Green Curry for Christmas (reprinted from Medium.com)

I’m Christmas-ing in Thailand this year, and it’s a relief to be away from what Americans call holiday cheer. At the risk of being accused of crusading against Christmas, I find the holiday, as it has evolved in the US, to be gruesome and overbearing. The real celebration for me is being removed from the ubiquity of obnoxiously perseverating Christmas song in every public space, omnipresent guilt-mongering in the guise of advertising, oppressive overlays of faux cheer, and incessant arguing over how to greet one another.

No one has stopped me in the street to say, “Merry, er, happy, er . . .” Few even know that there’s a holiday going on out there. In Bangkok, except for the occasional paean to the Capitalist Christmas in the form of a display of goods for sale and a few saliently out-of-place reminders, there are few Christmas accouterments at all. It’s like Calvin Trillin’s observation that Christmas in Tibet would be a “place where folks cannot remember/That there is something special in December”(“Christmas in Qatar,” The New Yorker, 19 December,1994).

Absent is the apparent outpouring of hyperbolic Christmas spirit. Even though this is a cosmopolitan city, with strong ties to the West, a large Christian presence, and a decidedly multi-cultural persona, including a huge contingent of expatriated Americans, Germans, Belgians, Russians, et al, one is hard pressed to find reminders that joy has suddenly descended on an otherwise morose world.

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Christmas Eve, Lumpini Park, and not a Santa Claus or Christmas elf in sight (Photo by Stockton)

Some might attribute the absence of Christmas to the fact that Bangkok is 2,000 miles closer to the equator than is New York City, and December is a very hot month. Every time I emerge from an air-conditioned space, I feel like Tom Hanks’ character in Volunteers, descending from his plane into this country. “My God,” he moans. “We must be about a mile from the sun!”

But having lived in the Arizona desert for many years and having spent a few holiday seasons in Florida, I know it’s not the climate that’s to blame. People dwelling in warm climes might pay some lip service to the fact that they can’t get into the Christmas spirit without snow, sultry wintry wind, and delectable fires burning in their family rooms’ fireplaces. But they’ve adapted. No matter what the climate, people who want to decorate for Christmas will find ever more elaborate ways to deck their cacti – or palm trees, boats or sand castles – with boughs of holly and whatever else they can think of to connote the season. In Thailand, however, the landscape is bereft of palm trees disguised as Tannenbaums, of neon MERRY CHRISTMAS signs twinkling out of store windows.

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Amazing. Not a single Monitor Lizard wearing antlers! (Stock photo)

But while there is no outpouring of zealotry for the trappings of Christmas, people here are eager to honor one another’s traditions. Among those people educated in the ways of The Other, there is a genuine attempt to honor the fact that some do celebrate a very important holiday on December 25.

In the lobby of my hotel the proprietors have chosen an mp3 loop to play endless celebrity covers of every Christmas song imaginable, and on the screen, a slide show of snow-covered New England and old England scenes that seem odd, out of context, dislocated. But the intent is sweet. Every staff member greets every western looking guest with a heart-felt “Merry Christmas.” But they don’t worry about offending me for not saying Happy Chanukah; they really are unaware that there is such a thing, and I would not expect it. I am touched that they wish me happy anything.

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Luckily, there are not a lot of Christmas displays in Bangkok, but they are not entirely absent. Photo by Stockton.

I doubt they’ll wish anyone a happy Kwanza, and certainly not because they are anti-Kwanza. There simply are no African-Americans staying here. Yet, I am sure that if there were or if a major Muslim holiday happened concurrently, they would be offering their best wishes with some customary acknowledgment, the equivalent of Merry Christmas. And when the time is right, they probably greet celebrants of Vesak or Diwali with appropriate greetings. There is no reluctance to call the day what it is, no fear of offending.

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The Chinese Pavilion in Lumpini Park, Bangkok, like the other temples and memorials, are devoid of Christmas accoutrements.

On Christmas Eve, in that same lobby, I returned from an outing to find banana muffins laid out on a table in front of a sign scrawled in a childlike cursive that said, “Free. Merry Christmas.” I smiled at the desk clerk and bowed with my hands together to show my gratitude in the Thai way. She grinned back at me, bowing and likewise holding her hands together, saying, “Christmas cake. Very good.”

I asked the clerk if she celebrates Christmas. “Oh, no,” she said. “New Year only.”

I have never been a fan of the flap over what to say in the holiday season. It’s absurd, at least. Christmas is a specific day, and on that day to say Merry Christmas seems totally appropriate, especially in our country, which has designated Christmas a national holiday. To wish Happy Holidays on that day, seems as absurd as wishing someone a Merry Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, when many holidays approach.

We could take a lesson from my hosts here in Bangkok. If we embrace each day and call it what it is, if we honor our collectivity by understanding that Happy Holidays is all-inclusive, we show our respect for one another, for the individual attributes that make each of us a person. We acknowledge our differences while accentuating our common humanness.

What can be bad about that?

Floating in Paradise

Tom Hanks, arriving in Thailand in as a rather unwilling Peace Corps recruit in the film Volunteers (1985),  looks out into the seering sun, surveys the landscape to which he has just arrived, and says rather desperately, “Jesus *H* Christ, we must be a mile from the sun!”

I was lucky.  When I arrived in Ko (Ko is Thai for island) Samui it was already October, and while it was far warmer than I prefer my autumnal temperatures to be, the cool breezes wafting off the Gulf of Thailand, the autumn rains blowing in from higher ground kept things downright comfortable throughout my sojourn there.  I had been told I was headed to Heaven, and nothing  about my 8-day stay disabused me of that notion.

