Living in Thailand and visiting as a tourist are two completely different experiences. Culture shock is a very real issue for people from the west who come to live in Thailand. Many people are fooled by the postcard modernity of Thailand when they visit as tourists. When they use that delusion to base their decision to move here for work or retirement, only to find that the fiction and the reality are worlds apart, some of these people freak out. Anyone who comes to Thailand expecting constant efficiency, fluidity, similarity, consistency, workability, on time, on budget… total honesty, return policies, generosity or fair treatment …or the rule of law…( hahahahahaha on the last one) or any other western concept are in for a surprise.

Thailand has adopted western features without developing any supporting western infrastructure to support them. What drives many westerners crazy is that the modern facade of Thailand makes it appear like everything is going to function properly….except it doesn’t. Everything from going to the bathroom to banking, to meal times and transporting yourself around the city are skewed in such a way to vary ones habitual understanding ever so slightly…and every once in a while you’ll see an unbalanced foreigner standing on a street corner , a bank, a post office line or restaurant screaming because they’ve let the frustrations get to them. At the other extreme you have foreigners who try to overcompensate by becoming overtly Thai in dress and mannerisms….and appear as if they’ve had a psychotic episode when the pajama pants are out of place and ritualized gestures are used incorrectly.

Carl Jung called this effect of an third world culture on the psyche of a western individual ‘Tropo’. It’s more or less describing what happens when the white man goes crazy in the jungle. Firstly…Thailand is not a modern country…it is not a modern society. Thais have adopted a western appearance in the span of one generation, they do not understand half the things they import…but they love anything western or modern…because it’s western, even if it’s spelled wrong or has no useful application in Thailand…..like furry parka’s worn only in the mall. Thai’s want to look progressive..but they are more conservative than you can imagine.

Thai’s are not a modern people, they are a tribal society dependent on a traditional hierarchy to guide their every move. Thai’s don’t think independently…nor do they want to. The Thai’s revolving door experiment with democracy should give you an insight into Thai’s appreciation of what democracy entails. Democracy is western..ergo it’s modern…. so Thai’s adopt it…and spell it wrong..but when it comes to ‘one man one vote’…no way! Secondly..remember that you are a ‘farang’…a foreigner and Thai’s have been taught by example to treat you with disdain.

Mistreating foreigners is a national past time. It makes the Thai’s feel better about themselves because they have a huge self image issue with low self esteem. It’s also because they perceive westerners as having wealth…while they are ‘poor’…that the west is modern..while they are third world bumpkins…which is hogwash. This drives westerners really crazy…it’s the basic dishonesty of all Thai-Foreigner relationships on every level. Thailand..aka..The Land of Smiles….is also the duplicity and backstabbing capital of the world.

Usually people who don’t like you will tell you so or simply not deal with you….not so the Thai. They will lie to your face as long as they think they can take you for something..even to the point of granting sexual favors…which Thai’s view as no more significant than blowing their noses.. Thai’s smiling…is always phony…and while attempting to take whatever they can from you with guile….they smile. Thais learn from example to overcharge and mistreat foreigners.The government overcharges foreign guest as much as two and three times the going rate for every service and fee. The Thai see this and emulate the governments own actions. We call it ‘getting ripped off’. Farang is a word used to show contempt by the way…not a nice thing.

If you come here, remember why you came here. You come here to get away from where you came from. In the west the predictability and boredom is what drives people into cascading fits of depression. You come to Thailand to experience a lively chaotic atmosphere…don’t confuse the two. You can’t let the Thai way get you down. Instead accept Thailand as if it were a night at the circus….with lot’s of thrills and spills….but don’t take it seriously. Smile at the unexpected…laugh at the many surprises, disappointments and misdirection. Thailand is a gong show…enjoy it. Don’t come to the circus if you don’t like clowns. IMG_0076-Optimized

Last nights cathartic blowout was hard on people in Bangkok. Today is ‘the day after’ and I have seldom seen or heard the city in such a state of quiet. In the frenzied minutes rising towards midnight Bangkok became a carnival and a cacophony. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced an Asian New Year can imagine the ritual.

