SPELLBOUND

by Shawn on March 8, 2014 · 14 comments

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Fun fact #7: I love carnivals. County fairs, State fairs, Podunk festivals…doesn’t matter. I was introduced to the magical world of the carnival like most people, in my childhood. But unlike the many once wondrous things in childhood that eventually waned into the equally spellbinding land of nostalgia (professional wrestling and Thousand Island dressing, to name a couple) the carnival remains as awesome to me now as it did when I was a kid. Why?

For one, I’m a fan of the art of performance. Not like ballet or somebody standing on the stage squawking like a Magpie, representing some existential chasm. Nope. I’m talking about vaudevillian performers: magicians, jugglers, maybe a good mime or two, hypnotists, daredevils. You get the point. Nothing in the world espouses these kind of performers like a genuine carnival. They’re the glue that connects the saccharine booths and antiquated, thrilling rides. They’re guaranteed to garner a crowd, make you believe in something special in a matter of precious seconds, and entice you to dig into your pockets for the admission price to witness what’s behind those surreptitious curtains. They’re conjurers of the imagination and a helluva lot of fun to see.

Although I find myself stymied in a world of manic stimuli, especially in some of the major cities we’ve visited, the sheer insanity and onslaught of the senses that a proper carnival delivers is not so anxiety-inducing to me as it is a rocket ship to the swirling dynamo of light and sound. I love the cacophony of bells from the games, the over-amplified meshing of barkers trying to convert the passing crowd, the otherwise concerning groans from the rides’ engines and machinery. And the smells! The sweetness of candied everything, the equally alluring odors of fried everything, even the ubiquitous wafting of hay and farm animals…smells that shouldn’t get along so well in the civilized world, but for a short time, they mix into a common carnival smell that is unmistakable.

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One of the creepier merry-go-rounds we’ve seen

With that being said, over the years, especially in the United States, the carnival has been consolidated and modified into a glorified corporate trade fair. It’s no longer appropriate to have “freak” tents, rides are not so thrilling as they are expensive and limiting, the performance artists tend to be just folks in Spongebob Square Pants costumes wobbling around the fairgrounds for photo-ops. No matter the size of the fair, it’s just not as fun like the ones from my childhood.

I caught a glimpse of those “good ‘ole days” unexpectedly when we arrived in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. After our jaunt in Laos, we decided to head back to Thailand to revisit the delicious food and explore the country a bit more before heading off to Cambodia. Kanchanaburi is located in western Thailand and is most recognized and visited for the infamous Death Railway and immortalized in the book and film, Bridge on the River Kwai.

We had another particularly challenging ride through Laos (this time an overnight train in which our purchased sleeper-car tickets were mysteriously switched, ending up with us in the brightly lit, drafty and crowded, seated car for the 12-hour duration) and then a comparatively easy and sensible 2-hour bus ride from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. We were obviously exhausted. Checking out the historical sites were on the docket, but not on our arrival day. We had two things on our agenda upon arriving into this otherwise sleepy town: get dinner and some water. Then back to our hotel and sleep for much earned and needed hours in a dark room, on two (relatively) comfortable twin beds.

As we shuffled down the main street, most places weren’t open yet, which was a bit odd considering it was 5 pm. So, we continued shuffling down the street, looking for some oasis that offered food and cold drinks. On the way we entered a bookstore and spoke with the owner who informed us that we arrived during the midst of the town’s River Kwai Bridge Festival, celebrating the darker chapters in the town’s history. Well, that explained most of the restaurants not being opened so early. So with increasingly exhausted brains and growling stomachs, we continued along the dusty streets, like wearied drifters, looking for that yummy solace that Thai food so consistently offers.

Eventually, we made it to the festival’s ticket booth and eagerly paid the 30 baht (90 cents) admission. Initially, the fair looked like the makings of a typical night market: a scattering of food carts and people selling random souvenirs. Then we noticed the infamous bridge to our left and joined the other tourists on the railroad tracks. After walking halfway across the bridge, the hunger pains reminded us of our true mission, and we headed back to solid ground for some good eats.

