Reflections on Thailand

[Extensive photo album here.]

Japan crossed with Mexico. Hack, mash, and lash everything together. Very hot and thick, humid and prone to short heavy rains. Bangkok is larger than expected, with a higher skyline. Slum-like in many ways but comfortable. Dirty, aged, grafitti’d, tagged, polluted, smelly, hungry, buggy, feral. Friendly, smiley, reverent, strong, spiritualized, watery, creative, delicious, surviving with tenacity. Temples & tenements, luxury hotels and megamalls. Insane traffic and transport. Little regard for lanes or right of way. Swarms of motorbikes, vespas. Cheap and dangerous tuk tuk 3-wheelers. Families piled onto scooters, kids asleep, baggage strapped on. Traffic flow like a logjam, shifting metal slabs moving within inches of each other, victory goes to the bold in a cloud of exhaust. The mighty Chao Phraya cutting its way through Bangkok and out to the coast, it’s headlands in the foothills below Burma. These are river people, with traffic on the waterways as busy and chaotic as the streets. The river is deep, a 1/4 mile wide, running green & tan, dirty and littered with commercial & vegetal detritus. After the rains clumps of fallen jungle float on its surface, carried down from farms and foothill tributaries. Black & yellow birds land on leafy branches half submerged to dine on nuts and berries. Water taxis from hotel to Sky Train. Fantastic monorail, the SRT, its cement track a modern work of civil engineering adding to the Tokyo vibe of downtown Bangkok.

Tangled mess of black utility cable slashing horizontal lines across most everything, tied in to huge transformers, burnt metal grills pumping amperage for the teeming metropolis of 6 million. The twisted infrastructure grows organically like a banyan, stretching out axonal to connect and communicate. Most buildings are old haggard tenements, their facades stained with a dark grey wash like grease and ash drawn out of the thick air. Structures that seem abandoned, uninhabitable, are strung with drying laundry drawn perpendicular to the necessarily ubiquitous swamp coolers lining the sides of each floor. Broken concrete fields under freeway overpasses offer football grounds lined by graffiti mural walls under chainlink divisions.

Downtown, luxury malls with Louis Vuitton and Burberry fronted by large altars of golden Buddha’s and Ganesha’s, black marble elephants flecked with gold, yellow floral garlands and incense offered by shoppers to their immaterial gods. A sign at Wat Phrao Keo in broken Thaiglish sagely, if not inadvertently, warns visitors to “Beware of your valuable possessions”. Technology, commerce, wealth, and western aesthetics have moved in with the economic development afforded here as in every other large city by the realities of globalized communication and trade.

Down crowded alleyways lined with merchant stalls and open air ad hoc kitchens, thick with pedestrians, cars, tuk tuks, and manic motorcyclists weaving through the narrow channels, over rooftop patios caged against some unseen menace, rise countless golden and white and glittery temple spires. Buddhist Wats take residence everywhere, themselves seemingly hacked into the dense fabric of the city, rising like aspirational fruiting bodies of ancient mycelial webs. Wat Arum, Wat Pho, Wat Phra Keo & the Grand Palace, and innumerable others. Religion & myth is woven throughout the populace. Every building has it’s own adjacent spirit house offering residence to the disincarnate lest they move into your own home. City walls are tacked with incense holders between stores. Banyans breaking through the sidewalks are wrapped with rainbow sashes honoring their freakish holy treeness. Every taxi has a statue on the dash or mala hanging from the rearview or Buddhist stencil on the headboard or any combination of the aforementioned. A 3-day Buddhist holiday shut down all government and banking.

The current Thai king is the longest reigning monarch of the modern age, holding office since 1950. Thailand was the only East-Asian country to resist British colonialism, sparing its autonomy by ceding a few bits of territory along the Burmese & Malay borders. Indeed there are long running conflicts with the Burmese, and Buddhist Thailand is in the midst of an insurgency along the Malaysian border from an advancing Islamic populace. The cabinet of the prime minister and the military have provided ongoing political theater as each vie back and forth for the seat of power. Most transfers of power, even in the case of multiple coups, have been bloodless. The Thai people themselves seem to have little interest in these power games, preferring a life of pragmatic spirituality while maintaining a deep abiding love and respect for the king. The two possibly mortal social offenses in Thai society are speaking ill of the Buddha and speaking ill of the king.

Farming is honored. Rubber trees and palms cover most southern land, providing two of the country’s largest exports. The Thai peninsula includes all the most breathtaking exotic tropical beach locations you could imagine, including the stunning Railay Bay – famed for the movie The Beach. Beautiful light blue waters, ridiculously warm and salty, stretched for ages across the gulf. Koh Samui running on Full Moon inertia, tourist trinkets, and scattered luxury resorts sheltered from the hustle. Low inland jungles bring minimal shade to island shanties in seemingly impossible poverty. Yet they survive & persist and move through generations like the rest of us. Koh Phangan also still milking their internationally notorious Full Moon Rave scene, adding a Half Moon party to underwrite the Euro draw. Even away from the main strips the beach scenes has a fun accidental Burning Man vibe, a shoreline esplanade of shanty bars and sound systems. Expats all over the place. Seems easy to get lost for months, years, decades in some seaside shack eating fruit and fish in a poor man’s paradise. Impossible walls of insects whip up into sudden frenzy, a cacophonous wail of screamapillars, giant cicadas that still don’t seem anywhere near big enough to make such a pitch. Monkey troops swing across canopies carpeting tall rock slabs jutting from the water. A rock climber’s joy, sheer faces hung with dripping stalactites and pocked with rope tie-ins. These tall rocks are scattered by the hundreds – thousands? – across the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea. A boater’s paradise. You could spend months exploring thin beaches stretched around the edges of countless small jungle rock islands.

