Sunday, February 22, 2009

Thailand - Bangkok

Alas my gorgeous and enthralling holiday in South East Asia has come to a close.

The 26 day journey broke down into four parts, corresponding to the four areas I visited: Bangkok, Jomtien, North Western Thailand, and Luang Prabang in Laos.

My first destination in Bangkok was the Khao San road, near to which I stayed with my friend from China for a few days. This is the main backpacker area of Bangkok. Made even more famous and commercial by the 1997 film ‘The Beach’, a film that itself complained about how famous and commercial it had become (!), my first impressions were pretty negative. Too many westerners, too much vanity, too much neon-lit, noisy superficiality masking emptiness within. No, things did not start well.

But then very quickly I calmed down. As I let my ego’s neurotic preoccupations with Ningbo wash away, helped in this transmutation by Tolle’s masterful words, I came to appreciate the vibrancy and youthful energy, the beautiful, approachable women, the abundance of bars, nightclubs and intriguing shops, the constant invitations to be massaged (though I never was), the general congregation of souls eager to have fun and escape beneath the endless, not (yet) too fierce sun.

Many of the young backpackers are just passing through, coming from the beaches to the south or the hills to the north. Or perhaps they’re on their way to Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam, or have arrived from there, if they haven’t just flown in from the West, or come to the end of their journey and returning home.

As for the Western men who seem to be less temporarily established, many, be they young or middle aged, are accompanied by Thai women. If you suspect some of these couples had met here, after a less than extensive, relatively undemanding courtship process, you might not be entirely mistaken. As you may know, it seems there is an elaborate industry in Thailand, of varying degrees of organization and explicitness, devoted to the pairing up of western men (farangs) and Thai ladies, ladies eager to make money, often much more than they could doing anything else, often with the intention of sending much of it home to their parents in the countryside (more of this perhaps later, in a separate post).

As I wrote earlier, my early days were principally spent dancing, a time during which, because of these exertions, and despite the amount of beer I drank, I quickly began to lose weight. In this thinning out process, however, (I am now 5kg lighter than I was when I left China) I was further helped by the tendency of Thai restaurants to serve fairly small portions, a practice, alas, not pursued by Chinese restauranteurs, who presumably want to fully exploit my greedy and ravenous appetite.

Four late nights of dancing in a row, combined with inadequate sleep, conspired, alas, to make my trip to Bangkok less the tour of its cultural richnesses than it might have been. Since I had such a good time, however, I didn’t let my guilt get the better of me. That said, my decadence had its limits. I managed to get to see Luang Pho, the gold plated 32 metre high standing Buddha, and to meditate awhile, lusciously, in the adjacent temple of Wat Intharawihan.

Later I took the ferry boat down the Mae Nam Cho Phraya river to Taksim, strolled around Thammasat University and relaxed and read a book, as instructed by my friend that I should, in Lumphini park. I also avoided the crime of all crimes against Thai culture – not to visit the Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace complex. The King used to live here before he moved north to Dusit Palace. Interestingly, as I discovered, the innermost recesses of this Palace, inaccessible to tourists, are now occupied by a finishing school for high class Thai women.

Regarding the King, you may have heard about the recent release from prison of the Australian writer, Harry Nicolaides, who, before the intervention of his Government, had been sentenced to prison for three years for insulting the King and the Crown Prince in his 2005 book Versimilitude.

Insulting the King is not a good idea. Only in Syria have I seen pictures of a country’s ruler more prevalently on display. Yet, wheareas there, I could never tell how authentic the regard was in which he was held by the people, in Thailand reverence and affection for their Head of State runs deep. Being as he is semi-divine, it is not unusual to see beggars bowing in supplication before his image. More generally, Thai money, all of which carries the King’s image, is handled with deference.

