Selective Focus


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I’m an enthusiastic amateur photographer, and have been for fifty years. If there’s one thing I’ve figured out, it’s that you can skip most of the stuff you see, take a carefully selected shot or two, and make the whole place look a lot more interesting that it would be if you were slogging through there in real time, looking at everything.

Because I grew up in the American Midwest, I enjoy the relative novelty of tropical landscapes. In fact, in the time I have left on this planet, I don’t think I’ll ever quite get used to the flora here. There is no dead season here where everything dies back waiting for spring, though if ever there was such a time here, it’s now. We’re two-thirds of the way through dry season, and the air is smoky from burning going on in the hills. I eagerly await a return to lushness, but realize I will have to wait at least a couple of months until the rains return and the vegetation race begins again.

The only advantage I can see to this time of year is you don’t have to bring a raincoat, and you can see through the places that will be a green wall once the rains begin.

Here are three photos from my scooter ride yesterday, when I stopped by a real estate development/golf course not far from our home that I had yet to explore.  Even though there are funky places nearby this development, I chose to take pictures of the vistas that conform to my idea of beauty. That’s what photographers have been doing ever since cameras were invented.

 

You’re a Better Man Than I Am, Ho Chi Minh


I’m in Udon Thani, Thailand, the first city in Isaan you get to heading east from Chiang Mai. It would have been a twelve hour drive, but we flew for exactly an hour. Udon is oddly prosperous, and belies the general attitude toward Isaan one find in the rest of Thailand, which portrays Isaan as Dogpatch, the place where nothing happens more exciting than rice farming, and all the young women take the bus to the resort cities of Pattaya and Phuket in order to snag aging foreign husbands.

From the few hours I’ve spent on the streets and the gleaming new mall, there does indeed seem to be a surfeit of old Caucasian men being led around by much younger Thai women. The girls sitting in front of massage shops are not the least bit shy about grabbing a tottering geezer has he hobbles down the uneven sidewalk and steering him towards a massage with a happy ending. But Udon is also where a man who was already hooked in Pattaya goes with her back home to be near her family. Maybe that partly explains much of the apparent prosperity of this city, which only twenty years ago was quite a backwards place. As we flew in I saw many subdivisions with American-style newer homes, perfect for a retired foreign husband and his young Thai wife.

But there must be more to this place than simply that, because there are huge, modern condos springing up. I smell industry and private enterprise, those two paths to real prosperity that Vietnam seems so comfortable with and which Thailand has just started to embrace.

We rented a motor scooter and took off looking for something that would be different than the downtown, with its many massage parlors and bars. After driving into the setting sun for about twenty minutes we saw a sign “Ho Chi Minh historical site, 6 kilometers.” Ho Chi Minh? As in Uncle Ho? As in “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win!” which we chanted as we Vietnam war protesters circled the White House in 1969 to yell the name of a dead serviceman at Nixon, who had wisely decided to not be at home.

Sure enough, they had built some old-timey buildings on a piece of land in the middle of nowhere, and even though we arrived after the place was officially closed, we were able to enter through the closed but not yet locked gate and look around. Apparently Ho had found the time to spend a year or two in northeastern Thailand with a young Thai wife, in between his travels to more spectacular locations, like New York, Boston, Moscow, London, Paris and China. Born in 1890 to a family of school teachers, he traveled the world first as a cook’s assistant on ships, and then as a rising star in the Communist party. He spoke six languages fluently, and some Thai.

By the time the United States got our boots on the ground stuck in the quagmire, Ho had already defeated the French and was ready to retire, but he had to stay on a bit longer, although in a more symbolic role than training troops for battle. Heck, he was my age in 1955, and still terribly active, whereas I am most definitely out to pasture. You’re a better man that I am, Ho Chi Minh.

A couple of years ago when we toured Vietnam, we stopped at a marble factory in Danang, and I got dangerously close to buying a life-sized marble statue of Uncle Ho. They promised to ship it to Thailand for no extra charge. I thought “where else could I buy such a thing? And what a conversation piece!”

My little journeys have impressed upon me that Indochina really is a place of its own, sort of like the American Midwest is neither the East nor West Coast, and even though the countries of Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia don’t share a common language, nor do the citizens of those countries resemble or trust each other much, Indochina is not China and it’s not India. To strain my metaphor a bit farther, the distance from Udon Thani to Hanoi is about the same as from Chicago to Memphis. Even a hundred years ago a determined traveler could make the journey in two or three weeks.  And Ho did just that.

 

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a recording of the author reading this essay can be found by clicking the link below

 

 

 

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GIVING UP AS A PATH TO FREEDOM


In my country, people ask you “what do you do” in order to know who you are. They especially ask this of men, as certain women still feel comfortable describing how their husbands make a living in order to answer that question.