In the South, each night was attended by thunderstorm, often over sea or above the island peaks. Big black charcoal canvas lumbering across, flicker flashed with lightning bursts every few moments, often too distant to hear the thunderclap, then a sudden ear-shattering rend of ozone right above. When the heavy rains hit they come quickly and with ferocity. Never seen rain like it. So thick that it occluded line of sight to 20 meters or so, hiding everything beyond in watery showers. From the steep island peaks water rushes down in sudden rivers cutting through beach sands, pushing tan clouds out into the bay, a shimmering clear layer of fresh water forcing the saline back out over the ocean’s surface. Giant raindrops agitate the bugs forcing them to take flight in peppery swarms. Small opportunistic swift-like birds take to the skies darting and arching, turning and diving to pluck the insects mid-air in some ancient deeply programmed ballet of the food chain. Life goes on. It must. When rains come often and fiercely you can’t just drop your business. This was especially so in Bangkok whose streets are lined with tirelessly deployed open markets bare to the sky save for a small canvas over each. In 20 or 30 minutes the rain will likely pass so there’s no point in worrying much about the interlude.

While the deep south is struggling with a mounting Islamic insurgency, and the peninsula is attending the construction of more new mosques, the buddhist majority continues to permeate life with the spirit of their patron, accompanied by a host of Garuda and Nagas and a menagerie of mythic beasties syncretized from India and China. If Thai Buddhist Bangkok is feral and lashed and relentlessly modded in ghetto slapdash, the Bangkok Chinatown is 10x more so compressed into tighter alleyways, with more people and motorcylces (Vespas apparently seek Chinatown to live out their golden years), hung with impossibly more spaghetti cables, and festooned with walls of neon Mandarin signage casting a little too much light onto freakish displays of animal carcass and presumably inedible seafood and giant transparent sacks of fried pork product and stall after stall of fashionable Versace & Loius Vuitton knock-offs. Imagine threading your way down a dark, narrow alley lined with flea market stalls and no-health-code/no-insurance open air cart kitchens, filled with people pressing in all directions through dense heat and smell and rot, then send a motorcycle down the alley every few moments to do battle with cross-traffic carts and tuk tuks. Now imagine the alley is a whole network labyrinth covering multiple blocks between several-story tenaments streaked with black soot and stain and hung with drying clothes and black cables. This is why we western pansies stay in the nice hotel with A/C and a pool.

The final capper to the trip was in Bangkok the night before our departure. After the evening rains subsided, my partner and I went down to the pool for a night swim, around 9pm. Refreshing and fun we frolicked and generally soaked up the remaining moments of our stay. Then, in the poolside darkness moving low between the lounge chairs, I saw a large reptilian form lumbering along. “Dude, there’s a fricken alligator coming towards the pool!” I exclaimed excitedly. As it marched into the light we realized it was actually a monitor lizard – Varanus salvator, to be precise – about 5-6ft long with a fattened belly like it just ate a dog or possibly a small European child. “If that thing gets in the water, we get out immediately” I said with some urgency. I knew it could swim and see underwater much better than we could. No reason to tangle with a 6ft thunderlizard in a foreign country with questionable health care. Sure enough the beast slipped into the pool and sidled along the swim-up bar. We hopped out, laughing nervously, and I approached the lizard from a careful distance. Grabbing the pool attendant I motioned towards the monster. “That’s bad”, he said in a way that suggested that, bad as it may be, it wasn’t unusual. And so he casually splashed the creature with water nudging it along until it climbed out of the pool slowly, begrudgingly, made it’s way back into the riverside brush. It was easily the biggest lizard I’d ever seen in the wild.

The final day we were denied pool access during a particularly solid rain. When it’s always 90+ degrees & 90+% humidity, swimming in the rain is quite nice. But no, we were not allowed. “Why?” I protested. “Lightning” retorted the attendant. Fair enough, I thought. Then, in a casual but cautionary aside, the attendant reflected, “We had an accident last year”. This is the Bangkok Riverside Marriott, a fancy if not dated family hotel. Apparently buried somewhere deep in the boilerplate legalese fine print of our hotel contract is the clause, “Marriott Properties takes no liability in the event of any hotel guest or visitor getting suddenly struck by lightning and then slowly eaten by ferocious monitor lizards”.

2 comments

  1. Andrew Spaulding

    Your observations on the city were a fun read. I live in Bangkok and you’re right, it’s a steaming cacophony of contradiction and an full on assault on the senses. I would not have worried much about the lizard though, because the healthcare here is EXCELLENT. And once you get past the customary bouts of food poisoning the street food tastes grrreat.

  2. chris arkenberg

    Thanks for your comment, Andrew. I’m glad you enjoyed my travelogue. Also glad to hear they are good at patching up giant lizard bites but I still wouldn’t want to get bit by one! Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to return some day… Cheers!

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