Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas in Pattaya

I had to get away for the holiday, and Pattaya is a short distance from Bangkok. It was the R&R beach resort of choice for many U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. The recent closure of the airport and the resulting collapse of the tourist season in Thailand does not seem to have affected Pattaya very much. I found the streets packed with the kind of revelers that sing "deck the halls with beer and condoms" rather than "Silent Night," and the touts of Walking Street, like the ladies above, donned their holiday best to attract their attention.

I'd been to Pattaya once before about a year ago, and the city's decadent charms qu1ckly paled for me. The harbor is so crowded with pleasure boats and jet skis that the water is polluted and the surf no doubt dangerous in which to swim. The thin strip of sand is packed with deck chairs and umbrellas and a grotesque assortment of aging and overweight Scandinavians and Russians in bathing attire too skimpy for their physiques compete for the sun's attention. On the narrow beach sidewalk, food vendors and hookers attempt to attract business from the passing parade of sex tourists and misguided families. Across the beachfront road filled with one-way traffic can be found high-rise hotels, restaurants, and an assortment of shops that offer useless and over-priced goods for the jaded visitors who throng a walkway too small for two people to easily pass. At night the bright lights of the justly famous Walking Street serve to hide many of the tawdry defects apparent in daylight, and last night "Jingle Bells" could be heard sung in bars decorated with red and white balloons where the ladies all were in slinky red dresses and wore Santa hats. There were fireworks over Boyz Street where the pseudo women dance. In the streets men could be seen holding hands. It's not the kind of place a good Christian (or Buddhist) would want to visit on his (or her) primary celebration.

I came here as kind of a joke only I could laugh at. Last year I was in India celebrating Christmas with full Catholic ceremony at Shantivanam, the ashram made famous by Father Bede Griffiths. The year before I was in London, staying in Helen's decrepit mansion. The sun did not shine for a week and the only white stuff was the remnants of an ice storm that made walking treacherous. I trudged carefully up Highgate Hill to a cold midnight Christmas Eve service in a Gothic church. The year before that I was at Holy Cross in Santa Cruz in the bosom of my faith community. But now I can no longer claim that identity. Remembering the ghosts of Christmas past is too painful. Were we really all that happy under the sheltering tree? So this holiday season, driven mad by the excessive decoration on display everywhere in Bangkok and the carols heard on store PA systems, I finally decided to get out of town. And Pattaya is conveniently located a short bus ride away. I traveled to the nearby Southern Bus Terminal and was on my way within the hour. Or so I thought. Not far out of the city the bus broke down. We sat beside the highway with the air conditioning turned off. A Frenchman and I tried to decipher the driver's explanation in Thai. After sweltering in the heat, we got off and found him looking at a couple of broken fan belts in the engine compartment. After a wait just long enough to be irritating, a replacement bus arrived and we were back on our way to Thailand's premier Sin City.

My purpose in coming to Pattaya was to visit a young lady here that I had met online. Her name is Banana (actually, her nickname is Gluai, the Thai word for the fruit) and she works at Friendship Supermarket for an unbelievably low wage. I soon learned that the emails I had received from her had actually been written by her sister who works as a computer clerk at a hospital in Sri Racha, the next city north of Pattaya. Both women are from a village near Pitsanulok, a province 375 km north of Bangkok, and both have small children being raised by mum. The sister has a husband but since both work they cannot take care of their child. Banana came to Pattaya two months ago and first worked at a fast food restaurant. Now she cooks for the market's owner and lives in a tiny room on a street full of bars patronized by aging farang (and that, my mother would say, is the "pot calling the kettle black"). I initially thought her lack of English would be "no problem." But it was. She was constantly on the phone to sister, asking her to translate. And sister was very insistent that I come to visit their family in Pitsanulok. I know that such a visit is tantamount to engagement in Thailand, and did my best to fend off the not so subtle demand that I join their family. Papa is a rice farmer, I learned, and their home does not possess a European toilet. It's not that Banana is unattractive; it's just that we've only met and they are already telling mum the fish is almost caught.

On my last visit here, I stayed at Ma Maison,a small, Swiss-run establishment with a cozy pool on Soi 13 which I found to be nice and quiet although close to the bright lights of Walking Street. But despite the public hand-wringing of travel agents and industry officials, it was full. I remembered another small hotel across the soi called The Haven and managed to get a room there for 1200 baht a night, with the addendum of a Christmas dinner priced at 800 baht (most of my meals are under 50). I wasn't planning to be festive in any way, but I succumbed. My room here is comfortable and the food is good. The other guests are almost all older men like myself, many with golf clubs. In the morning they shout over their newspapers about politics and the economy. I suspect many are retirees with little else to do but kibbitz about the world's woes. Is this my karass? The weather has been overcast, windy and cool (but nothing you would describe as cold). In the large nearby mall by the Ripley's Believe It Or Not! museum, a crazy Thai lady sits in a glass room surrounded by 5,000 scorpions that are scuttling around on the floor, trying to break her own previous record of 32 days alone with them. Her effort does not draw a very big crowd. In the evening I take Banana to Swenson's for ice cream sundaes in very big glasses. At the hotel she had to give up her ID card. This place keeps very close tabs on its guests, the majority of whom seem to be men and their Thai girlfriends. While Banana worked on Christmas Day, I stuffed myself silly with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, topped by apple pie a la mode.

Christmas is a holiday for families, or at the very least, friends, and I've gone far from both, geographically and morally. Perhaps that's the joke, and the joke is on me. When my marriage ended, I gave up the Currier & Ives image of Christmas, the Norman Rockwell vision of middle American values. I came to Thailand because it seemed an economic place to live out one's golden years, and it possessed a culture where old men are respected rather than tossed on the dust heap of society. Some of my children understand, and some do not. None seem particularly interested in caretaking an old man. I don't blame them; like most western parents, I taught them to be independent. Thais are scandalized by this. They believe family and friends care for one another unconditionally. Banana and her sisters, parents and relatives, would take care of me, if I so desired. In exchange for my resources, they would treat me as the patriarch, the role Jerry fulfills in his extended family of 27. But, as an independent westerner, I resist this particular Devil's bargain. So I spend my holiday relatively alone in Pattaya. Next week: What to do about New Year's Eve?

Eartha Kitt (how wonderful that the "Santa Baby" singer died on Christmas) and Harold Pinter, RIP.

Merry Christmas (and now Happy Boxing Day) from Pattaya:


Ananda Honculada said...

isn't that what we all seek--a caretaker, someone to care for us, someone who cares about us, someone who we can care for, isn't that we seek in our god, our family, our friends, our lovers, the right balance between ego and giving

Anonymous said...

A great blog with some lovelly pictures, thank's for sharing