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Three Nights in Thailand

Old friend Amy is half-Thai. She recently moved to Thailand to study the language, culture and live with family for a few months. As my Japanese visa was running out, it seemed a great occasion to visit her there, February 2002.

travelling throws an immediate light on your previous surroundings.

I arrived in Thailand at night. From a bus overlooking the city the sidestreets lit up with small lamps on foodcarts people sitting around in the february heat chatting. people sleeping on cardboard. dogs. stray dogs. i had forgotten that about honduras, puerto lempira at night had no lights, at least here we dogs can scope each other out. when i'm low, hungry, overdressed in thick pants and tired from travel, i can come to feel as prey. a man with a open air taxi powered by what sounds like a lawnmotor motor shows me a brochure, a vision of thai ladies and baths or something. it was quite worn from being shown. i declined his offer to drive me there. he followed me in his little cab down the street talking quietly amidst the put-put sounds as I contemplated piles of trash.

i'm waiting for day when the brilliant colors come visible besides out from under harsh lights. i was recommended to come to this part of town banglampu where foreigners stay so the faces i see either cater to tourists or have dreadlocks and personalized facial hair patterns. there's a message board with postings from friends of foriengers who have ended up in jail - please visit this kind scotsman, he's lonely in a thai prison.

Here the english in advertisements and signs is more thorough and natural. it seems that people speak some english as a matter of course, not as a matter of struggle. Japan uses english in advertisements and signs more sparingly, and to reflect a Japanese rewriting. So this country is immediately more welcoming in that way.

Japan is expensive. Part of what you're paying for is the general cleanliness, security and level of service. My room at this foreigners hostel is dirty and cheap, cheap like La Mosquitia cheap. there are hotels on par with Tokyo lodging here; I'm not sure that you could find an equivalent place to where I'm staying in Japan. It's too dirty.

I forgot that about the tropics, the decay is evident. In the north continuous valiant efforts keep most buildings ready to retain heat for chilled bodies. Here, a rained out husk of an old wooden building might be prefereable to sleep in because it gets good ventilation.

To come here is to wonder. Have I become so professional, travelling with the tools of a digital media composer, that I can't feel comfortable where I should feel free? That is to say, I could have made this trip with a book only, and a pen, and been happy with the contents of my pockets. But I need to go with computers and the capacity to check email and cameras and batteries and all the wires sprouted out from beneath my fingernails. I don't wander like these tanned bare shouldered foreigners wandering between guest houses in Bangkok; they have traded their nationality in favour of one tribe that I visit at trance parties and sometimes in San Francisco. I have been in this tribe, and increasingly the tribe of frequent flying laptop toting two mobile phone carrying pale people who have traded their nationality for globalizing. It's quite fun except when you realize that some great beauty might lie off of the grid but you can't see past the glowing lines.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
please visit this kind scotsman, he's lonely in a thai prison.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Would you pay $4 for this room? I did. Not pictured is the fan, wooden table with ashtray and toilet paper.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
I'd forgotten that in the "developing world," fruit is just everywhere. Juicy, succulent, fresh fruit. Ground into shakes, cut by large rough knives and shoved into plastic bags, hanging off of trees. Here it's sold from a cart that keeps it on ice. Papaya, pineapple, melon, mango. Jack fruit?

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
This child was sleeping in the street at night with a tiny puppy. Next to him a scale, and a sign in English - weigh yourself and give me some money please.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
DVDs, CDs, all the world's popular media on sale, bootlegged, region-free. Average price $4-5 a disc. I was looking for Thai Rap, didn't find any here.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
These men were in a motor-recycling factory, a storefront jammed with old motors. Many men were tinkering here after seven PM on a Friday.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
By night, the area near Banglampu turned into a night market. Like most of Bangkok. Lit by small lights and neon, food carts, necklace peddlers, not so much sex for sale. But always ladyboys, wo-men, so many trannies, transexual sex-changes in this country.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
The largest incense man hath wraught.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Some sort of Chinese-in-Thailand party it seemed to be. Near the steaming pork buns and greasy noodles sold from carts, a performance of an intricately costumed and make-up caked young man singing on a stage positively awash in flourescent light.

bangkok snip

Exerpt from email to Judy:

I just got my first real haircut since I last left your studio, from a Thai lady when I was visiting Amy in Bangkok. As I was walking by, she said,
"You want haircut?"
"More handsome."
"Being more handsome would be dangerous."

