else could we do?