Monday 9 July 2018

The Bizarre Contradictions of Thailand

Chao Le Moken Tribe Child At Nui Beach Ko Lanta Thailand

A young Buddhist monk, an oblivious Moken child and the inescapable Eye of the King.

Within these three, I was presented a Thailand of bizarre contradictions.

* * *

In the heart of Bangkok, you will find Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Sprawling nearly fifty metres in length, the figure that rests in this temple portrays Buddha's final stance as he declared all composites perishable and entered into a state of nirvana.

While the gigantic likeness in itself is arresting, it is the countenance of Gautama Buddha that gets to you. Many things in Thailand, especially Bangkok, (which I shall get to in a minute) left me rather disconcerted. Certain oddities, certain discrepancies that I, to date, cannot get my head around. But there was no indelible ambiguity about what I saw on the face of Buddha at Wat Pho.

He was at peace.

There is a distinctive absence of pain, fear or anger on the visage. Adorned with a certain unmatched tranquillity that is so contagious, that it even puts the viewer at ease.  At the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, which is also incidentally hailed as the birthplace of the traditional Thai massage, you will be given an opportunity, literally and figuratively, to seek reprieve from what lies outside those walls.

With nothing but your best interests at heart, I would suggest you go there and seek it.

You see, unlike the permeating aura of Buddha's serenity in the temple, Bangkok, in contrast, is in absolute chaos.

Roughly 35 times larger than Thailand's second biggest city, Bangkok encompasses a world of its own. But I just cannot leave it at that - too mild a description for you to truly envision the urban spectacle. Instead, I would like to ask you to picture a colossal circus where all acts are being performed at the same time. The trapeze artists soar over you while a lion roars at your side. A hysterical clown prances around pulling faces while gymnasts contort themselves into spectacular formations. The jugglers, stilt walkers, acrobats, knife-throwers and fire dancers.

But in this figment of your imagination where are you?

You? Why, you are the ringmaster.

Grand Palace In Bangkok Thailand

In Bangkok, one of the largest primate cities in the world, there is a conspicuous proclivity to tourism. But it didn't stop there. It seems, as a consequence of years of ingestion of spurious hyperbole, this disposition for tourists has now transcended into ceaseless freneticism.  

It's omnipresent. As you walk on a curb, tuk-tuk drivers honk at your left while waiters holler from the right. Street vendors squawk incessantly while displaying their fanciest and least useful contraptions.

The sights, sounds and smells. Deliberately induced, to deliberately inundate.

You cannot fight because Bangkok will win. It has seen tourists like you, equipped with their belief in internet research and trusted opinions. It will take those in its grip, crush them and ask you to give up.

So you should. It is a battle you won't win; a lost cause. The tuk-tuk driver is looking at you expectantly, hoping you'll agree to his proposal. For a moment, all the sights, sounds and smells seem to recede and you are on a little stage in an empty theatre. Two little spotlights shine on you, and the tuk-tuk you need to board.

Choice is an illusion, really, I reflect as I helplessly climb onboard. A little rev of the engine, and we're off.

As we zoom past districts, it seems you would need time to truly understand Bangkok - to tap into the essence of the city and connect with its soul. But such luxuries cannot be afforded by tourists with an agenda, hence the corollary confusion that this city cannily feasts on.

However, one aspect stands out with acute clarity - there is no mistaking the king.

One picture of Maha Vajiralongkorn, the tenth monarch of the Chakri dynasty, can be found all over Bangkok. Draped in gold, standing against an opulent backdrop, the king is unflinching in his gaze. This image follows you every mile in the city - on billboards, building facades, digital signage and even at the back of tuk-tuks. A short biopic plays in the theatres before every movie, to an audience that is compelled to stand for its duration.

It seems that every corner is under the Eye of the King.

Under his gaze, we're being whisked from one overpriced attraction to another by a community of drivers and hawkers. All of them seem to be in cahoots over our unfamiliarity with this teeming metropolis and the intrinsic monetary value of its products and services.

The blatant obviousness of the circus is not lost on the traveller yet we still do it. We grab the cheese. We do everything they say we should do, in hopes of finding those treasured travel memories in the labyrinths of manipulation.

In the house of Jim Thompson, the champion of the Thai Silk industry, you will find a peculiar apparatus in his bedroom. On a desk lies a box shaped like a television set, complete with a transparent glass panel. Behind the glass is a convoluted miniature mansion with scores of little doors and windows.

In the 1960s, Thompson preferred this as a form of entertainment over a television set. A mouse would be put in the glass box and it would go through the multiple inlets and emerge from another. A maze of tunnels connected each hole, so no one but the mouse knew where it would emerge next.