But Amy and her friend Eve complained that I was wearing an American flag bandana to hold back my hair and they would not be seen with me. So I returned to this lady and told her to do what she wanted. She took off nearly all of my hair, using a straight razor on my neck and some kind of hair scraper razor thing on my back hairs. She did some kind of hair snipping thing all over the hairs on top to make my hairs thin and uneven. I think I'm supposed to use product to make it stand up.

Amy took a picture of us together, I've attached it for you.

It was fun to get a haircut in Bangkok! Nice to be shampooed - she massaged my head a little bit.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Hair Before,

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Hair After.


Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
In an upper-middle-class family home in Bangkok, a tall cabinet boasts a series of family photos. In each of the photos, shot in profile, someone in the family is shown kneeling before someone else. Eight photos showing pride within a clear heirarchy. The people bowed before were either the Thai King or the Thai Princess.

the sunset side of Samet: Chanpon

Amy has arranged for lodgings on the sunset side of Samet, a smaller beach with only three lodges and virtually no neon. The second night we wander to the sunrise side of the island, where the beach is long and everywhere a party is advertised. This side offers book exchanges, international phonecalls and live English soccer match broadcasts. We're strolling past the one place offering satellite phone email checking for quite a bit of baht, when a middle-aged English lady notices Eve's elaborate sewn thai gown from the north country.

This woman has lived from England to San Francisco to Tokyo and now twenty years on this island, married to the Thai man that owns the resort. She spoke of her experience raising bi-cultural bi-lingual kids. When she scolds them, she says, you look at me when I'm talking to you. When he scolds them, he says don't look at me when I'm talking to you. She says, "What are you thinking?" because she wants to know. He says, "What are you thinking?" as a way of chastizing his children. (This is exactly the sort of dilemas of cultural mixing Chanpon proposes to explore).

Built-Up Cast-Off

Thailand is at once built up, with highways, and highways over the highways, and high speed tram, and elaborate monuments, and office buildings and malls, but in the cracks busy green plants grow firm and hearty. Cast-off vehicles from cleaner countries spew dark fumes into wet air. Little bikes and bike-taxis host more than the regulated number of passengers. Lean dogs with sores and dirty fur fight over shade and beg for scraps at the small food carts with bubbling vats of pork and hot water for dipping noodles feed anyone at all hours, night markets in the streets under single glowing lightbulbs. A rainy season of five or six months of daily pounding water makes for instantly delapidated architecture and infrastructure. Western music and movies appear as cheap as any other product, in a pure market stripped of their value decided by anything other then the cost of manufacturing.

And so to come here is at once convenient because the Thai seem to be excellent hosts, making fruits and massages and beaches readily available for people speaking other tongues and carrying large backpacks. And then you get on the bus and it breaks down. Or the seat won't tilt back, or the ride is so bumpy you have to hold on to your teeth. And as you sit wondering where exacly the line is between methodical civilization and jury-rig, a lady comes to offer you some free sugar water and a spongy sweet bun. And if you don't want to eat it and you shove it into the seat pocket in front of you, Amy wants it and she will cast you a dark look if she suspects you might have refused it or given it to your neighbor. In this case, Lucy, a young blonde British girl who paid money for the priviledge of months of teaching English to less-fortunate Thai. Her money got her a home-stay and arranged teaching with pre-literate Thai kids. She's not sure she's making a difference.

