It was around 6:30 A.M. on the morning of December 26, 2004 in California. My wife Jan and I were boarding a flight at the Burbank Airport to San Francisco to proceed on to Bangkok (via Seoul) beginning a long awaited trip to Thailand. Frequent flier mile tickets often route you in strange ways but the price of free airfare is hard to turn down. We were gearing up for a long flight and a little sleepy because of the hour. Over the CNN television monitor we didn’t really notice anything alarming regarding Thailand.
“We have news just in of a major earthquake around the island of Sumatra. More details as they become available.”
Halfway over the Pacific Ocean the flight chatter began among passengers and crew that a lot of coastal Thailand had been wiped out. As in where we were headed for a holiday vacation. We landed in Seoul to spend the night and once checked in to our room turned on CNN International.
And now we had film footage confirming one of the world’s worst nightmares as we looked in sadness at a small airport transit hotel TV. The Indian Ocean had unleashed a tsunami that was terrifying, ferocious and devastating. We didn’t know what to expect, but we weren’t going to make it to the Thai beach area, that was for sure.
What we saw and experienced in Thailand over the next few weeks was beyond remarkable. This post comes from my heart, as does my affection for our Thai friends we’ve met before and after the tsunami here in LA. For in all those post tsunami days the Thai people changed my life. Admiration became love.
How did all this come about?
My barber, Polly Tchen, was born in Bangkok’s Chinatown. We have had a wonderful relationship for over 20 years. She and her girlfriends travel the globe and Polly gives the best reviews of movies I’ve ever encountered. She is also a huge LA Lakers fan and greatly admired coach Phil Jackson, the Zen Master. Polly felt he lost (or won) games with equanimity. Not exactly how the sports writers describe things. But who knew there were a lot of Thai Buddhists rooting for Zen Master?!?
Polly had mapped out a trip of Thailand for us. Go here, stay there, eat here not there, and for a first visit use only the boat transit on the Chao Praya River in Bangkok to see sites, as you do with the canals of Venice, Italy.
We had talked about this in the summer of 2004. Jan and I had made our first trip to Cambodia in February of that year and stayed one tantalizing day in Bangkok before going home. We were hooked on seeing Thailand and so Polly plotted out an itinerary for us. For good professional reasons we couldn’t commit to travel dates that summer. I went for a haircut in early November and told Polly we had finally decided to go the day after Xmas. She scowled at me with Buddhist tough love.
“You never get good reservations for the beach areas at Xmas this late. You better go home and try right away.”
Chastened, I sped home and got on the internet. Trust me I tell you the truth. I typed in reservations for Phuket beginning December 26, 2004 at least four times. All the requests were denied, so we reversed Polly’s itinerary and started by going north to Chiang Mai, then Phuket, then Bangkok and home.
Talk about staying out of harm’s way…..I can still see myself typing in those hotel requests…
I am probably not the only American annoyed at United Airlines. Our frequent flier itinerary was Burbank/San Francisco/Seoul/Bangkok/Chiang Mai. Or so we thought. We checked the flight status in Seoul and our plane was still leaving for Thailand. But that flight pattern became Seoul/Hong Kong/Chiang Mai/Bangkok/Chiang Mai. The word surprise comes to mind, but not in a birthday present way.
True or false: United did its best to rectify the fact we were going to Chiang Mai twice to go to Chiang Mai once? Thank God I always pack patience when I travel!
Since this question answers itself I’ll continue my story….
As our flight approached Bangkok what we saw out of our window was devastating. As far as the eye could see, one day after the tsunami, was an airstrip choked with ambulances. Staggering amounts of ambulances. Because the lines were so long, back doors were open with I.V. drips visible. Row upon row upon row. As close as I’ve come to a battlefield.
The terminal? Jammed, quiet, drained, scared to death throngs of people, trying, somehow, to find a way, anyway, home. No one had a passport or belongings. A card table was the British Embassy. And the French. And the Japanese. And the Swedish. And on and on and on…and we knew how lucky we were to be alive. We timidly went to baggage to retrieve our luggage. This usually routine act was surreal. Glad I had my fingers crossed. Because of course our suitcases never showed up, along with a couple from Paris.
