That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Blue-ish

If The Opera Isn’t Over Until The Fat Lady Sings, What Does It Mean When The Fat Man Screeches?

Do you know the way to Khao San Road?

Even before seeing the trade show, I learned an important lesson about Bangkok: It’s a city that doesn’t work. The traffic is so bad when it isn’t rush hour that malls need guards to block cars so their customers can get out of their parking lots and into the streets. The flow exceeds the worst nightmares of Los Angeles drivers. It isn’t just gridlock, it’s stagnation. With what I was told were at least 60 new cars hitting the streets daily, the city couldn’t build roads fast enough to keep up.

The problem wouldn’t be so bad if walking were an option, but the air is so polluted with car fumes, bus exhaust and smoke that it’s not a good idea. The first few times I walked at my normal brisk pace, my eyes stung and my throat became coated with an impenetrable layer of phlegm. I should have taken a cue from the surgical mask-wearing traffic cops. I even saw a taxi driver who had an inhaler taped to his nose. The truest measure of the magnitude is the icon that accompanied an on-going series of stories in the Bangkok Post called “The Air We Breathe”: a person wearing a gas mask. 

The logo for the Bangkok Post’s continuing coverage of the city’s air pollution problem.

The infrastructure problems weren’t limited to the city’s streets. Once I flipped through the English-language phone book looking for the Jewish community, I learned there were problems with phone service, too. When I couldn’t find any trace of the community under the standard headings, I called the Israeli Embassy. Apparently, having the right telephone number isn’t enough to assure a call will go through. The phone lines seemed so perpetually overwhelmed that a ringing sound meant nothing at all. Even at mid-day, calls went unanswered because they hadn’t really connected. The lines have so exceeded their capacity that a hotel operator wished me good luck in getting through when I asked her for English directory assistance.

Even if I’d gotten through I might not have found the information I wanted. That’s because many numbers are listed under the name of the original owner, not the person who is currently paying for it, a local man told me.  

Twenty phone calls later, I found the rabbi’s wife at the only synagogue in town and asked if I could visit. Her response was like the punch line of a good news/bad news joke. The good news: the synagogue was close to my hotel. The bad news: Her son had given her husband chicken pox. Having never had chicken pox or any other childhood disease, I steered clear. As a consolation, she referred me to the president, who worked within walking distance. 

Although the president didn’t tell me much about the city’s tiny Jewish population, he did say it was no accident that Bangkok’s Jewish community wasn’t easy to find. He summed it up in one word: Fear.

The Thai government and the Thais themselves may be tolerant of all religions, but he isn’t worried about them. He’s worried about terrorists. Although the Jewish community of about 400 is barely a blip on Judaism’s map, it was large enough to interest Black September terrorists who seized the Israeli Embassy here in the early 1970s. Few hostages were injured, no one was killed and there have been no other incidents since then, but he still hasn’t forgotten. That’s why the community’s Jewish organizations aren’t in the phone book. It’s also why he didn’t want me to use his name or other local Jew’s names without getting approval. 

Boys and girls, can you say “paranoid?”

Troublemaker that I am, I couldn’t resist asking, “Why would terrorists even be interested in such a small community.”

“Why would they be interested in blowing up a synagogue in Buenos Aires?” he shot back.

Well, for starters, it’s a hell of a lot bigger than Bangkok’s community, I thought. I didn’t say it because I didn’t want to be considered rude (even though I often am).

The president didn’t say much else, but he gave me directions to the two other places where Friday night and Saturday morning services were held, The Bosotel Hotel in the city’s diamond district, and the Chabad House in the backpacker district on Khaosan Road. The Bosotel makes sense because it’s a Chinese hotel where Jewish diamond buyers and sellers typically stay. It also has one of the city’s few kosher kitchens. Unlike the city’s synagogue, it’s also convenient because the temple is within walking distance, while the main congregation is more than a half-hour taxi ride, an impossible trip for orthodox Jews in the diamond trade because using mechanical conveyances on the sabbath violates Jewish law. 

Explaining Chabad isn’t as easy. The group is the outreach arm of Judaism’s ultra-orthodox Chasidic movement. These are the guys who wear long black coats, round black hats, beards, and sidelocks. Chabad is to Orthodox Judaism what the Newman Center is to Catholics. Where Jewish student unions– Hillel Houses–introduce college students to their religion, Chabad’s mission seems to be slapping them between the eyes with it. As a result, the organization has inspired mixed feelings on the part of Jewish American parents. Some love it because of its ability to bring young students back into the fold. Others see it as a cult, which proselytizes vulnerable young Jews away from home for the first time in their adult lives.

I‘m neutral on the issue. I judge each Chabad on its own merits. The only thing I know for sure is that its holiday parties are so jammed with screaming kids running amok and the festivities so loud and boisterous, the events make me nervous.

Be that as it may, I visited Chabad on Friday and Bosotel on Saturday. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the backpacker district once I got off the bus, because my map made no sense. I spent an hour wandering the next street over until I found a landmark that helped me figure it out. I got there in time to see everyone leave. Having nothing else to do, I hung out nearby, ate dinner at a restaurant with a movie and hopped a bus back to my hotel. 

Even at midnight, the bus was packed. After five minutes, however, a seat opened up and the woman who collects fares indicated I should sit in it. I protested, offering the seat to the women and older riders next to me, but no one took it. Figuring it for deference and not wanting to be rude, I took it. 

Just after I sat down the portly, jolly Thai gentlemen in the next seat began humming and singing as some people absent-mindedly do on buses. Sadly, there was nothing absent-minded about this man’s singing. No, it was the intentional, noticeable, top-of-your-lungs type of singing closer to screeching than it was to musically speaking words in a pleasing manner. Compared to this vocal chicken scratch, the noise made by fingernails scratching a chalkboard would have been joyful. 

Because I was next to the guy, everyone frowned disapproval at me as if it were my fault he was disturbing the peace in this none-too-peaceful city and could I please do something about it?

Then, he stopped because he wanted to talk. To me. 

Unfortunately, I don’t speak a stick of Thai. And I can only think that it may have been a good thing. With my luck, he probably wanted to tell me of his love for Mandy Patinkin. Sadly, when he realized I didn’t understand a single word. . . . . he went back to singing. My sticking a finger in each ear to preserve what little hearing I had left only encouraged him to pump up the volume.

Fortunately, a space opened up six seats away, but the damage was already done. When I finally got off the bus, it took hours to recover my hearing.