Temple town

 

 

The Thai city of Ayutthaya is an hour-and-a-half’s journey by train north of Bangkok.  Central Ayutthaya stands on an island, surrounded by a natural and manmade moat consisting of the Chao Phraya, Lopburi and Pasak Rivers and the Klong Muang Canal.  In 1991 it received World Heritage Site status from UNESCO in recognition of its many  ruins, of temples, monasteries and palaces, which are leftovers from its four centuries as capital city of the Kingdom of Siam.  This golden period of its history came to a destructive end in 1767 when Burmese forces seized and razed it.

 

Though most tourists are content to visit a handful of key sites in Ayutthaya, there are plenty of less well-known historical landmarks dotted across the city, both inside and outside the World Heritage Park and within and beyond the boundaries of the central city’s moat.  For example, standing across the road from our hotel just north of the Klong Muang Canal was the modest, unpublicised and unvisited but perfectly pleasant Wat Hasadavas.

 

 

During our recent holiday in Thailand my partner and I had a single day to spend temple-hopping in Ayutthaya, so we hired a tuk-tuk to shuttle us around half-a-dozen of the most auspicious attractions.  If you’re accustomed to the spacious tuk-tuks of Bangkok, be warned that the Ayutthaya tuk-tuk is a different species.  It resembles one that’s been crossbred with a pick-up truck, with the driver sitting in a cab at the front and the passengers sitting in a cramped compartment around the back.  Passengers of above-average-Thai height, like myself, will regularly knock their heads on the roof.

 

After a quick visit to the museum above the local tourist information centre, to get some background information about the places we were planning to visit, we headed across the Pasak River to Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon southeast of the central city.  As well as being the first temple we went to, it was also probably the busiest with tourists.  It has a handsome if slightly discoloured main chedi whose upper chamber is accessible by a flight of steep stone steps.  Around it stand many timeworn but intact Buddha statues and there’s also a giant reclining one, mostly swathed in a huge golden-covered sheet.

 

 

It was here, unfortunately, that we spied a couple of strong contenders for the title of ‘Biggest Knobhead Tourist during our Trip to Thailand’.  Firstly, a British woman carrying a baby thought nothing of placing the baby on a plinth and changing its nappy in front of a large statue of Buddha, so that for a few minutes one dirty baby-arse got waggled at the most sacred image in Buddhism.  Secondly, a seedy-looking guy with a North European accent, in the company of three backpacking British girls whom he was desperately trying to impress, scrambled up atop another plinth that was also near the large Buddha statue.  “Look at me, look at me!” he exclaimed.  “I am zee Spiderman!”

 

From there we headed back over the moat to the central city and to the Heritage Park proper, where our first stop was Wat Mahathat.  This site, dating back to 1374, contains lots of beehive-shaped prangs built of rust-orange and ash-grey bricks, some with subsiding foundations and a slightly lopsided tilt; and a few tapering chedi, and tiled paths and pavilions, and some grey-stone Buddhas.  The most photographed item at Wat Mahathat, though, is a stone Buddha face peering out through a gap in a dense mesh of tree-roots.  I remembered seeing this the previous time I was in Ayutthaya, back in 2005, and it was quite a tourist draw then.  But Thailand has since opened up to the Chinese tourist market and today the crowd looked ten times bigger.  There was even a security guard seated on a chair next to the roots and face, hurrying the sightseers on if they took too long with their selfies and held up the queue behind them.

 

 

Five minutes’ walk along the road from Wat Mahathat is Wat Ratchaburana, a structure that resembles a vertical torpedo – well, half of a vertical torpedo, one that’s planted in a mass of arched brick porches and stone staircases.  It looks particularly impressive when seen framed in the doorway of the site’s entrance.  I climbed a staircase to a point midway up its side, from where I had a good view of the surrounding premises – lines of nearly disappeared walls, stumps of demolished chedi and prangs, and patterns of lawns and pathways.  I was also unlucky enough to spot the ‘I am zee Spiderman’ guy from Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon wandering down below.  Even from a distance, he sounded obnoxious.

