Thailand Variations

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.

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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.