Denizens of the Balcony

So some time last year we went to the aquarium store down Chan Road and we acquired an aquarium with a handful of guppies. The guppies proved to be surprisingly resilient, there were baby guppies, some of the guppies were eaten by birds, and now we have three guppies. They had names but I forget what they are. In January, we got an eel named Hannibal but then, as they say, a bird ate her. After that we bought a tiny turtle who was named Rosella – at many riverfront establishments in Bangkok you can buy various aquatic creatures which you then release into the river to make merit and/or feed the catfish. Rosella has not been eaten by a bird and has in fact thrived. She is a Chinese soft-shelled turtle, a species notable for its rather extraordinary plumbing.

We’re mostly feeding her turtle food. But we thought she might like a change, so we went to the aquarium store and attempted to buy five tiny shrimp, which appear to be the variety known as dancing shrimp. There was some confusion and we ended up with five baht worth of shrimp, which meant about twenty-five of them. So we dumped them in the tank and they terrified Rosella, who was not interested in eating them, and the fish, who felt like they’d already been through a lot with the introduction of Rosella. These sort of shrimp evidently like to jump, and many of them jumped out of the tank, and were presumably eaten by birds. But now we have about ten of them, who are getting bigger and bigger.

But after all of this, the tank started getting dirty, and so we decided to solve this problem by acquiring a sucker fish, also from the aquarium store, who has been named Mrs. Primrose. Here is the whole tank seen from above:

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And here is Rosella and some of the shrimp:

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And here they are again:

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And here is Mrs. Primrose:

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She is kind of terrifying, it’s true. We hope she does well and that we don’t have to clean the tank out so often now.

The Wat Next Door

Just downstream of the school is a small wat. We don’t usually spend much time on the river going downstream, as most of Bangkok is to the north of us. But the last time we were on the river we noticed the wat had an enormous reclining Buddha facing the river. So we went to go see. Here he is:

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The wat also serves as dock for express boat service, albeit not one that’s used that often:

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(It’s generally called Wat Chanyawat, as far as I can tell.) Like most wats on the river, there’s the opportunity to feed the catfish and/or pigeons:

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There’s a lot going on at this wat: it hosts an immense number of massage parlors. There was also an old woman with an enormous sleeping pig.

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At the Mae Nak shrine

Today we went to the shrine of Mae Nak, Bangkok’s most popular ghost. She was a lady who lived in the neighborhood of Phra Khanong (then a village, I expect) under the reign of Rama IV; her husband Mak (in some accounts he’s “Chum”) went off to war and took a long time to get back, during which time Mae Nak died giving birth to their child. But she kept up appearances and did not tell Mak when he returned that she was dead. They lived happily until one night while she was cooking dinner she dropped a lime and stretched her arm down to the ground to get it at which point Mak/Chum (who may have suffered a head injury during the war) caught on and ran to the sacred grounds of Wat Mahabut to escape from his ghost-wife. This made Mae Nak angry and she proceeded to terrorize the neighborhood until she is subdued by famous monk Somdej Toh, at which point, I think, she becomes an ex-ghost.

Mae Nak is extremely popular, and there have been a huge number of dramatizations of her story, listed here. Many of these can be seen on YouTube; this one is a tad melodramatic, but it does have high reptile content and the subtitles aren’t as poetic as this one.

Her shrine is at Wat Mahabut, where Mak fled; there’s a small statue of her and her ghost-baby:

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I don’t know why she appears to have two babies here. Maybe the one on the left is a doll? Her fuzzy appearance is because she’s covered in little sheets of gold leaf which have been gilded on her; while we were there, the shrine was being vacuumed and the air was full of tiny motes of gold.

She’s surrounded by things that she’s been given by her devotees (a lot of clothing; some other toys for the baby) and portraits that have been painted or drawn of her, none, disappointingly, of her extensible arms. Picture-taking didn’t seem polite (though it wasn’t specifically forbidden) so these photos aren’t as good as they might be.

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Because there’s only so much room inside, there’s a secondary shrine out back:

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I don’t know exactly who this man is.

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Nor am I sure about this plaster rabbit and chicken.

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Though possibly these real chickens might be explained? The shrine is surrounded by stalls selling small fish, turtles, and frogs that can be released into the canal behind the wat to make merit – you can see one on the left in this picture – maybe releasing a chicken makes you a lot of merit. Or maybe they just live at the wat, like the dogs and cats.

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There were plenty of little turtles and fish to inspect. I thought about buying some to set them loose, though it seems ethically (and ecologically) a little murky; downstream, local children seemed to be using nets to recapture some of the released.