 

 

In central Ayutthaya too is Wat Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which contains one of the biggest bronze images of Buddha in Thailand.  According to a sign, it’s ‘9.55 metres at the widest point across the lap’ and ‘12.45 metres high without the base’.  I have to say, though, that I got as much enjoyment from walking along the passage around the main image and looking at the smaller-scale Buddha figures and Buddha heads on display there, with their offbeat colours and embellished surfaces.

 

 

Next door is Wat Phra Si Samphet, the entrance to which features a monument with the UNESCO plaque certifying Ayutthaya as a World Heritage Site.  This has rows of fantastically ornate chedi, resembling cakes that’ve been iced by a psychopathically decorative cakemaker.  There’s something very organic about the flowing lines and curves of the structures here, which make them seem almost part of the surrounding woodland.  Lounging at the top of a narrow, off-limits staircase climbing to an opening high in the side of one chedi was a black-and-white dog.  He looked like he was guarding it and I hoped that if ‘zee Spiderman’ guy flouted the rules again and ventured up the staircase to do more showing off, the dog would bite him on the bum.

 

 

Also close by is Wat Phra Ram, another vertical, torpedo-shaped structure in the style of Wat Ratchaburana.  Actually, this one seems even taller and more elongated and has the look of a rocket on its launchpad.  The raw colour of its brickwork – which was maybe the result of the light, which at this point in the late afternoon was starting to dim – gave this site an eerier, more primordial feel than the others we visited.

 

 

Our final port of call that day was the sizeable complex of Wat Chai Watthanaram, southwest of central Ayutthaya and by the shore of the Chao Phraya River.  Here we witnessed another witless intrusion by an idiot tourist.  Despite the very visible signs telling people not to do this, someone was operating a drone and having it buzz around the site’s highest pinnacles.  However, Wat Chai Watthanaram did treat us to the most gorgeous spectacle of the day.  Getting to its entrance involved walking along a path by the riverside, from where we had a stunning view of the complex silhouetted against an evening sky of faded pink and violet.  Meanwhile, the setting sun peered between its chedi, prangs and treetops and burnished them with orange light.

 

 

The wild Gover

 

From bdnews24.com

 

In a blog entry a few weeks ago, I jokingly stated that the contenders in the race to take over as British Prime Minister from Theresa May were so dismal that even Tony Montana, the ultra-violent, ultra-sweary, cocaine-dealing and cocaine-hoovering crime baron featured in Brian De Palma’s classic 1983 movie Scarface, would do a better job as PM.

 

There was something prophetic about those words, for now it transpires that one person with a credible chance of becoming PM has indeed a touch of Tony Montana and Scarface about him.  Not that he’s ultra-violent or ultra-sweary – though the sight of his shilpit features and the sound of his prissy voice on TV are enough to make me ultra-sweary and at least feel like being ultra-violent.  And not that, to the best of my knowledge, he’s ever dealt in cocaine.  But it’s emerged from an interview in the Daily Mail that Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and former Secretary of State for Education and for Justice, hoovered up amounts of the white stuff ‘on several occasions’ in his pre-political days, while he was working as a journalist.

 

Now I’m not saying that Gove’s appetite for cocaine was the same as that displayed by Tony Montana, whose head by the end of Scarface looked in danger of disappearing under the powder that was piled, mountainously, on his desk.  But such have been the howls of derision and delight about this revelation on social media that I suspect that from now on in Britain all the normal nicknames for cocaine will be abandoned.  Forget about calling it ‘coke’, ‘blow’, ‘toot’, ‘snow’, ‘ching’, ‘nose candy’, ‘the devil’s dandruff’, ‘the Big C’, ‘pearl’, ‘bump’ and the rest.  For years to come, in nightclubs, unsavoury figures will be sidling up to you and whispering, “Psst!  You fancy a few lines of Michael Gove?”

 

Actually, Gove isn’t the only prime ministerial hopeful whose partaking of certain substances has been revealed lately.  We’ve also heard that International Development Secretary Rory Stewart once smoked opium at a wedding in Iran; Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt once drank a cannabis lassi in India; and both Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab smoked cannabis while at university.  From the Mussolini-type rubbish Raab has spouted recently, you’d expect his drug-taking to have consisted of frying his brain with LSD.  The confessions were coming at such a rate that yesterday someone on Twitter speculated if Jacob Rees Mogg would admit to ‘abusing Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup in 1871’.