All four of us were resigned, but we spotted a Thai Airway official down the hall. We eventually approached her and asked her advice, with apologies for even bringing our lost bags into question.
She folded her hands together, touching her heart in a Buddhist greeting that acknowledges your presence. “Your flight originated in Hong Kong and your bags are at Carousel 4 in another terminal. I will take you there.” Try that at LAX or JFK….
We followed her to the other terminal and as promised all luggage was waiting for us. Our eyes dropped in astonishment. We got the bags and boarded our flight to return to Chiang Mai (after transferring from Chiang Mai). I wasn’t in Kansas anymore…..
Once in Chiang Mai we scrambled our plans and adjusted quickly. There were no flights anywhere so trust me when I say the internet is your friend. Miraculously we spotted online one last hotel room available at the Royal Princess to cover our necessary extended stay in Chiang Mai. This wasn’t going to be a vacation but an experience. We were not in any danger and thankfully grabbed the room.
Jan and I were stunned as we encountered jet lag. Fellow travelers also marooned in Chiang Mai were stunned. The Thai were beyond stunned as everyone was tensely awaiting news on family and friends. Against this backdrop unfolded an amazing example of the Thai spirit. I am very aware of the current political tensions in Bangkok but hope that the Thai spirit I witnessed in 2004 emerges soon.
It’s always good to make lemonade from lemons, to turn a negative into a positive. With an unexpected week added to our stay in Chiang Mai, we were able to settle into this northern capital city as New Year 2005 approached and arrived. We would not be disappointed. All of the usually festive activities reflected a serious tone appropriate to the disaster caused by the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Of all our excursions, our New Year’s Day visit to the Vatican of Thai Buddhism, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, was the highlight.
In the early 14th century a monk from Sukhothai, Sumanathera, had a vision that a relic of Buddha’s was in Pang Cha. He wandered into the territory and discovered a white bone. Convinced he had a part of the Buddha’s skeleton, he returned to Sukhothai and King Dharmmaraja. The King was not convinced the relic was authentic, but allowed Sumanathera to travel to the Lanna Kingdom of King Nu Naone. The Lanna King was more sympathetic. He ordered the relic to be placed on a white elephant and released the rare creature into the forest. The elephant slowly climbed through the jungle into the high mountains and arrived at Mt. Doi Suthep, the Sugar White Elephant Mountain. The legend continues that the elephant trumpeted three times as it died on the mountaintop. Considered an auspicious omen, the temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was constructed, with a gold chedi to hold the relic of the Buddha.
The New Year’s Day atmosphere at the temple was charged with deep devotion, hope, prayer, and best wishes that all would be released from suffering, the major concept of Buddhist teaching. As musicians we found Wat Phra That Doi Suthep a paradise on earth, as I’ll be describing soon. Perhaps Messiaen had dreamed of music this beautiful…
It is a New Year’s tradition to circle the chedi three times.
What I hope to capture for you, and what I will not forget, is the quiet and determined calm of this large group of people. The prayers for tsunami victims, family members, friends, fellow travelers, were so concentrated that there was barely any audible sound, except the lighting of incense, the rustling of bare feet on cool marble floors and the omnipresent clanging of bells.
All the while as people walked devoutly around Buddha’s relic, there was a wildly soothing dissonance provided by the clanging of temple gongs and bells, a soundtrack blending with the Mohori musicians you’ve already seen. Surrounded by sound, I truly didn’t want to leave Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. I wanted to have the sounds continue into eternity, so I’ve kept them in my inner ear as a keepsake aural memory. Western harmonic consonance was finally banished into a warm Southeast Asian dissonance of clanging gongs and bells. The Other Side of the World.
But these bells above are only one set making the most beautiful dissonances I’ve ever heard. On the other side of the building is a second set but with two racks of resonant bells.
Eventually we tore ourselves away from this extraordinary spot but it’s never leaving my memory.
So I’ll leave Chiang Mai for a bit and be returning to Thailand in more posts. All these sounds from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, however, bring me back to music and my LA International New Music Festival.
I’ve recently met a very talented Thai composer, Narong Prangcharoen. We had dinner in November, as he has an association with the Pacific Symphony to the south of LA in Costa Mesa, so he’s around southern California a few times this year. He’s from a small village, not Bangkok as I had imagined. Where music comes from and touches another human being is truly a mystery. In a world where everyone wants everything explained, I’ll keep praying that the mystery of life stays with me as the prime motivational force.
