Some random observations garnered during my nearly three weeks in Thailand . . . .
Westerners tend to have the image that Asia, especially a country like Thailand, is backward, inferior to the US in sophistication, in industry, in awareness. But I certainly saw no sign of any lag. In fact, in the city, there were far more solar panels, far more signs reminding people to conserve, far more toilets with low flush options than I ever see in this country. Bangkok is a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural center, and it’s more like New York than it is different, a polyglot city with multihued textures of all kinds.
I must admit that I was, to begin with, quite wary. Because I had just read 1493, I was constantly aware of what the author calls The Columbian Exchange, the signs of Cristobal Colon’s rearranging of our crops, diseases, homelands. Thailand is a perfect little empirical test case of a country. It is near enough to Manila, the eipcenter of the Colombian trade routes, and it is a reflection of all the travelers who have visited for whatever purpose, but it is also a country that has been a crossroads since before the intersection of east and west.
The Thai people, apparently, were the Nanchaoan, living in the mountains of Tibet where they had settled after a migration out of India, through southern China and the Hunan province, moving gradually into the great river valleys of mainland Southeast Asia and settling among the Khmer, Mon and Burman populations whom they encountered on the way. By the 12th century they had established several small states in Upper Burma (Shans), the Mekong valley (Laos) and the Chao Phraya valley (Thais). Along the way to their becoming Thai, intermarriage, mingling of cultures, sharings of all kinds created a diverse population who established the country of Siam in 1929.In fact, the word Thai itself connotes a congregation of various peoples, so the introduction of western crops, habits, ideas, etc., was embraced enthusiastically, and its effects are evident everywhere.
American corn — maize — is a favorite treat. Corn appears in all kinds of ways in the abundant street markets — it’s an ingredient in their coconut cakes, it’s available roasted on a stick, just like at the NYC street fairs, and it’s sold in bags, de-cobbed and bagged all by itself. Sweet potatoes dominate any number of dishes, and they, too, are sold roasted or sweet at both city and rural markets.
In Bangkok, a cacaphony of languages can confuse any eavesdropper. Dutch, Russian, English of all sorts, German, Spanish intersperse with local words, and everyone, even in backwater corners of the islands, speaks at least enough words of English to buy and sell the abundant array of international products.
The sophistication of the Thai society is evident in some surprising ways. Sitting in the lobby of the Chatrium Hotel, a mainstream, 5-star luxury establishment on the river that is frequented by businesspeople from around the world, I noticed a transvestite putting on makeup. No one stopped to stare or point, and no one among the hotel staff seemed the least bit uncomfortable. Overall, gay life is open and out in Bangkok, as it is in Ko Samui; certainly wherever I went, men and women held hands with and openly embraced co-genderists, and they were, if not flamboyant, then entirely without embarrassment. I learned that to be a lady boy can be a great honor. In many cases, little boys are chosen to be raised as girly-boys so they will grow up to be truly feminine, comfortable in women’s garb.
Teeth cleaning, a medicinal art that was already popular in China as early as the 14th Century, is highly evolved in Thailand . . . and very inexpensive. For less that $20, a reputable dentist will clean your teeth using the airflow method — it feels a bit like sandblasting — and follow that with the traditional ultrasonic and then polishing techniques of the west. It can be jarring to see signs that offer “Laundry” and “Teeth Cleaning” services under one roof, but that’s more a matter of real estate than business partnerships. Further, it is very easy to find a good endodontist who will do inexpensive root canal, and implants, crowns and dentures are priced way below American counterparts, and they are superior.
Medicine in general is fairly inexpensive and accessible. Not surprisingly, Thai plastic surgeons have perfected sex change operations and offer them safely, relatively painlessly and incredibly affordably. Because there is no stigma, the procedures have been part of the mainstream surgery menu for many years.
Though Thailand proclaims to be a parliamentary monarchy, the King, descended from the line only begun in 1929, is omnipresent. At the airport, at the movies, on billboards on the streets, in public bathrooms and shopping malls . . .his image is pasted everywhere. At the movies, before the start of a feature film, everyone stands and watches a very moving, highly propogandized film depicting the happy, fulfilled people of Thailand praising their king, whose image caps the short in a burst of extraordinarily emotional music.
One thing that deeply disappointed me, however, was the absence of true respect for the indigenous animals. Though their pictures are everywhere, no elephants are to be seen except at tourist parks, where the elephants are used as mules to take visitors for looks at the natural landscape.
The animals are misused, and they are incarcerated, and their wild counterparts seem to have vanished into the hills beyond anywhere I would have visited. Monkeys, also depicted on posters and logos as though they are beloved by all the people, are seen mostly on chains — in parks or on trucks that carry them to the coconut trees they are trained to harvest.