 

I’ve noticed one strange thing about Conservative politicians.  None of them ever seem to take drugs because they like taking them.  They’re not as ordinary folk, who indulge in illicit substances because they ‘enjoy the buzz’ or ‘the high’, or want ‘to get loaded’ and ‘have a good time’, or want to recreate the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) inside their heads.  No, Tory politicians only take drugs out of some masochistic impulse that leaves them feeling terrible, shameful and morally besmirched afterwards.  “It was a mistake,” wailed Gove about the cocaine business.  “I look back and think I wish I hadn’t done that.”  Of his experience ‘chasing the dragon’, Stewart lamented: “It was something that was very wrong.  I made a stupid mistake.”

 

If Gove were an ordinary person, I wouldn’t give a toss whether he took cocaine or not since: (1) I’m of the opinion that human beings have the right to imbibe, ingest, inject or snort into their bodies whatever they want, provided this doesn’t negatively impact on their fellow human beings; and (2) I don’t see any point in having drugs outlawed and drug-users stigmatised when strict anti-drug legislation in the West has proved as useless as the USA’s prohibition laws did between 1920 and 1933, in that they’ve managed only to empower organised crime.  (The third chapter of the 2018 European Drugs Report is damning about how the anti-drug policies of Gove’s Conservative government have failed Britain.  It says ‘at least 7,929 overdose deaths, involving one or more illicit drug, occurred in the European Union in 2016.’  34% of these deaths occurred in the UK alone.)

 

What makes Gove a hypocrite of Godzilla-sized proportions is that, as the Observer has pointed out, while he was sandblasting his nasal passages with the Big C, he was also using a column in the Times to condemn middle-class professionals who wanted drugs laws to be relaxed.  Indeed, anybody who’s fallen foul of Britain’s laws about cocaine possession during the period that Gove and his band of merry pranksters have been in power must be feeling hard done-by, since Gove has made this admission with no apparent threat to his pocket or liberty – cocaine possession in the UK is, theoretically, punishable with up to seven years’ imprisonment – and with no apparent lessening in his belief that he’s the right man to take on the highest office in the land.  During Gove’s watch as Education Secretary, I very much doubt if anyone who had a criminal record involving cocaine would have been allowed through the doors of the teaching profession.

 

So far, the only possible negative consequence of Gove’s drugs admission I’ve heard mentioned is that it might put him in the awkward position of being British Prime Minister but being denied entry to the USA.  Actually, that would reduce the amount of time he’d have to spend in the company of the current denizen of the White House, so it doesn’t sound like much of a punishment.

 

Thus, the message seems to be that, yes, drug-taking is terribly bad, but it’s not so bad – or not bad at all – when it’s done by a Tory who’s held a string of senior governmental positions and who’s lectured us sanctimoniously in the past on a number of topics, including the badness of drug-taking.  Such logic is worthy of Tony Montana, who once explained in Scarface: “I always tell the truth.  Even when I lie.”

 

From youtube.com / © Channel 4

 

End of the Roky road

 

© Sumet Sound Studios

 

Roky Erickson, the Texan singer-songwriter, guitarist and harmonica player who passed away on May 31st at the age of 71, was a man who suffered for his art.  Diagnosed with acute schizophrenia in 1968, and a year later claiming he was insane to avoid jail after a drugs-bust, he was incarcerated in a series of psychiatric and state hospitals and put though electroconvulsive therapy and Thorazine treatment.

 

Later he displayed levels of paranoia, delusion and obsessiveness that a Philip K. Dick character (or indeed, Philip K. Dick himself) would be familiar with.  By 1982 he believed that he was an alien – one under psychic attack from the human beings around him.  Later in the decade he was charged with the theft of his neighbours’ mail – not only was the postally-crazed Erickson stealing the mail but he was plastering it all over his walls.  Only after 2001, when Erickson ended up in the legal custody of his brother Sumner Erickson, did his mental health and his situation generally begin to improve.

