We pulled over to give the driver a chance to smoke and to look out over the mountain. Some Thai guy was sitting on a rock with a bagpipe he had made of garbage.
The driver and I watched him for a while. The performance involved a single shrill whistle note, repeated at a regular interval. It wasn’t rhythmic or melodic. It was the steady ticking of a clock’s seconds hand, a whistling clock made of garbage.
The driver took a drag of his cigarette.
“Is that a traditional instrument?” I asked.
“I really fucking doubt it, man.”
The man walked over to us. The instrument was a gas funnel stuck into a vacuum tube stuck into a garbage bag, lined with crushed aluminum cans.
“That’s great,” I said. “Thank you.”
He kept blowing until we drove away.
One Small Step
I went to a Hmong Village on the side of mountain in Thailand, just next to the border of Myanmar. I went to this village precisely because so few people had gone to the village. As my feet left the back of the pickup truck and landed in the mud, my footprints were proof that one more foreign tourist has seen the place.
On the streets of Chiang Mai you see people with their necks stretched by gold necklaces – turned silver as the sun fades the posters. It feels like the shocking racism of a minstrel show, only I can’t even fathom the racial dynamic between Thais and villagers. Tour agencies sandwich pictures of villagers between pictures of drugged tigers and abused elephants in their recommended itineraries.
I felt a twinge of guilt. When does a village decide to abandon its traditional way of life and give itself over to posing for tourists?
While the “zoo tribes” have grown cynical and disgusted enough to ignore gawking, the villagers who are trying to sustain a traditional way of life – in this case, growing coffee, rice and persimmon – know why you are there. I felt like the calm, nerdy tourist before the storm of blonde, drunk teenagers scaring chickens out of egg-laying. In my hysterical mind, I was the first wave of colonization.
The village had fields and loose chickens. It had free-range dogs and rats, pigs, cats, and a bird that looked like profoundly shitty falcon.
For centuries, the Hmong grew opium. The modern opium market being risky, they’ve shifted, reserving their agricultural prowess for legal crops.
They had come, centuries ago, by way of China or Mongolia, displaced across South East Asia. Near Laos, the Hmong are in a humanitarian crisis, with about 6,000 forced into Thailand as refugees. Laotian Hmong were forced into the US military during the Vietnam War, and when the Laotian government started persecuting them for it, they came to Thailand.
In the Western side, where I was, they have been eking out a stable existence farming on the mountainside for a few generations. We, the white foreigners, had come for their coffee.
This village near the Myanmar border isn’t a refugee camp. They are Thai Hmong, undisturbed by interference from the government. They live a farming life in the same conditions I’ve seen in Malaysia.
The huts are wooden with solar panels, and the flicker of TVs or crackle of radios coming out of the occasional window. You see pickup trucks. There’s a corner store, with a Coke machine nestled into the back of a wooden hut.
On the way to the coffee shop we met a guy in a tattered red shirt. He had a slingshot – a piece of wood with a giant rubber band.. 10 Baht and you could shoot a rock at a coconut. The prize was only fun.
I declined, out of a rediscovered respect for Star Trek’s prime directive: There can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations. I made internal arguments about the benefits to this one guy versus the effect of a tourism economy on the collective dignity of the villagers. The fate of all Thailand was in my guilty, white, over-thinking hands.
I said no. The guy shrugged, and shot another rock at the coconut.
The Starbucks Effect
It seemed paradoxical to seek out a non-zoo for the purpose of gawking. There was no museum explaining the tribe’s history for 50 baht, no souvenir shops. No educational tours. No signs explaining who they were or what they did, because they were more concerned with being it and doing it.
We made it, finally, to the coffee shop. It was an open-air hut with a thatched roof, looking over the mountain valley. There was a sign with a hand-drawn picture of a mug on it. They served coffee and tea with Ritz crackers. The coffee is bagged through a university project, but the coffee is roasted over by the bathroom, the best-smelling outhouse in Thailand.
The coffee, served on a picnic table on a wood floor suspended above the coffee plants blooming in a mist-draped valley, was strong. I refused milk, and counted my money.
I pay 38 baht for the cup of coffee. At the exchange rate, 38 baht is 1 dollar, or about 120 yen. I’d gone with 70,000 yen. I’d spent 4,000 in three days. I had too much money in Thailand. I donated $50 USD to a school. I bought flower necklaces for a table full of Swedish girls and a round of beers for the international coalition I’d formed at the pub. I started leaving absurd sums at temples.
It was impossible to find anything to spend my money on.
On Spending Money in Thailand
If you wake up at 6 a.m. in Chiang Mai you will beat hordes of hungover gap-year blondes to the street. I woke up early to take a tour of temples as the sun was rising.
Chiang Mai would eventually become overrun with foreign teenagers, but at sunrise the monks are collecting alms, a stream of silk as orange as Thai iced tea. Rays of sun crashed into the golden plates affixed to temple roofs, burning black holes in my eyes, making it hard not to trip over roosters.
Thai Buddhism has kept some traditions that Japan has lost to a secular shrug. Merit-making, for one, came out of the community’s support of monks through alms, or donating food and money. You leave something at the shrines and the monks collect them in the morning.
These donations eventually formed a hierarchy of deeds that you can do to make sure you carry your spiritual progress into your next life. This is how the Thais define Karma.
Fundamentally, this is pleasant. Be kind, it says, and you’ll get kindness back. The people of Thailand are genuinely nice to each other, in a way that seems less passive-aggressive than the way Japanese people are nice to each other.
But what emerges from the rules of karma-by-way-of-merit-making is the weirdly capitalist idea that you can buy karma. Contributions to temples rank highly, with building a temple from scratch at the top and buying a piece of tile for a temple at the bottom (Japan’s Buddhists do this, too, but to a far lesser extent).
Pro-Tip: Don’t spend money on animals. You won’t get a good investment on your return, because animals aren’t that good at sticking to the Five Precepts (don’t kill, steal, rape, lie or do drugs).
Even if you give money to a person who doesn’t follow the precepts of Buddhism, he might, someday, in which case you’ll get a better return on your investment than putting bills into the beak of a crow. The more of the 227 precepts for monks that your patron follows, the more karma you receive. A crow or deer or dog won’t get that far.
There is a kind of point system in place for spending money or doing good deeds, which you can cash in during your next life. Give clothes, and you will be reborn with beautiful skin, give an organ, and you will be reborn with vigorous health.
If you find yourself giving money to someone who uses it for unethical ends, it will cost you karma. If you give unethical money to an ethical monk, you lose karma. If you’re both dirtbags, you actually end up ahead if you just keep it in your wallet: If you don’t have anything nice to spend money on, don’t spend it on anything at all.
It almost feels like this system emerged out of Thailand’s position as an ethically ambiguous place for rich people to spend money.
There are night markets, where people sell “traditional goods” manufactured in China. Traditional villages have converted themselves into zoos and tourist traps, and now the Thai tourist economy is based on foreign-produced trinkets instead of local artisans.
Spend money on a Chinese-made traditional Thai trinket, and you support the vendor, who has a family, and the trinket-maker in China, but at the cost of the Thais working to make precisely the kind of product you want to buy. They’ve been bumped out of the street markets by vendors selling sham products.
Money is karma. Relatively rich people go to a country because it is poor and therefore cheap. I can afford the massage and to pay the man with the long golden neck to pose for me, or to pay a man to take my picture with a drugged lion. It is complicated to spend this money, and it is complicated to not spend the money.
As we drove back to the city, the trash-bagpipe man was on the side of the road. We hadn’t given him anything, but there he was, happily waving goodbye.
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