Wednesday, April 1, 2009

thailand and beyond

My journey to Thailand and beyond began 22 days ago. It has been everything that work and travel abroad can offer and the most consistent thing about this region seems to be its phenomenal contradictions.

In Thailand, the famous Thailand smile greets you everywhere you go, but what lies behind those smiles is a little less clear. For a week straight I unintentionally moved from one tourist attraction to the next while trying to get a sense of what this astonishingly beautiful environment would be like if you deleted this veil of tourism from the equation. For some reason I couldn’t. It was as if it all was all created and maintained for the tourist and there was no way out of the gigantic theme park that had no discernable entrance or exit aside from Suvarnabhumi international airport.

In some ways I felt like I was a character in Chuck Palahniuk’s book Choke. Now forgive me for any mistaken variations in my memory of this book (as I read it quite some time ago) but from what I recall the gist of it is this: A med-school dropout takes a job playing an Irish indentured servant in a colonial-era theme park in order to help care for his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother. The entire self-medicated staff blearily endures abusive bused in tours while hiding out from the world. Another side plot was that the protagonist was apparently a direct descendant of none other than JC. While fans of Palahniuk might say, welcome, once again, to the world of Chuck Palahniuk; I would say, add a few twists and turns and welcome, my friends, to Thailand. I don’t mean to be harsh and if you continue reading you will discover my feelings about Thailand have gradually changed and evolved since my arrival but I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t own up to the thoughts and feelings I had for the first 127 hours of this adventure. To be totally honest the only thoughts I was having during the first 5 days of this trip was ‘please dear Buddha get me out of here and if I happen to die getting on or off one of these tourist traps, please reincarnate me in Africa.’

It was not until late into a dark night on day 7 of my trip that I was offered the opportunity to see some genuine Thai personalities. Although it seemed to have occurred if only by a fluke mistake, I was glad it happened and I realized it might be possible to get out of the freakish theme park I found myself in. It was the end of a long day of hiking and our group was gathered around a camp fire during what was pitched as being a laid back ‘off the beaten track’ elephant trek, but was, in reality, a welcome ladies and gentleman, come one come all and get in line for a highly organized trip to a series of fake villages and some jungle strip malls. Did I enjoy it – sure; was it as contrived as contrived could be – no doubt.

It had been a day of beauty but it was an organized event and I felt like I was visiting Thailand’s version of 21st century Gettysburg. Villages were there and people were ‘doing’ things but it remained unclear if any of it was genuine. I sat sulking in the dark imaging the hundred of thousands of flongs (i.e., foreigners) who had trekked this trek already. I know it shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. At the darkest moment of our ever so slightly elusive trek our guide and three young elephant tenders came out from behind a nearby hut with a guitar. They joined the circle around the fire and started, predictably enough, strumming out some familiar American tunes. Once a few of us joined in, they brought out a laminated karaoke-esque booklet and a few candles so that we would have no trouble reading the words to long forgotten hits from the 60s and 70s. It was laughable but I was finding myself in a slightly better state of mind because Noong, or trek guide, was a good musician and clearly enjoyed playing the guitar. I was still annoyed it was all for show and remained to be so damn organized, but I am and have always been a sucker for musicians and so I tried to stay focused.

A few songs later the crowd lost interest in the songs from the book and just sat back to enjoy the music. Given it became less structured and there was no pressure on the guys to play for us, the ticket holders, they started to play for themselves and began to sing what could only be described as Thai love ballads. A few of us became intrigued and our silent interest and curious positioning encouraged them to continue…..All of a sudden they were singing and enjoying themselves as if we were not there. It was unprompted and personal and would have been occurring with our without our paid entrance fee and I sighed one deep sigh of anonymous relief. I was no longer inside the theme park, I was sitting around a camp fire with a few other human beings enjoying some music, passing the time.

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