My Thailand (TT.5)
I found his home on one of my biking trips along the river. A small white plank high in a tree had his name scribbled on it in red paint. Theo Meier. I had no idea who he was, but the lush garden that surrounded some old teak buildings aroused my curiosity. The old wooden fence was high, but through the cracks I saw that the garden slowly ran down to the river, where another grassy plateau was hidden that would be perfect for my son to play football. More in the back, two large -but not extravagant- traditional teak houses were partially hidden behind large trees and bamboo bushes. All shutters were closed and despite the well manicured garden, it appeared unoccupied. So Theo, what is your name doing on that little piece of wood in the middle of nowhere called Chiang Mai?
Well, it turned out that Theo was a Swiss painter who had made the southern Pacific and Bali his home and inspiration during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s of the last century and finally settled down in Chiang Mai -right here!- where he lived with his lovely Thai wife until shortly before his death in 1982. An early beatnik finding his freedom in the mysteries of Asia, perhaps? The idea though, that already a 100 years ago, a Swiss guy passionately brushed away on paper and canvas while tracking throughout the mountains, whispering the mystery of Thai life and deciphering its secrets on his canvas, of hill tribes and their cultures and their women, day in, day out; year after year, is simply stunning to me. A Swiss, of all people! Looking at his name high up in the tree and engulfed by the tranquil silence of a hot tropical afternoon with its occasional eerie sound, I felt as if Theo could appear at the gate of this very teak house any moment now. I waited a while longer, mystified, but, alas, even beatniks haven’t learned to rise from the dead. He once said: “The Tropics -what an expression that is! Everything is contained in it -as if in entity- the people, the scenery, the culture. In the Tropics, everything is simpler, bigger, and more evident. The contrasts are, in many respects, more delicate… In the Tropics, one thing flows into another. The outlines dissolve.” Producing art that cannot but outlive the maker and ignite the viewer. No doubt that the Swiss pensioners I met earlier were simply trying to follow in Theo’s footsteps, intoxicated by his Tropics (and, no doubt, by his wife) and in love with both.
The next day, over a good rotee banana and a large glass of strong milky Thai tea, I had a chat with the owner of this halal food stall. I had lunched here already twice and that, it seemed, was enough to gain some trust. The owner was Muslim and wasn’t happy with the muslim extremists and mafia. The mafia were remainders of the past, from a time that each religion had its own El Capone and ‘families’ and parties weren’t any good if they didn’t end in a good shooting. With Chiang Mai at the gateway to the Golden Triangle and the poppy too profitable to let it wither, the mafia was omnipresent. The extremists came later and each time he brought them up he became so agitated that it was impossible to follow him. I did get the idea that he mixed up the extremists and mafia in his stories more and more. They were one and the same, apparently: irritating boys with messy bits of beard that never seemed to mature fully, eyes that spoke of a jealous anger of a boy just roughened up by his mum, and always wanting to tell others what to do. Before I knew it, his stories had me looking over my shoulder and clinging onto my bag more carefully.
At some point I had enough. He wasn’t talking about the Thailand I had gotten to know, and frankly, I wasn’t waiting to meet his. You may argue that I’ve been lucky to only meet the good people of Thailand (as if they were all lining up to meet me), you may even bring up the endless political turmoil in Bangkok, the recent crime statistics, Thai’s fishing fleet that forces migrants into slave labour, or the issue, still, with forced prostitution. You may do that for as long and wide and deep as you want, but that is not the Thailand I’ve met.
My Thailand, my Chiang Mai, doesn’t have the anger and pride issues that so much defines daily life in China; the religious and racial discrimination of Malaysia and Indonesia; the political and economical suppression of Burma and Laos; the undetected land mines you might step on in Cambodia. Here is a country where people can live free of fear. It is, and I cannot but agree with Theo Meier, a paradise in its own beautiful way. In the end, it really is very simple: you get what you give. And if the world is to become a village, it better be a Thai village.