Bob's travel journal

Bob's travel journal

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Thailand: Mind Your Head


It was clear that a cultural shift had occurred during the flight from Penang when I first flipped on the hotel TV and learned of Bangkokıs urgent Elephant Crisis.

Too many elephants running around, see.  Somebodyıs got to do something.

Definitely not in Malaysia anymore.

The cultural shift was also evident from the driving habits of the locals.  In Penang, I merely thought that my cab driver to the airport was either a) suicidal or b) a frustrated astronaut curious still trying to relive eccentric G-force experiences.  In Bangkok, however, most drivers (cabbies and civilians alike) apparently moonlight as trained assassins, using their fenders as weapons.

In Singapore, jaywalking is unthinkable.  Pedestrians have wide sidewalks and clear rights of way.

In Kuala Lumpur, jaywalking is a useful urban skill.  Pedestrians regard a BMW in the shins as a minor nuisance, nothing more.

In Bangkok, jaywalking is a sign that somebody didnıt love you enough, and itıs time to end it all.  Pedestrians are hunted as game.

Right this very minute, I half-expect a car to come careening through the window of this Internet café, killing me in mid-sentence.  Although the driver would be really friendly about it to my family.

The Southeast Asia Friendliness Tour continues unabated.  Stop and open a map, and within seconds, somebody stops to help you.  The only trouble: depending on where you are and your luck that minute, they might be completely sincere (as a young woman named Bo was in helping me find about six different things, just like that) or completely trying to con you (as a sweet-talking guy whose name I didnıt get was in grabbing my map, telling a long series of clearly well-worn ­ and usually successful, Iım guessing ­ lies, and then offering to save me from this dire fictional situation for a reasonable price).

Iım guessing the friendliness must be the reason Bangkok is so often spoken of in reverent tones at parties by middle-aged former backpackers, who inevitably then go on to tell you that they saw Phuket before Leonardo DiCaprio made ³The Beach,² and who are usually rhapsodizing about the Angkor Wat right about the time I begin feigning interest in the cheese dip.  Somewhere around here, I am told, Backpacker Valhalla awaits.

Maybe.  I dunno.  The good and bad seem about equal here, both identical in appearance at first, and equally intense.  Bangkok feels a suburbaniteıs worst, most impossible imaginings of urban life: brief glimmers of sophistication, surrounded by the loud, chaotic, dangerous, and dirty.

Speaking of which, this is easily the most polluted place Iıve ever seen.  The river and canals are all smelly and lifeless and a thoroughly appalling brownish green.  The water is so dreadful that a local rap star named Big recently fell in and is currently dying as a result.

The air is almost as bad.  Bangkok doesnıt have anything youıd formally refer to as a ³sky,² exactly, nor does it have a ³sun,² in any meaningful sense.  Thereıs just this pale brown distant roof overhead, which brightens periodically.  Itıs like Los Angeles itself was when many of the surrounding suburbs were on fire a couple of months ago.  Only itıs like that here all the time.

Many locals (and all of the street cops) resorting to wearing surgical masks just to breathe.  I went for the Michael Jackson look myself, and still wound up coughing every night.  Next time, Iım bringing a full SCUBA apparatus.

I should mention that Bangkok has lots of really pretty Buddhist temples.  Lots.  Theyıre huge.  And shiny.  And Buddhist.  So thereıs that to see.

Thereıs poverty here, too, on a level I havenıt seen since South Africa.  Entire sections of town are row after row of corrugated tin roofs sheltering homes built on dirt or pavement.  I know, because I got lost in a chunk like this, just five minutes after leaving my hotel the first time.  (Iıve been traveling most of my adult life.  I donıt get lost easily.  Bangkok is a freakinı challenge.)  The local folks were amused to see a confused foreigner in their mix, but eagerly came out in the street to gawk, blink uncomprehendingly at my map, shout at each other in Thai, and gesture in every direction as to where I should head next ­ all of which, I add, was done with great friendliness.  Iıd probably be terrified in a situation like this back in the States.  Here, I just felt lost, but among mostly-incomprehensible-yet-well-meaning friends.

Speaking of incomprehensible: the culture here (and by ³here² I mean Bangkok; I wouldnıt judge all of America by New York City, either) is a surreal mix of Buddhism, intense Thai nationalism, half-assed pop mysticism, anything-goes third world capitalism, and a burgeoning westernization, all bundled together.