But when you’ve finally given or thrown away most of your belongings, sold the rest and moved across the world with a couple of suitcases in hand, chances are there is no answer to that question. At least there is no answer that would impress anyone in a casual conversation. Thoreau wrote about this in Walden. His neighbors were sharply critical of him for not striving to get anywhere, to fight for any cause, to help the unfortunate or weak. He was just taking care of himself! A sin, to their way of looking at things.

The Return of Flying Season


This was just in the news here. Usually now is the slow season for this kind of thing.

http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/general/1282790/family-awoken-by-body-crashing-through-roof

 

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Flying Season starts at Christmas and ends about the beginning of May. About three foreign men per week, sometimes more, choose to end it all. There are probably other less dramatic, less easily visualized ways to commit suicide, but the one that captures imaginations is this. Like the Golden Gate Bridge, the balcony proves a lure for those so inclined.

Yes this is the time when foreign men inexplicably begin to leap to their deaths from the balconies of their high-rise apartments, usually in Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket. The above news story is not uncommon here in Thailand, where many lonely foreign men eke out their final days. Apart from the vicissitudes of senescence itself, the gnawing realization that the girls who have been so attentive have been more interested in your wallet than your personality finally gets to quite a few of these guys. The Thai police always rule these balcony jumps as suicides, even if the man is found with his hands tied behind his back or his head in a plastic bag found thirty feet from the body. These bar girls have brothers and boyfriends and to them, this is no game.

Loneliness kills, no doubt about it. Most of them are probably suicides, because this is the jumping off place, the place you wind up when you can no longer imagine life anywhere else.

 

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Let Somebody Else Worry About It


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I find myself habitually wondering if I should come up with a way to make money. I’m sixty-five years old, comfortably retired on social security and living in a place where even that income is more than enough. Being a foreigner, I can’t own land, but yet I am bothered by the idea that I should hurry up and buy some land and build a house, before prices rise.

This is surely nothing more than habitual thinking left over from when I lived in America, when I always felt poor, and worried that what little I had would soon be taken from me.

To counter these nagging thoughts, I merely tell myself “not today.” If becoming a land baron would really make me happier, then some opportunity will surely come along to make that possible. If not, then it simply was not meant to be, which is just fine with me, as I enjoy the relative simplicity of renting our little house and having as few responsibilities as possible.

If by some fluke of fate I do end up with more money than I need, then I will either have to give it away or start some charitable project, which I would then be forced to administer. No, let Bill Gates and Warren Buffett worry about those things. Today I’m quite proud of myself for having figured out how to reset the settings on my complicated camera to what they were before I toyed with them and messed them up. It is an amazing instrument and the pictures I took with it are unimaginably sharp. In fact here are a few. They are of trees along a stretch or road that takes off from near my house and climbs a nearby mountain.

I have heard that a rich man from Bangkok owns all this land, and I wish him well in all his endeavors. I hope he doesn’t sell the land to someone who will cut the trees down in order to make some sort of ugly resort, but if he does, I’m willing to focus my camera on other trees, for there are plenty around here to be photographed.

Give Us A Song, Mother


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When you’re young, you don’t expect to know more than most people, and most people have that same expectation.  But then you graduate from high school, then University, and you suppose that your opinions matter. In fact, if you don’t suppose that then you’re really a washout, a nobody. In order to have and maintain status, you have to play the role of expert in at least some area.

Fast forward forty years.  Now you’re retired and nobody expects you to do much more than take care of your own personal hygiene and not cause problems for other people who are still stuck trying to make a living. Suddenly it’s OK not to know what’s up, what’s hip or hot, where things are headed, who’s responsible for what. It’s OK just to sit on the sidelines and wave as the parade goes by.

Sure, some old guys still like to argue about sports and politics with anyone who will listen or argue back, but deep down they know that their opinions no longer carry weight. Nobody cares, nobody’s listening, in fact, nobody’s even sure they’re in the right. They’re just flapping their jaws to hear them flap.

I lived in Iowa for a long time, and when driving through small towns one would come across the cafe where all the retired people in town were having coffee. In many small towns, retirees make up the vast majority of the population.  The men and women sit at separate tables, because their spouses certainly don’t care to hear their opinions on anything. When I would enter the room, all heads would turn to check me out, the stranger, just passing through. I was well aware that I would be the topic of speculation for a few minutes after I left, but that would quickly fade and broader topics would again take center stage, what’s wrong with young people today, which politician is the bigger crook, is allowing homosexuals to marry really causing this drought?