 

No doubt most if not all of Erickson’s demons sprang from the amount of acid that he and his comrades in the psychedelic rock band the 13th Floor Elevators consumed during the 1960s in their quest for a state of heightened perception that, in turn, would add more depth and profundity to their music.  It makes you wonder how much you should applaud the art, knowing that the circumstances that helped produce the art also wrecked the body and soul of the artist.  Erickson was unlucky enough to belong to a tradition of tormented musicians, writers, poets, composers and painters whose ranks include Thomas de Quincy, Malcolm Lowry, Toulouse Lautrec, Edgar Allan Poe and Edvard Munch (who once made the sad confession that “without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder.”)

 

Well, I have to applaud the art of the 13th Floor Elevators.  That’s although before I heard them I hadn’t much patience with the psychedelic-music genre to which they belonged.  Previously, I’d mainly been exposed to British psychedelic bands who seemed to sing about garden gnomes, bicycles, teapots, newspaper taxis (presumably black London cabs made out of copies of the Evening Standard) and marmalade skies – artefacts of a twee, stereotypical Little England, viewed as much through a prism of Lewis Carroll as through a haze of consciousness-altering drugs.  But the 13th Floor Elevators sounded literally far out.  Theirs was a frequently distorted noise that might’ve been made on another planet.  It consisted of Erickson’s yelping voice, Stacy Sutherland’s fuzzy guitar, John Ike Walton’s berserk drums and Tommy Hall’s electric jug.  The jug was an instrument that accompanied the songs with eerie wibbling sounds and sometimes made you wonder if there was a flock of turkeys gabbling in a corner of the Elevators’ recording studio.

 

Somehow, out of what initially seemed an unpromising clatter of disparate noises, there emerged great tunes: Reverberation, Roller Coaster, Slip Inside This House, You’re Going to Miss Me and Kingdom of Heaven.  Meanwhile, the Elevators’ takes on other people’s songs, like Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and Them’s Gloria, predictably bent them into new and fantastical shapes.

 

You’re Going to Miss Me became an unexpected hit and the Elevators got to perform it on American Bandstand (1952-1989).  “Who is the head man of this band here, gentlemen?” inquired Dick Clark afterwards.  “Well,” came the perfect reply, “we’re all heads.”  And Kingdom of Heaven was used by T Bone Burnett on the musical soundtrack of the first and best season of True Detective (2014-2019).  It provided an unsettling but soaring accompaniment to the finale of the second episode, when Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey discover a sinister human figure with antlers painted on the wall of a burnt-out church.

 

The Elevators managed four albums between 1966 and 1969, though Erickson’s contribution was increasingly diminished by his mental problems.  Thereafter, I quite like the two albums that he and a new band recorded as Roky Erickson and the Aliens – aptly titled, since at the time Erickson did think he was an alien.

 

And unlike another famous casualty of the psychedelic era, Syd Barrett of the Pink Floyd – note how I called it ‘the’ Pink Floyd, to distinguish the earlier Barrett incarnation of the band from the bloated, Jeremy Clarkson-friendly soft-rock behemoth that it mutated into later – Erickson enjoyed something of a musical comeback in his later years, gigging in America, Europe and the Antipodes and even participating in a 13th Floor Elevators reunion in 2015.

 

Incidentally, the Elevators exerted a fascination over Scottish rock bands of a certain vintage.  Slip Inside This House was covered by both Primal Scream and the Shamen, while the Jesus and Mary Chain, possibly my favourite band ever, did a splendid if sleek and cleaned-up take on Reverberation.  (Yes, it says something about the original version that it makes the Jesus and Mary Chain version sound sleek and cleaned-up.)  And Erickson himself appeared on Devil Rides, a track on the 2008 Batcat EP by the rumbly Glasgow band Mogwai.

 

Mogwai member Stuart Braithwaite spoke for a lot of music fans the other day when, hearing of Erikson’s death, he tweeted: “The worst news.  Rest in peace Roky.”  Mind you, considering everything that he’d been through, maybe we should just celebrate the fact that Roky Erickson made it to the age of 71.

 

From boingboinb.net