Monday, November 19, 2007

Don't Worry, Be Happy

In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double
Don't worry, be happy
Don't worry, be happy now
Music & lyrics by Bobby McFerrin

Taken from the words on a poster of the silent smiling guru Meher Baba, Bobby McFerrin's a capella song, a hit record in 1988, is good advice as well as a succinct (though probably unintended) summation of the Buddha's teaching. Worrying about the inevitable anxieties of life just makes them worse. Wisdom like this, with perhaps an academic twist, will be offered at the 3rd international conference on Gross National Happiness which will be held next week at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. The GNH index was invented in 1972 by Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck as a way to define life in a more spiritual and psychological sense than the economic Gross National Product (GNP) can. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. Conferences in 2005 and 2006 were held in Nova Scotia and Japan.

With happiness as my goal, I set out last Friday to visit Koh Samet, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand just off the coast, 4.5 kilometers from the port of Ban Phe in Rayong Province, itself a three-hour bus ride from Bangkok. Samet, named after a ubiquitous tree (also called cajeput, a member of the eucalyptus family) found on the island which is used for everything from medicine to boat building (not to mention producing an aromatic oil), is popular with Thais as well as tourists. In 1981 it was included in the Khao Laem Ya-Mu Koh Samet National Park. This means, among other things, that foreign visitors must pay a 400-baht entrance fee (only 40 baht for Thais). Unfortunately, becoming a park hasn't stopped development of the fragile ecosystem and some of the pristine beaches resemble strip malls full of bungalows, bars and restaurants.

The island (sometimes spelled "Samed") is famous because it is supposed to be the setting for much of the epic poem, Phra Aphai Mani, written by Thailand's Shakespeare, Sunthorn Phu. Born during the reign of Rama I in the late 18th century, the writer led a colorful life which included imprisonment for an affair with a lady at court. Released to marry the woman, he was appointed court poet before becoming an alcoholic, losing his wife and going to jail for fighting. He began his long poem in prison and published it in installments over 20 years. The story follows the title character, Prince Aphai Mani, a hero of Byronic proportions, in his romantic adventures throughout ancient Siam. On Ko Kaew Phitsadan ("vast jewel island," a reference to the white sand), the prince is rescued with the help of a mermaid from the clutches of a female giant whom he defeats by playing a magic flute, and the mermaid and he have a son named Sudsakorn who spends much of the poem looking for his father who has gone missing. A cheesy statue of the prince and his mermaid wife sits on rocks at the end of Hat Sai Kaew, "Diamond Sand Beach," the largest of the 13 coves (ao) or beaches on the east side of the island (the west is mostly barren with only a couple of resorts).

At Ekamai bus station in Bangkok I was able to get a round-trip ticket on both the bus and the ferry from Ban Phe to the island for under $10. A steward provided water and a hand towel, and we were treated to a gory slasher film, "The Hills Have Eyes II," dubbed in Thai, on the overhead TV. There was a short wait for the ferry, which would not leave until it had at least 20 passengers, and the crossing in the ancient boat was smooth. Koh Samet is shaped like a P and most of the ferries arrive at Na Dan pier on the north shore. Passengers are greeted by a fleet of green pickups that serve as buses, and, after paying the entrance fee, we headed south on a bumpy dirt road My destination was Ao Pudsin (or Ao Tub Tim, depending on which of the two places you choose to stay), where I had reserved a funky driftwood bungalow with shower (cold) and fan, and a stupendous view of the sea in front of my porch. A footpath links the beaches and, for reasons mentioned below, I never got father south than the next cove, Ao Nuan.

I am becoming a bit of a connoisseur of Thai beach destinations, having visited Koh Samui, Phuket and Pattaya (it's a hard job but know the cliché). The first thing you notice about Koh Samet is the heavy presence of Thais, and some of them swimming in bathing suits and not their clothes. In addition, this is family-friendly island and there were kids everywhere (I watched one five-year-old boy diligently attempting to dig an anchor out of the sand where the speedboat driver had dropped it before heading off to get something). Farang and Thai children played together in the surf and built sand castles with buckets. And there were almost as many dogs, sleeping on the sand and chasing frisbees. There are bars, mostly attached to resorts, but no discernible bar scene like in Pattaya or Phuket's Patong Beach.

What there is is one long party, from all manner of water sports during the day (including parasailing and surf paddle tennis) to fireworks, outdoor dining, hot air balloons (the small kind, powered by a candle), and fire shows at night. At dusk the deck chairs and umbrellas along the beaches are replaced by mats, Thai pillows and low tables with candles for lighting. Some of the bars, Like the one attached to Naga's Bungalows, feature special prices on drinks (Ladies Night!) and advertise movies to watch. We picked Ploy Talay ("jewel of the sea") Restaurant and grabbed a front row table for the advertised fire show. After dishes of crab, shrimp and clams, washed down with beer, we listened to a cover band from the Philippines and watched fellow diners sucking on hookah pipes (quite a popular addition to the traditional menu). To the north of us, amateur and some more professional fireworks lit up the night sky. Off the coast we could see the lights of fishing boats. And south of us the small balloons (more like lamp shades) rose toward the half moon ("only 250 baht and good luck for you!"). Above our heads a large-screen TV relayed a soccer match from far away. A steady stream of revelers strolled up and down the brightly-lit beach, including an elderly woman, all sinews and bone, whom we nicknamed "The Walker" for her non-stop power walks back and forth from Hat Pudsan to Hat Sai Keaw, a distance of several kilometers.

The Ploy fire show was spectacular (you can see for yourself, and mine is not the only YouTube video of it). Nine performers, the youngest in the low teens, twirled flaming batons and fiery balls at the end of chains to produce a dazzling array of moving images. Playing with fire is universal now. My daughter Molly performed in a fire show at a club in Santa Cruz. And I believe fire shows are popular at Burning Man (maybe the first "man" made a costly mistake?). Several of the boys had bandages on their arms, and all were soaked with sweat and soot by the time the show ended. But they were clearly having a good time. Their tips were richly deserved.

So what does it take to find happiness? It can't be just a matter of sensual pleasure. Besides, the senses become dull and blunted with time. And it isn't just a matter of creature comfort. For much of the weekend I was snuffling and coughing with a cold. And Saturday night I realized the mistake of not using sun block. My chest, back and shoulders were red as a lobster even though I'd pointedly sat in the shade (playing in the water without protection was a mistake). Because of the sunburn, I decided not to hike in the sun the next day south to Ao Wong Deuan, the second largest beach on the island. But none of that dimmed the happiness I felt while spending an idyllic weekend in this tropical island paradise. Even though the rich DO live better than the poor, it didn't cost me all that much money (under $150 I suspect). Perhaps as an elderly retired gent, it's the happiness that comes with an absence of day-to-day stress and the typical concerns of settled life (is there enough gas in the car?). Being single, I have no one to think about except myself. I'm not sure that everyone would appreciate the uncertainties and daily puzzles of travel abroad, living out of a suitcase, but I am thriving . Life in Thailand is infinitely fascinating. And I find that even being unable to speak the language, which means that the simplest signs are mystifying -- being constantly out of control -- is exhilarating. When asked, I can truly say these days that I am happy.

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