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The Bridge on the River Kwai

We walked passed the balloon man holding his bouquet of brightly colored wares and the Thai girl nervously strumming a guitar and earnestly singing off-key. The telltale aroma of fried food, enticing me like a siren’s song, drew us further into the increasingly congested crowd.

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Entering into the labyrinth

Almost immediately, we noticed this was no night market. Plethoras of booths boasted various kinds of food: seafood, fried and fresh; French fries and fried chicken; stir-fried meat and veggies; hamburgers and sausages; vibrantly colored tanks of fruit drinks. My nose prickled with delight from the incoming stream of something sugary. And the row of booths didn’t end like a typical night market ends. Instead, we snaked our way through one row, then turned left to another row and it led us to yet another row of booths offering a variety of food and stuff to buy. Carmel and I gasped with bewilderment.

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Clockwise from top left: an array of fresh seafood, bags of all things crunchy and cheesy, vendors selling roasted nuts, and the mighty tower of fried potato

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A vendor making omelets

We got some dinner quickly (sharing a much fatty but delicious bowl of fried chicken pieces and fries) and agreed that we would walk a, “little more” before heading back for the night. At some point, one of the narrow, crowded rows opened up to an open field and the site was magnificent. In the distance I saw a Ferris wheel twinkling. More lights guided us further into another block of rows. It seemed to sprawl out into the night. My brain reeled, and it wasn’t because of the high quantities of grease and salt I had just ingested. It had all the essentials of a typical old-school carnival too: kiddie bumper cars and petting zoos; roller coasters and tilt-a-whirls; a string of carnival games featuring clacking roulette wheels and water guns; the sinister faces of horror on top the nefarious haunted house, and of course, the Ferris wheel, overlooking the fairgrounds like a neon sentry.

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Enjoying a mighty and delicious piece of fried chicken with a splash of hot sauce

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And then the freak-tent. Once upon a time in America, an essential segment of the carnival was the freak show. P.T. Barnum made a fortune managing and touting performers such as General Tom Thumb. Along with the live performers were the jarred babies with startling deformities, including the ultra-rare conjoined twins. Most of these “babies” were mere plastic dolls floating in beer, but the raw image of these things were reason enough for people to fork over extra change to see for themselves what the fuss was all about.

When people ruminate over American Folk Art, artists such as Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell are noted, which is fair and obvious. But for my money and adoration, the scantly appreciated carnival art is a thing of beauty in the long history of American art. You know, those sprawling canvas banners with looming, colorful pictures of Jo-Jo, the dog-faced boy, or the red faced Lobster Boy with mismatched pinchers. Siamese Twins hovering over a magic carpet. The Bearded Lady grinning seductively in flowing robes. Before billboards these things were the big draw. They were comical but precise, grotesque yet sublime. What you saw up there on that canvas hovering above, was what enticed you to go inside the tent. Of course, reality never matched up to the grandiosity of those paintings, but that was the point. It was friendly misdirection, part of the smoke and mirrors that comprised the carnival itself.

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A picture is worth a thousand words…or at least a hundred baffling thoughts

So when I saw the modest, but distinct banner ahead, I practically ran over to the tent. The paintings were horrible, really. They were written in Thai but I’m sure hyperbole was used liberally. A chubby, misshaped baby lied on its stomach, I think its mouth was smudged like a flap of flesh had grown over it. And then the conjoined twins whose heads weren’t fully connected to their bodies, their eyes painted different sizes, their mouths crooked.

I willingly spent my 25 cents and entered the little tent. As soon as I set foot inside, several teenagers scurried about, a couple of them disappearing behind a flimsy curtain. Another kid extended his arm out dramatically towards the row of jars, a true carny in training. Several of the displays were indistinguishable-they might have been somebody’s leftover meat dropped in a jar of petrol. Then the last two jars had the infamous Siamese twin babies. I took a couple of pictures, assuming greatly from the waxy plastic appearance of these things, that they were also somebody’s art project. The kid then directed my attention behind me. He barked something and tapped on the wooden railing with a stick. A curtain swooshed open, revealing a head in a box. A body-less head that is. The head blinked and said, “’ello” in a soft voice and yawned. I nodded, took a picture and the curtain closed. The kid knocked his stick again and a second curtain opened, revealing…you got it…another body-less head in a box. This head said nothing and stared vacantly at me, no doubt bored out of his mind. I took another picture and thanked the barker. He smiled and motioned me towards the exit. For my money, just the opportunity alone was worth 25 cents. Nostalgia comes cheap for me apparently.

