Bangkok - Ayutthaya, Thailand
24.01.2008 - 26.01.2008
One reason I love travelling is because of the unavoidable tendency to compare and contrast. I wasn’t in Hong Kong or Shanghai long enough to indulge in any dramatic observations, and it’s now clear that our short time in all of these ports won’t amount to much more than a wham, bam, thank you, Ma’am.
Still, I think I got more of a flavor for Thailand than I did for China. I definitely want to revisit both these countries, but Thailand is easily more accessible – no contest. And that’s a nice contrast right there – China, is a rigid, Communist, world power with an incredible population and a voracious ambition to be the great world power. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, China destroyed a lot of her own past. Thailand is a laid back, Buddhist, second world country whose citizens genuinely revere their King and Queen, whom they refer to reverently as Papa and Mama. Pictures of the two can be seen every few blocks, usually enclosed in golden arches (not the McDonalds kind) or some other gold framework – billboards, banners, etc. China uses the same amount of real estate to exhort its citizenry to be harmonious, strive for the glory and the good, and generally to rally to greatness. China depends on its manufacturing base; Thailand depends on tourism. In China, all the dogs – even those clearly with owners – looked haunted. Generally speaking, animals aren’t treated too well in there. In Thailand there were a fair amount of cats and dogs on the streets, but they seemed content. I’m not a pet person, but it was an interesting contrast as were the many. These two Asian countries are about as similar as Michigan and California, yet like both states, they each have their charms and faults.
I already mentioned that Bangkok – a city of 10 million – felt like an over-ripe fruit to me. Well, after a couple days in Krabi, I felt the need to flee back to Bangkok and once I got out of the airport, I fled back to the ship. I don’t really know how to explain the cloying feeling that has seemed to creep up on me in both cities. It kind of reminds me of a time when Shez picked up a butterfly with a broken wing. She put it on her shirt and it clung there as we walked down the street, then suddenly, though she hadn’t been afraid of it before, she frantically tried to shake it off her shirt. It was hilarious for me, but she said that out of nowhere she began to feel like she was being choked by this little creature. Thailand is the butterfly.
I think part of it, as SF Mary suggested, is that Westerners can easily become spoiled here. Things are so cheap for us and the Thais are so mild-mannered and eager to please and many Westerners come equipped with a more than healthy sense of entitlement, that it’s ultimately a bad combination. I think when I left Bangkok for Krabi and unwittingly left Krabi for the ship – an odd haven – it was because I felt the need to resist being seduced by Thailand and becoming like the hideous tourists whom abound.
I do think that in my twenties I probably would have totally given in to the whole thing, but it’s just too much. For sure, I would like to come back and visit some of the Northern areas I mentioned in a previous post – Sukothai, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mae – but I don’t think I could ever become one of those people that Eric fantasized about becoming – the farang (Thai for “foreigner”) who never goes back home. Thai people apparently love farang, by the way. I don’t know if that’s literally true, but bumper stickers and posters that state “I ‘heart’ farangs” can readily be found. I think from a business standpoint, it’s a way of indicating that the owner of the paraphernalia speaks English, but I can’t speak to its meaning from a cultural standpoint in any informed way. I can only say that it seems genuine.
One thing that truly puzzles me about the Thais whom I’ve encountered is that they seem completely unable to comprehend the logic of maps. They don’t seem to understand addresses either, which makes the task of asking how to get from point A to point B a real challenge. You can show a Thai a specific address – written in Thai – and you’ll get blank smiles or entirely wrong directions. Part of it is that like the Chinese, Thais never want to lose face by admitting that they can’t help you or that they don’t know an answer. So, if you get in a cab and the driver goes round in circles for half an hour, it could be an effort to add to the meter, but more than likely, it’s just that he or she doesn’t know how to get to where you said you wanted to go. They’re not going to pull over and ask for directions, they won’t consult that map you pull out… they just smile and mutter something in Thai that you can’t understand but the tone is soothing nonetheless. And the thing is you can’t really get angry about it. It’s very uncouth in Thai culture to become excited in any kind of angry, annoyed, or irritated way.
I had an incident yesterday where I walked into an Internet café that was charging 1 baht per minute. The café also served as a travel agency – and let me just interject here that travel agencies, spas, bars, restaurants, convenience stores, and Internet cafes abound, at least in the places where I was. Anyway, I asked the guy about flight options for getting from Krabi to Bangkok the next day. We talked for five minutes. Then I got on a computer. I couldn’t have been on the computer for more than 20 minutes, max. When I went to pay he quoted me 75 baht. I was taken aback. “It’s 1 baht for 1 minute, right?” I asked. He nodded. I said, “There’s no way I was on the computer for 75 minutes.” He smiled. A smile at that point might escalate things in the West, but he was either smiling because he didn’t understand a word I’d said or because he’s subconsciously been trained that a smile will smooth things over, but there was no way I was paying for 75 minutes. It wasn’t the money – less than $3 – just the principle. I couldn’t understand how he could possibly think I’d been there for more than an hour when we’d talked about my flight ticket. I’m farang but black farang - I can't possible look like all the other German and English and White American and Aussie farang! The place was tiny. There were two other customers. How could he not remember me? But he didn’t and he told me as much – his timer showed 75 minutes. I told him it must have been from the previous user but not me. “Remember?” I asked. I talked to you about the ticket. He just smiled and “I don’t know. But okay. Okay. I don’t care.” And then he started giving me money! I believe to save face because I was starting to get angry. In the end, I ended up paying him what I honestly believed I owed him, but it was maddening.
