Twelve years ago, the back streets of Bangkok. We are somewhere near the river taxi dock for Wat Phra Kaew, and very far from home. It is early but already the heat and the humidity are high. I feel a familiar pressure behind my eyes. A storm is coming.
Twelve years ago I carry only a small film camera; automatic, point and shoot. With 36 frames a roll I must choose my subjects carefully. A rationing that is at once restrictive and freeing. I look first, absorb more. My nostrils are pricked by the smell of drying fish. Stall holders cry out above the buzzing traffic. Their words reach me but not their meaning. My finger rests on a grid on a map but I am lost.
The rain begins. Through a curtain of water, jewelled eyes stare at us from the window of a mask-maker. We go inside. A quiet man behind the desk watches as we marvel at his creations. Words like ‘need’ and ‘want’ form in my mouth. The mask-maker senses his spell is working. ‘They are gods’ he says. ‘Choose the one that speaks to you.’
A black and gold monkey. I turn it over, looking for the price. Twelve years ago I am months from graduation, no job waiting. Our plane tickets have been bought with the air-miles of a friend in exchange for half their value. The monkey goes back on the wall. ‘There is more than one price’ the mask-maker says. He nods towards a passing tour group, a procession of umbrellas. They are middle aged, western, their wealth on display. ‘That price is for them’ he says. ‘For you, another.’
Times passes. The rain continues to fall. As we wait for the gods to claim us, the mask-maker talks. He talks of his home village in the north, of his family he leaves behind to work. Soon it will be Songkran, Thai New Year. A time to return home, if you can afford the journey. ‘Will your travels take you north?’ he asks us. ‘Not this time’. ‘Next time’ he says. ‘It is very beautiful. Very different to this.’ The sweep of his arms stretches beyond the stalls outside, beyond the street dogs and the tuk tuks, beyond the thousands of tourists at the palace. It brushes against the city limits, encircling all the people, all the colour, all the noise.
We choose, or are chosen, by a grinning Yaksha, giant guardian of temples, by Garuda, eagle-headed mount of the god Narayana, by a green skinned, serene eyed Buddha with a golden crown, and by the monkey, the god king Hanuman. The mask-maker wraps each one with care. ‘Thank you’ he says. ‘Now I can close my shop for the holiday. Now I can go north’.
The rain has eased. We turn to leave. ‘A present for you’ the mask-maker says. I reach out my hand. He places a small bronze Buddha in my palm. I do not recognise it from the shelves. He closes my fingers around it, holds them there, tight. Our eyes meet. ‘It is lucky’ he tells me. ‘Blessed by a monk at the market.’ With his gesture he has transferred that luck to me, bound me to my amulet. I have no words. I stare at my hand, still closed. Khob Khun Mark Na Ka. Thank you.