The children would stay glued, hands splayed against the glass panel, watching in utter fascination as the mouse seemingly appeared from thin air. The adults indulged in their own form of entertainment - gambling high stakes on the hole that would produce the next mouse.

In present day, I feel like I'm in a giant mouse house myself.

As I'm whisked from one tourist attraction to another, I must confess I must be the most clueless ringmaster of any circus. Yet, I am integral to the show. Without me, none of these acts, gimmicks and cheap tricks have meaning. I give them purpose and hyperbole.

Without me, there is no show.

Street Grafitti In Bangkok Thailand

The tuk-tuk has started to slow down. We are approaching a large fluttering veil, behind which it seems lies the culmination of this performance and its unabashed obviousness. As I step over the shards of another broken fourth wall and pull aside this veil, I find myself at Khao San road - the centre of the backpacking universe.

A street that in the past was a market for selling rice, hence the name which literally translates to 'milled rice'. Yet today, I'm buffeted by a platoon of lights, music, barbecued insects and hawkers trying to intoxicate my sobriety with consumables of multiple forms - whether solid, liquid or gas.

The short road with the longest dream, or so they say.

Probably because everyone here is under some sort of influence? That would explain another sobriquet for this street - a place to disappear.

I, however, am in no mood to disappear or lose complete control of my senses. But it seems I'm doing Khao San a disservice - affronting the sentiments of these pedlars as I exasperatedly turn down their provocative offers. My rejections only fuel their frenzy. I'm copping verbal blows to the head and knees to the gut, engaged in my own little Muay Thai skirmish with salesmen, at the centre of the backpacking universe.

A lost cause, a battle I will lose.

Constantly and parasitically badgered by insidious hawkers of seductive practices. Goading and probing, urging us to indulge in vices - to revel in the carnal notoriety of Bangkok. They know, like all tourists before us, that we will relent at some point.

They will get to us, shatter that fragile glass wall of resilience, but they just don't know which lucky one will be our breaking point.

So they leech and suck the fortitude out of you so you can fund their daily wage. There is a certain crudeness to their practices - the niceties are plainly fraudulent, almost mocking the way we are attracted to gimmicks. Early this year, I witnessed a similar anarchy in tourist expenditure in Agra, which resulted in a highly fragmented distribution of money into multiple hands. Hands that would have to keep hounding new preys every day to scrape through life.

Anarchy, it seems, has been deliberately introduced and sustained. But it doesn't seem unintentional.

It seems Bangkok thrives on chaos.

Wat Arun In Bangkok Thailand

* * *

The ocean is hostile today.

I'm reclining at the isolated Nui Beach in Ko Lanta, but I cannot rest easy. Incoming thunderstorms have enraged the ocean, resulting in yawning waves that only seem to get larger with each minute. One of my companions is blissfully snoring at my side, but the waves keep me restless. The might of the ocean is often lost to us city-dwellers. Mightier powers have succumbed to the maw of the brine beast, so if these waves were to creep up to us (which they were doing second by second), it would be foolish to challenge my luck any further by attempting to relax on this beach.

Yet in the Krabi province, the ocean's vicissitudes notwithstanding, we found some peace. Here, on this secluded little island, there was a distinctive lack of hawkers. Even the Eye of the King had intermittent outposts. Not the most popular tourist destination in Thailand, yet the people seem happier and more affable to tourists. Despite not being able to match the standards in Bangkok, Patong or Phi Phi, they are still more content with the virtue of their services.

I'm pulled away from my thoughts by a most unexpected sound.

The rumble and crash of the ocean's rage almost deafens the sudden sound of uninhibited laughter. From the village behind me, where the houses are all on stilts in preparation for the imminent floods, runs a little boy. In his palm is clenched a little yellow toy truck. He spots me, flashes a toothless grin, and runs straight ahead towards the sea.

I think he is from the Chao Le tribe, the sea gypsies.

The people of the sea.

There is no flicker of fear on his young face. The fury of the ocean excites him, teases him. For months he has played at this beach alone, with calm waters for company. In its current state of agitation, the boy has found in the ocean a wild side that he approves.

He rummages through the debris on the beach and breaks a little stick from flotsam. The water has brought him gifts today. He goes about creating more toys for himself, only looking up to serve me his widest, most toothless grin every few minutes.

For a moment, it's just us. Me and him. Worlds and lives apart. On this secluded little beach, in our little bubble. Another set of spotlights, one on me and one on him. Yet in this instance the context is vastly dissimilar to the previous. I'm incredibly boring to him - just another human. Another human apprehensive and unwilling to test the ocean's fury, reposing in the mundane. The boy, however, has mightier tasks at hand, as he creates a little shovel and starts digging with purpose.