Some cultures award more status to the elderly than do others. Our culture puts of a premium of superficial attractiveness, and few of the elderly score highly in that arena. Where is the ten year-old who will ask Grandpa to tell that story again about an incident from his youth? Chances are Grandpa has never shared a story with this grandchildren, for the kids are all staring at a high-definition video display of a game, or mesmerized by their smartphones.

I have a friend about my age who lives here in Chiang Mai but who grew up on a farm in the west of Ireland.  The family lived in a sod house, whitewashed on the outside, dirt floor on the inside. No electricity or running water. After dinner, the family would gather in front of the first and one of the children would ask “Give us a song mother.” People still live that way in the poorest parts of the world, but it’s hard to find much of that in the somewhat developed countries, like Thailand, where virtually everyone has a cellphone that demands their attention every waking hour.

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Saving Face by Not Losing It


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Recently the New York Times could not be printed in Bangkok, for the printer was afraid to leave himself open to prosecution under the country’s Lese Majeste statues, which are frequently invoked to protect the reputation of the Crown. This particular edition of the Times contained an article that mentioned the King was in ill-health, and there were concerns about which of his children might assume the throne. So rather than risk it, he declined to print the paper.

I hadn’t had much contact with Asia before moving to Thailand, though I had certainly tried to read the instruction manuals that came with appliances made in China, and was always amazed by the fact that they had not bothered to consult a native English speaker before printing them. Why not just run it by someone who speaks English and ask “Does this make sense?  Is the meaning clear?”

Here in Thailand, they are very worried about foreigners taking jobs away from Thais, and so the Ministry of Labour issues guidelines concerning the rules. A document issued by that Ministry reads:

Career aliens do not. Not alien to the professional set of career. Professional and not an alien to do. Set in professional video and tea alien life that do not.”

Now this is an edict from a government Ministry, housed in a huge building, with a staff of hundreds, maybe thousands of clerical workers.  Out of all those, why couldn’t they find someone who spoke English, or knew someone who did?

The answer lies in the cult of saving face. Thailand is all about hierarchies. Being quick-witted or original isn’t thought of as a virtue, but knowing your place is. The big boss cannot look bad, and heaven help help the person who puts him in a position to do so.  So if Mr. Important said that his daughter studied English at the University, and when he showed her the document she said it looked fine, it’s fine.

A few years ago, a person in the Thai Defense Ministry  approved the purchase of a million dollars worth of hand-held bomb detectors, to help the Army screen people at the strife-ridden southern border with Malaysia. They were manufactured and sold by a British company. Trouble was, they didn’t work. There was nothing inside the handle but a battery that made an LED light glow intermittently. This British company made a killing selling these to hot spots around the globe, but then the truth came out and people started complaining.

The British government became aware of the problem and legal action ensued.  The British courts started refunding money when possible. But the Thais never asked for their money back. In order to make a claim, they would have had to admit that a high-ranking person had made a mistake.  So they just let it go. The bomb-detectors work fine. No need for a refund.

By the way, people with good government jobs here are never fired. They are “transferred to an inactive post.” That way they still keep their salary and benefits, including a chauffeur, membership in private golf courses and a personal attendant/dresser while there. The big loss of face comes from loss of power and status, for they are now no longer able to accept bribes, which was where the real income came from.

From what I’ve seen and heard, Thailand is a typical Asian country. Young Chinese people love coming to Thailand, for it’s so wide open here, so nutty and exotic. There’s a popular Chinese comedy film, Lost in Thailand, which is sort of like our Hangover series of movies, and Chiang Mai is prominently featured in that film. Every day you can see Chinese tourists taking selfies in front of the locations used.

I once met a Chinese woman in her twenties who was on vacation in Chiang Mai and I asked if she and her friends (they travel in big groups) had gone out to listen to music at a nightclub or gone dancing. “Oh no,” she responded, “I haven’t taken a class in that yet at University.”

I don’t think the next revolutionary change based on risk-taking or entrepreneurship will come from Asia. Nobody here will invent the next home computer in their garage.

BAN GROOT (ALSO TRANSLITERATED AS “BAN KRUD”)


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This is our second time here, five months later, during low season. There’s no one around! Miles of pristine beach, inexpensive bungalows only yards from the water, cute little railroad station right in town…and I think there may be ten other tourists here. It’s not even hot. We have air con, but it’s off half the time. Rain sprinkles every few hours for a few minutes. It’s low season all over the country, but this place is just as nice as it was five months ago, when we first came here to escape the smoke and haze in the North.

