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.

GET ALONG LITTLE KITTIES


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HERDING CATS

In the Thai language there is no word for “intolerance.”  The notion is so foreign to this Buddhist culture that promotes acceptance that they simply never got around to inventing a word to express the notion.  Thais  also tend not to have a lot of negative words.  I’ve never heard anyone described as “ugly.”  Instead, they say “not beautiful.”

When Thais drive, they do so in a way that mimics their language.  As far as I can tell, no notion of “right of way” exists.  People drive on the left hand side of the road, and when entering from the left, they don’t look behind to see if it’s safe to enter.  They just slide on in, expecting others to watch out for them.  Usually, it works, because no one is thinking “hey, I have right of way here and you’ve just invaded my space without asking.”  Such a person would have to be a foreigner, schooled in ancient inalienable rights that simply don’t exist here in a country where most people assume “we’re all just bumbling along as best we can, trying to be kind to one another.”

I’ve had a driver’s license here for two years now, but I wouldn’t assume that many of the Thai drivers I share the road with have bothered to do the same.  I’ve seen children as young as ten driving a motorbike containing three of their friends.  At night, they frequently drive with their lights out in order to economize on gas.  Often they drive the wrong way down a street, because the nearest turnaround is inconveniently distant.  I’ve never seen a police car chase someone down for a moving traffic violation.  Here police stage traffic stops, where they pull over anyone they think might be worth shaking down.  Foreigners are usually fare game.  I have been issued a ticket for “impoliteness” for driving without a shirt in hot weather.  The fine is about twelve dollars.  If you pay right there, you don’t have to go to the police station to collect your license.  I know another foreigner who was fined for smoking while driving his motor scooter.

Thai young people are most often stopped for not wearing a motorcycle helmet. They are simply too vain and rebellious to do so, and are willing to pay a fine that amounts to a full days salary at minimum wage. As much as they prize loyalty and obedience to elders, they also seem to lack the ability to fall into rank when it comes to discipline.  The image of herding cats springs to mind.  Siamese cats.

The Sacred and the Profane in Northern Thailand


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With my friend Sam, I took a three day motorcycle trip to Phrae.  It’s about five hours east of Chiang Mai, past Lampang and then up into the hills.  Once you get into the mountains it’s fresh and cool, and the scenery compensates for the long haul. Phrae was once the center of Teak logging in Thailand.  Teak is a magnificent wood with which to build houses and furniture.  It’s heavy, insect resistant, and grows straight as an arrow. It’s also largely missing, as Thailand has lost 85% of its forests since World War II.  They’ve replanted a lot, but teak takes a long time to grow.

When we got to the mountains northeast of Lampang, we were looking for someplace to rest and came across a coffee shop that was largely hidden from the highway.  It looked like a dark recess in the trees.  The owner had built a delightful tree house in addition to his main buildings, the coffee house itself and a little church.  That’s right, church, as in Christian Pentecostal place of worship.  His name is Chestha Suwannasa, and he credits his conversion experience with saving him from a life of dissipation.  He also fancies himself an artist, and was busy working on a large canvas when we arrived.  The canvases have titles like “The Last Judgment.”

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When we got to Phrae, we toured one of several nineteenth century mansions that were made, of course, of teak. The largest had belonged to the governor of the region, and the opulence of the upstairs was in great contrast to the basement, which was used as a prison and a place of torture.  I could not imagine relaxing at home knowing there were people being tortured in my basement, but heck, maybe that’s just me.  Guess I don’t have thick enough skin to be a provincial governor in 19th century Indochina.

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Mae Rim


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Mae Rim is a suburb to the north of Chiang Mai. About fifteen miles away, but there’s only one way to get there, along a highway that is often crowded and ugly in that way development has of being here. There’s also road construction that has been going on for two years now, and is thankfully drawing to a close.  But the air is sweeter in Mae Rim, the foliage more abundant and greener, and the mountain is closer than in Chiang Mai.  We found a house of the same size we’re renting now for half the price.  $110 a month!  There’s even room for a little garden. And there’s a market right next door.

So for that last three weeks we’ve been riding the motorcycle up there and checking it out.  Now that the rainy season has begun, the vegetation is lush again.

After lots of driving around I concluded, yeah it’s pretty, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that all my friends are in Chiang Mai.  So unless someone shows me an amazing place to live up there, we’ll stay right where we are.

A LIFE OF LEISURE


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LUSH LIFE

The longer I avoid employment, the more absurd the notion seems.  I’m not talking about embracing indolence, but rejecting working for others. If time is a gift, and in increasing short supply, why would I want to want to squander even a second of it for the illusion of security? Surely there are a myriad of opportunities for self-employment that could fill any legitimate economic need I might have.

