Freezing in Thailand


In the almost four years I’ve lived here I haven’t before experienced cold like this. In the States this would be no big deal, like early November or late April in most places. But here, where homes are not insulated, where there is no central heating and if there is hot water, it’s just a little unit the size of a radio that heats water for the shower, it’s almost scary for the temperature to drop this low and stay dropped.

I have a sweater, jacket and a hat, and I’m wearing them all as I type this. For about the last twelve hours, it’s been raining off and on, dripping the way it does in the spring or fall. Anywhere else, I’d just get in a car and go somewhere once I got sick of being at home, but here I don’t have a car and there’s no where to go that would be warmer.

Poor people, especially those who live in the mountains are dying! I’m crawling into bed every few hours just go lie under the blankets are warm up.

I’m happy to see that it’s raining in the middle of the dry season. Things should green up again. For a while Northern Thailand started to resemble California, and I much prefer the insane green color of most plants, especially rice.



monkeys trying to stay warm








I first came to Thailand on a month-long teaching assignment. Surprised to find that I had four days off over the New Year, I decided to get out of Bangkok and see something of the countryside. After asking around, I decided on a bus to the border of Cambodia. There’s a casino there, as well as a huge market. Foreigners go there to check out and back into the country, thus prolonging their tourist visas.

At the Cambodian border I found a dumpy guest house near a strip of tourist-related bars and massage parlors, and since I don’t drink, retired before that tedious countdown to the new year that is the bane of anyone with a mental age older than thirteen. I managed to doze off for a few moments, but then with all the noise found myself unable to sleep. I noticed that I could hear multiple bar bands from the strip nearby. As the evening wore on, every band at each club played Hotel California by the Eagles, always with the same note-perfect copy of Joe Walsh’s signature guitar solo. In every rendition the singer was phonetically trying to copy the vocals, but without knowing what the words meant. As I lay there, I must have listened to eight different versions of the song, punctuated at midnight by fireworks being set off in a nearby field.

I suppose the Eagles are quite aware of the strange popularity of this song, and how it has become a staple of bar bands all over the world. Here in Indochina I thought it odd that I was forced to listen to a song that was popular back when I was in my twenties and living in California. At no time did I hear an original Eagles recording, but I did hear a variety of Cambodians singing “you can check out any time you like but you can’t never leave.”

Now that I live with a Thai woman and have made Thailand my home, I see more clearly the depth of the United States’ cultural domination of the globe. Wipa likes to watch action movies, and these are almost always made in the United States. The story is simple enough to understand even by reading subtitles, as explosions, gun battles and car chases don’t require translation. Living on the other side of the world, we watch America every day, on TV.

America has won the culture war, and dominates the world of entertainment, but when I was last home I saw an awful lot of angry, frightened and chronically frustrated people who were curious about my life in Northern Thailand. I spent three weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the average rent for a studio apartment is $3,000 a month. All I had to do was tell people that I rent a little house here for $110 a month. That gave them pause. Often people would exhale as if they had been kicked in the stomach.

I’ve heard that sound before. When I was in college, a few of us went to the cinema to see a new documentary film about the Vietnam War. Hearts and Minds included a scene so shocking that the audience around me made that same exhalation. Here’s Wikipedia’s entry:

A scene described as one of the film’s “most shocking and controversial sequences” shows the funeral of an North Vietnamese soldier and his grieving family, as a sobbing woman is restrained from climbing into the grave after the coffin.The funeral scene is juxtaposed with an interview with General William Westmoreland telling a stunned Davis that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

There is another scene in the movie where a man in North Vietnam shows the camera where his house was before the American bomb hit. He had just lost his wife, son and daughter. He shows the camera where each family member was at the moment of impact, and then finds a scrap of fabric in the rubble. “Look,” he says “this is my youngest daughters shirt. She was feeding the pigs when the bomb hit. Now the pigs are alive but she is dead. Why don’t you take this and show it to Nixon, murderer of civilians? Throw this in his face!”

You can see the film on YouTube

Since I’ve been in Southeast Asia, I’ve journeyed to Vietnam and Laos, the places on which we dropped three times more bombs than were dropped in all of World War II by both sides, and I still don’t know what I can do to meaningfully react to this fact. Nobody wanted to kill me in those places, though I don’t know why.








The Fix Was On

That first crisp day in September we were all watching the same thing on television, but it wasn’t happening then, rather it had been prerecorded. Live action is much more compelling than its videotaped cousin, so they were fooling us when they could.

I remember watching TV when I was a kid when dramatic shows were live, and if the actors forgot their lines, you could hear someone off-camera whisper the line until the actor could pick it up again. Those days before videotape I watched Pinky Lee have his heart attack as he danced wildly for laughing children, and I saw Jack Ruby shoot Oswald.  I saw it happen right in front of me.

As we watched the collapse of World Trade Center Building Seven, the announcer made it seem like it was happening right now, but he was unaware of the embarrassing fact that another network had reported the collapse of this building a half hour earlier. So some of us knew the fix was on. We were being lied to by our newscasters. No doubt they were being lied to and pressured by people who could have them fired or arrested. Dangerous times.

The initial reports of the explosions on the towers failed to mention an airplane, just explosions, and people interviewed on the street below the twin towers neglected to mention a plane, as well. Within a half hour that all changed, and everyone started talking about the plane they saw, but they were talking about what they saw on television. In the years since, most of us have seen those planes hit the buildings a thousand times, but with each intervening year, the special effect seems cheesier.

If you watch the original King Kong movie, or Rodan, the creature’s movement seems laughable. But not so when these films premiered. Maybe someday, hopefully soon, the airplane impact effects that seemed so convincing fifteen years ago will elicit general laughter. “Whom do they think they’re kidding?”