This kind of almost lackadaisicalness is also apparent in the way people drive. First of all, you almost never hear a horn. Again, I think it’s because it would seem uncouth. But that’s not to say that drivers don’t become impatient. It’s just that their sense of urgency just kind of oozes instead of popping into action. For instance, if there’s a slow vehicle ahead – be it motorcycle, tuk-tuk, truck etc. – the rear driver will pass. But he or she will pass even if there’s oncoming traffic. If the oncoming traffic is a motorbike, the biker will wait to the last moment before veering out of the way but with no malice aforethought. In the U.S. you would hear and explicative or two along with the horn. If the oncoming traffic is a larger vehicle, say a car or a pickup truck, then both or all vehicles will travel towards one another as if involved in a slow motion game of chicken. At the last moment, the passing vehicle will complete the pass and continue driving on as if one’s life hadn’t just been in the balance.
Another traffic observation: way more motorcycles, mopeds, etc on the road than in the U.S. I’ve seen this in other parts of the world, but unless my memory is faulty, I don’t think I’ve routinely seen as many as three people on a motorcycle. Sometimes the third person is a child – sometimes even toddlers or infants - sometimes another adult. Inevitably, if anyone of the three is wearing a helmet, it is the driver.
Veering away from traffic, I’ve been very intrigued by the fashion sense. Flip flops are a must to the degree that everyone stared at my close-toed shoes, tourists as well as Thais. Moving up the body – long shorts, skirts, short-sleeve or sleeveless shirts, or dresses. Better dressed men – usually businessmen of the retail, restaurant, or taxi ilk – wear dress pants and button down dress shirts. This is all to be expected in a hot clime. However, when I tried to shop for a women’s dress shirt or a pair of slacks to go with the dress shirt I have, I couldn’t find a thing. “Business casual” is non-existent here, the pity for me because I’m still struggling with poor choice of wardrobe I brought with me. The other thing is that Thais are tiny – not short so much as thin. I’ve seen men taller than me with waistlines half of mine. I’m not talking starvation thin, just slim boned. I think this works to the advantage of many of the “shemales” around.
To be honest, this part of Thailand confuses me. On the one hand, it seems like any public displays of affection are frowned upon; therefore, I don’t think a gay couple drawing attention to itself would necessarily warrant more negative attention than a straight couple behaving similarly. On the other hand, I wouldn’t consider the places I’ve been to be particularly “gay-friendly.” In fact, I distinctly recall seeing a few “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” shirts in some of the stalls. I didn’t see anybody wearing one, but they were selling them, and I wouldn’t think you would sell that particular shirt if it offended you, but who knows. That said, there is an abundance of men very obviously living as women and many, many, many women who you don’t even realize are men until they speak and their voices are too deep. The culture seems very open to that. During the entire trip, I saw only one masculine looking, or butch woman. I also saw a fair amount of older Caucasian men with young Thais of either sex, where it was clear to me that the relationship was more than platonic though this was indicated simply by the fact that they were together – not because they were doing anything outright to call attention to the nature of their relationship.
The sex trade in Thailand is definitely booming. I already mentioned Eric’s misadventure. From what I heard from him and others as well, if you’re a single, foreign guy, i.e. a guy who appears to be alone, you will be hit and hit hard by a barrage of woman interested in giving you whatever they’ve got for some cash. They are quite bold and totally unabashed by it. In some bars, half the clientele are Thai prostitutes looking for a trick. It’s very intense and a little unsettling. I know there’s also a strong trade in child sexual slavery, but fortunately I was spared that vision.
So let me relate some of how I spent time in Thailand. I think I mentioned that Boy Genius (Eric), J., and I spent the first couple nights in Bangkok together. We ate A LOT of street food – all of it yummy and astoundingly cheap. We went to the Grand Palace, which is like Willy Wonka on LSD. [For some great photos, check out http://www.thailandguidebook.com/palace1.html]. Dating back to 1782, it used to house the entire royal family, but I find it hard to comprehend how anybody could live in such a kaleidoscopic environment. We went to Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Built in the 16th century, it’s the oldest and largest temple in the city as well as being the country’s first public university. The monuments and other artifacts delve into science and literature as well as religion. The golden Buddha, 150 feet long, is ridiculously huge with 45 foot tall mother-of-pearl inlaid feet. I did not get to see the sitting or standing Buddhas, but after a few temples, I’d had my fill. We also saw some great live music at a couple venues we entered simply because of the sounds coming out them. Thailand seems to have a wealth of talented musicians, many of whom have a predilection for 60s and 70s rock. But in addition to Neil Young and Otis Redding covers, we heard great renditions of more contemporary artists such as Nirvana and Radiohead.
After two days in Bangkok, J. flew to Chiang Mai and Eric and I took sidetrips to Ayutthaya. From 1350 until the Burmese destroyed it in 1767, Ayutthaya was Thailand's capital. 33 kings reigned from there, and until the Burmese came along the city boasted three palaces and 400 temples. What remains is an archeological bounty, including rows and rows of headless Buddhas - the work of the Burmese. The architecture is an interesting mix of what I learned is Khmer, or ancient Cambodian style as evidenced by rounded obelisks called prangs that are akin to the famous towers of Angkor Wat, and pointy stupas, which are Sukhothai-style, Sukhothai being a Central Thai city. Indeed, we saw lots and lots of temples and lots and lots of Buddhas, including the Reclining Buddha at Wat Phananchoeng, until I O’D on Buddha. Sucker that I am, I did cough up 200 baht to ride an elephant for approximately the length of a small city block. It was very tall and very rickety and I’ve done it, and that’s all there is to say about that! Next we went to Krabi, where strange things happened..........