The Lay’s potato chips out here might be Spicy Lobster flavor, but it’s still the taste of globalization, and that’s OK with me. This being my first time in Asia (southeast or otherwise), I didn’t know what to expect, and as a general rule, I’m always trying to keep my expectations in check. Various friends and acquaintances had sufficiently built up the image of Southeast Asia as exhilarating, chaotic, and alien. I did not come all this way to be disappointed simply because it wasn’t “oriental” in the romantic sense. That being said, I was not expecting the bird traps.
Precariously suspended by block and tackle, high atop an otherwise derelict-looking lamppost or flagpole was a birdcage. Both Rachel and I stopped and studied it for a hard minute as we were out exploring in the Banglamphu neighborhood just north of the Grand Palace. We found it along one of Bangkok’s many canals, right where it feeds into the Chao Phraya River, and for some reason it seemed conspicuous, even against the dense clutter that typifies the Bangkok side street. We had just begun to verbalize our curiosity when, at that very moment, a trap door snapped shut on the cage. I did a double take. A little bird had been snared by some industrious urban bird trapper.
On closer inspection via camera zoom, the trap turned out to consist of two compartments. The main cage contained one bird, it seemed, but there was a smaller apparatus hung off one side, and this contained another, more animated bird. I began to construct a theory of how it operated. The bird in the big cage was perhaps a lure. The smaller cage to the side seemed like the actual snaring device. A hinged door would be tripped when a passing bird, drawn to the company of its comrade, would unwittingly alight inside the snare. While I zoomed in with the camera to inspect it further, Rachel followed the trap-pole down its three-story length and identified a number of larger cages that appeared to be for staging the birds. Clever.
A week later we were in Laos. I was caught off guard again when I saw dozens of teeny tiny birdies in fist sized woven baskets for sale at an ancient Wat (Buddhist temple). Evidently, it’s common practice to release these birds to honor the Buddha in some way. You’re buying their freedom, essentially. I’m no expert on Buddhism, but if I understand anything, this is a marvelous example of a practice that is internally consistent and completely anathema to its own doctrine. Buddha likes it when you free birds, and there’s only one way to get birds to free.
In Luang Probang, we saw a striking mohawked black and white sparrows-looking bird with a red blaze on its head. It was hung in a rickety cage in front of a dingy gold and silver shop, darting from one side of the cage to the other. It was a beautiful specimen, and clearly not accustomed to captivity. I fantasized about freeing it, snapping the thin bamboo bars with a quick firm squeeze of my kung fu grip. The fantasy continued to its logical conclusion, a bi-lingual shouting match with the owner, me eventually getting tackled and tossed in the type of prison where the inmates alternate between rioting and making viral dance videos. Head hung low, I walked on by.
We’ve since noticed caged birds everywhere in Thailand and Laos. The abundance of butterflies took on a slightly ominous hue, the implication being that the birds would eat more butterflies if they weren’t in jail. It suddenly seemed natural that they would be for sale in the many markets and street bazaars (both day and night varieties). In the eyes of the street merchants I saw cunning and ingenuity. We passed a squirrel in a cage once and this took on a whole new significance. Little buddy, Buddhist offering, or lunch? Either way, it’s got my respect. Bangkok is a city built with money but encrusted with communities who survive by their wits — even live off the land. In the interstitial spaces, the hunter-gatherer persists in the metropolitan wilderness.