I’ve written it before: there are those moments you just need to escape Chengdu, or, as in this case, China. It just becomes too much. And that’s how we ended up in northern Thailand. But we weren’t alone. There isn’t a place in Thailand further removed from the ocean and its beaches than this, yet hordes of Europeans were roasting in the gentle subtropical sun, like slabs of overdone barbecued meat, complete with lines imprinted on their backs from days of laying on beach chairs. You could just smell them burning, like the Dutchman in front of me. His oily, chocolate- colored skin -even on his bald head- only exaggerated his past-retirement age and was such a mismatch that it hurt my eyes. But all that doesn’t matter, you see, because after weeks on the pool side and a few organized day trips venturing out of the city, he will return home when it becomes too hot here. He will tell the tales of an explorer, while sitting in this little back garden or golf club or bingo center, sipping spirits with his pale looking pals, whom are all listening because they have nothing else to do. Tales of how he masterly controlled a massive elephant between his legs while plowing through a wild untamed river; how he explored the jungle and suddenly hit upon an undiscovered tribe where the women were only half dressed and the chief offered him his daughter for the night; how the shaman branded him with a tattoo (and here he will pull up his shirt) just before he was able to escape. He will whisper (but this only after he has sent his wife to fetch refills of whatever they were drinking) about the erotic sensations of Thai masseuses who were all hungering for a real man. And that’s what matters, really.
But, alas, alas, my tale of Thailand isn’t quite like this. It’s less burned (although, after a week of staring at the Dutchman in front of me, my own appearance must have startled other visitors, who all couldn’t resist gawking at me as if I were a Giant Panda at loss and out of its natural Chengdu habitat) and surely much less heroic. My story is, well, just that: my story of Thailand, my Thailand; a Thailand you surely want to get to know. Which you can, in the coming 5 posts.
Let’s start by saying that we are in the year 2557. That’s about how old Buddha would have been had he still been around, which, in many ways here in Thailand, he still is. We -my family members and I- haven’t really changed a lot since we left China in the year 2014, but gosh, it does feel ages ago. Nor has Thailand since the last time I was here, which must have been somewhere around 2532. I am always astonishing how, each time I revisit a place after a long time, these memories (or at times just deja vu’s), seem only a few days ago and at the same time from a different lifetime. It leaves me with a pang of good-old-days-long-gone sadness mixed with an eerie sense of disappointment to see all that has changed. Even when these changes are for the good. Even here, where nothing had really changed. Not the smiles and kap kun kaaa and kap kun kap’s; not the devout prayers of passengers when they gently move their hands together in front of their nose whenever the bus rushes by yet another Buddha altar; not the street noises that always sound louder in this dense humidity. Not even the trains that could easily be the masterpieces of any museum. And we are to take the 9:06 from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
Our taxi to the station went in the wrong direction (as they used to do -on purpose!- during my first visit) and because my day had started of wrong, I put up an act that made everyone else in the cab very quiet. I was about to pull the driver away from behind the wheel, was it not that he started to apologize and reset the meter. Instantly feeling better I calmed down and he continued apologizing. All in all, by the time we arrived at the station (20 minutes early) the driver had reset his meter 3 times, I felt irreparably embarrassed by my own conduct when for a moment it looked like he was going to pay us. He didn’t, I’m glad to say, because as it was, I definitely hadn’t felt this bad in years. Friendly people, the Thai.
The station was small, yet it still employed a good handful of people. It had its station master and its station master assistant (each with their own hangout sign in front of their offices that seemed straight out of one of those black and white Charley Chaplin movie), a cashier and some others whose roles weren’t quite clear to me. And by the look of it, not to them either. A dozen stray dogs ran around, clearly at home here. And all that for two rails that you could freely crossover or sit on or sleep at, unless of course, a train is using it. The train schedule was displayed on a large notice board -all in Thai- one that obviously hadn’t been changed ever since the British engineers built this line more than a 100 years ago. Whenever a train arrived or set off, the station master skillfully waved his 2 flags, one green, one red. The station bell was rung -also by the station master- to signal your last chance to board the train. All this under the watchful eye of King Bhumibol, whose life size portrait behind an incense altar is the center of each station, as it has been for the last 70 years. Time here doesn’t rush, it crawls. But this timelessness may not last though. Not only will the King’s days come to an end (although he does seem to live forever), but far above His Majesty’s eyes the unfinished remnants of a high-speed rail remind us that, whenever Thailand has money and is not in turmoil, they too will ‘progress’. It’s all a matter of time. It just may take them another 70 years.