The innocence and blissful obliviousness of youth.

Unaware of the vast destruction of the tsunami, spawn of the very ocean they worship, in 2004. Unaware of the politics and bigotry that shuns his kin from living a normal life. Unaware that he belongs to a tribe that fears extinction?

Does extinction really scare people who feel they are already culturally dead?

Intriguing that the propaganda that promotes Bangkok as a culturally diverse hot spot is unmindful of the cultural intolerance in the rest of the country, especially South Thailand.

Our bubble is burst as another young man jogs from the periphery. He is heading for the sizeable fishnet washed ashore. The boy looks up, gathers his walking stick, and rushes to give company. The man is now hacking at the net, trying to rummage for valuables he can sell at the market.

The boy jumps around him, poking his stick through the net. A mighty wave hits his feet. He screams with joy and runs back to the beach. Yet, as the wave retreats so does he into the water.

There is no fear, just the blissful obliviousness of youth.

He is one of the Moken tribe, the Chao Le.

He is a child of the sea.

Chao Le Moken Tribe Child At Nui Beach Ko Lanta Thailand

* * *

"What do I need money for?"

Across the table, grinning ear to ear, sits a Buddhist monk my age. I am sitting on a wooden stool next to Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, under a large canvas banner that spells 'Monk Chat Programme'. Visitors can opt to converse with Buddhist monks in order to learn more about their lives and practices. In turn, the monastic would be able to practice his English.

Within a few minutes into our discourse, conditioned by the socially-ingrained requisites of life, we were quick to bring up the apparent absurdity of a life without money. But the monk was unconcerned, rather unhesitatingly dismissive.

"What do I need money for?"

Really, what do you need money for in life? The immediate requirements that come to mind would be for a house and food. Traditional Thai culture denotes that all you need for a happy life is a house with a kitchen garden next to any body of water. It seems self-sustainability, and not money, is conventionally on higher priority.

As we walked through a little farm in Chiang Mai, smelling the flowers, fruits and leaves that our guide handed to us, we soaked in her infectious fondness for Thai food. As we sat there, grinding our curry paste in a little pestle and mortar, we came to appreciate the little spices and ingredients that added flavour to their simple, organic stews and soups. It would be hard to find a restaurant in Thailand that serves you delectable Pad Thai, Khao Soi or Tom Yum in extreme quantities.

It is neither too much, or too less. It is just the right amount. A trickle-down effect of the Sufficiency Economy or New Theory of Agriculture philosophies introduced by the previous monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Anyway, I digress. What else do you need money for?

Or rather, what else do you need money for to sustain life? Amongst the plethora of requirements pouring into your head now, how many can you classify as a 'distraction'? How many of them can you classify as absolutely essential?

A composite that is not perishable?

I looked at the Buddhist monk and I saw a man with no artificially induced cravings, societal pressures or self-doubt. A meditative life that aims to eliminate passion, aversion and ignorance. He openly admitted he had no idea about his future, yet seemed curiously unruffled by that thought.

I wonder what it feels like to not live for the future? We study volumes and work exhaustive jobs to build for an idyllic future. In hopes that all these decades of effort and stress would lead to a calm, peaceful and happy life down the line. In hopes of attaining our own corrupted and artificially-induced interpretation of nirvana.

But it seems the race begins to define us - as we grow so do our goals, our greed. We outstrip our stop line - that once-sought idyllic moment of ultimate happiness now collects dust in the past because we are now chasing something bigger and flashier.

A cycle of rebirths, a chronic brawl between passion, hate and delusion. The race to ultimately, somehow, attain a happy life.

On one hand, at Khao San, Patpong, Patong or Phi Phi, Thailand was hellbent on convincing me that in order to be happy I needed to splurge money to consume food I don't need, drink liquor I don't drink, inhale gas that would take me on a false reprieve, watch a contorted show that would teach me nothing, buy contraptions for which I have no use and seek validation that has no end. Yet, their fundamental beliefs stand in stark contrast.

It is incredible that the land that shelters simple ideologies for happiness is as eager to exploit a visitor's penchant for the convoluted, senseless and pretentious. The distractions that the Buddhist monk shuns are the same that the hawkers shove in your face.

It seems they are living life their way by capitalising on you not living it their way.

They count on you to do everything they would never do, and you do it. Like rats chasing some cheese, we are coerced by our self-imposed impetus to complete this race to attain a happy life. But as the years roll past, taking with them milestones we have now crossed that no longer placate the hunger, it seems evident that it was just chicanery for the mind. The race was never to attain a happy life.

The race is our life.

Nui Beach Ko Lanta Thailand

* * *

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