Thursday, February 01, 2007

Cultural Differences

Thim, my local guide, interpreter, and Thai language instructor, cast a critical eye over the beach scene. "No good," she said, gesturing at a topless woman bather entering the surf. There aren't too many of them, but just enough to scandalize the Thais. All of the guides I've read caution about ignoring cultural mores in Thailand. But it's a beach, and most of the sun worshippers are foreigners, and so the brazen ladies act as if it's the Mediterranean and not the Gulf of Thailand. On my part, I found their all-tan pulchritude refreshing, and a comment about that earned me a slap.

Thai people are not fond of the sun. In fact, I have not seen a single Thai woman in a bikini on the beach, topless or otherwise. There are plenty of Thais working on the beach, in restaurants, bars, or vending souvenirs and massages, but they are mostly covered up, as if a storm is about to blow in. Even construction workers are fully dressed and wear scarves around their faces. Only the eyes can been seen. Thim is obsessed by a fear of becoming "black," even though I try to reassure her that her skin is brown and it's beautiful. She lies on a chaise lounge under an umbrella wrapped in my beach towel. In a pharmacy I saw lots of creams and other products touting "whitening" properties and I know that Thim uses them. "I like white," she says succinctly. "No like black." In the TV commercials I've seen the models are all white. This obviously reinforces the sterotypical value ofwhiteness, but where does it come from? Most natives of this country are dark skinned. In America the pre-black Negroes used hair-straightening and whitening products to make them seem more like the dominant white majority. But here dark people ARE the majority. What gives?

This morning the clouds lifted and the sun came out again, after a day of overcast skies and sprinkles yesterday. We settled down in front of Georgio's Bao Bob Pizzeria and I contemplated the waves (Thim does not like salt water). We were surrounded by mostly overweight aging farangs like me, women as well as men. A few of the men strolled the beach in those tiny bikini trunks that Europeans seem to like; I've always found them repulsive. Eric Clapton was singing from the speakers at the Cafe Del Mar next door. The tiny Dow, always full of energy and a big smile, came to take my order for a cappuccino and Thim's for a watermelon shake. Like Thim she comes from a village not far from Laos and can speak Laotian as well as Thai. She asked me if I knew any single men and I told her I would send over my two unmarried sons for her to choose from. That seemed to please her. After a swim in the warm but turbulent surf, I invited the sun god to tan me. Later, we ate a four-cheese pizza for lunch.

Thim has a tiny amulet tied to her bra. It isn't Buddha, but rather it is an old man with a beard holding a staff. She told me it was "Chua Choc" (which I didn't hear clearly), and it was given to her by her parents for protection when she left her village near Udon Thani to work in Ko Samui.

I came to this internet shop earlier to write in my blog but discovered the power was out. Lamai Beach was strangely quiet, except for the noisy two-wheelers. No booming speakers from the bars playing rock and roll, or TV sets tuned to Thai soap operas. No rumbling air conditioners. Just the sounds of hundreds of birds in cages hanging from store fronts. Walking down to the main intersection, I found a number of trucks, large coils of wire, and cherry pickers with workers high up on the poles, and could see that new power lines were being put up. The electricity came back soon after, but for a little while Lamai had reverted back to a more primitive time.

The cough that has plagued me is breaking up. On my first visit to a pharmacy I received a liquid for a dry cough that did not seem to help much. But in Haad Rin at another pharmacy I got something called Bisolvon Ex that did the trick. At least for now.

Last night I strolled down the main street and found a bar that was showing movies. I had just missed "Dream Girls" but got there minutes after "Rocky Balboa," the new Sylvester Stallone franchise, had started. So I ordered a dish of pad thai and a big Heineken and settled in to watch I've missed Netflix and my regular movie fix. The film was clearly pirated and the words "Property of MGM" kept popping up on the screen. And although the audio was in English, there were also English subtitles. At least I thought so until I noticed how garbled they were. Clearly they were a product of a computer program, and a malfunctioning one at that. Malapropisms abounded. And it added some extra humor to the formulaic film about Rocky's 99th comeback fight. Cute, but no cigar. I'm looking forward to seeing"Dream Girls" at one of the luxury cineplex's in Bangkok next week.

My room on the second floor in the new wing of Amadeus is right past the last of the bars on the main street, and, despite the solid walls, I can hear the pounding of the bass and music from a dozen speakers. After the bar closing at 2 AM, I have also heard the occasional street fight. And then there are the dogs, dozens of them, who roam the roads and sometimes get into turf battles. Last night one barked in the parking area below my room for a long spell. But despite the noise, I like my room and I love waking up to the sunrise and going out on the balcony where I can look across at the bay and feel the sea breeze on my skin. This afternoon trucks came and removed the garbage dump, so now I have an uninterrupted view of nature.

Thais love their royalty. The king's picture is everywhere. I've seen a taxi with "Long Live the King" in large letters on the windshield. Then today I saw a man on a bike with a tee shirt that read on the back: "I don't want any women or massage." The perfect "no" to the overtures from every side on the streets ofLamai.

You wouldn't know it here, but martial law was lifted throughout the country last Friday. This is a land that has been ruled by a military junta since last September. The Constitution is being rewritten by a committee chosen by the coup leaders. Elected politicians thrown out of power are being investigated for corruption. They have been blamed for problems, liked cracked runways, at the new international airport. I expected to see some soldiers in the streets. But I've only seen happy tourists, and Thais devising innumerable ways to relieve them of their money.

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