Our train couldn’t wait for that and arrived right on time at 9:06. We thanked the station master, who was too busy banging the clapper against the bell to notice us, and quickly got on. The adventure could begin! -wasn’t it that we couldn’t find our carriage, let alone our seat, and before we knew what was happening, a boy took our tickets and there was panic all around. With assuming authority, the boy was obviously on his own turf and knew what he was doing. He must be the carriage master, surely, and this was his train, and, as we soon learned, not ours. We were on the wrong train. Trains always have delay, didn’t we know that? We disembarked at the next station -with its own flagging station master and bell and King- and waited for our train. Delayed too. Another inheritance of decent British railway design, a reliability on its one.
Our seats were near the backdoor, numbers 1,2 and 3. I am telling you this so the next time you’re here, you know what seats to avoid. Each time the doors slid open a cool breeze gushed in accompanied by sand dust and screeching train noises of passing rails and a strong smell of raw metal. The doors never really closed. The train shook and jerked and blew its horn every other minute as it slowly plowed through the timeless landscape of central Thailand. For an Express train, it surely took its time. It suited us fine, though. We planned this train travel as a goal on its own, an experience we would remember forever, not merely a means to get us from A to B, or, in this case, from B to C. We passed rice fields and villages of pole houses with rusty tin roofs and slumps on river sides and jungle hills and tunnels and all the while, my wife was sleeping and my son was listening to music, both oblivious of the outside world. The success of this trip now depended on me. After all, we choose to go by train rather than by plane to admire the landscapes. I had planned to write and read a lot on the train, but so far -and I have no idea how far that is- I hadn’t seen or written one letter of the alphabet. I just needed to look around. I needed to. (One of the many urges I can’t control, as if I’m worried that life would pass by just when I’m not looking!) God forbid that I would miss an ancient tomb or a stunning scenery. So far, I haven’t missed a thing. Nor has my wife.
We checked in our guesthouse, left our luggage and hit the streets, finding ourselves in a street of massage shops and bars. Both rampant businesses. Both with an obvious unlimited pool of short skirt women of all ages picking their noses and long-nosed men, eager to pick up a short skirt but instead lurking around not able to make up their minds. “Masaachee, su, jus for you!” Just too much choice! Head and foot and back massage are quite straight forward, just as the ear, nose and tongue massage, oil massage (olive or diesel) and fragrant oil massage, bamboo massage, herb massage and vegan massage. Then there is the shower massage and the whole body massage for those ready for more adventure. The ultimate experience though, and specially developed for the die-hards, and offered with considerable discount for the many elderly tourists around here was the full mummification massage. We were glad to reach the end of the street and discover that Thailand isn’t only about massage. Or women.
At the corner, a woman looked at me in a way that would make unmarried men feel charmed (and quite some married men too, how else would I know), but there was something odd about this woman. Her layers of make up, her large curly eyelashes, the well rounded and well revealed breasts and even her high heals couldn’t conceal that her features were hard and sharp, her chin heavy set and her hands large and rough. And when she first spoke in a deep baritone voice that made my son jump, I couldn’t stop myself from looking around to find the invisible man to whom the voice belonged. By the time she stopped eying me I still hadn’t found him. And thus a new world had involuntarily opened up for my son and I wasn’t altogether sure he was able to process it. Just when he was discovering his growing manhood -an extra hair here and some new hormones there- he was confronted with men who had found their womanhood. And that was before we entered a museum and restaurant that focused on tribal jungle people and carried the catching name of ‘Cabbage and Condoms’. Myself, I couldn’t wait to see that menu list!