That said, like Britain’s, Thailand’s monarchy is constitutional, having become so in 1932, and the polity itself democratic. Whether or not the King’s exclusion from matters of political decision making (or relative exclusion should we say) helps or is irrelevant to the esteem in which he is held by the people, is an interesting question. I don’t know the answer, but would suspect that, just as in Britain, the Monarch standing above the political fray works to his advantage, it not requiring him to be associated with the crossfire of profane ideological dispute. Perhaps it’s the case that monarchies can’t have it both ways. They can either be political, in which case they must curtail democracy, or else they can sanction democratic political expression, in which case they must exclude themselves from politics. To have a King or Queen who is both a political player in a democratic context and the recipient of sufficient esteem such as to be more than a mere president, seems unlikely, if not oxymoronic. Perhaps it could only work in a polity resembling the court of Arthurian romance; in which all decision makers are united in bonds of shared allegiance and devotion under the Monarch to some enchanted, overarching principle or ideal, yet free to think and dissent as they see fit in practical matters; the Monarch acting as final source and focus for synthesis, not the supplier but the final focus for the crystallisation and articulation of acceptable compromise.

Ask Johnny Rotten, but there's no doubt our attitude to the acceptability of insulting our Queen is not Thai. Speaking as a monarchist, do I mind? Actually no, I don’t. Indeed I’m glad we have the freedom to criticise such an innocuous and evidently laudable character if we are so eccentrically persuaded; someone who, at the very least, can hardly be imagined to be doing what a de-politicised Head of State is expected to do any worse than a secular president might; and probably a whole lot better, and with a far more genuine smile, besides. But anyway, Mr Lydon has always been something of an exception. Most British republicans attack the monarchy, not the Queen herself. Only in 1997 in the surreal wake of Diana’s death did the tacit universality of British respect, if not love, for Elizabeth II meet a genuine, if ephemeral, challenge. But overall, as it’s a cliché to say, the monarchy’s not going anywhere until she dies. And the fact that we are free to demean her, yet to such a great extent do not, speaks volumes. It will be interesting indeed to take a measure of our feelings for this mysterious individual, who cleverly never gives interviews and keeps her opinions to herself, on the sad day when she passes away.

But returning in my thoughts to Bangkok, I left with a definite sense that I had not plumbed the depths of this ‘City of Angels’. There’s no doubt I’ll need to come back one day. But time was short, and the beaches, or rather a beach, was calling me, as were the hills to the north.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Younger Man

I have been looking over my young writings again and uploaded an entry for the year 1989.

I make no claims for their value. That is not a judgement I can make. Whether or not I say this only because of the delight and comfort I gain from gazing into mirror images of my youth, I’m not sure, but anyway. To be certain I feel attached to them, almost protective, perhaps because they meant so much to me at the time. Back then, what was most real and honest about myself was funnelled into them in a way it never could be anywhere or to anyone else.

If it weren’t for the fact that internet space is free and endless (apparently?), that it will cost you nothing to read them except time - which may or may not be precious to you - I wouldn’t presume to burden you with them.

As I read them now, it’s clear they are the writings of a much younger man. The buoyant and restless, unselfconscious and ‘adolescent’ flavour of this 18 year old makes me, a 37 year old, laugh. I wouldn’t write such things now, even if I were to experience similar emotions or think similar thoughts. I can remember being this young man of course, but I couldn’t, despite that, be him again, if you see what I mean.

I think one of the points about 'growing up' is you become more sophisticated; you pay more attention to how your words will inevitably fit into the world of readers and other minds - even if you're only intending to write for yourself. You become therefore in a sense more self-conscious, as you become more sensitive to how your words will be received. There’s less of that sense of standing alone on a mountaintop, declaring and declaiming to the void in passionate, epic authenticity (or presumed authenticity, should we say). Or it could just be that as we age life becomes less fresh, as what happens to us becomes less new, but tends instead to repeat itself and so become less vivid; such that when we write this change is reflected in the greater serenity, or is it distance, of our style.

Anyway, I have no desire to patronise my younger self. He wouldn’t have liked it at the time so why do it now? Besides, the years 18-21 are the efflorescence of the rose of youth. They are our most idealistic years, and for that precious. For that they can be permitted their tones of extremity, if not indeed celebrated for them. I suppose?

Personally, I feel my best early writings (or at least those which I'm most fond of) were written not in 1989 but from 1990 to 1992. I hope to work on entries for those years too and on later ones as well, though I wrote very little between 1998 and 2005. Most of the writing is prose though some might be called 'prose/poetry' (the actual distinguishing characteristics of poetry remain, as it happens, rather unclear to me).

It may very well be wondered why I bother to do this. I cannot expect anyone will like them or appreciate them, but who knows? I ultimately do this for myself, or rather, to be more accurate, for the sake of the writings, since to such a great extent I'm no longer the person who wrote them. At the time of their composition it felt like they were the most important thing in my life, more real and important to me, indeed, than I was to myself. I showed them to nobody except Lee. I accept this was partially becasue I didnt want them to be criticised, given their role in my life. I was also, no doubt, driven by simple shyness, as well as by a lack of confidence about their worth. That said, I always sensed there was something in them that wanted to see the light of day. So now I'm glad I give them that opportunity.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Eckhart Tolle’s core teaching, as I understand it, is that we are trapped in our minds. As such we live predominantly in memories of the past and in projections of the future. By doing so, we live in exile from ourselves, since it is only in the present, in the Now as he calls it, that we can connect with and find that richness and peace which is our true nature.

I believe that Tolle’s particular perspective and approach is significantly novel and that it is particularly well suited to the Western mindset. Neverthess, in general, of course, his overall message is not unique. As I have been told here in Thailand by those with whom I have discussed his ideas, to a great extent his message echoes the teachings of Buddhism and other Eastern perspectives which in their own ways also seek to liberate us from the grasping, desire-fuelled tendencies of our ‘egos’ or lower selves, as it were. These Buddhist teachings hope to lead us to an Enlightened state in which we can rest, in full awareness and mindfulness, freed from suffering, no longer the victims of our internal, automatic reactions to external events and our own emotional states.

Central to this similarity is a shared emphasis that both Tolle and the Buddhists place upon the importance of the inner or esoteric life of the individual, as opposed to his purely external actions and behaviours.

And what I find myself particularly interested in is how this focus on the interior life of the individual contrasts with the very different priority given to man’s external life by the three major, monotheistic religions that might be called ‘Abrahamic’. I speak, of course, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Leaving aside the fact that esoteric, inwardly directed teachings can be found in each of these religions, for example in Kabbalism, in various forms of Christian heresy and in Sufism, it seems fair to say that each of these religions, in their mainstream expressions, are either suspicious of or explicitly hostile towards that kind of an emphasis on the interior, spiritual life of the individual that is the hallmark both of ‘New Ageist’ spirituality, to which Eckhart Tolle gives a contemporary expression and the various spiritualities of the Orient.

Why should this have been? Why are these three monotheistic creeds so predominantly externally focused, so centrally concerned not with the individual’s inner life and his quest for authenticity therein, but rather with what might be called humanity’s macrocosmic quest for meaning, truth and redemption at the level of community? In each of these religions what is most important is obedience to externally originated codes of morality or belief allied to a strong imperative to sacrifice the ‘self’. Far from a journey within, what is counselled is that we be somewhat skeptical and suspicious towards the virtue and value of our inner, personal realities.

I realise that I am simplifying the picture a great deal, that I may be laying myself open to be reminded of exceptions to these generalisations in both spheres – in the Western or Abrahamic and in The Eastern (including the New Age).

Nevertheless, in general terms the distinction seems real enough. Why for example in the West is prayer advocated far more than meditation. Moreover, why in the West is such a premium placed on the need to find ‘forgiveness’? Both these elements belong to an orientation that is externally directed. We are praying to a God who is outside ourselves, not inside, and our need for forgiveness implies that the most important centre of value in our lives, that which we find ourselves so easily offending, is external – be it other people or God.

At this point I feel that I am expected to make a decision and a choice….either for the Eastern or for the Western path. Without doubt liberal fashion and the spirit of the 21st century zeitgeist conspire to make me feel that I should join the chorus of denunciations of all things Abrahamic. That I should plump for the luxuries of the non-judgemental, individually anchored, Eastern glow. For sure, I must grant, I am very sympathetic to its appeal. And yet, and yet I hesitate. In the way I have always found myself hesitating when I have immersed myself in Buddhism and the New Age. The question, put simply, when I consider the East is this: What has happened to God? And after that, another question: What has happened to History?

