Posts Tagged ‘bangkok living’

I was talking with my buddy ‘Aow’ in a clothing market up the street from my Bangkok condo. He sells jeans and t-shirts from a stall alongside hundreds of other vendors. Aow and his wife ‘Kid’ have been friends and neighbors for twenty years, where we have lived, on and off, in this tiny Thai suburb of Bangkok. These are closely knit communities, where families of a clan or particular Baan, Tambon or village, have lived together, and intermarried, even fought bloody battles together for various political causes, over generations. Bangkok is made up of thousands of these invisible villages. Outsiders are not accepted out of hand. Foreigners stick out like a sore thumb.

We helped Aow and Kid arrange their first family vacation, by booking their flights and hotel on-line, with my wife’s laptop, while sitting in a modern KFC franchise, to a resort in Thailand’s southern island of Phuket. They’d heard so much about tourism and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. They’d never flown on an aircraft before, their three kids were thrilled. To afford a vacation meant success, a step into the modern era, it was a proud moment, and made Aow and Kid local celebrities. We were ‘acceptable farang’.

Because there is little direct contact between foreigners and average Thai people, they look at us through the lens of a narrow stereotype based on sensational stories passed through by the media. ‘Farang’ ( foreigners) are known to do tasteless, strange and often unseemly things according to the media. Thai people in these outlaying area’s, outside Bangkok, treat foreigners with reservation, temerity, and suspicion.

Contact between Thai and Foreigner is limited to persons working in the tourism industry. Most Thai happily will spend a lifetime without meeting an outsider and never learn more than a few words of English.

What is a ‘farang’? Why is the word used as a derogatory pejorative these days? The colloquialism is the distillation of a Thai accent, describing the original white travelers from France, who were the first foreigners to present themselves to the court of the King. ‘Francia’, pronounced as ‘Falangset’…(Falancia) and shortened by slang to ‘Farang’.

The lingua franca was applied to describe every foreigner who came in later years, whether British, Dutch or Portuguese. All foreigners are now collectively known as ‘farang’. In recent years it is a term spit out by the Thai people rather than spoken. Thailand was never colonized by foreign powers and the Thai have always looked down their noses at those who were over run.

What is the difference between ‘acceptable farang’ and ‘falang spit spit spit’? Ask any Thai and they will tell you. When Aow and I had become close enough to have an informal honest, personal conversation he asked me, timidly…if I had ever been to ‘Patpong Road’, the notorious red light district.

I replied honestly, “Yes, but not for over forty years”. I told him that when I had first come to Bangkok as a young man on business in the early 1970’s there were only two bars on Patpong Rd, in use by American soldiers, deep cover spooks and diplomatic workers, on R&R from the Vietnam War. The now notoriously mob controlled Pattaya Beach was a dusty village beside a minor naval base for shallow-draft American ships patrolling for communists and smugglers along the coastline of Cambodia. I told him how I had ‘discovered’ a pristine Phuket before a single hotel had been built.

Aow was obviously relieved, that the trust he’d placed in his judgement to accept me as a friend and sponsor into his community wasn’t misplaced. I told him that I would never take my wife or family any where near a place like that. “Yes” he said. “That’s what I think”.

Aow nodded in agreement. “We don’t go there”, he spoke of the red light tourist areas that had sprung up after battle crazed soldiers refused to leave ‘exotic’ South East Asia for the bleak perilous streets of Detroit and Chicago. I understood Aow’s comment to be a general statement, true of all Thai people he knew. Nice Thai people just don’t visit the human toilets that grew out of infamy and corruption to shocking notoriety.

Today, the area of downtown Bangkok, between Soi Nana and Asok, which represent the worst of the human spirit, isn’t overtly recognized by any decent Thai. They block it out and don’t recognize the existence of such places. Thai people who reside for work or business in towns like Pattaya and Phuket will not admit to living there. The mere mention of these places is an embarrassment to polite Thai people.

But, whether by road or transit through these bleak tourist ghetto’s you’ll see sidewalks crowded with ‘farang…spit spit spit’, stumbling out of go go bars with desperate prostitutes, vomiting in the neon lit gutters, passed out in the darkened alleys, biker gang members from global crime groups, wearing full regalia, marking territory. You’ll see the most disreputable scum in the world, Caucasian, Arab, Asian, all within spitting distance, as if tiny cracks in the gates of hell had opened and the devil was showing his bum to the world.