Just some background. Bangkok is a metropolis more than it is a city. It became a city. It was never designed to be a city. Bangkok is thousands of little villages that grew together over many hundreds of years. Each of these villages has a distinctiveness to it that escapes most foreign travelers. Families intermarry and stay within the confines of their traditional social group for generations. Events are organized around the community, by the community, with little input from the greater national or regional governments. Bangkokians are not the rugged individualists you might find in the United States.

The events that took place last night were the exact opposite of what one would expect in the west. Instead of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people crowding into a small area…like Time Square or Sydney Bridge, having taken public transit, and promised not to smoke or drink, while standing like docile little robots to watch a prearranged and choreographed fireworks display…Bangkok went wild in a distinctly disorganized way.

In the minutes before midnight, against a backdrop of constant sonorous chantings being broadcast from loudspeakers out of the many temples in the area, the sky erupted like a scattering of fireflies shaken off the branches of a banyan tree. The thousands of villages that make up the metropolitan area sent up thousands of individual fireworks and rockets into the air. It looked like the entire city had caught fire in the most brilliant way. The landscape was literally writhing with coloured flame and bursts of light. How fantastic, the spontaneity and chaos was majestic…like sparks and embers from a crackling fire flying dangerously into the sky.

There was no grand organized scheme, only the joy of twelve million people celebrating the coming of a new year. From the balcony of my hi-rise condo in East Bangkok I had a brilliant 270 degree view of a fairytale land landscape that could only be seen by someone who shared my vantage point. People on the ground could not have known how their thousands of small displays would merge into something so fantastic with the larger community.

There is a magical symbiosis when people join together without knowing they’re doing so, creating an uncommon beauty that few will share, but do so anyway in a spontaneous expression of national pride. Just freaking amazing people. One of the worlds unappreciated ‘wonders of the world’. I don’t have a bucket list of famous places to visit before I die. This is one of the most amazing sights on Earth to witness….if only because it’s so secretive, under appreciated by the common tourist and exists to be seen for only a few minutes a year.

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My …how my little Thailand has changed since I first came here fourty years ago. It used to be so traditional, primal, positive. There weren’t any high rise towers or shopping malls in 1975. Of course those of you who’ve been here in the last ten years are aghast at the vision of no tall buildings in Bangkok. One thing many of you would be surprised over is that ‘way back then’ very few people wore western clothes.

In 1975 men didn’t wear shorts. There were tree lined streets where the rapid transit train now runs. Pattaya was far distant and there were so few tourists that the sleaze industry was a few US sailors and maybe four bars in Patpong Road selling flesh.

Today I was reading the Thailand News. I am shocked that Thailand seems to have turned into a place where crazies from around the world come to commit suicide. There were more deaths today of tourists in Thailand than the entire population of tourists in Bangkok in 1975. The number of genuinely sick westerners living in Thailand must have hit record numbers.

The last two years have seen record cold weather in December. It’s come down as low as 15 degrees Celsius …and some 21 northern areas have been declared disaster zones because of the low temperatures. Meanwhile in Southern Thailand the Northern Monsoon is causing flooding and landslides.

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I woke up staring down another Christmas on the road, just weeks away. Trish and I have had our Christmas’ in some fairly exotic places. Bangkok Thailand ranks right up there. Luckily we can buy a fuzzy Chinese faux tree and glitzy decorations next door at an American owned grocery chain store. In the past I’ve packed a fold up tree in my suitcase to have a proper Canadian Christmas where ever in the world we found ourselves.

Today’s modern technology makes it a lot easier to communicate back home. Not like the old days where a traveler had to find a post office with a long distance call box and wait between crackling sentences as voices echoed thousands of miles back and forth down a rubbery trunk line. You don’t have to send your gifts home by sea six months in advance anymore. In many countries the happy holiday was a bit anti-climactic when there was nothing resembling western culture for thousands of miles in any direction. Today’s travelers have it easy.

The Thai people have embraced Christmas as a shopping/commercial opportunity. They love everything western, so Christmas trappings are ‘exotic’ and ‘modern’ , like nonsensical English words  and slogans on T-Shirts and hand bags. People love the giant Christmas tree’s standing outside the mall entrances and can’t get enough cheesecake pictures. They do a decent job of decorating. This years theme at the mall closest us is ‘Snoopy in Space’ all in white and silver. I’m fairly sure something has been lost in translation, and there’s no reference to Baby Jesus, but…it gives us travelers a bit of Christmas cheer and nostalgia for days gone by.

The huge growth in backpacker tourism and telecommunications has initiated more awareness of Western Culture in diverse countries. There aren’t many destinations you won’t find at least a hotel bar with sparkly lights and tinsel. I’m listening to Christmas songs on my favorite Texas radio station online, 95.3 The Range. I spent my last two Christmases in Texas and the fine music got under my skin. I guess while I’m at it  I’ll admit to having a soft spot for Christmas. No matter where we find ourselves on December 25th….we celebrate Christmas…and remember why.

My most recent visa run from Thailand was to Siem Reap Cambodia. Trish and I choose our exit destinations arbitrarily, by the cost of discount airline fares, hotel room sales and to avoid specific hassles and unusual expenses…like the cost of VOA. Visa on Arrival costs add up quickly when you include the costs of processing through intermediaries. We prefer countries which do not charge to enter or have a low cost visa on entry procedure. Cambodia is one of those.

For anyone who doesn’t understand the ‘visa run’ terminology it is the fact of life for those of us ‘farang ex-pats’ living in Thailand who must leave the country on a strictly administered immigration schedule to maintain our status. Wether in Thailand on a multi-entry tourist visa or a long term work visa you still have to leave the country occasionally.

Thailand has closed the gap on progress much faster than has Cambodia due to a benevolent and progressive king, compared to Cambodia being beaten down by a multi-decade war of communist ‘enlightenment’ where millions were murdered. They are only beginning to recover from the socialist experiment brought on by the Khmer Rouge Army. The differences between the two countries are shockingly apparent. Thailand is a modern marvel where millions have been lifted out of poverty, Cambodia is a third world backwater where millions live in atrocious poverty and ignorance.

As in most third world countries Cambodia is a society where stark contrast exists between the wealthy…and the absolute poverty of everyone else. Opposed to Thailand where there is a growing middle class, Cambodia has no middle class and little opportunity for people to improve their lives.

What I found disturbing was the sheer number of NGO and Governmental International Aid  workers who are living in a colonial fantasy of their own creation, undoubtedly funded with the aid money that should have been directed to the poverty stricken locals. The lifestyle includes serfs, servants and sycophants. With little money flowing where it is needed most the streets and markets of Cambodia are mired in filth. The countryside is medieval. I fear Cambodia’s progress may be suffering under the weight of a two pronged attack from another invading army, delusional backpackers and myopic self serving social workers.

A walk through the wet markets where 99% of the peoples food is disbursed through local hands shows conditions that are five minutes away from a major disease outbreak. The lack of sanitation or running water and sewage facilities is atrocious in a country where aid dollars flow through in the hundreds of millions. And yet despite the obvious filth, thousands of aid workers lounge about in air-conditioned offices, reside in beautifully renovated colonial homes and are driven around in  $50,000++ vehicles, while wasting organic garbage and human waste is strewn through the streets. There is no garbage collection services and no public toilets and people openly relieve themselves in the river or between buildings.

The aid workers should be organizing an army of street sweepers. They should sell a single vehicle each to plumb a mile of sewage drain. A months rent could easily be donated to pipe fresh water and lay tiles in the produce, meat and fish markets so that these area’s could be easily cleaned. I didn’t like to walk through the filth…I’m sure the Cambodians don’t like it either. Being there forced me to ask “Why isn’t anything being done to combat such an obvious problem?”

Cambodia is a popular place for tourists of all stripes, especially Siem Reap because of Angkor Wat. The tiny downtown strip called Pub Street is festooned with all the sordid trappings backpackers like, it resembles another boozy Euro Asian version of Khao San Road in tawdry Banglamphu Bangkok. A sober person couldn’t avoid seeing that the lives of most Cambodians receive no boost or benefit from the tourist crowd Rasta’s or their bucket list pretensions. We need to be more mindful of the people whose country we have invaded.

