Because Sunday was sweltering we were feeling plain sluggish; taking Uber to meet Abigail, Jun (jo͞on) and Baipai (bī-pī) at Emporium seemed like a better idea than using an air conditioned, elevated train conveniently located three hundred yards away from our condo. I’m convinced there’s a sinister Uber syndicate in Bangkok. Most every Uber vehicle we’ve ridden in this trip and past year have been the same make, model and color. Pristine beyond belief, adorned with multiple Buddhist amulets, alongside hand-strung fresh cut, white and marigold flowers dangling from each driver’s rear view mirror.
Even I could drive through Bangkok’s relentless traffic to Emporium from Saphan Khwai. I’d follow the elevated train overhead, hook a left at Victory Monument, five minutes past Siam Paragon reach Sukhumvit, bingo, we’re there. Our driver’s kooky rationale must’ve thought we’d prefer wasting time taking the not so scenic route. Bangkok wasn’t planned on a grid; there’s no apparent rhyme or reason, structures seemingly erupted, as shrapnel cropping up in every which direction. Shanty streets will suddenly become an elegant boulevard. Driving to any other destination lacking guidance by the elevated train isn’t something I’d attempt. An overwhelming sense of monotony consumes me being driven through Bangkok. Traffic crawls, while the ambience remains indifferent; including sporadic jumbotrons that portray pale skin Thai actors and actresses in unrealistic utopian western imagery. After driving past Emporium on the divided roadway, I thought this silly driver using Thailand’s left side driving lane would eventually find an opening to make a U-turn, double back and drop us off. Try communicating with a driver who doesn’t speak the same language as you after he’d gone off course. Sign language usually works, yet if one person should be paying attention to his driving, using hands to communicate becomes that much more frustrating.
An outdoor escalator at the Phrom Phong train station is twenty-five yards, if that, from Emporium’s entrance. Fortunately, we allowed ourselves an hour for what should’ve only eaten up twenty-five minutes. Many posh buildings here employ doormen who wear Captain Stubing garb straight off The Love Boat; two minor differences: these gents wear black patent leather oxfords and white gloves. Before a spotless glass and polished chrome door is opened for those entering, he’ll give reverent salute, while clicking both heels; decorum not even experienced in ritzy Beverly Hills. Gliding upward past Dior, Fendi, and Givenchy on the interior escalator, somehow Captain Stubing, along with Emporium’s frigid temperature made our ridiculous trip a faded memory.
Abigail, Jun and Baipai were waiting on the fourth floor at Starbucks, a short distance from The Davis, their go-to Bangkok hotel. Abigail chose Emporium to meet, where we’d then gather snacks for our picnic in King Rama IX Park, a thirty minute drive away on the outskirts of town.
I met Abigail cutting her hair fifteen or so years ago in San Francisco; she’s since become the sister Jeanette never had. Abigail left the Bay Area thirteen years ago when famiglia di Schiavo were new global bedouins — venturing also into locations unknown. Deep within, Abigail felt another life was pulling her to Asia; started out in China, then Vietnam, eventually making Thailand home. Abigail studied Muay Thai boxing in Bangkok where she fell madly in love with Jun, who I call Champ. Jun became a professional Muay Thai boxer at (an unbelievable though true) eight years old, residing full time in the boxing training facility by age twelve, where Abigail and Baipai now also live. The training facility during non peak hours is about two hours west of Bangkok, in Tha Maka, Kanchanaburi, a rural town surrounded by lush vegetation, near an undisturbed river.
Abigail’s skin is alabaster, a stark contrast to her Elvis jet-black long straight hair. She’s from Great Britain, by way of Ottawa; both accents blend into a soothing voice which delivers measured prudence Abigail absorbs in Thailand’s serene wats. Sitmonchai Muay Thai training facility currently instructs thirty students from around the world. Last April I met a Muay Thai student from Nutley, New Jersey, coincidentally, the same town my elusive father lived. Abigail coordinates the students local travel arrangements and manages Sitmonchai’s daily operations — some students stay a week, others months.
Jun is approaching the twilight of his fighting career; his next bout is a title shot in Birmingham, England, six hard trained months away. Jun’s palms are baby-smooth like an accountant’s; his work over two decades required he wear gloves. Champ’s fight weight is 54 kilos, he stands 167 cm; Jun’s calves are bulging stones, obtained jogging ten kilometers a day on the balls of his feet. I patted Jun on his left shoulder/bicep area, thanking him for driving us; he is an incredible specimen of sculpted muscle. A year ago I asked Abigail about Jun’s origin; his facial features don’t appear quintessentially Thai. She explained Jun was certainly from the north of Thailand, yet chances are his ancestry could probably be traced back to Tibet. Hearing Tibet not only seemed obvious for Jun’s eye-catching bone structure, but his centeredness; a laser focused balance no one I’ve ever been around before commanded.
Baipai is six, he’ll be seven on March 29th. He uses Mom to address Abigail, a role she’s taken great pride in since Baipai was eight months old. Jun is Baipai’s biological father. Naturally, growing up around such mega testosterone, clever Baipai can ricochet in and out of sight as fast as his father’s blistering roundhouse kick — one his opponent’s never see coming.
Baipai’s biological mother relinquished parental responsibility shortly after giving birth, yet refuses signing sole legal guardianship over to Jun. The biological mother’s sustained obstinence created a complicated legal battle to secure Baipai’s guardianship. Obtaining a P3 work visa (allowing foreign athletes to perform, teach or coach) for Jun has thus far been virtually impossible — Thailand does not want to lose him. Abigail has consulted legal counsel here; those lawyers were unsuccessful. Jeanette referred Abigail to a dear patron of ours in San Francisco, an immigration attorney we trust implicitly; the case drags on. Jun’s earning potential as a private trainer abroad warrants one hundred dollars an hour; he can train up to three students simultaneously. Jun’s income outside of Thailand could place this absolutely meant-to-be family in a pleasant upper tax bracket.
Six of us drooped exiting their car into noon’s oven hot heat, sauntered across King Rama IX’s rolling lawns, seeking reprieve from Bangkok’s gauzy veiled sun. LouLou and Baipai played tag along the walk; Abigail and Jun GPSed our steps toward picnic esthetic bliss. We perhaps were the only park goers strolling without parasols. There weren’t hoards of visitors, scarce more appropriately said. Those filtering through paths and fairy tale bridges were dressed in their Sunday best. Women opted for chiffon or lace, men, long sleeve button shirts, belted trousers and sensible walking shoes. If I were passing through Jardin du Luxembourg a hundred and forty years ago, according to the Impressionists, Parisian counterparts carried themselves in similar manner.
A sit-down catered wedding party of two hundred or more ly straight ahead; three jovial men recognized Jun, pleaded for his attention, then wouldn’t let go. Momentarily continuing without Jun, Abigail said, “It happens all the time.” I’d guess meandering through Central Park with Mike Tyson might draw that sort of attention too. About an hour after lunch we all got up to stretch, a mutual sign our picnic concluded. Retracing our paces through King Rama IX Park, we capsulized the afternoon conversation. In the distance between silent leaves, billowing from that wedding party’s dj, we shared their song — a Satchmo classic, “What a Wonderful World.” That well-known tune instantly heartened me, while watching our families continue to meld through thick and thin.