Book Reviews

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Siamese Bestiary

written & illustrated by
Kristiaan Inwood

(1978) 2005 Second revised edition, index, 136 pp., 70 b & w drawings, 254 x 191 Softcover.

ISBN-10: 974-524-058-3 $23.00
ISBN-13 978974-524-058-2

Scenes from an Urban Jungle

Book review and exerpts from Bangkok Airways In-flight Magazine

(Fah Thai, July-August 2005)

Bangkok resident Kristiaan Inwood, a talented writer and artist, first published Siamese Bestiary in 1978. Long out of print, the book has recently been reincarnated, with changes and additions, in a fine new Orchid Press edition.
   Living in a traditional canal-side Bangkok community with a new wife and, as the years went by, a growing family, the author and illustrator found himself chronicling the diverse and always fascinating local wildlife that presented itself even here, in the heart of Thailand’s capital. The book is full of finely observed and sometimes moving accounts, not only of interactions among the various species of wildlite, but between these creatures and the writer’s pets, wife, children, in-laws, and passing street hawkers.
   Despite the passage two and a half decades and the apparent wholesale transformation of the city since the book’s first appearance, the kinds of experience chronicled in these pages remain familiar ones in many little Bangkok communities. Siamese Bestiary makes a distinctive and very welcome addition to the ever-growing number of books presenting Western expatriate perspectives on Thailand. The text that accompanies the selected drawings that follow has, with the writer’s and publisher’s permission, been excerpted from the book.

Buying crabs for her precious salad was not enough of a challenge for Muang. She caught them herself in pools around the house, attractive land crabs, bodies never much larger than a baby’s clenched fist. … During Muang’s stay, I was making drawings of crabs, none of which were good. Every evening, she inspected the drawings and once brought me a plastic bowl containing two crabs to be used as models. That same evening, she decided to impart her knowledge of crab lore … One of the crabs kept circling sideways inside the bowl and looked extremely aggressive. I asked Muang why. Her answer was something about crabs having to move sideways because they have too many damned feet and only trip themselves up if they walk forwards.

Without chinchoks, houses (hotels, restaurants, gambling dens, palaces, warehouses, bars, massage parlours, gaols, garages, temples, hospitals, brothels, museums, morgues and, damn it, beachside bungalows) seem incomplete—once I counted seventeen covering my studio ceiling and walls. And without them, another form of cheap entertainment would be lost. A chinchok stalks a butterfly, inching forward, belly crawling like a Sioux scout in a vintage western, avoiding rocks, seeking the sparse shelter of small bushes, snaking through short grass, distant tomtoms throb, an owl hoots, camp lights flicker. The final few inches are covered in a vicious sprint—a near miss, tomtoms stop, a blink and another hunt.
   With rare exceptions, chinchoks are extraordinarily playful, transforming walls and ceilings into nurseries, effortlessly defying gravity thanks to uniquely formatted feet. If Isaac Newton had ever seen a Thai chinchok…
   The lizard population in and around the house has to be seen to be believed. Many, many shapes, sizes, sizes and colours. Sometimes there seem to be at least as many lizards as there are matchbox labels.
   Least attractive of them all are the chinchok’s large cousins, the tukaes. Irascible, as graceless as rampaging pigs, they eat whatever they come across - insects by the kilo, young birds, chinchoks, snakes (reportedly), young tukaes , anything edible will do. Beady-eyed, unattractive, fearless, they tramp all over the house (my house, at least), patrol the roof, gobble prey under the eaves and terrorise everything and everyone.
   Chinchoks are far nicer. Despite the superficial similarities, differences between the two creatures are many. Long, dark nights are punctuated by the chinchok’s whispered squeak chuckles; the tukae emits a harsh, eerie, onomatopoeic ttt-kaaae. Chinchoks are always playing; tukaes never play. Chinchoks lose their tails and look cute; tukaes lose theirs and look even more sinister. Tukaes are megalomaniacs; chinchoks dig Sesshu, Bach, John D. MacDonald, Miles Davis and Zen Buddhism. The list is endless.    A tortoise or a turtle. We weren’t sure. I’d seen films of turtles laying pingpong balls on a Malaysian beach, but couldn’t tell what this was. We half filled a washing bowl with water—not full to avoid drowning it—sprinkled lettuce leaves inside, and inserted the creature. Then we waited to see what would happen. We figured that if it didn’t like water, it would have to be a tortoise, or a turtle that couldn’t swim. And if it did like water, it would have to be turtle; or an amphibious tortoise.
   The creature passively sank to its neck, ignored the leaves, and remained motionless.
   “Why doesn’t it move?”
   “Maybe it’s embarrassed.”
   “Animals don’t feel embarrassment. Only humans do.”
   “That’s not true. We had a goat at home that wouldn’t relieve itself when people were around.”
   It was late, so we went upstairs, leaving it alone in darkness.
   The following morning, we found he or she in the same position, although many of the leaves had disappeared. Later, a hawker identified our guest as a turtle. The rain had long since stopped, so Anong took the turtle to a large lotus-filled pond beside the main road. She placed it in the water, and away it swam. Thereafter, each time we passed the pond, we found ourselves looking for a sight of ‘our turtle’.
   We never saw it again. Soon after, the pond was filled in preparation for widening the main road.