Yesterday, in the Central Park of Bangkok’s version of Manhattan…Lumpini Park, my wife and I were listening to the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra playing The William Tell Overture in the band shell as part of an annual concert season. We were surrounded by Thai families, living the modern moral life most Thai enjoy.

During a break we were approached by a group of timid students, asking our permission for a video interview, as part of a project for the business course they were taking. We agreed of course.”We so happy you can speak to us”, one of the youngsters said. “We’ve been walking for an hour and couldn’t find a single foreigner willing to talk to us”.

Our interview was extensive. The kids were very happy to finally speak to foreigners who could teach them honestly about world affairs. They had stereotyped outsiders into a narrow range as we had expected, and they were delighted to turn the subject away from a focus on ‘Thailand’s Developing Nation Status’ and dependence on tourism.

Our perspective on Thailand had changed over forty years based on observation of the  visionary development that has taken place over the years we had been ‘in-country’ . This was the Thailand they could be proud of. As if on cue, the six o’clock chime from Lumpini’s famous clock tower rang out and from speakers set throughout the park the national anthem rang out. Every one stood up, the joggers stopped running..in silent respect for the nation.

The kids were knowledgeable about how many kinds of Eskimo’s there were in Canada and how Thailand also hosted many indigenous peoples. Of course, our polite conversation didn’t enter the ugly territory of the vice and corruption existing a mile away.

“We don’t go there”, the Thai will say of the tired prospects of the tourist who comes for vice. There are ‘Falang spit spit spit’…and ‘Farang’ who are part of Thailand’s accepting culture. The old Thailand is obviously behind them, the kids were on track to a better future…they are hungry for knowledge and communication with the outside world. The biggest problem said one ‘was a lack of English teachers outside Bangkok’.

I left the children with a word of advice, much the same as any parent would anywhere in the world. “Be careful who you talk to”. But… I suspected these kids were well aware of the pitfalls of dealing with certain ‘Farang’…as they were media savvy and modern, and had read all about the sordid behavior of some visitors. The fact that my wife and I are mature as well as being a couple was a signal they could feel comfortable approaching us.

The Thai are too polite to mention such things in conversation…but it isn’t if anyone isn’t aware of the sex tourist industry as being problematic and distasteful, let alone out of place in the modern age of this rapidly evolving Asian Tiger nation… within the vision these children see as the inheritance we will leave behind.

 'El Rey'

‘El Rey’

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Our little perch in Bangkok is surrounded by a wide green space. I can smell the Gulf of Thailand on the morning breeze. The rising sun resembles an expanding supernova. Bird song and Soi Dogs are the melody of this neighborhood. 7 AM and already 90 degrees F. I hung our towels out last night and they haven’t dried. Humidity during this late monsoon month is well over 100%. What a shock to have transitioned so completely from Dallas in such a short time. We were away two years and it feels like we never left. This is the anniversary of my 40th year of coming to Thailand.

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Did you ever wake up not knowing which country you were in? I often awaken not knowing where I am. My head is so full of fantasy travel experiences that I have developed a habit of losing myself between the sheets whenever I lose consciousness. I sometimes have food dreams about favorite treats and endure constant cravings for things that may be thousands of miles away and years in the past. The ‘burger dream’ is as universal as the ‘green spot sunset’. For me it’s little ‘street treats’ and specialty items that I have found along the way. Such is the life of an unrepentant traveler. However, where you are can add and subtract a great deal from your daily life, depending on how well you adjust to varied environments and the reality who you are.

My choice to write professionally, as a novelist and travel writer, presents a unique set of circumstances to sort through. The writers life is a blank canvas. While travel writing is a ‘paint by numbers’ trade craft, we still have to prepare ourselves to leave everything behind, in order for the essential spirit of the art to flourish. Travel writing is art as opposed to the more subject driven sister study of journalism. Herein lays my personal dilemma. The diverse environments wherein I seek to stimulate my emotionally fraught artistic muse are also the diametric opposite of what I need during the intensely sedentary predicament I willingly assume when I begin to create a novel project.

