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.

No comments: