Friday, October 12, 2007

Udon Interlude

Last night I was drinking a draft of Guinness in the Irish Clock pub in Udon Thani and talking with three expatriates about life in this large city, capital of the province of the same name in the northeast of Thailand. Bob, 58, is a retired lawyer from Berkeley and he was there with his Thai wife and six-month-old son, Patrick. Joining us was Brendan, a 41-year-old Irishman who lives with his Thai wife and child in Wales where he works in construction. They return periodically to visit and Brendan hopes to eventually retire and live full-time in Thailand, although he said that dream is far in the future. Also drinking with us at the bar was Rick, a burly red-faced Australian about my age, who recently separated from his Thai wife. She now has another farang boyfriend. “I’m glad, because now I don’t have to pay her support,” he said. Rick, who came to Udon to visit a cousin eight years ago and stayed, with occasional visits home, is a golfer and he ticked off for us all the courses he’s played in Isan, the name for this corner of Thailand where the Americans had a major air base during the war in Vietnam.

I listened carefully to their stories because from time to time, ever since meeting a lady from Udon in Koh Samui last winter, I have wondered what it would be like to marry a Thai woman and settle down here, in the city or in a village. Jerry certainly seems happy with Lamyai, his wife of four years who comes from a small hamlet in Surin farther to the south. For my Samui friend, Udon was home and she spoke of it reverently; the beach and the bright lights of Bangkok could not compare.

My guide and translator had left her car in Nong Khai and we drove down here yesterday after crossing over the Friendship Bridge from Laos and taking a tuk tuk to where it was parked. There is a wide divided highway for most of the 50-kilometer drive that passes through farming country which looked more prosperous than I imagined since Isan is the poorest area of Thailand. Udon, with a population of over 200,000, seemed big and busy. I saw only a few multi-storied buildings: the bland but well-appointed Charoen Hotel where I am staying and the large shopping center not far off that includes a KFC, a multiplex cinema and a bowling alley as well as computer and clothing shops. It’s the cultural heart of the city, I’m sure. Across the road is a street full of bars, many of which are owned by a single farang, I was told. This tradition of providing a meeting place for men and women began during the American war thirty years ago when the older wing of my hotel was built to accommodate soldiers on R&R. On my walk to the Irish Clock I was accosted by a number of streetwalkers who promised me innumerable pleasures if I would be their “friend.” I have been told that the bars of Bangkok are full of women largely recruited from Isan, Udon in particular.

There was consensus among the drinkers, all of whom were smoking “cheap” Thai cigarettes, that Thailand, and Udon Thani in particular, was a wonderful place to live. Bob talked about how his ex-wife had begun to look like his mother, and Rick said that no young woman in Australia would give him a second look. Brendan acknowledged that Thai cultural values, which encourage women to ignore appearances and serve their men, were important to him. Bob said that he met his wife just after she returned “with a broken heart” from Europe where she was living with another man. “She told me she wanted only two things, to be financially secure and to have a baby, and I’ve given her both.” He said he was aware that it was his resources that made him attractive to her, and not his large midrift and thinning hairline. But the lawyer, who retains his membership in the California Bar, admitted that he missed his high-pressure job back in the states, and that he had some difficulty finding things to do, despite the demands of being a new father (his infant son has three fully-grown half-brothers back in America). Rick encouraged him to play more golf. The men were quick to encourage me in my search for a Thai companion, and I sensed in them a need for agreement to affirm their own life choices.

I left the bar feeling sad and confused. Why, if these men love Thailand, do they congregate in an Irish pub to talk about the weather and politics in Europe and America? Two of them are Catholic and plan on sending their children to one of the two Catholic schools here, both of which are expensive. I doubt that any of them spoke much Thai. Brendan agreed that it was harder, if your woman spoke English, to have the incentive learn their tongue. I suspect that Buddhism was never an option for them (isn’t golf a kind of religion?). Bob told me in an email earlier that he did not want to live in a village but rather preferred the amenities that a city had to offer. He gave me a copy of “The Udon Thani Guide,” but there seemed little in it that appealed to me. Many of the ads were for the city’s bars, a major draw for farang tourists. Aside from life with a beautiful younger woman who seems to ignore your age and potbelly, I’m not sure what roots them in Udon (of course, I mustn’t forget golf).