We’ve all heard , read biographies and watched fictionalized story lines about writers, real or otherwise who shut themselves away in a mountain cabin, an isolated island or have barricaded themselves in a Manhattan condo and won’t answer the phone. In mid-novel I’ve been seen wandering dark streets at all hours of the night or day dressed like a disheveled bag-man mumbling to myself. My wife kicks me out to make me walk around the block when I get particularily backed up so my legs don’t atrophy from a lack of mobility after days screwed into my chair. I can tell you, that this state of self-imposed isolation, as presented in fiction, is true, and not an article of artistic license nor a measure of eccentricity.

Writing novels, my main focus , requires that I shutter myself away from all stimulation so that I can concentrate on a single train of thought. The riveting preoccupation involved during the creation of a novel of 100,000 words or more, along a plot arc involving complex characters within a theme, revolves around the unique mindset of the author, that’s me in this case, being able wake up in exactly the same frame of mind that I went to bed with.

This attention to detail is necessary to keep the characters, time lines, situations and spirit of the theme, flavour of the story and plot blending as a cohesive unified entity as we climb the ascending action ladder towards the climax and seek consolidation at the end. As such I don’t read newspapers, because the negativity that sells them depresses me. Such ‘stuff’ puts me off my game. Neither can I read any other authors while I work for fear that my unique stream will be polluted by images that do not originate from the ocean, that I by necessity exist in, for the purposes of creating the world within the novel. As I’ve written about in the past, derivation is the enemy of the wordsmith. Copying is schoolwork, pure creation is art. It is my goal as an artist to leave a unique footprint in the sands of time.

Recently my wife , Patricia, and I have completed our seasonal migration. She and I have created a lifestyle for ourselves where we travel for six months of the year during the Canadian winter and return when the worst months have passed. This has discombobulated my state of mind since April, but not entirely in a bad way. I was just getting accustomed to my new social life, language skills and schedule in the home we had made in a small suburb of Bangkok. I don’t know why, but the tropical weather has a rather novel effect on me physically. While living where the heat and humidity are high, I can lose weight regardless of what or how much I eat. I admit loving to gorge myself on what is not entirely healthy or low in calories. In Bangkok I can indulge in pastry, sweet ice coffee and ice cream and never gain a pound.

While living in Canada, I have to count every grain of rice I eat in order not to pack on the pounds. Ice cream and pastry are out of the question. The other thing I miss, as mentioned , is the social life of living in Asia. I enjoy being outside and walking everywhere rather being forced to drive my car because of a perpetual state of dripping inclemency that exists in Vancouver. The other thing you’ll ask when returning in Canada after life in Asia is, ‘Where are all the people?”

The streets in Canadian cities are nearly devoid of humanity. I miss my routine of friendly waves, brief hello’s and idle chit-chat with the street vendors when walking down the sidewalks in Bangkok. There are no food kiosks or superfluous vendors allowed on the streets or outdoors in Canada, and as such no ‘street life’. This lack of ‘personality’ leaves the Canadian experience rather dull and us Canadians feeling lifeless and without adequate human interaction. Patricia and I start to count the days until we leave again almost immediately after we arrive.

But…conversely this is exactly what I want as a writer. Here in Vancouver there is nothing calling me out to play, there is no where to go, nothing to do. It is perfect for my writing, zero outside interferences to contend with, and I am writing prodigiously during the time I am here. There is no cool ‘cafe culture, or historical neighborhoods to appreciate . There are no theater scenes, art hangouts, no urban vibe, no open markets of any kind to browse or galleries to take in or a museum of note. In this place I can live in perfect intellectual seclusion and write.

Don’t start feeling sorry for Patricia at this point, she is also a writer and creates/produces a series of textbooks for computer/technical junkies. In under two months I have finished twenty three chapters of my new work. This ‘void element’ could be a unique selling feature for attracting authors to Canada. ‘Come to Vancouver, there is nothing to distract you’. Of course I say this tongue in cheek. There are people here who will disagree with my assessment. They will remind me that all you need is a forty thousand dollar recreational vehicle and thirty thousand dollars worth of ‘outdoor gear’ and fun is hidden around every corner. I do not begrudge them their perspective, I just don’t happen to agree. As always, I hope my new book sells well so that we can continue to travel away from the gloom. Life is a journey, not an occasion.