Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Going to Laos

Going to Laos

1 - The Heist.

An important thing to know about precious and semi-precious stones is the value of color and clarity; cut and weight are important, things even amateurs can understand. Knowledge of color takes experience, involves understanding of inclusions, clarity, sparkle and luster (brightness from reflection). The color one sees depends on light sources: sunlight is the best. As sunlight tends to be stronger nearer the equator, gems often appear lighter there than they will further north. A ruby looks best at mid-day, but sapphires in early morning or late afternoon. It’s best to purchase rubies early or late in the day, while sapphires are better bought near midday. Shops use unnatural light to make gemstones sparkle, and one doesn’t want a surprise when the stone is examined under another lighting condition.
The closer a ruby’s color is to bright red, the darker, more blood-colored the better, the more valuable one is. Rubies should be lustrous, sparkling and transparent, not opaque. They have inclusions, bubbles, within them - the fewer, the pricier. The bigger (more carats), the more valuable, but price doesn’t correlate only with size. The larger the stone, the more rare and pricier per carat, true, but the more the form of cut adds sparkle accounts for a lot, too. Natural rubies have imperfections: color impurities and tiny needles known as ‘silk’. Lack of silk shows that the stone has been heated to 3000° C, to improve its color. Rough stones are almost always heated prior to being cut, but not to so hot as that.
Sapphire occurs in a rainbow of colors; red ones are rubies. They’re both the same substance, corundum, with color depending on impurities (red comes from chromium). Trace amounts of iron, titanium, or chromium can give blue, white, yellow, pink, purple, violet, orange or greenish color. Sapphire can also be colorless. The best are of an intense blue color, with no inclusions (flaws) visible to the naked eye. As with rubies, color is rated fair, good or fine. Clarity is rated likewise. Heavily included ones are cheap. Large, deep blue, internally flawless sapphires are rare, and expensive. Uniformity of color is important, as is intensity. The best have medium to dark-medium tone, while the worst are grayish. High quality, well-cut stones should have symmetry, balance and uniformity, observed from any angle.
Glass imitations have tiny bubbles readily visible, and get scratches fairly easily. They usually have simple facets with rounded edges, instead of sharp, crisp cuts. Cheap stones have dark patches at the center, a washed-out look, or flaws. But if you can detect no inclusions with a magnifying glass, you’re not looking at a natural stone.
This is something which a regular supply of new visitors to Bangkok apparently don’t know - anymore than they know the dangers of trusting apparently kind strangers.
With jade it’s similar, there are also tiny bubbles in the fake stuff. A heavy, cool, durable, smooth, soap-like stone, jade is sonorous - two jade bracelets clanged together produce a very clear, pleasant sound, higher pitched than that produced by two pieces of glass or other synthetics. Jade can scratch glass and even metal, and it won’t be scratched by scissors. Held up to a bright light, little intertwined fibrous or granular inclusions should be visible. The most desirable jade has an intense, even color with honey-like transparency, watery luster and a smooth texture. Size, cut and intensity of color, combined with degree of translucency, are all important to the value; being too dark or lacking translucency reduces value. Ideally, color should be completely even to the unaided eye, without spotting or veins. But how could most tourists taken by guides to gem-shops be expected to understand much of this at all?
Milo, purportedly a ‘patron’ duped into being brought to a fancy-looking store, knew them from working part-time at an uncle’s small shop, a kind of second-hand jewelry store with sidelines in time-pieces and pawn. Work there wasn’t something he’d relished, but it had brought in money, and that’s why, during the stop-over in Bangkok he found convenient to his purpose of going to Laos, he let himself be talked into the Bangkok gem scam, the second oldest scam in Thailand - the first being flattery (“I know your heart, you GOOD man”), an essential part of the second one.
There’d been another gem scam, with larger players, except for a key one, a janitor, usually called the Saudi Gem Scam. It was entirely separate, but of sufficient interest to have attracted international attention. Hundreds of thousands of Thailand’s poor lost good paying jobs in Saudi, to protect the vainglory of several hundred of Thailand’s better off. The case had been neither resolved nor closed, although after two decades much scintillating mystery about it continues to attract speculation and hearsay. That rule of law, and national interest, carried less weight than the good of the well-to-do Milo found not only intriguing, but an interesting parable-like story to typify our human condition. He was also interested to see how people were so effectively able to get over, and wanted good local color stories to be able to tell, while relaxing in purportedly “sleepy” Laos.

“Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, giving all your love…” playing in the background, sitting across from a beautiful young Thai woman, the music barely registered with Milo. A fancy set of scales with hanging steel dish and lots of tiny light-blue stones between them, it was more a matter of it sometimes just being hard. He’d forgotten all about the other tourists at other counters, most of them spaced along a set of glass display cases, while an attractive young woman showed him lots of unset sapphires.
White shirt, knee-length black skirt, but not too sexily tight, not like the college girls, the skirt wide and pleated, beneath the blouse a variety of undergarments, almost appropriate in the well cooled room, the allure was hard to define. Air-conditioner set to high, the temperature was both low and overcharged, attention concentrated not on the purported objects under discussion, but more on estimation of the other, on a mood, a soft attitude, and a soft projection of passive feminine vulnerability and openness to dominance… Her voice a low monotone drone, words clearly memorized, bashful eyes mostly looking demurely down as she moved stones around, explaining how long they took to cut, what names for various cuts were, how sometimes they were fired, but that these were not…
Milo, preferring to pretend, and to tell himself, that he was just studying technique, was enraptured, and studying so intensely, he hardly noticed, at first, when two guys with rifles and the kind of masked-bandit eye-area coverings you sometimes see on Thai TV rushed in, seeming inappropriate, out-of-place and incongruous, hard to accept as real.
But the masked men with black automatic weapons, suddenly and quite out of the blue, in their black clothes, indeed were there, and at first it was impossible to respond to their improbable unsuitability, especially with the bonding-style activity subtly being enacted, and the moods involved with that. Milo, involved in studying the assistant clerk, not salesperson, he’d been told, just an informative guide to what was what, someone to describe the specially-priced products temporarily available for extraordinarily cheap wholesale buys. Clearly her instructive capacity must have required, demanded, expert instruction itself, and extensive practice, with ability to completely hide the underlying conniving duplicity - she seemed so innocent, so sincere, to want to be so helpful and, well, even devoted to the customers convenience and welfare…
But the armed men were yelling, in Thai: “Luk kheun!” Something, the white noise of the air-conditioner? Seemed to dampen sound, and at the first yells, there was no response. But then, with another “Luk Kheun!!” Everyone turned simultaneously, to look. “LUUK KHEUN!!!” again, louder. The assistant slowly began to stand, motioning at the same time, with one hand, for Milo to do so likewise. But the spell was only half broken - remaining so engrossed by her presence as to be unable, almost, to do anything but follow her lead, Milo wondered if this was just another part of the scam.
One of the men motioned with his weapon, indicating an imperative that everyone move to a side of the room. All did, the other man already removing things into a large bag, automatic rifle slung over his shoulder. Suddenly, PAT-ta-TAT-ta-Tat-rat, then another PATT, and the spell was broken. The shooter was indicating, empty pockets! Pile everything here – NOW!!! His meaning unmistakable, little choice but to comply appeared. With a glance at the clearly dismayed sweet young rip-off shark, Milo laid out his wallet, passport, fingernail clips, comb and pen. He hadn’t realized how many people were around, about 15 adding to the pile, swiftness expedited through a couple slaps from the rifle barrel. As the man with the bag knelt and began separating desirables from junk, the other yelled, “Su chi!” In haste scooping wildly to get everything he could into the bag in one swoop, the bag-man in the process knocked a hand-phone taken from someone else skittering across the floor.
The two gunmen brandished their weapons a final time, and left. While an almost inaudible sigh of relief was breathed out by the others, Milo grabbed up the hand-phone, and, seeing that, as he suspected, it was a camera too, he switched it on while running to the glass front doors. Without opening them, he saw the men climb into a waiting car and whip off their masks. He snapped a quick photo, camera in the palm of his hand, and dove to the floor, just as another burst of bullets shattered the doors.
Feeling exposed, indeed, almost naked, Milo got up, checked for another photo op, saw none, and panting, looked for a place to sit. Noticing the scales where he’d been before, empty now, naked looking, he returned there. A single small sapphire remained on the table edge. Putting his head down into his arms, Milo surreptitiously brushed it onto his lap, from where he soon got it into his jean’s key pocket.
Someone placed another glass of cold water in front of him. Drinking it, Milo realized he’d no idea how he could leave, sans any cash, credit cards or even ID. Not only would it be a long walk to his hotel, he didn’t know the way. He looked around for the previously helpful-seeming lass; she seemed gone. What now, to do?
Sit and wait, he decided, or, rather, found himself doing. Almost everyone else seemed in a similar daze. Except for a couple of employees: in addition to the one who’d so thoughtfully brought him water, a couple others were cleaning up. Milo stared at the hand-phone he’d picked up, decided to send the pictures he’d taken to his Blackberry, still in his room. Then he set the phone back down on the floor.
Maybe he could get some help if he acted willing to return to the store later, acted like they were on the same side now, somehow bonded by robbery experience. Surely they’d expect his riches to be renewable, and want more from him.
As indeed proved to be the case. Ushered to a car even nicer than the one which had brought him here, purportedly that of the owner (Milo’s doubts irrelevant), he was politely driven to his hotel, given a business card, and left on his own to make a police report, should he choose to do so.

Hardly a great way to start off getting back to basics, back to nature, into something life affirming and constructive towards a good future… he thought, as he ordered room service, had some beers, and resigned himself to a walk to the embassy in the morning. Taking off his clothes for bed, he found something he thought fitting: a chunk of glass with the sapphire. Which made him think of his uncle. Grabbing the Blackberry, he forwarded his robbery photos to Australia, to that uncle.



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