Friday, February 29, 2008

Happy Leap Day!

Congratulations to those born on February 29th -- they are only a quarter the age of the rest of us born in a similar year. In a list of those who would celebrate birthdays today supplied by Wikipedia, I could only find a couple of names that were familiar to me: Jimmy Dorsey the band leader, Dinah Shore the singer and Tempest Storm the stripper (Ina Coolbrith, the first poet laureate of California and a mentor to Jack London, died on the day Tempest was born). Maybe, astrologically speaking, it's a curse. My Tamil Nadu calendar predicts a so-so day

The big news in Thailand is the return of Thaksin Shinawatra. The former prime minister and head of the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party, who was overthrown by the military on Sept. 19, 2006, flew into Bangkok yesterday morning on a commercial flight from Hong Kong and was greeted by a crowd of thousands of fans at Suvarnabhumi airport. His return from 17 months of exile was made possible by the December election in which candidates from the People's Power Party, widely believed to be a front for Thaksin, won overwhelmingly. The PPP's titular leader, former mayor of Bangkok and host of a TV cooking show, Samak Sundaravej, took the posts of prime minister and defense minister. And although most believe he was hand-picked by Thaksin, it is expected that Samak will not defer easily to his puppet master's lead. Thaksin, however, declared to the press upon his arrival that he was finished with politics. But the 58-year-old billionaire, is popular among rural people and the urban poor, who applauded his populist financial and social welfare policies. While the crowds cheered, Thaksin was whisked away to the Supreme Court to face corruption and conflict of interest charges in connection with his wife's purchase of a prime piece of Bangkok real estate in 2003, while he was prime minister. Now that we have rabbit ears for our TV, I was able to watch these events unfolding live.

Mark Levy arrived in Bangkok this week with his friends Bob and Vivian Vaughan, and he brought gifts for me from Santa Cruz, most notably a chocolate chip cookie. It's been six months since I could walk the two and half blocks down Lincoln to Pacific and around the corner for my bi-weekly cookie fix (it would have been daily but I was trying to lose weight). Mark heard about me from my friend Mel, the wine merchant at Cost Plus World Market, and sent me email about his trip after reading my blog. He also brought pretzels and Twinkies for Pandit the British monk who has never seen them before (I expect to receive oodles of merit for this gift, but Pandit warns me that samsara is merciless). Mark and Bob were teachers at Santa Cruz High School (social studies and art, respectively), and Vivian was at Mission Hill. Now they're dedicated travelers and I was amazed to hear how many times they've visited Southeast Asia. Little has escaped their notice. This time they're making repeat visits to Angkor Wat and the Cambodian beaches, and they are traveling to some of the more unknown southern Thai beaches near Trang before journeying to Kuala Lumpur where they will catch a flight to Bali for the conclusion of their five-week trip. Their short stay in Bangkok was at a cheap guest house near Khao San Road, which Mark called "pseudo-Bangkok." But we laughed over that from our vantage point on the second floor of Starbucks overlooking my neighborhood of Sukhumvit Road where the prostitutes, female and pseudo-female, paced the sidewalk below. I suggested that Bangkok was just a collection of "pseudo-Bangkoks" and that the real Bangkok is illusive.

Perhaps the real Thailand is an illusion as well. Kathe and Michael emailed me Wednesday from Koh Lanta, saying they were tired of beaches and were coming back to Bangkok sooner than expected. When they arrived at Siam Court last night, we learned that their return flight to San Francisco was the following morning, a week earlier than planned. So on their last night in exotic Asia, we took them to eat at Isan House, a lovely outdoor restaurant with music and dancers a short distance away. Michael was suffering from a tricky tummy, sunburn, and wounds on his leg received when he crashed his motorbike on Koh Lanta. Both said they felt "burnt out." Just four weeks before, I had spent a day trying to show them Bangkok's friendly face, giving Michael a blister on his foot in the process. But I think they learned that the city has many interesting faces, not all as tacky as the backpacker's paradise in which they were staying. From here they flew to Chiang Mai where the noise from a bar across the river kept them from sleeping. Next stop was Luang Prabang in Laos which they loved. Because of the difficulty of getting a flight from there to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat, they flew back to Bangkok and went first to Koh Chang, an island near the Cambodian border which they found to be overcrowded. Traveling away from the island, they suffered through a long and horrendous journey by van and taxi into Cambodia on bumpy dirt roads. The poverty they encountered in that devastated country unsettled them. Returning to Bangkok, Kathe and Michael stayed here at Siam Court before flying off to Krabi and another island adventure. But the Koh Lanta they encountered was overdeveloped and crowded with Westerners. The heat was intense ("We are not beach people," Kathe told me) and they moved from a remote hotel to one closer to familiar amenities. Finally they decided it was time to go home.

