Ayutthaya, Thailand: Ever Black and White

The two Sikh men looked puzzled. They had been looking up at me since I first got on the train in Bangkok.

They would squint their eyes at me, then glance at each other, carrying on a vibrant conversation.

I had no idea what they were saying or what was happening inside their turbaned heads.

I smiled and mimed the wings of an airplane, telling them I was headed to the airport. They nodded and smiled back.

It was 1995, and I was heading home after a week in Thailand on a shoot for a TBS special. My little video camera and I had witnessed the extreme body-piercing and fire-walking rituals during the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket, and met a hill tribe medicine man who did magical tattooing in villages near Mae Hong Son on the northern Thai border with Myanmar.

As I headed home, I opted out of the comfort of a cab – which would take an hour and a half in the notorious Bangkok traffic to get to the airport – and instead took the hoi polloi train from the city’s Hua Lamphong station. A ticket cost only 5 Thai baht, which is about 15 cents.

The train car was packed with people. I was the only Western farang among them (farang is the Thai word for foreigner. But these Sikhs, most likely from India, were also foreigners in the Kingdom of Thailand.). As I rubbed shoulders with the locals in the dank, last car of the diesel train, I gripped the hanging loop strap over my head. In my other hand, I held a volume the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I tried to read as the train squealed and groaned, our bodies swaying as the car rocked and lurched along the tracks.

Then it dawned on me: The men were looking at the book. On the cover of this paperback version of The Two Towers was a striking image of Gandalf the White, with a magical orb of bright light hovering over his outstretched palm.

He looked as likely to be from Srinigar as from Endor.

These guys thought I was reading a holy text.

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