Follow The Discreet Traveler by e-mail!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Dressing the part: Thailand to Malaysia

As it's Twelfth Night, the end of Christmas and the beginning of Epiphany, I have a few odds and ends to clear up. In my last post, I may inadvertently have given the impression that the sandman on the beach was "mine." In fact I didn’t build him, much as I’d have liked to. We don’t know who did!
We also received a picture from our tenants, of their Christmas tree. Our tenants are fabulous people, and we wouldn’t be on these travels without them. They are happy to live in our house as long as we’re happy to be away from it. Still, it was nice to see our old living room decorated for the holidays. 

Siem Reap to Bangkok was a long day's bus journey. The only thing that broke the monotony was getting out of the bus for about three hours at the border. That was how long it took to exit Cambodia (in a hot, semi-outdoors room with a fan), enter Thailand (they broke out the air conditioning), and get some water and lunch.

I often find that when I've traveled to a less familiar place, the more familiar place suddenly feels like "home," even though it's far from Canada or America. This is what happened in Thailand. When we first arrived in Bangkok in October, it seemed so exotic, the traffic so confusing; a whole new continent of Asia. By comparison with where we've been traveling, though, it felt like Chicago. Actual freeways. That switch back to the left-hand side of the road corresponded with the first real speed (over 50 km/h) we'd had for months. 


New Year's Eve dinner, Canton House, Chinatown

We were transiting back through Bangkok for our journey down the Malay peninsula. While we were sorting out flights to Penang, we had a couple of days. The highlight of being back in Bangkok was its culinary greatest hits, specifically those in Chinatown. We went back to Pork Satay Woman, still butch in her camouflage shorts, and Banana Pancake Man. When we first tried his heavenly concoction of crust spun like a pizza, egg, banana, and a drizzle of condensed milk, we thought we'd be eating this all along the "Banana Pancake Trail." But we never found its like again.

And so, to the subject of dressing the part. When we were last in Bangkok, Thais were getting ready for the last king’s funeral, so the city was more crowded. Also, many sites were closed including Bangkok’s most visited, Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace. This enclosure contains the former royal residence as well as the temple. We made a note to visit it when we came back and it was open.

This did not go quite as planned. Every time we visit a temple, we take two sarongs (that T. bought in Mauritius) in our day packs, in case we are showing shoulders or knees. Covering knees and shoulders, along with removing shoes, is required for a Buddhist house of worship. Normally T. wraps one sarong around her shoulders and I tie one around my waist like a skirt. 

This has been perfectly acceptable throughout our Asia travels, but for some reason, the guardswomen at Wat Phra Kaeo didn't like it, and insisted on T. wearing both the sarongs, which of course left me with none. I don't know if they wanted me to buy one of theirs but they were shouting pretty rudely, which took us aback, because we’ve always found Thai people to be friendly and welcoming. My responses kept getting talked over so I’m not sure to whom one of the women eventually said, "Come back tomorrow. Not good enough." 

Well, of course, we weren't going to come back tomorrow! So we went to get in the exit line (it was very crowded), whereupon the other woman, the especially rude one, kept yelling at me to leave. I said to her, "I am trying to get in the exit line like you said. Would you like me to jump the barrier?" Or that is what I tried to say, but she was talking over me: "I speak English!" T. said we should have asked her, "Can you speak it politely?" 

Reclining Buddha's feet, Wat Pho
In any case, we went next door to Wat Pho, which some say is their favorite of the big sites in Bangkok (and which we'd also missed first time around). It was a lovely and less crowded temple complex. Our normal sarong getup was perfectly acceptable there. We must not have been meant to visit the first place, because if we weren’t prepared to adhere to the requirements of a house of worship, we wouldn’t go in!

I take religion seriously, so if I’m going to visit a religious building, I’m happy to remove my shoes, or cover my knees and shoulders, or my head, for that matter. Which brings me to the National Mosque of Malaysia. 
Crenellated roof, Masjid Negara, Kuala Lumpur

This is the first Muslim country I've visited, and I'm not sure how but I'd never been inside a mosque before. Certainly I've seen plenty of mosques. I've visited cathedrals, conservative synagogues, Buddhist and Hindu temples, an African-American church in Harlem on Good Friday. And I know better than to walk in on someone’s prayer service and start taking pictures, any more than I would have done that during the Good Friday service. 


But outside of prayer times, everyone is welcome at the Masjid Negara, even to take pictures. Perhaps because everyone else was busy taking pictures of each other, one of the volunteers latched on to me. He told me that the mosque (which is inspired by Mecca's Grand Mosque) can accommodate 15,000 worshippers, praying side by side with each man's elbow touching his neighbor's, etc. This is because in Islam, there are not supposed to be any classes; everyone is equal. He also told me the mosque was built in 1965.