In these parts of Thailand, life is slow and simple. It crawls, with only Vespa’s flying by constantly. The air is clean and the temperature is pleasant. Many of the old wooden teak houses, often on stilts, are still in use and green hidden gardens with ancient trees can be found where least expected. Trees are never chopped. While in any other country trees are chopped by the dozens to make place for stupidities like some extra parking lots or ice cream stands, here, when space is needed for, say, a shed, it is simply built around the tree. Sacred trees are wrapped in orange cloth. Monks too. They carry their begging basket and bald head leisurely from temple to monastery to temple. No hurries. Aging aristocratic Western ladies spend days in yoga pose worshipping the Buddha in hope for nirvana. Local men spend all day each day fishing in the omnipresent river Ping where the kingfisher rules and swallows perform and the tropic mountains are always near. Cars stop when pedestrians want to cross the road. Old men pumping on the peddles of their tricycles will get you anywhere, given enough time. Tuktuks get you there a lot faster and songthaews will get you beyond that. Vespas swirl between modern pickup trucks and old time Beatles. The town buzzes and has a healthy heartbeat that attracts many visitors. Of those, you’ll find that most fit in 3 categories: young teachers working in China looking for some sunny downtime, retired hippies (and in case you ever wondered what had happened with all those hippies that once roamed the earth and seemed to have suddenly vanished like the early Neanderthals before them, well, rest assured, they’re all here) still looking for their dream of 50 years ago. The third group are retired Swiss, and I’m still not clear what they are looking for.
Trying to get the answer, I had a talk with a retired traveler from Switzerland. Retired from work, that is. Each year he tours South East Asian countries, apart from a short month in Switzerland. He loves to travel but isn’t much impressed by today’s fellow travelers. A long what-has-the-world-Um-Gottes-willen-become monologue followed and I wasn’t sure what to say. Nor was I expected to, since he was perfectly content doing all the talking. I only had to give a nod here and a response there. I lost interest, though, checked my emails, send a message and realized with much delight how easy it was to multitask while listening to crumbling old Swiss men. But when he complained about those unadventurous travelers now a days whom were always busy with those electronic things and not connecting like we did in our days, I no longer felt the need to know why he had come to Thailand and, instead, was more curious to learn of his departure plans.
Cabbage and Condoms
Stirred by what we learned in Cabbage and Condoms, we planned a 2-day trekking trip. “A traditional scorpion-tail boat will slowly bring you up the Kok river to an old Karen village where elephants would await you on which you will ride to the next village. From there, a long walk through the jungle will bring you to the first Lahu village, where you will set up camp with the local tribe, etc., etc., etc.” Adventure pur sang! -if you believe the promotion folder. As we did, for just a short while.
Reality, as always, was quite different. For one, the trip’s description must have been from 20 years ago, because, well, the jungle was gone. And this, in a nutshell, is how it started for us: after a slow but noisy boat trip, we became seasick on the back of an elephant on the way to the next village, which was, as we soon discovered, only 200 meters down the road, after which we were rushed of to some local snakes and encouraged to hold them, for, of course, an extra payment. But after the bewildering elephant ride, none of us were waiting to wrap ourselves with a stoned snake. It just didn’t appeal to us. We just weren’t ready for some intense snake hugging; any snake hugging, really. And so we immediately set of for a good hike up to a Lahu village, deeper into the hills. Up to 5 years ago, Jeho, our guide, was the elected village chief and we would sleep with his family.
The walk was beautiful and rewarding, even without much jungle, and at times gave us magnificent views. Every so often we would take a 10 minute rest and Jeho would be snoring within seconds. Clearly this was a man at peace in his own environment. We listened to the birds and to each other, we discovered flowers and just enjoyed the serenity that engulfed us. Then we would move on again. At some point, Jeho suddenly cried out in a way that scared the hell out of us -as it was meant to be. I’m not sure what he said but that really didn’t matter anymore: in between Jeho and us we saw an impressive size snake with his head lifted up, looking fit, disturbed and very deadly. We couldn’t agree on its size (afterwards of course; the opinions would vary from somewhere between 2-4 meter long) but it was heading our way with surprising speed, and believe me, size doesn’t matter then. It surely seemed ready for a hug. Jeho started a chase and tried to hit it with his bamboo stick, missing more than I preferred. We had no where to turn and stood fixed as the snake rushed towards us. Life flashes by in these fractions of a second and there was so much more I had wanted to do and, strangely, I suddenly remembered I forgot to brush my teeth this morning. The snake, though, had other thoughts and was far too busy getting Jeho and his bamboo stick off its tail to be interested in us and as it flew past, so did Jeho.