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The woman overseeing this pool of catfish and turtles (not quite visible) is not Mae Nak; she appears to be Guan Yin, the Chinese bodhisattva whose shrine near Wat Prayun we bumbled through yesterday.

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At the canal, of course, there were catfish to be fed, so we fed them for a while.

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Semi-Homemade Crispy Catfish Salad

Somehow in the month that we have been here we have not managed to have crispy catfish salad (yam pla-duk fu). How this is possible, I don’t know. But here I will explain how you can have this fine dish for yourself. First what you do is you go to the market and you buy a bag with all the ingredients for crispy catfish salad in it. It looks like this:

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You take that home, obviously. Then get a bowl. At the bottom of the bowl stick the lettuce. Then pour the little baggie of fried catfish and peanuts on top of that. Then pour the little baggie of mango and onion and cilantro on top of that. Finally pour the baggie of fish sauce, chili, and lime juice over the top of that. What you end up with looks like this:

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You have just made yourself a fine lunch. Congratulate yourself!

Climbing Wat Arun

Wat Arun (seen previously) is maybe the most scenic temple in Bangkok. It’s on the other side of the river, so you need to take a ferry to get there. Though it’s the rainy season, we had fine weather for a river crossing:

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When you get off the ferry, you can feed the catfish (previously), and you’re greeted by some fine stone crocodiles:

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While you can’t climb all the way to the top, you can go a good distance up:

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And at the top there are very nice views of the Chao Phraya, which is fairly busy in this section:

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There is plenty more to say about this place, but I don’t know very much, so that’s all.

At the zoo

The best thing about the Dusit Park zoo is clearly the hippopotamuses. Actually I should be more specific: they have both regular and pygmy hippopotamuses, and the pygmy hippopotamus was not up to much. And the sign on the regular hippopotamus enclosure promised three hippopotamuses, but there were clearly only two. But we arrived right at feeding time, and if you give the good man twenty baht, he will give you as many bananas and long beans as you can toss into the gaping maws of the two hippopotamuses, who have clearly been eating well in this fashion for years:

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They are fine and jolly beasts. A sign says that one of them came from the Netherlands in 1967, which seems impossible to believe; she has had 14 piglets (this term is almost certainly wrong) since then. Maybe she was the missing third hippo? One worries. But these ones were happily eating, and let themselves be patted on their bristly jaws, which feel like rubber.

The other nice thing at the zoo are the paddle boats, which can be rented for not very much money. They are, it has to be said, somewhat dangerous, especially if you are taking a baby on them – there are no guard rails, and our boat did list in my direction a great deal, though I only noticed that after I ran into the side of an island while trying to photograph a water monitor. The attendants do give out life preservers, which is heartening: the water teams with enormous swimming lizards, to say nothing of the carp and catfish maddened by being overfed, and one hesitates to think what unseen horrors might lurk under the nearly opaque waters.

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The water monitors here don’t seem to be quite as big as those in Lumphini – the longest was maybe a little over four feet – nor as thuggish in nature but they do seem slightly more energetic. Wikipedia has a terrifying image of one in a tree, taken, it says, in Bangkok, so I kept checking the trees; I did not see any there. But the paddle boating! It’s pleasant, and the baby didn’t fall out, so that was fine.

The reptile house in general was frighteningly thorough – more snakes than anyone would know what to do with – a few Midwestern corn snakes looked a little lost amidst the cobras and kraits – as well as a pleasant selection of turtles and tortoises, and some fine crocodilians, including a gharial. Also a stuffed crocodile! who seemed to have been stuffed some time in the late nineteenth century and given a coat of lacquer every year since, leaving him with a fine finish indeed. Around the zoo are sculpted animals, some more fanciful than others; this one, in front of the puma cage, is either a puma or a hyena or a demon:

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Some of these statues promise more than they deliver, like the dinosaurs in front of the reptile house. Oh well.

The seal show is also pretty good. There are only two seals, or only two were on view, but they do tricks and they have a hype man who explains things energetically in Thai, which I did not understand, though Harriet clapped and clapped. The trainers wear white boots, which seems suitably fashionable, and everyone came out to the strains of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”, though I didn’t manage to get that on camera.

The zoo also has an air raid shelter from WWII which you can go into, though it is not explained very well if you don’t read Thai.

What is not so nice at the park: the chimpanzee enclosure, which is not extremely small, though the chimps did look unhappy with their lot in life. There appeared to be only a single ostrich, which seems a little sad? Though it did have a single zebra for company. The map claimed penguins; we found no penguins, though that might have been my failure to understand the map.

But all in all, it’s a pretty good zoo.