How I discovered the Mogwai's den
good many years ago I was stuck in Bangkok over a weekend, it must have been in March as it was hot and dusty, that is to say hotter than most times of the year in the Thai capital. You may wonder why I used the word ‘stuck’, well at that time I travelled regularly to Bangkok for my business and when you have visited a city many times and tasted the sights and pleasures of the city like anywhere it becomes familiar and less exotic.
It was the last leg of a trip and I had bought all the souvenirs I needed and was bored with shopping centres, temples, bookshops and general site seeing. I had risen late and taken my breakfast in the coffee shop and was wondering what I should do with the day.
I made my way down to the lobby of the Dusit Thani Hotel, turning over in my mind the different possibilities to keep myself occupied for the day, remember this was in the wonderful days before cell phones and Blackberries, but nothing really appealed to me so I wandered out onto Silom Road where the overhead MTS and the Expressway were still dreams in the city planners minds.
It was just after eleven as I turned left and slowly strolled in the direction of Charoen Krung Road. It was hot, very hot. Over to the right side of Silom Road was Patpong where the bars were showing the first signs of life with the gogo girls waking up and getting ready for late breakfast or early lunch after the night’s business.
I continued past new bank and office buildings, the traffic was relatively light, that is to say for Bangkok. Somehow I had the idea to head in the direction of the Oriental Hotel, another of my frequent haunts at that time, when the prices were still reasonable and no doubt when I had more money, a cool beer by the pool watching the boats go by on the river would keep me busy until mid-afternoon.
By the time I reached Charoen Road I was beginning to doubt the good sense of walking to the Oriental in the midday sun. I turned right and after fifteen or twenty minutes I realised I had missed the road to the hotel. The traffic had become heaver and the sun overbearing, it must have been over 35°C and a fine dust was thrown up by the passing vehicles, over time the same dust had accumulated on the sidewalk covering it with an unpleasantly velvety oily film. I stubbornly pushed on, it seemed impossible that I had lost my way. The shops I passed were grimy; there were few people on foot and there was nothing touristy or pleasant about the area.
I should have asked somebody the way, though it was not certain they would understand English, the other alternative was a taxi but there were few in sight. Then I considered asking in a shop, but their forbidding air put me off, behind the dusty windows were electric motors or pumps and fittings, the few people I saw were old men squatting on their haunches, smoking or struggling with electrical wires.
I pushed on knowing that I at some point I would reach the bridge over the Chao Phraya River, except it seemed much further than I had calculated. Turning my head to avoid the swirling slip stream of a passing bus and the flurry of dust and exhaust fumes something caught my eye. I stopped and looked, another grimy window, I vaguely recognised something but what it was did not immediately click. I peered closer. Yes! Of course…dinosaur eggs! Then on second thoughts it seemed most unlikely, who had ever seen dinosaur eggs on a grubby traffic laden Bangkok thoroughfare amongst of pump and electric motor outlets.
I then turned, paused, and hesitantly pushed the old fashioned half glazed door, it was stiff, perhaps it was closed, then a little more effort and it opened. It seemed that few people visited the shop. Inside old Chinese grey haired man pottered amongst his boxes and cabinets, he looked up and smiled at his unexpected visitor. It reminded me of the scene in the film The Gremlins when the father bought a mogwai for his small son.
‘Are those dinosaur eggs?’ I asked hesitatingly.
‘Yes, a fossilised dinosaur nest,’ he said with a soft accented voice and a slight stutter.
I looked around the dimly lit shop; on the shelves were fossils of different kinds. As an amateur palaeontologist I instantly recognised them as real fossils, by amateur I don’t intend expert in any way, but as a boy I lived within walking distance of the Kensington Natural history Museum in London, which was one of my favourite Sunday haunts where I passed a thousand Sunday afternoons, then throughout my life followed every discovery of importance and visiting museums all over the world still astonished at the distant and unlikely past of our planet.
‘Where do they come from?’
‘From the north-east.’
‘Yes the north-east of Thailand, Petchabun Province and Khon Kaen Province.’
‘I didn’t know there were dinosaur fossils in Thailand.’
‘Yes, they were discovered a few years ago.’
‘What kind of dinosaurs?’
‘Tyrannosaurids, sauropods, theropods…’ he replied with a kindly smile.
‘They’re for sale?’
‘Yes, but not all.’
‘You are a specialist?’
‘Yes, I am a professor in palaeontology at Bangkok University.’
This little old man was a scientist whose enthusiasm for his work went beyond the walls of his university and no doubt made a little extra money selling fossils, though there were probably few foreign amateurs who knew of his little shop in that dusty off the beaten track district of Bangkok.
‘Are they expensive?’
‘It depends, some are thousands of dollars, others as less costly.’
‘They are also heavy.’
‘Naturally,’ he said laughing at the question, ‘they are stone,’
Then peering through his small round glasses he said: ‘Look here is something you may like.’
He pointed to a shelf burdened with forms that recalled something vaguely familiar.
‘What are they?’
‘Ah, I see, of course,’ I replied, they were fossilized fecal matter or in plain terms fossilised dinosaur shit.
‘Look,’ he said pointing to one of the coprolites, we can basically determine two types, plant eaters and carnivores.’
‘How much are they?’
‘Anything from fifty dollars up.’
‘This one?’ I said point to a nice looking piece well formed and with its base cut flat so that it could be stood upright.
‘I’ll take it.’
He carefully wrapped up the sixty million year old fossil adding a small piece of paper with a poem to dinosaur droppings. I left pleased with my unexpected acquisition…and directions to the Oriental Hotel.