 When I entered Bangkok, having arrived from New York by way of Detroit and Tokyo, the customs official who stamped my passport grinned largely when he read my local address.  “Oh, you go to Samui!  You very lucky.”  He looked me straight in the eyes to make sure I had got his drift.  “Heaven.  Samui Heaven!”

Thais are proud of this island with its langorous beaches and island calm.  The concierge in my Bangkok hotel told me it was his dream to go to Ko Samui.  He said he has to work too much and can’t get away, but if he could ever get a vacation, he would head straight for Samui.

Who wouldn’t!  In October, Samui is a veritable perfection.  When the rains come, they cool the jungle, refresh the air, descend deliciously.  After they leave, the air is clear, crisp, clean.  Everywhere you go are sandy beaches, and when the fishermen are not dumping their garbage, the beaches are downright pristine.  The water remains warm enough that you never need to acclimate; just jump right in!  And yet they have just enough chill to envigorate.

Lots of expats live on the island, and that makes it very comfortable to be a “foreigner” in Samui, but it also poses a challenge.  If the quiet, serenity of Lamai or Netong, for example, or the solitude of Boku seem commonplace, then the crowding and the noise of Chaweng can be jolting.  Night life in Chaweng — especially along the routes of the Sexpats, foreigners here for a deeper plunge into Thai hospitality.   Dance club owners, fight promoters, even bar girls’ agents roam the streets in vans equipped with loudspeakers and recorded music to accompany a speaker extolling the virtues of the establishments, inviting all who are hungry to come imbibe.

Expats, naturally, bring development to any Paradise, and on Samui, construction is everywhere.  Crews are brought in from cities around Thailand and other countries to work on the sites; they are bused from their communal housing to the workplace in the morning and bused back in the evening, and the signs of their work can be seen in the most unexpected of places.  Unfortunately, where a sense of conservation and preservation is thematic on the island, its rank oposite is equally so.  Impromptu garbage dumps abound in the jungle, along the beaches.

Funny thing about expats is that they pretend to know more about the place than the natives.  Maybe, in some cases, they do.  But, like NY sightseeing guides, they make things up, pass fiction off as truth.  I overheard one guy, who’s lived there, he said, for fifteen years, say that the garbage washes in from Hong Kong and China, that the pollution comes from as far away as Seoul.  “Not our garbage you’ll see out there in the water.  It’s all stuff from far away.”

In any case, as I said before, I was lucky. I saw no garbage in the water. But I was told that there are times when the beaches are piled high with discarded nets and food containers, thrown off the fishing boats; algae find their way to some of the coves, and jelly fish, wrenched from elsewhere by storms, will taint the joy of swimming.  But I was never subjected to any of that.  All I saw were lovely white beaches and clear, inviting water. Because you’re on the Gulf of Thailand, you don’t even have the interference of waves.  I told you, just enough gentle undulation and the weight of salt to remind you you’re in an ocean.  Paradise.

Massage enthusiasts must love these beaches.  Everywhere you go, there are impromptu massage tables set up to enable a client to can lie down, listen to the sound of the gentle surf, bask in the sun, and indulge him/herself in relaxation.  And on top of that, it’s Thai Massage — very hot these days!

All along the shorelines, food mongers gather, offering every kind of seafood and fresh fruit and vegetable one’s imagination can conjure.  Like coconut water?  You needn’t walk fifty steps between sellers offering to open a freshly fallen coconut and make available to you its succulent and refreshing juice.

There are lots of coconuts on the island, and the natives are very good at gathering them.  They’ve got cheap help too — local monkeys are trained to climb the trees, twist the giant nuts from their limbs and throw them to the ground for harvest.  Of course, this can create something of a hazard to beware of — a coconut thrown from a height of 60 feet (frankly, even a coconut pulled by its own gravity from a height of 60 feet) can do real damage to your head and other bodily parts.  Even Paradise has its dangers.

More exist than meet the eye, actually. Like serpents and such also live here.  As I was about to go for a walk down the jungle path that led from my home base to the beach, I was warned, “Just in case. . . if you see a snake, let it pass.  People get hurt because they don’t see the snakes and step on them or something try to catch them.  Just let them pass.”  What kind of snakes, I wonder aloud.  “Cobras — especially King Cobras — and vipers mostly.

At the CDC office where I got my travel shots, I was warned to avoid bats and mosquitoes.  “Sleep in clothing,” the doctor told me.  “Bats will bite you while you sleep, and you won’t even know it. And wear Deet so the mosquitoes leave you alone.”  I saw a couple bats flying by in the evening when were were out, but I remained unmolested.  Though there are mosquitos on Samui, malaria is rare, but dengue fever, another mosquito-bourne disease, is less rare.  Still, it’s not considered threatening enough to cause alarm, and few among those living here would even consider using Deet.  We did carry a naturopathic bug spray around with us, and that seemed to suffice; one night, when we went for dinner at a beautiful beachfront restaurant, the waiter brought us bug spray with our menues; we did apply the substance, and we were left alone.  Didn’t I tell you this is paradise?

Some beautiful places are plagued by rats, but I saw none on Samui.  What Samui does have is a large population of feral dogs. They congregate like rats, menace local runners, threatening small pets;  they also lounge around in the middle of the road, creating a serious hazard for drivers, especially for those on the ubiquitous motor bikes.

And, speaking of perils, the motorbike riders are their own kind of menace.  There are so many of them that they have developed a kind of entitlement, a stance, at least,  that suggests that they believe they own the road.  Driving a car or walking can be risky because there is little awareness on the part of the swarming bikes’ drivers that there is anyone else on the road, and a little scooter can do great damage to a small car or little person attempting to navigate around it.

But these are minor impediments to an environment that is otherwise without flaw.