Retirement is not always easy on some folks. Forty or fifty years off showing up for school or work conditions a body for that sort of thing, and without it many find themselves lost. How many movies can you watch a day?

When discipline finally comes from within, you learn the real meaning of freedom.  When it doesn’t, you learn the true depths of bondage.  Too much free time can kill you, or at least humiliate you while you go about dying from causes you can’t control.

Here’s an audio version of this little essay

REPORT FROM THAILAND


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We went to the movies last week at the nearby shopping mall.  I have never seen anyone Thai or foreign at the movies here who is even remotely my age.  Hardly anyone over the age of 25 can be found in one of these places.  The lobbies of the movie theaters thump with the music of nearby video game arcades.

There were ten theaters.  Eight of them were showing Fast and Furious 7, and the other two children’s cartoons.  She said she liked action movies and wanted to see Fast and Furious, a genre to which I had yet to become accustomed, but as I had even less desire to see the Sponge Bob movie dubbed in Thai, I consented.  The moment we sat down, she promptly fell asleep and I watched the movie alone.

Probably like it’s six previous incarnations, FF7 was an A-Team episode elongated.  Those I used to watch with my four-year-old son Caleb on our little black and white TV, but here I was thirty-one years later, watching a much louder version on a big screen, with my sleeping Thai girlfriend at my side.  This is the kind of movie where plot complications are solved by pressing a red flashing button marked “TURBO.” There were many gratuitous and sentimental pronouncements about the importance of family interspersed with explosions and gunfire.  I imagine this mindless American export is doing big business all over the world, whereas I’m just another old guy living on social security, so who am I to judge a world that increasingly has no meaning for me?

Today is the beginning of Songkran, the Thai new year.  Here they love holidays, and the government declares new ones all the time in order to buy votes.  This is the hottest time of the year, and the tradition is to stand on the side of the street and dump ice water on anyone who dares to venture by, especially those on bicycle or scooter.  It’s sort of cute for the first few minutes, but then you realize this lasts for five more days, and nobody ever seems to tire of it.  For the next five days, this will continue unabated. Again, it has little to do with me, for I’m just another senior citizen on a bicycle, ducking buckets of ice water thrown in my face by grinning youngsters.  I would have to strain to take any of this personally.

HERE THEY COME!


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Chinese tourists on the beach at Phi Phi island, Thailand, the setting for the Leonardo de Caprio movie The Beach, about an isolated, virtually unknown tropical paradise.

HERE COME THE CHINESE

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman has been saying this for years, but it took me moving to Indo-china to witness it firsthand. Tucked as I am between India and China, which contain most of the world’s population, I shouldn’t be surprised to eventually notice my gargantuan neighbors. But something big has happened in just the time I have been here. The Chinese middle class has become affluent enough to travel. And now they are everywhere.

The Chinese especially love Thailand, because here anything goes. It is to them a wide-open, highly affordable,and exotic place. It’s their Mexico. The low-budget Chinese comedy “Lost in Thailand”, sort of an Asian “Hangover”’ prompts hoards of young people to revisit the locations shown in the movie. Many of them are in Chiang Mai, where I live, in the North. In the last two weeks, during Chinese New Year, when we had 200,000 Chinese tourists visit our city of half that size, young couples with two-thousand-dollar cameras wandered in a daze, taking pictures of each other, of anything and nothing at all. They’re simulating the act of taking pictures the way five-year olds pretend to drive a toy car. They do everything in clumps. They are not used to being alone or unsupervised, and they don’t know what to do with that freedom.

Currently, I am in Southern Thailand, on the beach, two hours south of Hua Hin, and the Chinese are here, too. These are not the young hipsters, but rather the middle class who have just gotten rich enough to join tour groups. They travel in clumps of three and four giant busses, partying on the beach, singing karaoke, and taking selfies with their cellphones. As a rule, this class doesn’t have SLR cameras yet. They are an older crowd. The probably remember how to ride bicycles. You young hipsters who come to Chiang Mai don’t know, because China forsook the bicycle twenty years ago.

They certainly don’t seem to chafe under the restrictions on individual freedoms, in fact they seem happy to have their activities programmed. Last night I came across a beach party for a large group of Thal young people, maybe office workers. They were probably on a team-building business excursion. They too were lined up sitting in the sand in neat rows, with supervisors speaking to them over megaphones. They seemed to be having a good time. Who am I to criticize?

This is the part of the world that revels in copyright infringement, that apes every western trend, where the movie theaters are full of our most infantile cinematic product. Fast and Furious 7 is coming to theaters soon, and you can be it will be quite a hit. But when will Asia come into its own? When will a few rebellious Thai or Burmese boys start a band that changes world music, or invent a computer in their garage that sets the word on fire?