To come to Thailand is to join a certain tribe of western travellers, people more resembling Carribean pirates in their fondness for drink and readiness to adventure. While there are tourists prepared to revisit plantation colonialism in the finest hotels, and some dedicated missionaries, most visitors look forward to financing pleasures - being pampered by ready thai hands, drinking and eating more and more richly than at home, and staying in scenes of paradise where it wouldn't be possible to work. Thailand attracts many bargain tourists because it is cheap. So slowly they might raise the prices so that this country might finally stand amongst the more-fully-paved elite?

This seems still a destination and not a living working place for most visiting office employees. Those unenthused to teach English or export silk to finance life in paradise with a brown wife, might find this place is ultimately inefficient. Perhaps its equatorial. While I was here, the country's primary Internet connection was cut. So while there are many cut-rate internet cafes all over town where you can sit under a fan for three cents a minute, your speed will crawl. And this is Bangkok. The only way to get online from the island of Samet is to ring up a dollar a minute or more to sit on a slow satellite phone and so you just really can't check your email unless you are so desparate you are stupid. Because the rust and the mildew and the insects and the smiling people telling you the cable is busted or the connection is slow are in fact telling you to sit on the beach, or sit on the bus, or sit at a gas station while the bus is being fixed. Talk to the people around you. Or watch TV. Or read a magazine. Or drive a motor bike without a license, or ride hanging off the back of a pickup truck.

And I say I can, for a few days.

I want to tell them that old gasoline canisters make for poor bouys when westerners arrive in paradise they'd rather see something traditional or something intentional. But this is the island where everything that is here is expensive imported or incidental. We read a British tabloid, mostly celebrities we've never heard of. Old news magazines are consumed word-for-word. And gas canisters make fine bouys.

illness is information leaving your body

I am leaving paradise with my nose trailing salty watersnot, head clenched. It's a virus attacking a body weakened by the elements, exposure to sun, wind, time floating in ocean water. Or perhaps it is three days offline, away from a newsstand and correspondence, the chance to talk and manipulate plastic boxes hiding wires. Information is leaving my body. Not soon enough before I return.

Return to Japan where no one will stop me on the street to ask "Where are you going?" because perhaps here's a product or service they can sell me along the way. Or perhaps they're curious. No longer embraced because I might have a nickle to spare. Japan where being a foreigner is to have personal space, enough to wander alone as a curiousity yourself. Japan where the only offers for massage are slacious seeming with women from far countries earning for their children back home.

Those familiar Western faces and colors and attitudes are in Japan rare enough to remark upon, while Thailand seems to welcome a ready stream of wanderers, such that you might expect one you know from another land to cross your path.

Perhaps in Thailand you can do whatever you want. Or you are largely free to play within Thailand. Indulge, retreat, enjoy. In Japan, for the visitor, you can play at being Japanese. Practice being a member of their club. And then eventually leave the island.

Much of Thailand feels like Japan 100 years ago or more. Rigidly feudal, with clear heirarchy and class that defines behaviour, work marriage. People wandering the streets with two baskets slung across their shoulders. Crowded markets of small stalls. Rice. But Thailand seems to have made a ready place for the foreigner. Thailand was the only country in this region never colonized by a Western power. When Japan was debating whether to keep its head buried in the sand, refusing all foreign contact, Thailand was playing England off France and selling something to both, using their skill as hosts to maintain their cultural identity between Colonial powers. Cultural identity within commerce and chaos. Not cultural identity carefully preserved in a lacquer box with no bottom.

Maipenrai - "it is nothing". This is the first phrase beyond "hello" and "thank you" most foreigners learn in Thailand. In Japan, the first phrase most foreigners will learn after hello and thank you is Sumimasen" - "Pardon me."