Having studied with Chen Yi and others, I am impressed with his ability to express Thai culture in wonderful ways through Western instruments. Our dinner touched on my recent work in Vietnam, past work in Cambodia and was facilitated by his fellow composer friend, Chad Cannon. Chad is fluent in Japanese and knew of my work when he was at the Asia Cultural Council Foundation in New York City, which had funded our Cambodian trip in 2004 and a two month residency of Vu Nhat Tan for the first LA International New Music Festival in 2012. More of all of this as the winter and spring move forward. Chad’s also returned from Myanmar, where he has managed a United Nations Envoy tour for violinist Midori.
I am going to continue with a few more posts in the next weeks about my Thai adventures. Because one of the other developments of our marooned time in Chiang Mai is that Jan and I experienced Thai massage. Though of a hotel variety, we favorably contrasted the practice with our over 35 years of Alexander Technique study. When we returned from Thailand, I asked Polly if she could connect us to a Thai massage teacher here in LA.
Enter a new character, Thai Massage-Yoga Meditation Guru Lawan.
I’ve balanced and augmented my performing career with the Alexander Technique, acupuncture and, since 2005, Thai yoga massage and meditation learned from Lawan (who goes by Edie for a Western name). She and her cousin Supapan recently came over to our house to make us a genuine Thai meal. Seems they wanted to have a restaurant, so we had that in common as well.
As you know my cooking background from childhood appears from time to time in my blogs. I need to devote a whole post to the meal they made and the customs they taught. Because the balance of life is reflected in the balance of food by the balance of the five senses.
Want to prepare for Cage or Feldman pieces needing both mental and physical concentration? To all my musician readers, ever been faced with a marathon task and no guidance from your teachers? Frustrated that practicing scales and arpeggios doesn’t even begin to help? Not to mention the muscle control needed?
Try a two hour Thai massage with Lawan on a regular basis.
We live life in contrapuntal dimensions. And though this is a bit technical, Schenkerian analysis works well with Cage instructions, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Many things flow through our minds and bodies, weather, thoughts, winds, ideas, aches, pleasures, pains, sounds and for me, more sounds. So making a dinner is a part of that life focus. Being healthy is one way to release suffering here on earth, so paying attention to what you eat is essential.
It isn’t hard to find a rant by a critic, composer, musician or concerned music lover that Cage’s music doesn’t quite live up to the attraction of his ideas and philosophy. That there isn’t heart, that, somehow somewhere, he and many others missed the boat by not writing lush harmonies and melodies. That there is no emotional buy in or pay off.
My experiences in and with Asia have showed me another way. It’s well known Cage practiced Zen macrobiotic cooking. Shojin cuisine offers a true insight into his music and sound world. So if anybody ever asked me, I’d urge them to study Asian cooking and meditation, for a long time, to gain a technical foothold into the music. And be prepared, this might be longer, and ultimately more challenging, than the scales and arpeggios you learned in mastering an instrument. I can’t imagine performing Cage without this background experience. No wonder my teachers were lost at sea, all of them, performing his music, and many other composers of his era. I honestly had esteemed teachers of considerable reputation question the artistic validity of Schoenberg, which is an over the top point of view for the composer of Pierrot Lunaire, as far as I’m concerned.
Business guru Peter Drucker was right. If you want to do something new, you have to stop doing something old. Finding a way into Cage and his era demands this advice be heeded from across the cultural aisle. More coming….
Come hungry to my next post as an authentic Thai meal is taught to us by Lawan and Supapan. One of the magic things about living in Los Angeles is that we are the second capital city of most every country in Asia and Latin America. LA even became a country during the 2004 tsunami. We read in the Bangkok English newspaper a few days after the tragedy that, at that early date, the three countries contributing the most relief aid were Sweden, Japan and Los Angeles!
Which takes me back to where I started. I can still feel this little boy’s energy as he prays on the Sugar White Elephant Mountain of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep for his country on New Year’s Day, 2005. I hope you can, too.
We’ll connect again soon as Thailand and Los Angeles and music all begin to blend together.
Best, best, best,