Paradise Reborn

Posted: April 23, 2020 in Uncategorized

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Travelers to S.E. Asia were rare a few decades ago. There were no direct flights from the western world. Guided tours after long ship voyages were a more common means of bringing well heeled foreigners to see the sights of the exotic East. Writers like Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham thrilled the world of the 1800’s with strange scenes coached out of them by the impossibly remote regions unique beauty. The Oriental Hotel sat riverside as the most luxurious and elegant pit stop in all Asia. No shoes, no shirt, no service.

Into the 1970’s government workers,  spies, returning and exiting soldiers, ( because of the ongoing Vietnam War) and the exceedingly rare ‘business traveler’ were the few intrepid international travelers. Tourism didn’t exist. To travel so far meant that you were literally “out of touch“, an arduous occupation, a calling for some old school purist adventurers. The original ‘guide books’ were notes you’d exchange with travelers about what might lay ahead, who you might meet by chance, going the opposite way. Forget about Air B&B.

Bangkok had only one publicly available long distance line at the time, located in the grand colonial building , the Main Post Office on Charoen Krung Road in the river adjacent Tambon District of Taksin. Which means ‘Love‘ by the way, and it’s still a popular place among Thai to get married. In the P.O, sooner or later or at Christmas you’d meet every foreigner in country standing in line for the old British style phone booth to become available.

G.P.O Post Restante Bangkok Thailand was your mailing address for letters that might have taken months to arrive. You had to be patient with the postal clerks who’d often want to survey the stamps and odd post marks before handing them over. That alone drove some to ‘culture shock‘. Of, course no one spoke English. Around the corner on Silom Road was a Telex Office to send an urgent message, by telegram, paid by the word, beside the  American Express office. Amex travelers cheques were the only game in town. Banks would not exchange foreign currency. That was done black market.

You could drive from Europe to India. Hippie bus lines from London and Paris had been at it, bringing Euro-Freaks to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Khyber and Punjabi rail heads leading to Goa and the Kathmandu Trail, since the 1960’s. I’d done it myself. But you couldn’t drive to Thailand. The Irrawaddy Flood Plain from Bengal to Cambodia formed a natural barrier to overland travel.  The first guide book on S.E. Asia wouldn’t be published until “The Lonely Planet” in 1985.

There were only a handful of tourist hotels in Bangkok, no rental condo’s, fewer swimming pools. In the post-war time between the Vietnam War and tourism Thailand was quiet. Hotels like ‘The Malaysia‘, once famous for it’s notorious clientele of warriors on leave, spies , NGO spooks, opportunists and mercenaries of all nationality fell into humid disrepair. Somehow management has kept the bar and kitchen alive to this. It was one of the only places where western food was available and still hosts a decent menu. To have been a fly on the wall in it’s heyday. And if those walls could talk?

Geographic isolation held S.E. Asian cultures intact for thousands of years. Like native cultures across history introduced to plague, this pristine Neo-Hindu Buddhist culture collapsed in a heap with the advent of mass tourism. Backpack tourism has been as destructive to ancient culture as war and occupation. Thai have a derogatory expression to describe the airborne plague of temporary tourists, ‘ Farang Khee Nok“. The phrase translates as “Bird shit foreigner’, describing a bird which flies overhead and arbitrarily shits on everything below as it passes. It’s a love-hate relationship that has lifted millions out of poverty. .

I don’t have to re-explain, regurgitate or examine the thousands of articles and journal entries penned to bemoan the fate of once pristine cultures lost. To you, an experienced traveler know history has slipped through your fingers like sand. Those same grains now mixed with concrete,  rose to form a galaxy of luxury hotels or like atolls and islands on a tropical green sea, whichever you prefer.  “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot“, a blonde goddess once sang. Anyone not in mourning for paradise lost has no soul.

It’s gone… or is it? I exist in the here and now, as a long term resident of Thailand. I see a new industry that has supercharged a poor agrarian population into a faux-middle class modernity.  And from the perspective of the ‘Twat Packer Culture“, those twenty somethings, only recently introduced to this region thinking it’s always been a lascivious beer bar and full moon party, imported ecstasy from Holland , the norm. It’s not, and it isn’t. But is it all bad? I’m not going to argue with nearly forty million tourists who visited Thailand in the peak year before Corona.

The Corona virus has killed international tourism for the time being. Culture is returning, more obvious now that the temples aren’t hidden behind mobs of flag following louts, like green shoots on a forest floor after wildfire. Is this Paradise lost, paradise found or paradise reborn? My opinion is mute. Future visitors have a choice to make. What impact will they have?

What will they make of this opportunity? Why did it take a pandemic to show us the error of our ways ? Will garbage strewn beaches be a thing of the past because of a new and enlightened breed of tourist who resists littering as spiritually abhorrent? We can only hope.

 

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