More of that perhaps later, but sufficient now to recall some of the purported words of Yehoshua Bar Joseph (aka Jesus Christ) from the heretical, but for that far from uninteresting ‘Gospel of Thomas’:

“If those who guide your being say to you:
“Behold the Kingdom is in the heaven,”
then the birds of the sky will precede you;
if they say to you: “ It is in the sea”,
then the fish will precede you.
But the Kingdom is in your center
and is about you.(my italics)

While his overall drift might seem to be uncomplicatedly New Age, the last line gives us cause for thought. It reminds us, or me at least, of balance. That the external matters as well as the internal, the outside of the cup in addition to the inside (despite the reverse, corrective emphasis Jesus makes elsewhere with the Pharisees), and that for all that might be sung in praises to the richnesses of our individual, internal universes, we remain not islands but inescapably bound up in community in an external world that endures despite us; a world that should remind us that inwardness can only go so far before it topples over embarrassingly, if not dangerously, into narcissism and solipsism, twin aliments and afflictions of our times.

NB, I should add here, in the light of a comment on this piece that I am not implying that narcissism and solipsism are inevitable, necessary consequences of the eastern, inwardly directed, meditative path. Indeed, I accept that correctly practised, these disciplines do lead us to take the external world seriously (albeit not in the way understood in the Abrahamic paradigm). My point, rather, is that our Western culture is already narcissistic and solipsistic to varying degrees, sometimes extremely, and that what we require for that is an external corrective; something which I do not see coming from the East. Moreover, I suspect that many are attracted to a version of Eastern teaching that they have watered down and altered through an interpretive filter that allows them to continue to sit a shade too smugly, perhaps, in their self-revolving orientations. That's all. Surely it is not only me, for example, who has looked on, more than a little sceptically, at the ease with which some New Age teachings so often work to soothe, if not entirely eradicate, the societal consciences of rich people who might perhaps want to think a little more critically and imaginatively about their attitude to wealth?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Does Money Exist?

"If money actually existed", the old man said, "I might be persuaded to take it more seriously."

Actually, it wasn't an old man who said this, it was me.

Unless 37 counts as old, which I suppose it does.

Obviously, the non-existence of a thing doesn't prevent it from possessing great significance and importance in people's lives. After all, many (Hitchens and Dawkins, for example) will accept that God continues to be a highly relevant factor in society, despite, apparently, no longer existing.
But my question is: Will they also accept this about money, which also lacks either an organic or an inorganic base, and is just a thought we share. I suspect they will find this more difficult, the non-existence of money being harder to swallow, given its obvious and seemingly inescapable role in our lives (yawn).

We are indeed prisoners of thought, formerly of a caricature image of a tedious guy in the sky, presently of money, which has even less personality.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Smiling Land

On occasions I've felt, during my current visit to Thailand, that I should have been posting blogs. The urge to compose in the early days (I've now been here for 15 ) saw me saving messages in the archive section of my phone, with a vague view to writing them up here. These were primarily written while drunk in various nightclubs off the Koa San Road, where I also rediscovered my enthusiasm for tribal dance music and the associated effects it can have on my body in the form of dance.

Believe it or not, on more than two occasions I have received compliments from strangers regarding my choreographic choices. One guy seemed to think I was a 'dancer', by which I suppose he meant some kind of professional; though I liked it even more when he said that 'the women liked' my 'act'. I cannot deny it, such external validation is much appreciated, though it is not (thank God) the reason I like dancing. After all, I am not used to receiving it.

Pretentious is how I'll seem, I suspect, if I start attempting to address why I like dancing and what it means to me, so perhaps silence is wise.

Besides very late nights, a lot of energetic dancing, little sleep, constant tiredness, and multitudinous thoughts and feelings about women, my early Thai days featured the enlightening discovery of the great book by Eckhart Tolle, "The Power of Now". It says timelessly true things which, when read, seemed familiar and irrefutable. And yet, before they were read, before I had bought the book, these insights had been forgotten; in their absence I had indeed sunk beneath and been obscured by the weight and dross of my everyday Ningbo life. It was nice, it is nice, as always, to be liberated from the prison of thought and of mind by the rememberance that, despite pressures conspiring to persuade otherwise, we are not thought, no more than we are mind. I think I knew this with a greater, easier certainty as a four year old.

For sure, if we do not control and dominate our minds (correctly), and keep them in their place, we will be controlled and dominated by them, and lose ourselves by becoming their slaves.

Unfortunately, I will presumably have to return to an ordinary life of ordinary a little more than a week. If this is not a crime against humanity, what is it?