By then George W and Dick Cheney will be comfortably retired in Paraguay.

Witnesses interviewed shortly after the twin tower collapse talked about seeing molten steel pouring out of the buildings for a good half hour before they collapsed, but in the days afterward we never saw those interviews again. Firemen talked about huge amounts of molten gold in the basements of the towers, and how that had to be allowed to cool for days before it could be retrieved. The site was off limits for weeks, people who had lived nearby and were evacuated, not allowed to return for ten days, found that their apartments had been ransacked during the interval, computers taken and never returned.

By the time the internet grew more omnipresent, and YouTube videos became ubiquitous, the American people were already sick of hearing conspiracy theories. It was the JFK assassination all over again. Nobody wanted to hash through another decade or so of alternative explanations for something most of us would rather forget.

Besides, we were at war. A War on Terror. Our enemies hate us for our freedoms so it’s bombs away all over again. Teaching towelheads who’s boss is a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. Mission Accomplished.

The obfuscation of the 9/11 Commission report seems obvious, the lies blatant, yet most continue to accept the official explanation because creating and examining an alternative requires too much effort. The conspiracy videos on YouTube are often amateurish, repetitive, lacking production value. We’re already tired of the narrative and the cast of characters is neither cute nor compelling.


The Road Ungraveled

I like being spontaneous, and acting without forethought. Plans bore me. So after a delightful afternoon drive through the mountains to Somoeng, a town an hour and a half from Mae Rim, I thought, “what the heck, let’s continue onward to Pai. There’s a back road that I hear is mostly passable, and we can probably be halfway there before dark.”

We hadn’t packed, not even a toothbrush, and I didn’t have a map with me, but since everything had gone so well already. Bidding “so long” to our traveling companions who returned to Chiang Mai, we set off on the back road to Pai. We left about an hour and a half before sunset. I imagined a cute little guesthouse on the way, a good meal, hitting the hay early and driving the remaining two or three hours the next morning.

At first the road was excellent. Then it turned to cobbled cement blocks, but then became excellent again. I was already imagining describing the road in the blog I would write. “Mostly nothing to be afraid of. Don’t know why nobody goes this way.” We were up high enough for pine trees. Crimson light lit them and the peaks of the eastern range. How beautiful! But night was falling, and we were in a hurry and in no mood for scenery. Then darkness fell, the stars came out, and it got cold. Very cold. Since I hadn’t known I was leaving on this trip, I hadn’t packed any warm clothes. My pants were the sheerest cotton, my shoes, flip flops.

At about the time the last glow faded behind the ridge of mountains to the west, the road turned to dirt. Not just dirt, but deeply rutted dirt, with gullies big enough to swallow the motor scooter. All I could see illuminated by my headlight were these never-ending furrows that reminded me of those images sent from the Martian probes. There was no traffic to speak of, either behind us or oncoming. Every once in a while we would pass a hovel with some people sitting around a fire in front of it, but then those stopped appearing as well. The stars were so beautiful, the night was so clear, and we were so…cold.

The only extra clothing I had in the box beneath the seat was an orange plastic raincoat. I stopped and put it on. The pants I was wearing were also orange, Thai fisherman pants, made for hot weather, so I must have looked like a fluorescent orange traffic cone as we motored along. We were now making scant progress, maybe an average speed of 8 miles per hour. We saw a sign saying the next city was in forty miles. Surely the good road would come back. Surely a town would come in sight.

Truth is, I was getting scared. The colder I got, the stiffer I got, and my arms and legs were uncovered. At each new gully I had to stop to plan an approach, for I could not afford to slide and fall. So then, of course, I did.

The dust proved as cold as the air. Wipa was unhurt, I scratched my knee, the motor scooter was still running, so I switched it off. It got very quiet. The stars above grew insanely bright, mocking us. Then after a minute or so we saw headlights, as a truck lumbered around the corner in front of us. Fortunately, the driver saw us and stopped.

He was a young man, and pulled the scooter off me, then had to help me stand, as I was too stiff to easily do so on my own. He asked Wipa if I was a monk. I guess in his headlights, my orange outfit looked like monks robes. She said I wasn’t. Then he asked me if I were drunk. No, I replied I’m just old. And tired.

He left, wishing us “good luck,” which is what people here say a lot. After they opened up a new underpass in the road from Mae Rim to Chiang Mai even the highway department used its new electronic sign to wish drivers good luck in the new year. To my Western ears, having a government agency in charge of public safety wish you “good luck” seems odd, but here they put a lot of stock in karma, which is why there is no drivers education to speak of, and Thailand enjoys one of the highest rates of traffic mortality in the world. They put great stock in luck.

I wish I could say that there was a cute little guesthouse just a mile or so down the road, but no, about an hour later we came to a settlement of about twenty houses, and I stopped at the biggest one. I presented my case. If you don’t help me we will die. Turns out he was the town mayor, and he arranged for us to rent a room used for migrant workers a few yards away. It was unheated, and the blankets thin, but we slept that night knowing we weren’t going to die. In the morning I heard a pig grunting under the floor, and baby chicks peeping as they ran about. I laughed as I threw open the shutters.

The next morning everything had a luminous quality. We were still alive! The motor scooter wasn’t even damaged! Just dusty! There was a coffee shop in town. Like George Bailey in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I saw everyone as beautiful, charming, clever. Thanking them too profusely, we drove off in the morning light to continue another three hours to Pai. By the time we arrived I was warm enough so my teeth were no longer chattering.

road less graveled






here is a link to a sound recording of the author reading this piece.