The Blessing of the Dolls

If our first day in Bangkok was straight from the pages of a Lonely Planet guidebook (massages, street food, night markets) our second day was more like a scene from an absurdist film. Before parting ways Friday night Ted invited us along to a temple the next morning where he and his girlfriend had “business” to conduct with a corrupt monk. We woke up at 1pm the next day, groggy from time zones and beer towers and headed out to visit the shifty Buddhist north of Bangkok. On the way Ted clued us into what we were getting ourselves into. He and his Thai girlfriend, Faii, supplement their incomes by shipping local products to Thai expats and enthusiasts around the world.

According to Ted, back in the day when a woman had a miscarriage she brought the fetus to a monk who would encase the tiny remains in amber and bless them. She would then keep it on her person, channeling the child’s soul for good luck in the future. At some point this kind of cool tradition got translated into a trend of carrying around actual baby dolls that had been blessed by a monk, with gold writing on the doll’s backs to prove their legitimacy. They became good luck symbols with or without miscarriages, and I think used by men and women alike. A few years ago when Ted first got here he claims that he would see adults carrying around baby dolls all the time. The trend seems to be over by now but the international market for these things is apparently still profitable enough to warrant a pilgrimage on a Saturday afternoon.

Driving in Bangkok is reminiscent of Mario Kart, the parts where you’re trying to run your opponents off the road. Luckily for us Faii is a pro and in an hour we emerged onto the cattle-riddled side streets of the Nonthaburi suburb. We pulled into a huge temple complex, which I regret not having photographed, so I’ll go full ethnographer mode here: We entered into a large and colorful open air pavilion guarded by enormous gilded statues of Kinnaree, the air was heavy with smoke, depictions of elephants, lions, and mythical creatures adorned painted, wooden altars. There were stalls selling small apples and oranges, flowers and other trinkets that you could purchase and then offer at one of the many, many decorated altars of Ganesh; a bit further men and some young boys with shaved heads and bright orange robes congregated around a bulletin board. Some things reminded me of Catholic Church— large troughs where you could light candles, prayer cards for sale and the wafts of incense that made me sneeze.

We walked down a small corridor and Faii announced herself to two people sitting outside of a small building within the complex. They seemed skeptical at first, Faii looked nervous, but then she stuffed some Thai Baht into an envelope that they handed her, and a monk appeared in the doorway of the tiny building, ushering us in. We sat down on the floor and Faii began pulling the dolls from her bag— remarkably individual-looking and the size of toddlers. She smoothed out their hair and sat them in front of the monk. I looked around at a confusing mess of items- bags of limes, unopened offering baskets (you can buy them premade at some stores), a rice cooker, a tall stack of old papers, and other random goods shoved into a corner. The monk uncapped a gold sharpie and picked up a doll with long brown hair, marking her forehead before turning it over and writing down her back. When he was done with the individual dolls Faii instructed us to bow our heads and the monk prayed while sprinkling us with a thick liquid. We left the temple in a somewhat somber mood. Ted and Faii dropped us off at the bus before heading back to their home in a Western suburb. We took the bus several stops in the wrong direction before kindly being redirected by a bus assistant who is not the driver but stands on the bus collecting money and helping out fools like us. How about that, MTA?

The rest of our time in Bangkok was relatively uneventful. We saw some things, like the National Museum full of ancient art:

We took a cooking class, went to a floating market, and got New York-priced cocktails to check out the view of a city with no zoning laws.

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We got a little bit stranded outside the “Grand Palace” after the buses stopped running. It didn’t seem like a big deal to us but the guards were pretty worried. I think that they were just overcompensating (getting reamed)  because their new king had recently been shot with rubber bullets by German school children while abroad.

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And we suffered from absurd amounts of jet lag. Basically every time we woke up it was either 4 o’clock in the morning or two hours after we were supposed to get up. Imagine the scene from Home Alone 2 where the parents wake up panicked and are all “WE DID IT AGAIN!” and then run around their bedroom throwing on clothes in fast forward. That was basically us twice a day, for our first four days in this hemisphere. But we just about adjusted by the time my hostage and I were scheduled to fly to Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, my one historical/cultural concession in my beach and curry focused (non-existent) itinerary.

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