After the ordeal, we thanked Jeho for his heroic act, but he won’t hear of it. He hadn’t, so he explained, run after the snake for our sake; he just wanted a good meal.
Jeho is Lahu, a people group that long ago migrated from southern China and Laos and for as long as their stories recall have lived in these jungle hills. They lived from hunting and farming and occasionally some trade with the Thai in the valley. He grew up in a family with 10 siblings, which was a common family size in those days, when child death was still a hard reality of life. Death, as it were, was still very much alive when he grew up. Less and less though. The heroine production and trade, that had been a major source of income ever since a British engineer had developed and introduced a plan for mass production at the start of last century, was successfully fought back in these parts of the Golden Triangle, and death through addiction or crime became less. This was largely the result of what became locally known as the Cabbage Project: replacing poppy with vegetables. Good health service and a growing awareness of hygiene made survivors of each child. The elderly grew older, too, and a new problem was born: overpopulation. More jungle needed to be deforested to provide for sufficient farming grounds. In this, the Karen, the only Christian-animistic tribe originally from Burma, beat them all with their slash-and-burn methods. Without intervention, all jungle would be gone within this generation, erosion would set in and no tribe would be able to survive. And that’s where the condoms come in: family planning.
We arrived in the village before sunset and were shown to our hut. All huts were set between jungle trees and spread out over 2 dusty hill tops and, by-an-large, looked all the same: one large room on stilts with some pigs and chicks enjoying the shade underneath and a rook on the balcony. Floors and walls were all from split bamboo (though some now had wooden planks, since the village hadn’t move for the last 25 years and life had become more static). It all was covered by leaf-woven roofs. Nothing was airtight and everyone lived, ate and slept in the same room. That’s where life took place, where it was made and where it ended. Quite a transparent society, you might say, and I marveled at the idea of having to reproduce offspring under these circumstances. But somehow they did and plenty of young kids were, on this last day of their New Year celebration, running around and playing games, throwing up dust wherever they went, while the older ones threw firecrackers at them. Jeho’s 3 kids were among them, somewhere. And when I asked him, he said that 3 was enough for him. He needed time for himself, and for a beer. And so it seemed, also the Condom part of the project had been effective.
That night, we were the honored guests of the Chinese New Year celebration closure. The shaman played his instrument and danced with some other men around a group of 5 meter high bamboo poles that were decorated with colorful small flags and sprinkled with holy water. But it was clear that after 5 days of dancing and drinking and more dancing and drinking, the enthusiasm was gone. They moved like casket bearers at a funeral. With loudspeakers the villagers were summoned by the village head to appear and dance and celebrate for the visitors sake, but few showed up. The slaughtering of a pig the following morning got more attention and after we all happily ate this first meal in the new year, we were ready to move on.
I’m staying at a guesthouse that is nicely tucked away along the eastern shore of the Ping river and under the canopy of an ancient tree that fully umbrellas the grounds here, and that of at least 3 neighbors. Everyday during breakfast a Dutch radio channel announces the day’s traffic jams (there’s one between Amsterdam-Noord and the IJ-tunnel and, surprisingly, both directions of the Van-Brienenoordbrug only had 10 km of cluttered cars), which is nice to know especially when you’re not there. I am just not sure what to do with the information. But then again, the place is run by a Dutch guy who started it way-way back, before traffic choked the streets all day long.