We rented a motor scooter for one day and bicycles for the other two. Got to get out of town but there’s just more of the same out there, a few dramatic hills covered with trees, probably limestone jutting up forming the border with Burma, just like it does 500 miles north to Laos. There’s really no where to go that’s not already here. Those oddly shaped hills, combined with the palm and banana trees, combine to send a strong “we’re not in Iowa anymore” to this photographer.

The people are extraordinarily friendly and seem truly happy. Even the young people don’t seem as addicted to their cell phones as they do in Bangkok. At least at our hotel, wi-fi seems OK, and the few coffee shops all have it, but I guess it’s just a wire running down along the railroad tracks.

The train comes four times a day, and two are air-conditioned second-class cars with reclining seats. Fare from Bangkok was about $14 per person. The un-airconditioned trains charge much less, about $2.50. The trip takes about five and a half hours.

As with most of Thailand, it seems that the main business here is agriculture. Here it’s not so much rice as it is coconuts and vegetables. Fishing boats at night line the horizon at sea, glowing green. I think they’re mostly catching squid.

I most parts of the world, people pay a premium to stay on the seashore, but here the room is about $21 and meals are about $2 each. I guess everybody goes to Phuket or Krabi where the scenery is more dramatic and there’s wave action. The water here in the Andaman sea is like the gulf of Mexico. No surfing or diving here. It’s quite shallow until you walk out about a hundred yards.

Maybe the reason nobody’s here is because most people equate a seaside vacation with nightlife. There certainly isn’t any of that here. You can go to the 7-11 after dark and see all the motorcycles parked in front. There’s a mini Tesco Lotus convenience store opposite, just to keep “seven” as they call it here, from having a monopoly.

A meandering scooter ride in north Thailand


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Took another three day trip, a ramble on the motor scooter, heading God Knows Where, but knowing that it’s all going to be good, because this is Northern Thailand. On our trust steed, the one year-old Honda PCX150, we headed due north.

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Got as far as Fang, which is up near where the mountain range that forms the Burma border comes in from both the west and the north. Went to a shining gold temple up in the hills and tried to relax by meditating. Couldn’t calm down very well after five hours of driving, but found myself amazed by this ultra-modern temple, one that looked more like a spaceship in a fifties Sci-Fi movie than a standard Thai, Buddhist temple. I kept expecting Michael Rennie from the 1951 movie The Day The World Stood Still appear. There were these big crystal balls about 500 centimeters in diameter surrounding this very large glass bell. In a Christian church you would call it the altar, but I don’t know what you would call it here.

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We went into the hills as sun was setting, and noticed that the people who live there are shorter and darker than the Thai people who live in Fang. Maybe they have come from Burma.

The next day we went to a National Park for the Fang Hot Springs, and there was a sign saying the baths would be closed from July 10 to 25, but using Thai numbers for the dates, which was odd, and is often a sneaky way to keep things from foreigners. They also disregarded my Thai drivers license as proof of residence and tried to charge me eight times what they charged my Thai friend Wipa for admission. She talked them down to only four times. Then we drove around and found the place was closed. There was no hot water at this hot springs!

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The big treasure of the trip was the road that ran from Chai Prakhan straight south to Phrao. Amazing scenery, wonderful two-lane blacktop road running along the ridges of mountain valleys. When you get to Phrao, it meets the highway that goes west to Chiang Dao, and the scenery remains spectacular all the way into that town.

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Doi Pui Hmong Village near Chiang Mai


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Like Boulder, Colorado, perched against the Flatirons, Chiang Mai sits right up against Doi Suthep, a mountain that is topped by both a Buddhist  temple and a one of many royal palaces.  This is the summer home for the royal family, should they choose to come this far to sample the bracing, mountain air. Doi Suthep has a twin, Doi Pui, which is about thirty feet higher.  The mountains  are about 5,500 feet tall, and the temperature at the top is noticeably lower than at the base in Chiang Mai. The air is sweeter and fresher on top, as well.    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doi_Suthep

The winding road up the mountain is well maintained, and heavily traveled by bicyclists, motorcyclists and the red trucks that form the backbone of mass transit in Chiang Mai. Most people make it as far as the temple, climb the 306 steps, take a few pictures and then head back down. After the temple you come to Pu Ping Palace, but then the road becomes terrible, full of potholes.

But if you keep going another five miles, you come to a Hmong village that sells handicrafts in order to support its one-thousand inhabitants. Unlike most tourist items, I find these attractive.  I like their clothing and their silver jewelry. I’ve visited the village several times already, usually just as an excuse to ride up the mountain on my Honda PCX150, but this time we rented traditional Hmong clothing and used their beautiful little park for a location.  It was surprisingly fun.  They charge you 50 baht (about  $1.75) per person.