Posts Tagged ‘Bangkok’

Thailand is experiencing the most prolonged heat wave in the past sixty five years…..lucky us….yay. Temperatures in the mid forties trick your body and mind into wanting to lay down and die. My national phone carrier ‘True’ sends heat advisories every day, as if we need reminding how freaking hot it is out there.

“Trust me…it’s not the heat…it’s the humidity”…some old hand will say.

“No”, I reply…”It’s both”. I don’t need to be reminded that these temperatures are dangerous.

True adds insult to injury by adding what they call a ‘Humidex warning’….a ‘feels like’ calculation to adjust both temperature and humidity into a warning against spending any unnecessary time outside. Today’s number is one hundred and seventeen degrees. Thanks for telling me True. I’m likely to spend my day cowering inside my air conditioned condo not that I know I could die if I go outside. At this point I mentally run through a checklist of what’s left in the house to eat. The choices I have are… frisk a run to the 7-11 across the street for Lime Smoothie….or die of starvation.

The better acclimated Thai’s are suffering…not at all silently…but barely dignified. People outside wear a well practiced grimace. They grit their teeth , as if bearing down for an unavoidable fight against an implacable enemy. They’re stalwart, waiting it out, like a contest between life and death, the battle played out between the passing of light into darkness. It’s a fool errand to wait for a cool evening respite, it’s as hot at three in the morning as it is at three in the afternoon.

There is a brief half hour pause when the barometer drops as the sun goes down and the pressure forces near gale force winds down the narrow soi’s. It’s then when children and mothers with babies will come out into the street to be blown dry while pushed down the asphalt like earthbound kites in a tornado.

My landlord will hate me this month, I’m running the air-conditioning fourteen hours a day….and electricity is expensive here. We need to keep the windows closed for a variety of reasons. Bangkok air is predatory and seeks silent entry through any sliver of open space. With the air comes a fine blanket of exhaust residue and dust. breath too much and your lungs could look like a coal miner at his wake. Seek ‘a breath of fresh air’ and the condo will become an oven.

Monsoon time is also ‘mosquito season’….and there’s Dengue Fever, Malaria and a deadly brain killing strain of Japanese Encephalitis carried up from the vengeful south this year. Thousands of cases this year alone.  There’s no choice except this self imposed isolation.

Look down any street and see tourist trapped behind sheets of glass like the denizens of a zoo. The heat has caught them flat footed. They weren’t expecting to feel debilitated by the fiery temperatures that have attacked them since arriving. They look bewildered and frightened. Many have been bed ridden with dizzy vomiting from heat prostration having mistaken consuming alcohol as a panacea to ‘beat the heat’….which is the worst thing you can do.

A rain came today, thunder and lightning bombarding a distant suburb….good news as we drift towards monsoon season. Only the Gods know when this will end.

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Ask any ex-pat professional and they’ve got a story about the ex co-worker who had a sudden uncharacteristic thermonuclear meltdown while on a foreign posting, and either left in an unannounced mysterious huff or had to be physically extracted due to ‘a situation’. There’s no telling who might go ballistic over some trivial event while in Shanghai, Bangkok or Riyadh. It’s as predictable as vulcanism. The clashing of civilizations is too great for certain personalities. In the traveling world, business or otherwise, is well described as ‘culture shock’.

Relocating to a foreign country, where language, extremes in weather, officialdom, expectations, going to the bathroom, the cuisine, walking down the street, banking, post offices, shopping, and social interaction are often the opposite of normal in ones home country can either be stressful…or entertaining, depending on personality. In some cases, you’ll either love…or hate your new home, and either might have consequences….for better or worse. You can usually tell who’s heading for a short stay by how much that person bitches and kvetches about local conditions. Some people adapt and thrive, others…not so much.

This is part of the reason there is always a significant ‘turnover’ in satellite offices. Human resource officers go to great lengths to attract and vet the right people for these postings, but there’s no way of telling how an individual will adapt to the local conditions. It isn’t always possible to attract the right skill set from the finite pool of experienced ex pats willing to relocate, in spite of offering lucrative compensation packages, signing bonuses, relocation allowances and RSU’s in a low tax country.

In spite of all that vetting, despite the beneficial financial offerings, newbie hirelings still bail in surprising numbers after short periods of time. It comes down to the effects of #culturetainment….you either like a challenge…or you don’t. In the case of foreign government workers and NGO assignments, these people are often fit into a compound type environment where they live entirely separate lives from the local population. To my observation this often leads to a neocolonialist attitude where the ex pats become entrenched in a game of ‘us and them’. In that case I have to ask, “Why leave home at all if you’re going to live in a sterilized bubble?”

#Culturetainment, as I call it, is to develop the right frame of mind to enjoy your new home, and find the good, rather than the bad, in the culture you have decided to co-exist with . The world as we know has gone western, or haven’t you noticed? No one traveling on business lives in a grass hut surrounded by half naked servants. The economic miracle of the past forty years has brought millions of people, in countries like Thailand where I reside, into the modern age.

Without exception it is possible to live a very satisfactory lifestyle here in the ‘third world’, often with more mod-cons than we have in the west. Thailand for example has embraced technology and provides internet services far in advance of those offered in Canada, my home country, at far lower price points. There are more fast food franchises than ever before. I’ll fess up and freely admit to making the KFC soft ice cream cone part of  every day.

Yes, the street life scene can seem a little weird at times. Society isn’t as stratified here as in a western city. You’ll get everything, across the spectrum, on any city sidewalk. There always seems to be a million people around you, and you have to get used to the idea that personal space rules are not in effect. Sensory stimulation is on overload, it’s never quiet, there’s always so much going on. Asians use loud music to block out the traffic noise. Trish and I appreciate the excitement, versus the sedate predictability of a western city.

I can guarantee you’ll feel alive in an environment like this, and when you’ve had enough, you can always go back to your modern little high rise apartment and stream Netflix. But…to go ‘ballistic’ because the ‘foods too spicy’ or some other excuse, don’t be absurd. Enjoy the free #culturetainment’ and remember, you can sleep when your dead.

sleep when you're dead

sleep when you’re dead

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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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

Trisha and I collect memories, not possessions. I blame this on my addiction to travel and to her enabling me…and now me her…because she’s the driving force these days. I make a good travel companion. I love to sit and watch life roll by. Neither of us has any interest in homemaking, decorating, automobiles and the like. We own a house but haven’t spent more than an occasional  few weeks there in the past few years.

We must be getting good at what we do. Our perch in a Bangkok hi-rise is pretty comfortable. Amenities are easier to find than they used to be. The internet has set us free free in so many ways. We can work, study, invest, pay our son’s tuition…watch Netflix USA movies at night and our favorite international news and radio channels all online, without skipping a beat. The only differance we experience from place to place is the time zone.

Right now, I’ve got ‘KHYI 95.3 The Range’ streaming ‘Red Dirt Texas Music’  through external stereo speakers. Red Dirt  sounds good in Thailand, the lyrics are often magical. I have a bank next door that accepts every plastic card I carry. The ATM’s work as well as anywhere. The exception is that the cost of living is so much more reasonable here in Thailand that I don’t visit a bank as often as I would in Canada.

We occasionally talk about ‘what we should do today’…and mostly come to the same conclusion…we’re already there. I have a great view of Bangkok from a distance. The swimming pool below my balcony is where we spend most days. Swimming is the perfect exercise for body and mind. You can swim in the rain, under the stars, watching monsoon thunderheads race by. Listening to thunder pounding down in the distance like an artillery barrage is provocative. When life is this perfect…why seek change?

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