I told him I knew that, because my aunt had visited when the mosque was new. I didn't tell him she was photographed here wearing a miniskirt! These days, they just lend everybody robes.
Not sure lavender is my color

He talked, without my asking, about how wrong it is for anyone to take it upon himself to kill others, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. Not even God could forgive terrorist murderers, he said, because Islam states that it is as if such killers had taken the lives of the whole world. (The same teaching is in the Talmud.)

He was preaching to the choir, of course. I'm frequently appalled by things my co-religionists have done in the name of Christianity. And he told me that Islam holds that God could not have a son, in human terms, but I've heard that argument, not least from Judaism. He seemed happy to talk to me all day, about the Quran that I've read (interpreted), but he wasn't going to convert me, any more than I was about to convert him. It was about sharing his faith, in which I had shown interest. By the time he started to tell me why Islam doesn't represent God with any images in its art, he had a wry expression on his face. "The Second Commandment to Moses. You know."

I could not have been made more welcome. It helped that visiting the mosque, as well as borrowing a robe, is free. 

I think some people forget that they are visiting holy places and in many cases, active houses of worship. When we were at Wat Pho, there was a big holdup after the entrance, and those of us towards the back couldn’t see who was holding us back. As I soon learned from T., someone was doing crowd control while worshippers prayed at a shrine; then he would let another group of visitors through. There were tourists behind me (sounded American) who kept saying, more and more loudly, “What’s going on? They’re praying?!” Maybe these people were claustrophobic and panicking, which I could understand. But they could see that people were praying, and they knew they were in a temple. Couldn’t they respect that, and at least be quiet?

No one asks visitors to participate in the same rituals as believers. We are only asked to approach a place respectfully, because it is holy to others. That has less to do with religion than with being thoughtful towards other people.
Interior of prayer hall, Masjid Negara
That has recurred to me again and again throughout these travels. I've long believed, in the abstract, that what matters first and foremost is how people treat each other, not the categories we can put them into. But being on the road in so many different countries makes that real life. Day by day, we meet people who are friendly, who want to help us or just make us feel welcome, in their place of business or their house of worship or their country. This has been true of people in every country, whether or not it was our favorite place to visit. 

Some of the people are delightful, like the Malaysian woman who started chatting to us while we waited for our train to Kuala Lumpur. She lives in Penang, where we were, but was going to visit her son in KL. Like most Malay women, she had a colorful headscarf, to which she added a radiant, laughing smile. She didn’t want help with her bags or anything. She just wanted to talk to us before we boarded the same train.

Sometimes the people are a little odd, like the guy in Penang who stopped us on the street with a polite “Excuse me.” I thought he was going to ask us directions, which happens sometimes if you’re a pedestrian, even if it’s your first day in a city. But no—he wanted a photo with us! T. reckons either a blond or a redhead is fairly unusual on the streets of Malaysia; both of us together must have blown his mind. It’s a little weird that we’re in this guy’s selfie somewhere, but he was very appreciative, and wished us a good morning. This happened in Vietnam too.

The fact that most people, most of the time, no matter where I am, are nice and trying to get along makes it harder for me to understand the ones who aren’t. You might think being a world traveler would make me cynical about human beings, but instead, I find it an even greater mystery why some people inflict misery on others. Some intentionally, others by doing without thinking. I just think, The woman next to us at the train station is radiating humanity. Why can’t everybody do it?

It’s not something unique to her because of her nationality or religion. It’s just that she recognized us as being on the same journey.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

During your visit to the National Mosque of Malaysia, we found touching the volunteer's condemnation of terrorist murders. Also moving were your comments about being welcomed by kindness in many different countries and in many and various ways. Following these reflections, your last two paragraphs are gems. G & P

Janet said...

I'm sorry to say your tenants' lovely tree is now denuded and, along with the entire street's trees, awaiting collection for recycling. All good things come to an end!

Your blog post reminded of our own visit to the Grand Palace: I was shrouded from top to toe, including closed-in shoes, but some in our group fell foul of the rules. Intriguingly, there was (at least then) a notice specifying that some of the rules - particularly on footwear - applied only to tourists and not to Thais. Hmmm ...

Attitudes to visit mosques vary so widely across the Islamic world: in some countries, they are out of bounds to all non-Muslims except for one showy-offy new construction in some cases, but throughout Iran, foreigners were welcome in any mosque outside prayer times.

J. E. Knowles said...

Thanks for writing. I didn't see a notice at the Grand Palace about different rules applying to foreigners and Thais, but that's interesting. Kind of reinforces my sense that it wasn't a religious objection.
Very interesting the range of welcome (or not) throughout the Islamic world as well.