One thing we have to remember is that English is the dominant language for tourism and business, and that the Chinese are rapidly learning to speak it. Thais have so far done a marvelous job of refusing to do so. Aided by a feudal government school system, they are quickly being sidelines. And then there is the question of the military dictatorship, martial law, lese majeste laws that prohibit any free dialogue about the current state of affairs. So don’t look to Thailand as the sparkplug for Asian progress.

Thais are no enraptured by the Chinese visitors. In general, Chinese speak loudly, crudely, spit on the ground, don’t flush toilets, and put less value on politeness than do Thais. But Thailand is grateful for the income Chinese tourism brings. Without it, the drop in Western tourism brought about by the coupe and subsequent crackdowns on free speech would have been far more painful.

Yes, the Chinese are coming and there are a lot more of them on the way. Their migration around the world as tourists and then investors will change every country that welcomes them. When I lived in San Francisco, North Beach went from being an Italian neighborhood to an extension of Chinatown, thanks to the first wave of those fleeing Hong Kong before it was turned over the mainland China. Housing prices spiked all up and down the West Coast. When I was in Argentina most of the all-you-can eat restaurants, grocery stores, and variety stores were owned by the Chinese.

Here in Thailand, I pay a $35 tourist visa fee to enter the country. The Chinese pay nothing. I once visited a super luxury resort near Chiang Mai. The staff took one look at my clothing and decided they would tolerate my presence but not encourage it. I was surrounded by rich Chinese hipsters playing with their I-pads as they nursed expensive drinks. I asked for a brochure. The staff informed me they were all out.

IS GOOD TASTE MY TASTE?


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The Challenge of Unbridled Development

Maybe all development isn’t ugly, but if you’re looking for the exceptions to the rule, Thailand isn’t the place you’ll find it.  Here, anyone who has enough money to build anything can and will, and if permits are required, they will quickly be granted for sufficient consideration. The super-rich can afford architects and walled estates, but everyone else is simply encroaching on the landscape as quickly as possible and with little visible foresight.

It is the season for burning rice paddies in the North of Thailand, and in my search for a place with breathable air, I flew south from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, and then took a series of mini-vans until I found this place, Ban Kroot, a relatively unspoiled village on the Andaman sea coast. Palm trees abound, the beach is white sand and unspoiled, but the big question is, “for how long?”

There are a few resorts in town and a few new ones being built a few kilometers up and down the coast.  Dogs sleep in the middle of the road during the day.  Life moves at a leisurely pace.  Fresh ocean breezes make even a hot afternoon bearable.

But for how long? This is not just Thailand’s problem, but the whole developing world’s. The rich can do whatever they want, wherever they want.  They can hop skip and jump around the globe, following fashion and chasing novelty.  Most people in the third world never travel more than two hours from where they were born. This is it for them. Mess this up, and they will always live in a mess.

Yesterday I heard a retired guy about my age complaining that he used to spend a lot of time on the hippy full moon festival island Koh Panang twenty-five years ago, but upon a recent visit he was horrified to find that everything he had liked about the place had been destroyed.  He wondered if there were somewhere he could go where this would not be the case.  I wanted to throttle him for his arrogance and self-centeredness, yet I understood where he was coming from.

“Sure buddy, such a place exists, only it doesn’t have a name yet, at least not a name listed on travel sites. It’s a tiny village that nobody knows or cares about yet.  If you go there and make something happen that will attract other people, then they’ll move there and tell their friends, and then later, probably after you’re dead, it will become a horrible place that other old farts complain used to be a nice place.”

When I grew up in Missouri, there were no laws regulating billboards.  The highways were lined with the gaudiest and more lurid billboard advertisements, especially for tourist attractions.  “Meramec Caverns!  Jesse James Hideout!” “Onanadoga Cave!” Every barn within a mile of the Interstate highway was painted with ads. Until I visited Iowa, I thought that was normal.

But Iowa had regulated such advertising, so only sober, government signs were permitted.  South Dakota had taken a cue from Missouri, and you could mark your progress on Interstate 90 towards and away from Wall Drug by the inch, if you preferred.

Thailand is more like Missouri and South Dakota than Iowa. There is no regulation of any kind, for anything, as far as I can tell.  If you can pay for it, you can do it. And the public has no right to silence.  Sounds trucks blaring advertisements clog the roads of cities

Most of us find medieval villages and farmhouses to be more quaint and charming than Soviet apartment blocks.  Is this a function of their design, or their relative frequency? What about modern American apartment complexes designed to resemble medieval villages, with fake timber beams criss-crossing sheets of drywall?