The Buddhism: did I mention the temples?  Lots.  Shiny.   Everywhere, big, shiny, fancy Vatican-order stuff, often looming near tenements.  Weird to American eyes, seeing rich and poor in such close proximity again.  Monks in orange (or perhaps just dirty saffron) robes are a constant sight, usually doing mundane stuff that suddenly becomes oddly amusing, just because a monk is doing it: hailing a cab, buying bootleg DVDs, or just talking on a cell phone.  Letıs face it: monks are cool.

The nationalism: remember how Saddam Husseinıs picture was plastered everywhere in Baghdad?  The king of Thailand is equally ubiquitous, and portrayed in just as wide a variety of garb ­ regal, military, humble man-of-the-people, you name it, on buildings and monuments and even just random street corners.  (Iım not comparing the two guys otherwise, incidentally, not even slightly.  Most Thais seem to genuinely admire the king, or at least they say so to a strange American asking questions.  Just saying you see the face constantly.)  The kingıs face is also on every piece of currency, which is to be handled with accordant respect, on numerous magazine covers, and in the hotel lobby downstairs in three different places.  (In paintings, by the way, his enormous ears are always a little smaller, and his tiny chin is always a little bit bigger.  Always.) You also see the Thai flag almost everywhere; even the taxis and dangerous-motorized-rickshaw- no-seat-belt-death-trap Tuk-Tuks are painted with the colors of the Thai national flag.

Nobody here seems to want to talk about it (hell, nobody here seems to even know), but itıs worth remembering that the whole ³Thailand² name was a political move in the Œ30s to capitalize on anti-Chinese sentiment and exploit ethnic-identity-as-power in a way dreadfully similar to 1930s European movements.  And we all know how well that worked out.

Thailand does, however, have something of a fledgling democracy, so thatıs good.  They also seem to have a teeny problem with cops performing extrajudicial killings in the name of a drug war: thousands of people are freshly dead, although officially most were killed by other drug dealers, see, because the war is working so well.  The resulting human-rights outcry and cover-up, in turn, led to this brilliant newspaper headline: ³Police Discover Nothing At All.²

That sort of Zen-koan news leads me to the mysticism you see everywhere here, and not just in the constant burning of incense (creating poisonous carbon monoxide gas) as an effort to clean the air.  You canıt walk a mile in this city without passing a sign advertising reflexology, horoscopes, feng shui, or similar hoodoo as if they were concrete services like laundry and car repair.

Before you guys get into me about honoring ancient cultures and stuff, thatıs not what weıre talking about.  These arenıt time-honored temples where life-trained experts apply knowledge gathered over centuries.  Iım not tearing Buddhism a new one; Iım complaining about rip-off artists.  You canıt even find ³experts² who fully agree on how to do any of this shit properly, much less how or why or when it does or doesnıt work.  Bullshit is like that.  These are money-removing kiosks planted in high-traffic areas offering twenty minutes of illusion to people able to afford it.  So, my point.  Lots of middle-class Asians are apparently just as gullible and uneducated in science as lots of middle-class Americans.  Should have figured.  Thatıs too bad.

But it does tie in with something else you see constantly: free-range capitalism in all its glory.  Fast food, bootleg CDs, and even human beings themselves are easily available for a price.  Walking near the Silom night market, I actually lost count of exactly how many people offered me ³young lady² when two guys said the same thing at once, and then one or two more possibly right after.  Iım simultaneously amused and appalled to my core.

One night in Bangkok may indeed make a hard man humble.  Watching my fellow tourists, it pretty obviously also makes a humble man hard.

Adam Smith capitalism, of course, is a proud American export ­ the purpose, in fact, of the massive U.S. arming of the Thai military which directly led to all sorts of bad around here, from a generation ago to the present ­ and so I shouldnıt be surprised (but I am) when, near Siam Center (a bit like Times Square), I stumble into a large Country/Western festival, which means long displays of cowboy hats, spurs, and riding chaps, festooned with completely random Americana.

I had no idea Miami, Cincinnati, and Toronto were part of the Old West.  Here, they are.

Ethnology update, for fans of the Aleutian Land Bridge: buddy, you stick western duds on a Thai fellow, youıd swear youıre looking at a full-blood Cherokee.  Also, it turns out that at least several Thai citizens can play the hell out of Willie Nelson songs.

This last I discovered in two places, actually: at the C&W fest, and also when I stumbled a few blocks north of the looming Democracy Monument, hoping to find a loo, and attracted by bright lights. (Years of travel seem to have associated bright lights with the ability to pee, at least in my mind.)