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Beat-up wooden fishing boats with layers of capsule-hotel height sleeping quarters and men on deck in their underwear, laundry hanging up to dry in port reminded me of the Captain Rinel.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Towards the island of Samut on a boat, prow adorned with orchids.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Hall's Landing
with pen Amy photo.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Travelling companions. Justin, Eve, Amy.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
In the white room

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Enjoying the dying of the sun.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Amy's photo, Justin reading Japanese folktales by candlelight. The candle was shielded from the ever-running fan by a water bottle, cut into a candleshade with toenail clippers, since I can't carry a pocketknife travelling these days. I arrived in Thailand with a swimsuit. Not quite so comfortable and modest as loose blue Thai fisherman's pants picked up in a Bangkok market and seldom removed thereafter. And flipflops I bought there. Everything I needed to wear in this steamy climate I could quickly find in Bangkok for under $4.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Amy practiced from her Thai massage class on us. Eve and I were willing subjects. Thai massage involves more direct body manipulation than most Western massage I've experienced. Like holding your body in Yoga postures. Amy worked good and hard, driving her thumbs and elbows into my muscles, just the way I like it. Mmmm.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Delicious fresh seafood rice soup breakfast.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Island moment: a veiled muslim and a naked girl-toddler share the same path.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Amy strikes a pose with a fruit vendor. I coveted his sticky rice in bamboo or banana leaves.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
Jungle beach. National park this is, so all bungalows are pushed up behind the treeline.

Thailand, Two, Twenty-Something, Two Thouand Two
During her 26th birthday party with her favourite green Thai custard cake, Amy shows digital photos from our trip to her family off this laptop.


Amy loves the movies. Her birthday, my last night in Thailand, with Eve and cousin Kan, we headed to see THE HOTEL!! a heavily-promoted Thai ghost-story horror movie.

Before the movie, the theatre in the Japanese-owned mall played pictures of the King superimposed over a scene of Thailand evolving from dry to fecund. Everyone in the theatre stood while swelling music played.

THE HOTEL!! The movie was subtitled into English. Still, despite this international accessibility, I doubt it will see much play abroad. The story is as follows: A respected Thai gentleman was living a great life, with much honor and prosperity. Then the Japanese bombed Thailand. He lost his wife and developed a limp. Sadly bereved, he fell deeply in love with a young local lady. She agreed to marry him but she ran off with her true love on her wedding day with the old man.

He opted to die holding the spirit of vengeance in his heart. Years later, the children of his young love and her true love come back to his hotel, as he has willed it to their family. A series of visitors are killed by family members and hotel staff possessed by this old man's ghost. He appears wearing colonial garb, a white suit with white leggings, and just the most strange makeup. Obviously a young actor made-up to look old. Made-up as though someone unrolled and crushed up a cigar and spread it onto his face with mashed beans. It was both hilariously bad makeup, and somewhat scary because his face looked so unnatural and it was always shown so large.

I will describe the emotional movie climax here, in case you don't get a chance to see this film:

As the circle of survivors shrinks, the inhabitants with help from a hilarious bumbling police chief ask for help from gurus and priests. There are some serious moments of levity with these characters, poking fun at a traditional culture and the superstition that drives this film. Still the vengeance of the ghost is not laughing, he is brutally killing people. Sarapee! And so finally, he traps the young woman, the daughter he might have made, who strongly resembles his love "Sarapee" (which Kan says is an old-fashioned Thai name, that sounds like the word for "traitor"). As he prepares to force Sarapee Junior to marry him to spare the lives of the other folks, she kneels down before him, in tears, profusely thanking him for being a good master when he was alive and treating his servants (her parents) with respect and giving them a good home. She reminds him of his senior respectful standing in the community while he was alive, and tells him this will be enough to forgive the scores of brutal horrific murders we have witnessed. He finally relents and then somehow everyone has to swim out of the basement into the ocean.

And while I laughed and I was genuinely scared - it was effective entertainment, I imagine it will not be exported because

  • It's cheap looking
  • The subtitles are broken ("They have lots of large in Phuket")
  • It's culture-specific (priests, superstitions, thairarchy)

    But I admired the moral summary you might draw from this tale:

    The Japanese bombed us and disrupted our lives. Now people are acting crazy because the ancestors are upset. The young need to honor the ancestors. The ancestors need to chill out. Then the young can pair up and make more family.

    In Thai: THE HOTEL!! web site.
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