Our first stop on the whirlwind tour of the great city of Bangkok was the old palace and temple Wat Phra Kaeo, right in the heart of the city. Our driver dropped us off at the square, opposite the Wat. Before we could take ten steps, we were swarmed by a gang… of pigeons. Immediately, some kind Thai folks were thrusting small bags of hard corn kernels into our hands. The birds seemed well accustomed to this ritual, and we were all instantly covered in pigeons. They were on our arms, on our heads, on our hands, and more and more kept clambering for what little free space remained on our bodies.
The kids were overwhelmed and overjoyed at this experience, and their laughter was infectious. It seemed like everyone around us was sharing in the unique beauty of what was transpiring. Theresa stepped back and tried to get some pictures of it, a difficult task, given the abundance of flapping wings and corn flying everywhere. Every time our bags emptied out, the kind folks watching at the sides would thrust several more bags into our hands. Before we had time to refuse, the pigeons were on us, leaving us with no choice but to feed them, lest they decide that humans might be tasty as well.
After the third or fourth refill, it started to dawn on me that maybe this wasn’t a charity ‘feed the pigeons’ project hosted by some well-meaning NGO, or even an extension of the Buddhist spirit of giving. I tried to pull the kids away, but the pigeons and the corn-people made this a nearly impossible task. Not one to be daunted, I plunged in (receiving two more bags of corn) and escorted the kids out of the hubbub to the safety of the sidelines. The corn-people still kept trying to give us more corn, and their English did not seem to have gotten as far as understanding the words ‘no thank you’.
As we started to walk away, the ringleader of the cornies, a stooped elderly woman, stepped in front of me and demanded 1000 baht. This was about 33 dollars Canadian, and certainly enough to buy a farm feed sized bag of corn. I’m sure what we had gone through would have made a jumbo sized popcorn at the theater, which might run about 7 or 8 dollars in Canada, and even then I feel thoroughly gypped. Sure in my knowledge that the woman spoke fluent English (even with the words ‘no, thank you’ missing from her vocabulary), I indignantly explained that if she had wanted some money for the corn, she should have negotiated a price first. Her only reply was a glare and an outstretched hand, and I felt the weight of a crowd watching the interaction. There were no other tourists in sight, and suddenly, I felt very conspicuous and alone.
Realizing we had been had, and noticing the condition, or more specifically, the lack of her teeth brought on my first world emotions of guilt and pity, and I felt as though I should at least pay for my foolishness. I gave her 500 baht, and again gave her a stern scolding, reminding her to negotiate a price first. Because, you know, it’s not like she had ever made that mistake before… Or would again.
Ultimately, the value of our experience went far beyond the value of the corn. We had, for a moment, been swept up in the joy of a unique and beautiful event, summed up only by the beauty of a badly paraphrased Haiku:
Taxi to explore downtown Bangkok: 1800 baht
16 bags of corn: 500 baht.
Being swarmed by pigeons in downtown Bangkok: Priceless.