Footnotes on Thailand

The size of the roaches in Chiang Mai actually makes them less intimidating.

The Roaches of Chiang Mai
The size of the roaches in Chiang Mai actually makes them less intimidating. They show a kind of humanity. About an inch long with shiny brown wings, some have jean jackets and mullets, others corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows.

All of them can run into a wall and climb up the wall but few of them can make it across a ceiling, which is why one will occasionally drop from the sky to the table or the floor.

I think to myself, “Oh, hello, professor!”

Every tourist guide about Thailand tells you not to wear shorts, because the Thai people will think you are a sucker, but there are men in shorts everywhere. It’s almost as if there was one born every minute.

You shouldn’t go to temples in shorts or revealing clothing. Monks will come up to you and ask you to cover up in swaths of fabric, which they will lend you. I wondered, sometimes, why these people had come to temples at all, if they were just going to look at them and collect them into a file called “things done.”

I totally did Thailand.”

Judging others instinctively makes me judge myself. So I wondered why I was there. One may ask why I’d paid several hundred dollars to visit temples in Thailand when perfectly valid temples exist in Japan. I pass one on my way to work every day.

I went to look at Thailand’s temples because I thought the novelty of it would remind me of what it means to actually see.

The Shinto shrines of Japan are scattered throughout cities like Starbucks stores, and the Japanese use them in a similar way. By stopping at a shrine, clapping and bowing, I, at least, get a moment of contemplation and reflection useful to recharging my neurotic, anxious self.

In my American life, the place to go for this secular self-reflection was the coffee shop. Coffee is a ritual. Even Chogyam Trungpa – the Tibetan monk who founded Naropa University – said “Coffee is a mantra,” and I buy it. Contemplating cream as it swirls into a galaxy of coffee.

You only clap twice at a Shinto shrine, as long as it takes for the cream to turn the coffee from black to tan.

This is what I think about when I visit a temple in Thailand: I’m coming here so the novelty will shock me back into appreciating the familiar.

The Tuk-Tuks

If you walk along the streets of a city in Thailand, many drivers of motorcycle carriages, called “tuk-tuks,” will become interested in your itinerary.
“Where you going?” they’ll ask.
“I’m touring temples today, thank you,” I told them. “I have a plan.”
“You can see temples any day. I take you to tiger kingdom, monkey kingdom?”
“I have a plan for today, thank you.”

One guy followed me in his tuk-tuk. He shouted the names of more animals and their preferred system of government.

“Elephant Kingdom? Snake Republic? Macaque Emirates?”

I had to stop at the corner to look at my map. The driver saw an opening and asked which way I needed to go. I contemplated answering, but ended up staring in annoyed silence.

If I was on the sidewalk and looked at a driver they would turn around and ask if I needed a ride. I stopped at the street corner to find a street sign, they would pop up and ask if I needed a ride. If you are walking with strident intensity, eyes ablaze with tremendous purpose, the tuk-tuk driver will follow you and ask if you need a ride.

I came to really enjoy not needing tuk-tuk drivers. I was committed to exploring Chiang Mai on foot, and when they gestured at their blinged-out, neon-covered hyper-pimped motorcycles I would smile and say “No thank you” with the smug satisfaction of a self-contained man.

Until it rained, and all the tuk-tuks are busy, and I had an hour walk back to the hostel without a poncho.

The Relaxation Situation at the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison
I am not the type of person who pays for a massage. It feels too intimate to spend money on. But that didn’t stop me from visiting the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison for a full-body massage by a female inmate. “YOLO,” and all.

It was hard to feel OK about that at first, but the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison Massage Center is actually the most ethical place I could think of for paying a woman to touch my body. The money goes to the inmates directly, and the experience is skill-training. Also, I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t accidentally stumble into sex tourism, because a woman with a gun and badge was standing at the other side of the room.

There was a power differential that could have been inherently creepy; I cringed at first when I had a female Thai prisoner washing my feet. I was certain I was living out the sexual fetish of some weeping Nazi. It didn’t help that I was the only man in the room, and I panicked a bit at the conclusions that the gap-year Germans were drawing beside me.

It was only that the women of the Chiang Mai correctional facility were relaxed and comfortable – and learning, with interest – that put me at ease. This was a training facility and rehabilitation center – much like going to a prison for a haircut, which, I guess, might have been done somewhere, or should be.

Thai massage has a reputation for a reason. It certainly involved lying in a bed with a 20-something Thai woman who proceeded to beat the hell out of half of my body and kick the shit out of the rest. It was nice.

Trip the Backpacker Electric
You meet people on the road while you travel, and it is a perfect kind of friendship, because you are together long enough to enjoy each other’s company but never long enough to develop expectations.

I often struggle with gratitude towards people. I remember as a child, telling my father that I remembered what I remembered before I was born. It was a complete absence of anything at all, I said, like closing my eyes except there wasn’t even darkness.

I was making all of that up, but I remember that conversation, and it strikes me now that I never took that story – as firmly as I believed in it – and extrapolated out to a realization that I was remarkably lucky to not be nothing any more. The idea that I got to be something is pretty awesome, the idea my life has happened in contrast to nothingness is pretty awesome.

Rather than gratitude, though, I’ve come to expect a lot out of people before they go back to nothing. It frustrates us both.

You meet people over a few days in Thailand and then they go. A lot of them are alright. A lot of them are problematic. Most of them are gone by your next meal. It’s a brilliant exercise in suspending expectations.

I expect a lot from people I know in Japan, you kind of have to. But after a few days of ephemeral friendships I just felt happy that the people I know here were, or would continue to be, in my life for years, and not days, and not hours.

Solving the Central Mystery of Thai Cuisine
Tofu turns yellow when you soak it in tumeric.

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2 Responses to Footnotes on Thailand

  1. Pingback: On Losing Your ID In Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  2. Pingback: 41 Things I Like About Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

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