Blog from Bangkok
On the one hand, farther away from Bolivia I could not be. My daughter and I examined the globe together before I left three weeks ago, one of those older globes where Germany is still two countries and the Soviet Union just one. Thailand is on the other end of the world, south to north, west to east. To get farther away you have to go to the moon. Imagine those frequent flier miles!
But in the back streets away from the high rises where the humble live in narrow alleys there is another Bangkok that feels like another Bolivia with different faces and hotter weather, and cats instead of dogs.
The Beatles are Back
I got taken to lunch one day, at a fancy hotel named for a US political scandal that was also the site for the training workshop I did here. My host was a 20-something sales representative for the hotel who considered lunching with people who hold workshops in his hotel as part of his job. I'd do it too if I were him – free food in exchange for potentially boring conversation. But I did my best for him.
Young men here aiming for a certain professional niche have a particular wardrobe look, identical almost, that can only really be captured this way – The Beatles in about 1964. This isn't the John, Paul, George and Ringo of later years with beards down to their chests and guru shirts bought in India. No the look here is tidy little black suits that look two sizes too small, with giant black leather shoes jutting out from narrow pants. Even the haircut bears a resemblance. I am going to come back in four years and see if Thailand's young professional class all looks like the hairy version of John in bed with Yoko. That would be cool.
So what is it like to be young and aspiring in East Asia at the dawn of the new decade? That seemed to me to be a worthy conversation over pad thai, green curry and sticky buns. If Naruebet, my focus group of one, is any true measure, one thing is optimism. He thinks his region's future is bright – growth, opportunity, excitement. I'm not sure his counterparts headed out of university in the U.S. feel that way these days. There, even after a brief stint of overstated Obama-era optimism, the mood seems more like, anxiety, concern and "crap, what bad timing."
Ok, let's talk China. Not just with him but also with others I have spoken with there is an assumption here that won’t make folks back in the USA too happy. The era of the USA empire is over, declining fast. It is all going to be about China now. That's what people here think. When I was in my 20s big name authors and my graduate school professors along the Charles used to say the same thing about Japan, and that didn't exactly work out. But China's formidable accumulation of economic and political power is likely to be stickier than sticky buns. For 10 points who can name the country from which the US government has borrowed close to a trillion dollars to finance our recent wars and bank bailouts?
"There are Chinese all over the world in high positions opening up economic opportunities for China," my young McCartneyesque lunch partner told me. What kind of empire would China be? "Pushy," he says. Well, I don’t suppose it will be more pushy than the U.S.
Buddha vs. Jesus
Okay, let's talk about the Buddha. This is one of my strongest memories from my last visit to Thailand, to up north in Chiang Mai seven years back.
Those temples. Now I don't mean to disparage Christianity of Christians, but let's just make a comparison on the surface. You walk into a Christian church and there are hard wooden pews, a place of worship designed to make you physically uncomfortable. And Catholics, by the way, don't make things better by adding all the rituals of standing up and sitting down, a particular torment for bored children. And the fellow up on the cross looks none too comfortable either. In the U.S. he looks like he is basically asleep in a really awkward pose. In Latin America Jesus on the cross is all blood and gore – the "suffering Christ" to match the suffering of the poor, my theologian friends might say.
But the Buddhist temples. No hard wooden pews, only open space and faded red carpet. No priests in uncomfortable collars or ministers in uncomfortable shoes, monks in loose-fitting orange robes and bare feet. Not only do they let visitors to the temple take off their shoes as they enter (Can you imagine an Episcopalian doing such a thing!?), it's required.
And the Buddha. He's not being tortured on a wooden cross. He isn't hanging uncomfortably. He is happy as can be in bright gold twenty feet high in what looks like a comfortable pose with his legs crossed. In a contest between a deity who supposedly died for our sins (before we were born and committed any, a confusing notion) and another who just wants us to relax, breath and here silence, Christianity has tough competition in the world. And also, from what I can tell, Buddhists don't go door to door either, trying to convince people. It reminds me of something I saw painted on a wall in Cochabamba. "Si Dios existe, porque tanta propaganda?" If God exists, why so much advertising?
Okay, moving on.
Here, when people speak of the King, they speak neither of Elvis, Larry or a chess piece. They speak of Thai's beloved 82-year-old monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej (pronounced Bhumibol Adulyadej). And believe me when I say, this guy's photo is everywhere. You would be hard pressed to pass a block without seeing his image posted somewhere. Massive portraits stories high are placed of the King everywhere. There are more of them and they are bigger even than those of Evo back in Bolivia (placed there by Evo mostly). And in most, he has a camera around his neck, old style, film not digital. He is Thailand's Kodachrome King.
The last time I visited Thailand I actually had time to go to a movie and learned the tradition of every movie beginning with a standing tribute to the King. I and the other five other foreigners that day who ditched their responsibilities to see the 2pm matinee of Liar Liar with Jim Carrey were required to stand up at the start for the full duration of a strange 5-minute film homage to the King that mostly included footage of him wandering around in nature with a camera around his neck.
Bangkok is a magnet for young foreigners, most especially from freezing Europe and nearby Australia and New Zealand, who seem attracted like flies and candy to the rituals of mass quantities of beer intake, cheap guest house rooms and cheaper foot messages, and riding about in Tuc-Tuc motorcycle taxis that give one the optimal opportunity to breath in the city's fumes of car pollution.
Whole strange industries have developed around these young tourists. Two favorites of mine include the opportunity to put your feet in a large tank of nibbling fish (I did not try this but perhaps Bolivia could do the same with piranha from the lowlands) and a quite creative collection of tourist-oriented t-shirts. These designs include the popular image of a smiling bride and frowning groom over the title, "Game Over," and another featuring a large tree asking a man, "Please hug me," and the man replying, "no." It might be a statement about global warming, I am unsure.
A whole street, Khoa San Road, is closed off to car traffic and dedicated to such tourism. Here you can by, among other things, a full collection of excellently produced false identifications, ranging from passports of various countries to a false California driver's license. I have only wandered this street twice looking for appropriate souvenirs to bring home, but I am pondering getting an Argentine passport in the name of Dr. Alfred E. Newman, should the need ever arise to have one.
Okay, we save the best for last. This part is important. Remember it. In Thailand almost all food is Thai food. Really! Do you what they call Thai food in Thailand? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner! I tortured my wife with that joke at least a half dozen times before I left home.
Curry in the morning!
Noodles at night!
Tom Ka Gai soup in the middle!
If I find bagels here as well I might never leave.
And so I say to all of you – sawatdee and see you back in Bolivia soon.