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It isn’t a carnival if there aren’t any conjoined twins in jars 

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A not-so-enthused wonder of modern medical science

As we continued walking through the crowd, we noticed another spacious block of fair spread out. It was like there were two fairs in one! Normally, we would have sighed and called it good, but there was an energy in the air, something that kept us walking, stopping only to watch the rides and games. Although we were exhausted, we felt almost obligated to explore further into this massive festival. For three hours, we wandered around the grounds before we finally decided we had our fill and took a tuk-tuk back to our hotel.

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Later, I lied in bed with a goofy grin on my face. A grin I sported after the first fair I attended, once upon a time. A grin I had after walking through the dark and loud haunted house ride at the county fair. A smile sneaking across my face after finishing an airy mound of cotton candy at the state fair. A grin exclusively reserved for childhood magic and experience. There’s nothing like it.

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To see the rest of our photos from our second trip to Thailand, check out our Facebook album.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen March 9, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Ahh, childhood memories reinacted in the awe of an adult. Descriptions took us there with you.

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Shawn March 12, 2014 at 2:42 am

Thanks for reading, Ma…I’m a sucker for nostalgia sometimes…maybe it’s this Australian heat getting to my head…

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Ana March 9, 2014 at 7:09 pm

Again a well written story by you! Made me feel like I was walking with you & Carmel down the vendors streets. Childhood memories revisited!

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Shawn March 12, 2014 at 2:42 am

Thanks Ana! Looking forward to attending more fairs, hopefully this summer…

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Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) March 11, 2014 at 8:00 am

I fall into the camp of people who find carnivals mildly terrifying, though certain fairs I can do. That said, I did find your enthusiasm here rather infectious and almost found myself getting excited right along with you. It might have been all those fried things on sticks that did it, but even beside that you were pretty convincing.

But why am I not surprised that Carmel did not accompany you into the “freak” tent…

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Shawn March 12, 2014 at 2:41 am

Yes, all things fried and sugary congregated in one glorious spread is an enticing place to be…even though I giddily exited the tent and told her about all the wondrous sights and sounds, Carmel still stated that she was still all too happy standing outside and wait for me. Go figure.

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Franca March 12, 2014 at 6:03 am

I’m not a huge fan of Carnival myself, but I do like the idea of walking trough all the food stores like a proper night market, in fact I miss them so much, there is nothing like that in Europe, not at the same level at least. Your enthusiasm is quite contagious though, thanks for sharing! 🙂

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Shawn March 12, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Thanks for reading and leaving feedback. I find that fairs can be pretty polarizing…which is fair (so to speak….hahaha). In America, the carnival is a dying art form, which is unfortunate. We’re left to rummaging through the dusty fields of nostalgia for scraps.

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Scott March 12, 2014 at 12:26 pm

I am now officially creeped out…

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Shawn March 12, 2014 at 7:01 pm

Please, brother. I’m sure you’re meticulously planning on celebrating the 40th Anniversary of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” complete with taking several days off, making a Leatherface costume and running around Montrose aimlessly with a chainsaw swinging over your head. You can’t fool me.

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Scott March 17, 2014 at 11:07 am

I already have the outfit….silly rabbit…

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Catherine March 12, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Wow, this sounds magical 🙂 I am totally the same with a love of all things carnival related! Had no idea they had events like this in Southeast Asia though. Do you know if they have any others in the region?
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Shawn March 12, 2014 at 6:59 pm

It was a nice unplanned night for us…not sure if they have similar fairs in other regions…I suppose so since the fair we went to was pretty organized and thorough. The one we went to was specifically set up for the River Kwai Bridge Festival, an annual event late November/early December. Definitely recommend visiting Kanchanaburi during that time.

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