When did it become commonplace to request things of “the universe”? To treat the Great Beyond of one’s own body like a great big glossy catalog, peopled with goodies that can be purchased with the power of some good old-fashioned positive thinking. Ask of the universe, and you will receive. Isn’t this what “The Secret” is all about?
Well, I’m a Presbyterian, but I’m not averse to getting a little extra help when I really really need it. This is when I look to my fellow Thais for guidance. They, too, have their own way of asking something of the universe, and it doesn’t involve sitting through a two-hour sermon in a hard wooden pew. It’s called “making merit”, and it involves a trip to a shrine or temple, a few joss sticks, and a whole lot of smoke. One of the more famous of these places to merit-make is the Erawan Shrine, home of the four-faced representation of the Hindu god Brahma, god of creation.
I’ve been twice. The first time, I purchased some incense sticks and candles, prayed a bit, copied the woman next to me, and left. When a Thai friend asked me what I asked for, I told him.
“I prayed for peace of mind,” I said.
That was met with a sigh. “That’s not how it works,” he said.
I was going to do it right this time. This time, I want more than “peace of mind”. I mean, what is that anyway? What was wrong with me? I might as well have been asking for blond hair and a Kennedy boyfriend. No.
So after a lunch at Erawan Tea Room, which I had assiduously avoided for 100 years because I have a phobia of chichi-looking Thai restaurants, James and I amble next door to the shrine and attempt to … get some advice. The first vendor shilling marigold garlands, incense sticks, candles and miniature figurines is only too happy to show us the ropes — personally. Her neighbor, who happens to be her daughter, helps load us up with everything we need. I get the bare minimum (incense, candles, vaguely female-ish figurines) and James gets a deluxe (incense, candles, elephant figurines, and four coconuts for each of Brahma’s sides).
Now, this could be enough, for some people. Some think that all you need to do is make these offerings, say your little prayer, and promise more (a performance by Thai dancers, an army of hard-boiled eggs) once your wish is granted. This must work sometimes. After all, those Thai dancers seem to perform fairly frequently.
But my friend says you must make a sacrifice for it to stick. This resonates with Gluttons for punishment like James and me. So I tell myself I will give up sweets. Forever. If my wish is granted.
We approach the shrine, silently say our pieces, and go our merry ways, our guide and her daughter in tow (women go clockwise, men counter-clockwise). At every face, we light our incense and candles (this proves to be a challenge) and try to find places to stick them (an even bigger challenge). I burn myself twice, topping my avatar figurines in the process. I don’t know if this is a bad thing.
We come out, smelling like a college dorm room. I am tempted to gorge my entire eating hole full of every sweet I can find. Melt-in-the-mouth pastel-colored cupcakes flavored with pandanus leaf; egg yolk-and-sugar tear droplets and thread bundles; palm sugar cupcakes topped with shredded coconut. I’d take them all. But I don’t. I’m waiting for the universe to answer me.
It seems a drastic move to give up sweets, but I don’t feel the pinch yet. What to eat instead? It’s hard to beat kanom jeeb, the Chinese steamed shrimp dumplings that probably number among Bangkok’s very first street foods, wrapped in tiny banana leaf bowls like little candles. My favorite right now is at a stall in Yaowaraj, in front of an outdoor plaza off of Songsawad Road next to the famous fish meatball noodlery Lim Lao Ngo, open after dusk. You know you are at the right place when you see this man:
The size of large lychees, smelling of deep-fried garlic, kanom jeeb are not a sweets substitute, but who needs them anyway? They are enough, for now.
And if my wish is somehow not granted? A whole universe of sweets awaits.