My least favorite question to be asked from fifteen years on the road is “what is [a place] like?” So many senses are left wondering with only words to use, I feel it is a great slight to the people and that place to believe that a sufficient explanation could be heard or told. Weather and skins must be felt, flowers and garbage must be smelled, food and spirits must be sampled and tears and smiles must be shared. No video or ink can suffice. Thailand, of all places experienced, is by far and away the least willing place to lend itself to generalizations and predictability. Once the senses adjust and the thin façade’s shine dulls, Thailand and Bangkok becomes a beast of a different sort. Full of striking contradictions and beauty and terror. I love Thailand and I hate Thailand equally, which is why I know it’s a fitting place to reside for the time being, let me attempt to tell you why in broad sweeping generalizations full of exceptions and conflicting equally-true counter-points and “ifs”. There is no answer to “what is Thailand like?” It’s not “like” anything.
The unstoppable wave of capitalism and the immovable tradition of the Kingdom are having it out. Ancient culture influenced by the supernatural is clung to as tightly as their iPhone 5s. “The land of smiles” upon arrival is a true joy. It’s easy to unplug from your own native-culture and let your ‘inbox’ fill up. The balmy weather and fresh green cuisine smother the senses and life is sweet, sweet like cake. Fill your belly on cake, though, and, well, you’ll shit a brick. With the third year just gone by, I’m on my second brick shithouse.
Bangkok and the surrounding country are horses of different colors…actually, anywhere existing centrally reliant on tourism or foreign business and the rest of the country are different horses. This is gonna be about the capital city:
Bluntly, people here seemingly do as they please. If you’re to do as a Roman when in Rome and a Thai when in Thailand, you can with confidence and assuredness do whatever the hell it is you please. There is no “way of life”, life is survival. Thais survive.
If you wanna mind your P’s and Q’s and do a 9 to 5 with cable TV and a cat and the weekend waitn’ for you at home, you can have that. If you need to go a little ‘American Psycho’ and murder a sex worker and you got some money, you can have that, too.
The government in all of its acting bodies and the society are complicit in blatant corruption across the board. When there’s a problem the police are not the people to call, the hospitals are a joke, gun ownership per capita ranks alongside the US, you can pay $30 to have a person killed. Bangkok is maybe like what I’d imagine the old American Western Frontier to be like. Western ideals spreading across the Asian continent…just like the cowboys comin’ to clash with the “Indians”. White men aren’t gonna kill off all the Asians but capitalism sure is killin’ the hell outta the “way of Life”, but not without a fight. Shrines and deities make more than a competitive wage.
The social labyrinth is completely confusing. Thai hearts break when they hear a foreigner say they came to Thailand for the cheap living but have no qualms about taking their money and most times a set of prices exist for Thais and a higher set of prices exist for outsiders. A Thai friend speaking on the importance of educating the youth on the importance of caring for the planet, rolled a window down of the car we were in and threw out a plastic cup and top and straw onto the highway. Actions and reactions seem completely arbitrary. Spending most of my time in the company of Thais, who are now very close friends, I definitely can not anticipate their decisions and actions with the same confidence as that of Western friends. I drunkenly startled a friend with a light slap on the shoulder to say hello. He claimed we were best friend and that we didn’t need to be in the Hells Angels, a great relief as I do not ride motorcycles and am a far cry from being a badass, ‘cause we were our own gang. When he startled, some teens sitting about ten meters away snickered a bit at his surprised reaction. He saw the teens giggle, gritted his teeth and then pulled a 6” fixed-blade skinning knife and turned to me and told me I needed to learn how to act right or he’d have to teach me with a lesson of getting stabbed by him…stabbings. Frustration and heartbreak resulted often until I realized that there is a beautiful true individual freedom unlike that of the “land of the brave, home of the free” citizens…that one is truly free to do just about any damn thing one’s heart could desire…as long as it doesn’t criticize the king or cause any loss of “face” in front of teenage boys, who you’ll never see again, at some random night market, on a Saturday night.
But if your family is the “have nots”, well then indentured servitude is what you’re looking forward to. And with Buddhism telling you to always be grateful and accept your given trajectory in this life time, well then, you can smile at the end of the day with your peace pipe and aching back and smile with your family. Maybe if you are a good worker and keep your head down and are a good doggie, you’ll raise a spot on Buddha’s totem pole in the next go-round. Meanwhile monks skip over to Hong Kong for some weekend shopping in their private jet. So it is more free and with slaves… and those who are supposed to be the most-without-est jet-set around the continent with Louis luggage. I would love to hear Spock detail this place. “Logical reasoning” is my favorite oxymoron ‘round these parts.
And the speed of life, literally the pace at which people conduct themselves, is most deceiving. It is lulling to Westerners and our ingrained speed of industrialized capitalistic life. Taking your time on the sidewalk, loooong lunch breaks and business meetings that seem to focus around the catering instead of the business at hand paint a picture of feet up on the dash with the thing in cruise control. But this is not so. Moving slow and steadily provides time to gauge your potential partners and calculate strategy and with the searing daytime heat, physical exertion is expended quite carefully. At the drop of a dime, a serene scene can turn very nasty. A boy’s head was nearly removed in front of my face in the middle of the sidewalk near the banks of the Chao Praya River. The boy had stolen a lighter/flashlight from a usually smiling street vendor but when that line was crossed, holy shit, did hell break loose. From every direction, other vendors and friends of this vendor came swooping down on the boy before he was three-paces from the table. With short bladed pocket-knives, the offending boy was stabbed too quickly and too many times by too many people to count the number of strikes. The last boy to the scene came swinging a coconut machete, a short, thick version of Indiana Jones’, meant to go through the tough and sinewy strands of the coconut trees’ branches with ease. No mystery what that would do to the relatively soft human tissue. The falling hand was stopped by the vendor, though. Stabbed countless times for a US $3.33 flashlight, OK. But he found it in his kind heart to let the kid keep his head. I had a camera in my hand while it all went down and didn’t take a single picture cause I was pooping in my pants. I could have reached out and touched the boy getting fucked up and all I could do was recoil and make a funny face.
Look, I don’t know what the hell is going on over here and that’s exactly why I love it. It’s as confusing and mixed-up as I feel most of the time. But for some reason that is soothing and I have been able to find a true happiness in life and in being me. Being a free animal. And there is a large clan of freedom-finders who have banded together and pass this time in a jolly fashion, entertaining others and pointing out things to smile about. Seeming a hobo to many in the states, here my friends have to remind me to relax and not take life so seriously.