Suddenly, I heard drunken male voices doing a lewd rendition of ³For All The Girls Iıve Loved Before.²  A few steps later, I turn the corner and find a three-man glee club, two of whom were westerners, and one of whom appeared Thai.  Iıd know more about them, except my eyes were distracted by what was behind them, the source of the bright lightsŠ

My God.  ItısŠ itısŠ Backpacker Valhalla.

Tucked away behind grand avenues, hidden beneath the choking brown thing they call ³up² here, Bangkok does, indeed, have one really long street which is lined with shops, hostels, restaurants, party bars, and everything else you can possibly want when youıre still young enough to be angry at your parents.

I stopped to watch, since at age 40, this might as well have been a nature preserve.  And here, if you patiently refrain from sudden movements, you can watch hardbodied Euromen with carefully-odd facial hair vie for the affection of ponytailed co-eds with skin damage tans, overhearing long conversations about whether Bintang or Tiger is the better Asian beer.

This is every bit as exciting as it sounds.  And Iım sure thatıs the Bangkok I keep hearing about.

The Bangkok I experienced, on the other hand, is a place the water-taxi driver threatens to dump you in the river if you donıt fork over ten times the fare you agreed on less than two minutes ago.

This would have been worse, except the Thai currency is so lame that he was only stealing five dollars.  Also, I had to admire the sheer Bladerunner desperado resourcefulness of a local using the sheer nastiness of his own environment as a lever to hoodwink an outlander.  So I gave him more than he asked for, as much out of pity as fear.

So.

By now you surely figure that I hate Bangkok.  Nope.  Sure, itıs nowhere you want to visit, probably, except to change planes.

But it does have these big shiny temples.

One of which is the Golden Mount, a big round Hersheyıs Kiss-shaped thing maybe ten stories high, atop on of the few hills Bangkok has to offer.  Itıs pretty damned amazing to look at, even when youıre wearing a hat for the bright part of the upward gloom (this is the ³sun,² remember), glasses to protect your eyes from the soot, and a paper mask to keep your lungs inside your body.

As you climb the Golden Mount, up up up a staircase up up up winding up up up its perimeter, you can feel the air become cooler and cleaner.  You can take off your shoes near the top, buy some bottled water, and take a breath.  Thatıs a lot, around here.

Climbing the last inner staircase, you can even duck under a sign marked ³Mind Your Head,² wondering if the delightful double-meaning in this place of meditation was intentional, and if not, if random chance ever knows when itıs being clever.

And if youıre lucky, you might get to meet somebody like Yut.

Yut is a Theravada Buddhist monk who lives at a different temple but comes to the Golden Mount sometimes to meditate and maybe talk to people.  Heıs working on his English, since heıs moving to Canada soon to help preach Buddhism to a new bunch of people.

Iım not religious, as you surely know.  But I liked this guy a lot.  Great sense of humor, genuine curiosity about what an American thinks of the world, equaled only by my own interest in how he sees the world and America.  So Yut the monk and I sat and chatted for about an hour and a half, facing this giant golden Hersheyıs Kiss in the sky.

We exchanged addresses at the end, and I hope weıll stay in touch.  It was one of those conversations thatıs so easy the only thing you remember at the end is the other personıs face when they laugh.

Mostly we talked about families and how we grew up.  I told him a bit about my Baptist upbringing, and he told me some about Buddhism.  More, we talked not about any specific teachings but what religion is for -- which is nothing, if not to help us figure out how to get along in this world in peace.  We talked about politics ­ specifically, the capture of Saddam Hussein, which was in the news right that minute.  Yut thought this was a good thing, but that the war was still unjust, and he was surprised to learn that an American (and likely, a lot of Americans, if not a majority at the moment) might agree.

Yutıs ability with English (which vastly exceeds my ability with Thai, of course) often forced him to speak very simply, cutting right to the basic truth of what he was trying to say. My favorite Yut-ism: ³War is not a good way to make peace.²

OK, granted, on a computer screen it probably looks like a bumper sticker youıd see outside a Janeane Garofalo concert.  But trust me: when you hear it from an actual Buddhist monk, dressed in the robe and everything, atop this giant golden holy temple in the middle of Thailand, it sounds pretty damn good.

More than any wisdom, though ­ and Yut (like any honest person) will rush to admit heıs still learning ­ I really liked this guyıs sense of humor.  And I really liked discovering that here, literally halfway around the Earth from my birthplace, I could meet a Buddhist freakinı monk who would instantly feel like a brother to this working-class kid from a small town in Ohio.

So even amid all the crime and grime and noise and unbearably constant urrrgggh that is Bangkok, wonder is still possible.

Now if only somebody can do something about all the extra elephants running all over the placeŠ