Cambodians are desperately poor through no fault of their own. They are engaging, sweet, unspoiled and genuinely good hearted people. I admonish anyone who is there to profit from their misery and ride the back of their lower standard of living. If you do find yourself in Cambodia, try to feed a few children. The cost of a meal or a little out of pocket charity is less than the price of a beer. And to the ‘social worker elite’… charity is about the people you serve…not about serving yourself.

What a world of contradictions we live in. My own self administered paradox is incomprehensible, even to me sometimes. “How can you live like that?” an engineer we met in Dallas asked in astonishment when Trish and I  explained that we hadn’t been ‘home’ more than a few weeks in the preceding few years. In fact we’d lived in the Hyatt Las Colinas in Dallas for almost three years running when we bumped into him at the poolside BBQ one afternoon.

He’d just bought a house in his native country, the Slovak Republic, it was his goal to have security and a sanctuary. The mindset of our engineering friend is common, it just isn’t for us. “I don’t know”, I replied. “Things just have a way of working out”….and they really have. Our recent and free week long stay at the Park Hyatt Siem Reap Cambodia is an example of how ‘things’ can ‘work out’ if you’re organized and travel savvy.

Some people envy us, they covet what we have, but have no understanding of how we came to be the nomads we are. I wouldn’t describe what we have done as sacrifice, we just want different things. As a friend of mine once quipped, “You have to be very organized to be as lazy as I am”. That sums up our lifestyle succinctly, though not entirely accurately.

Trish and I have foregone many things. We don’t have a long term mortgage, own a boat or a car lease. We haven’t renovated the house and stuffed it with material goods. We have never been consumers of ‘stuff’, instead we collect experiences. Our life is personalized, we do only what we choose, and yet we have achieved a level of success by enjoying the banquet and the open bar, but never eating the worm.

I haven’t felt like writing since I wrapped up my last novel. That two year experience was arduous, and I’m not feeling the energy to do that again any time soon. My daily life is consumed with personal thoughts about today and tomorrow, but nothing too far down the line. I feel like I’ve done enough scheduling to last quite some time.

Planning the next act of travel is my only obsession these days. I have fantasies and dreams that don’t include security or pride of place. I don’t work anymore, and with retirement I have allowed myself to exercise a degree of ‘I don’t give a shit’, that I haven’t allowed reign in the past twenty five years or so since becoming a husband and father. Getting older is somewhat like being a teenager again, feckless and cynically disorganized.

I just got back from a trip to Cambodia. I was less impressed by the poverty than I used to be. I looked for happy photographs instead of images of misery and neglect. Trisha and I fed the children beggars instead of artfully ignoring them as many tourists do. I saw far too many people working way too hard at ‘getting everything done’ as they grow closer to the end. The simple facts of life lay strewn on the sidewalks and gutters like cast off flowers . I saw  tell tale signs of utter exhaustion, fear and desperation, disconnected people, no where near the completion of their guide book inspired ‘bucket list’. I seek no such frustrations.

When I was young(er) I  left ‘home’ to travel. My passions took me away for so long that I became disassociated from everything and everyone I’d  ever known. After years away I returned a stranger to family and friends who’d moved on. I remember the impression that the streets of New Delhi were more familiar than those I returned to.

Today I live in Bangkok Thailand, occasionally struck by emotions of longing and separation. Returning to BKK from Cambodia was a homecoming to familiar territory.  I walk around my neighborhood and realize I know everyone, everyone knows me. People noticed I was gone. My favorite soup stall vendor, Khun Fa, remembers what I like, it’s endearing.

I’ve lost the familiarity with what was once my home, once again I will have to start over in Canada, where communities change rapidly with new immigration endlessly churning the population and neighbors last for minutes until they’re replaced with someone elses great expectations. I have no idea what to expect if and when I return. Here in Bangkok, people reside in the same area for generations in giant family units, and give life a sense of continuity. That’s how things are going, I’m floating from one day to the next, unwinding myself. The end of the road for a happily homeless traveler has no stop signs. Fringelords