It’s not just the development of land to which one can object, it’s the recurring, copycat events we stage in the name of culture.  How many film festivals do we need?  Is the current plethora of film festivals a sign of an actual cinematic artistic renaissance or the result of copy-cat maneuverings by regional development offices?

And what do they have to do with the actual state of creative dramatic Art in America?  If you passed a law forbidding theater companies from staging “A Christmas Carol” or dance companies from mounting “The Nutcracker,” most of them would go dark within six months.  How’s that for creativity? What’s really happening in the arts that we can get excited about?

Obviously to answer these questions requires defining taste, and that’s a hard thing to do, especially by proclamation.  One man’s eyesore is another man’s goldmine.

Guess I’m glad I’m not really in charge of much of anything, because then I’d have to go to meetings in stuffy conference rooms and endure power point presentations when I’m not listening to angry people complain about others people’s lack of good taste.

LOOKING FOR LOVE OR ITS COUNTERPART


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The men who come to Thailand looking for love or its counterpart are not the ones who resemble movie stars. As a rule, they are the guys who struggled to find girlfriends back where they came from, and are hoping that the economic incentives a developing country offers might make them more desirable.  They are often right, though you get what you pay for. Purposeful forgetting will not erase the fact that this is a largely economic transaction. When questioned, most of these men will insist that the woman in question finds them charming or interesting or funny, and that the money has nothing to do with it.

It can be fun to see these hookups in action.  Not all of them are exploitative or creepy.  Pattaya is Bangkok’s whorehouse-by-the-sea. There, many an aging Caucasian man can be seen hanging onto the arm of a young Thai hottie.  I don’t think any one man or any one woman in this case is guilty of anything.  Since the women speak only a few words of English and the men speak no Thai, not much conversation goes on, but they both look reasonably content in each other’s company.  It’s not a creepy scene.  It’s a business deal, up-front and out in the open.  It’s transparent.

And how important are age and looks anyway?  If two people want to be together for whatever reason, why shouldn’t they, no matter whether their partnership fits into conventional models of romance?

I am a retired Caucasian man in Thailand and have recently met an attractive Thai girlfriend who is nineteen years my junior.  She doesn’t speak English, and I only speak a little Thai, so communicating about practical matters is often problematic.  Google Translate can only do so much.  When I describe our relationship to my women friends they always ask “How do you communicate?”  No man has ever asked me that.

Don’t know how far we’ll be able to run with this, but so far, I’d have to say that our lack of a common spoken language has had one unintended benefit.  She has never invited me to talk about our “relationship.” and we have never wasted a moment of our time together arguing about abstractions.

Flying Season in Thailand


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Soon we will be averaging four to five a week.

It’s flying season here in Thailand.  This is the time of year when foreign men, usually in their sixties, leap off the balconies of their condos in three main Thai cities, Phuket, Pattaya and Bangkok.  Many times they fly of their own volition.  At other times they have obviously had help getting aloft, reaching terminal velocity with a shove from the family or boyfriend of the women they’ve been sexually involved with and financially supporting.

During flying season many a caucasian body is found at the base of a high-rise apartment building.   If a note is left behind, it usually refers to health or money problems.

There are two on-line forums where surviving ex-pats can keep track of this activity.  Thaivisaforum.com and stickmanbangkok.com.  When the Thai police investigate, they always conclude it was a suicide.  In one notorious case, the man’s head was found in a plastic bag thirty meters from his body.  “Suicide,” the police report read.

Thailand serves the same function for the world at large that California served for the United States.  It’s the place you wind up when you bomb out of every other place.  I remember I had an uncle who abandoned his family in St. Louis and drank himself to death in San Francisco.  He was not alone in this, for there were legions of men just like him in California’s coastal cities, using alcohol to dissolve the shackles that bound them back east.  In Thailand, these men are from all over the world, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Great Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, the United States. They leave their third or fourth wife behind and come to the land of Rent-a-Wife.  If they have an addiction or two, they find to their surprise they have brought it with them. If the addiction itself isn’t their undoing, it does a bang-up job of demoralizing them along the way, and thinking with their wrong head, they make poor choices. Many a man with a substantial retirement account has limped back to the airport in Bangkok to head home, minus most of his savings. Those are the lucky ones, for they were spared the ten seconds of exhilaration their flying fellows knew as they soared off the balcony.

And then there are those of us who haven’t done that badly here, though it sometimes seems we are in the minority. I have met a few mentally healthy men who have taken an active interest in Thai culture, who have gone to the trouble to learn the language, and who seem to have meaningful relationships with their communities.

But these men don’t make the papers.  Mostly they gracefully age and die here, or scramble back to their home country before they become too infirm to fly.