One evening at the guesthouse a monthly jam session for local expats revealed just how much Chiang Mai is a retirement home. The occasional band comprised of talented pensioners from Holland, Ireland, UK, Australia and the like, with grey hair all tied in tails, or no hair at all. Living dreams as only retired hippies can. The audience weren’t any different. Too cool to perish away in Spain or Mexico or Blackpool. And even though today was one of Thailand’s religious days where alcohol could not be served or sold, it was flowing freely here by the time the first Rolling Stones song blasted over the river. ‘Honky Tonky Women’. Trudie from Amsterdam swung her considerable body in all opposite directions, unwound wildly on the way back, eyeing her peers with cheerful glittering eyes that asked to go on, and on. ‘As naked as the day that I will die…‘ Her head was loosely wobbling above her torso and at times it seemed ready to just roll off and go its own way.
The guitarist bent over his guitar while toggling away on his solo, like only Keith Richards could. ‘Give me, give me, give me the honky tonk blues…’ Any moment now he would sweep back up, guitar pointing to heaven and together reaching the climax while the sax was going to lead. The crowd, same age and same origins, was catching up nicely. Rowdy, drinking in the music and anything else that flowed their way, patting Trudy on the butt -hard to miss- and singing along the songs that disappeared into the darkness of the river. As an outsider, a passing visitor who didn’t have to pretend happiness and belonging, I tasted a sadness with each move, each yell and cheer. Like the colonists in India and Indonesia, adventurists with a purpose, we were all strangers in a foreign land, creating little islands, little safe havens where we can be ourselves and forget all that we miss, but here, really, with no purpose at all. There is an depressing meaningless to it all. Trudy was now on stage too -we had altogether moved into The Who’s ‘My Generation’– and she hung onto the mic as if she might fall over any moment now, but singing her lungs out, and, I had to admit, doing this not bad indeed.
The drummer fell in an ecstasy by the sheer power that exploded from the speakers each time he hit his drum set and began sweating seriously. His perfect rhythm and strong and fast beats resonated in every bone. It was impossible not to warm up to it. The crowd -still retired- could no longer sit still and stage and terrace were moving and ready to roll beyond reality. I expected him to send his drum set flying into he audience any moment now. Only 2 minutes to live. The sadness I detected at first was gone – or was this sadness I saw, I wonder, not at all theirs, but my own? And this longing to belong, and this search for security? The guitarist never swept back up for his ecstatic zenith. His bending over, it appeared, was not a theatrical move to climax, but a permanent sign of the unavoidable end.
For lunch the following day, I choose a restaurant because of its location and feel: along the river, away from the main road, overlooking a wat, charmingly rundown and lorded over by 2 older ladies, Eng and Ong. No English but smiling intensely -I love Thai friendliness! A handwritten sign in front read ‘vegan & vegetarian food’, which worried me, but they did serve coffee. My arrival worried them and caused quite a commotion -how to take the order?- but they solved that by simply piling my plate with all dishes available.
From my younger years in Holland I remembered the alternative scene – peace-loving-macrobiotic-ecological-vegetarian-vegan-hand-picked-food people – I’ve been there. Long haired men and badly dressed women all in unwashed clothes with sandals or wooden shoes. The dirtier, the better. Their food was chronically undercooked and with no shortage of pride presented as ‘direct from the garden’ which basically meant that it was unwashed. I liked it nonetheless, because they stood for a cause, and because I never liked washing either. And so I ate whatever Eng or Ong served me. Although I had an occasional worm looking at me from my spoon and little flies hovering between my plate and mouth and sand grinding between my teeth, I enjoyed the nostalgia. Vegan at the core, except for the worms and flies. But at least I knew what I was eating.
You see, the difficulty I had in Thailand initially, was that most of the time I had no clue as to what I was eating. That was especially true in the off-the-tourist-track roadside joints, where you got nowhere with Dutch, let alone with English or Chinese. At first, to play save, I learned to ask for fried rice, but after 5 days of rice, one needs a change. Later, I would be looking around the room first and identify what most likely is a regular costumer. (And take it from me, always avoid restaurants that are empty – the emptiness is a warning by itself.) I checked what was on his plate (ground rule: as long as I don’t see fish, reptile, insect, or movement, it’s okay) and ordered the same. After all, a regular wouldn’t be eating it if the past had proven it to be no good, and in this way I was being surprised with something new each time.
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 above the fence 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.