   Coconut trees girdled with tin. Nibbled cakes of soap. Shredded moist paper beneath the stairs. Yellow teeth, brown-black pelts, squeak, squeak. Rats. Loners. Ship-in-a-bottle, rat through a hole. Elastic girth, slim, slim, slimmer but fierce, oh yes, fierce. Stand off cats. Noses to the ground, fast movements, hop, skip, crunch, squeak. Buck teeth chew refuse, away long fence tops, under houses, into undergrowth, corporeal ghosts in moonlight, black phantoms, scratch and scratch, disgust me as much as cockroaches, don’t need poison, a cat or traps, just a tame snake. Tame snake.
   I… visited a one-time farmer turned professional snakecatcher, named Kasem, who live in an isolated house where the orchards opened into rice fields.
   I wanted to ask him how to deal with snakes, and was even toying, I repeat, toying, with the idea of asking him to teach me how to catch snakes.
   The first time I met him, he gave me some memorable advice about pythons. (Pythons are the most valuable snakes to him—tanned python skins from which shoes, belts, wallets or handbags can be made are worth about $15 each.) He had been explaining how he catches them.
   “What if they can wrap themselves around you?” I had asked.
   “You have to squeeze their hearts. Eventually they weaken enough to be manageable.”
   “But supposing they are still too strong for you?”
   “Then there’s only one thing to do.”
   “No,” he grinned. “Bite them. Bite them hard.”
   “You’re not serious!”
   “I am. Bite them, and they’ll release you immediately.”
   “Come on!”
   “It’s true. I’ve had to bite them several times, and they’ve always released me immediately. I hate to do it, though. It ruins their skins, and makes them almost worthless.”
   The klong nearest the house … shared other waterways’ innumerable moods. High tide and sunlight made it sparkle. Blue water mirrored the sky and distant buildings appeared weightless, restrained from levitation by anchored rejections. Low tide revealed the defoliated jungle of stilts supporting klongside architecture. Robbed of reflections, some houses appeared tired and dispirited.
   Indeed, they, no less than people, aged under the tropical sun. They lost vital juices, blistered and scarred, sagged and warped, bent and creaked. Cracks split walls, floors buckled and tin roofs tilted precariously. It seemed unlikely anyone could inhabit them without becoming similarly deformed. It was always surprising to see well-groomed beautiful and handsome individuals emerge from such dwellings. The sight seemed as statistically improbable as finding pearls inside oysters.
   Many houses crowded together for mutual support. If one collapsed, the whole lot would topple like dominoes. Such communal togetherness seemed more like ‘united we fall’ than ‘united we stand’.
   Klongside architecture encompassed a multitude of styles. Most houses were wooden, unpainted and sun-bleached, and blended with their environment in a way that would have delighted Frank Lloyd Wright. Houses of the nouveaux riches were immediately identifiable. Their dwellings were painted lemon yellow, shocking pink, bilious green and boudoir blue. Sere 70-year-old houses, laced with filigree, drooped like trendy, high-healed grandmothers, while newer dwellings ‘supported them’ like younger relatives. Strategically affixed corrugated tin sheets spaced many splendid Thai-style houses with high-gabled, steeply sloping roofs and glassless windows the ignominy of collapse.

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