I didn't spend enough time with Mark, Bob and Vivian to discover what it was that brought them back to Southeast Asia again and again. How did they adapt to the conditions described by Kathe and Michael (who, synchronistically, sold his Volkswagen van to Mark in Santa Cruz many years ago)? What happens when complaints outweigh the joys of visiting a strange place for the first (or umpteenth) time?

Coincidentally, I have been following a thread in Andrew Hicks' blog, Thai Girl, in which the attitude one takes towards a foreign place and culture is discussed. Hicks is a 60-year-old British corporate lawyer and university professor who is married to a Thai woman. They have houses in England and in Surin not far from Jerry and Lamyai's home. Thai Girl is the name of a novel Hicks wrote four years ago about a farang-Thai romance. He is currently completing a non-fiction book about his life here called My Thai Girl and I. We met a couple of weeks ago when we accompanied Jerry to hear a rockbilly band led by a Carl Perkins/Elvis Presley/Buddy Holly clone named Peter at the Soi 8 bar.

Andrew gave Jerry a copy of the manuscript of his new book. And after receiving his criticism, he wrote in his blog:
A very good friend of mine whose opinion I respect highly has just read the draft manuscript for me and he tells me that I have failed to get the balance right. The tone of the book he says is negative and jaundiced towards Thailand and this worries me very much.
So he submitted a chapter to his readers, "Things Fall Apart," and asked them to tell him if it was in fact too negative. Most of the responses, he wrote afterwards, "pretty much said that it should go in as it reflected their own experience here and I should tell it like it is." Jerry, in his comment on the blog, said that Andrew had missed his point. "It wasn't a matter of balance missing in the one chapter, there was no balance in the book; it's one long complaint." And he quoted Pico Iyer (from his introduction to Wanderlust, an anthology of stories from
Though it's fashionable nowadays to draw a distinction between the "tourist" and the "traveler," perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don't. Among those who don't, a tourist is just someone who complains. "Nothing here is the way it is at home," while a traveler is one who grumbles "Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo"---or Cuzco or Kathmandu. It's all very much the same.
I find this a very interesting distinction. A tourist complains while a traveler grumbles. What am I? Is there another response, "going native" perhaps?

I don't want to criticize Kathe and Michael for their complaints, or the possible grumbling of Mark, Bob and Vivienne as they visit Angkor Wat one more time and find that the ruins are now sponsored by Starbucks or McDonald's. I continue to walk the streets of Bangkok enveloped in an air of wonder. Of course there is poverty (even leprosy), and the heat and the humidity can be seen as oppressive. Why wouldn't the poor try to extract money from rich farangs? You can't blame them for trying. Development of scenic places is the way the rich Thais (and their backers) siphon dollars, pounds and euros from the tourists. Some of it trickles down.

Before I moved here, I used to cruise the forums at,, and Paknam Web. Some of it was pretty depressing. The expats living in Thailand seemed to be a bunch of complainers. The same rants show up in letters to the editor at the Bangkok Post and The Nation. Nothing but bitching and moaning. Behind it all was an assumption of superiority: we in the West are much better at...(fill in the blank). Well I, for one, find much that is commendable here in Thailand, in Asia, in the mysterious East. The culture, the religion and the food, for example. Of course there is a lot that doesn't work, the political system for one. But is it any better in America? At least Thailand is not invading or blockading small and defenseless countries like Iraq and Cuba, or trying to rule the world.

I wouldn't trade one single day of the last six months for the comfort and security of "home."

The well-dressed Thai always wears the right colored shirt for the day:

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