This morning I had a traditional Isan breakfast, which included a fried egg, pork, and various kinds of sausage, along with fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee. Later this afternoon I will visit a large park and lake around which people congregate in the evening for walking and exercise. Tomorrow I return to Bangkok with a suitcase full of dirty laundry.

Already I miss the louvered windows of Luang Prabang, so reminiscent of French country houses. On Wednesday we rented bikes and rode all over the town, visiting different temples on yet another special day when Buddhists take flowers and other gifts to the wats in order to pay their respects. I thought the day before was Buddha Day, one of four in the month to match phases of the moon, but perhaps it’s a two-day affair in Laos. Thailand has Buddhist wats everywhere, but Laos has twice as many. The architecture and the iconography of all of them, even those crumbling and black with age, is breathtaking and inspiring. Gothic cathedrals can barely compare. Why do I not feel oppressed by the omnipresence of Buddhism here whereas Christianity, particularly in the American south, feels like an imposition, the churches a thumb in the eye of hedonistic culture. Buddhism is not about instilling guilt for being human. While I’m not crazy about the mixing of superstition and fortune telling with Buddhist precepts, it seems to empower its adherent to live fully in this life and not wait for the hereafter (although a good rebirth is the goal of every Buddhist). Maybe this religion does not seem oppressive to me simply because it is different, more a curious artifact that something drilled into my brain. For most Thais, Buddhist moral values are inseparable from the good; there is no distinction between the secular and the sacred as there is in the West. On Wednesday at Wat Sensoukarahm, I listened to the afternoon drumming and gonging by orange-robbed monks in the drum tower and I watched the grandmothers in the temple lighting candles and sticks of incense before a large altar festooned with golden Buddhas in various poses. This image will remain with me, along with another featuring the sound of young monks chanting one night in a wat near the handicrafts market.

Another ubiquitous image in Luang Prabang is the red communist hammer and sickle. I saw it on tee shirts, hats, and small flags atop tuk tuks. Riding past the police station on our bikes, I first saw the Laotian flag and then, on the side of a wall, a giant hammer and sickle. The other image resonant of Laos’s socialist credentials is the face of Che Guevara. His tee shirts were on sale in the handicrafts market, and one day I saw decals with his face plastered all over a khaki-colored jeep parked on the main street. It reminded me of the stall at the Chatuchak Market in Bangkok full of communist chic. In Laos I wore the tee shirt I bought there with the picture of Karl Marx on the front and a quote from the “Communist Manifesto.” I thought it would be appreciated, but as far as I can tell no one noticed. The backpackers are all too young to recognize his bearded face.

Back in Thailand, we stopped by the Sala Kaew Ku Sculpture Park outside Nong Khai. It was created by Luang Pu (Venerable Grandfather) Boun Leua Sourirat, a Laotian mystic shaman, who died in 1996. He supposedly met a Hindu sage from Vietnam named Kaewkoo who introduced him to the mysteries of the occult. Before the communist takeover in 1975, he began his sculptures at Xieng Khuan (Spirit City), which is now Buddha Park on the outskirts of Vientiane. After the Pathet Lao crushed such subversiveness, Luang Pu crossed the river to perfect his art at the pavilion of Kaew Ku. The park is a smorgasboard of the weird, huge statues of Buddhist and Hindu deities cast in brick and concrete by Luang Pu’s crew of unskilled artists. My guide finds the imagery horrifying and refused to accompany me until I agreed to hold her arm while she kept her eyes closed. The shabby park was empty the morning we visited, the dirt car park surrounded by mostly vacant stalls for the nonexistent tourist crowds. I found the whole scene rather delightful.

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