Sunday, January 26, 2014

Phun Phin, Thailand

Queen Hotel
Things that are different about Thailand, after fifteen years away:
  1. More expensive, often three times as much.
  2. More Burmese immigrants. Often I speak to people, like the cleaning lady this morning, only to have them not understand me. At first I attributed this lack of understanding to my awful Thai, but as my Thai has improved, I realized it's because often these service people don't speak Thai themselves, at least not well. I confirmed this morning, after learning the Thai word for Burmese. Luckily I've begun practicing my Burmese, too—at least hello!
  3. More farangs. And more Thai antipathy towards farangs. This I understand, though. It feels almost like an invasion.
  4. Different motorcycles. Fewer of the little real bikes that could carry an entire family of five, and more 125cc mini-scooters, bikes we don't even have in the States. K. is entranced by all of them, especially the minibikes hooked up with race exhausts and chrome fittings and extended swing arms and shocks.
  5. More normal-sized people. Thailand used to be a land of extremely thin people, despite everyone eating five meals a day, in which my 5'10” curvy frame was exotic to the point of embarrassing. My height still is, but my size less so. I attribute this less to changed eating habits and more to increased income. Thailand is now exactly at the median income when compared to the world. It's a truly middle-class country. Hence the importation of laborers and the ability of Thais to vacation and eat well themselves. So I can come here and my income is stretched farther (as opposed to living in the wealthiest country in the world), but I'm still not at the level of the wealthy Thais with designer clothes and Mercedes who stay at the resorts beyond the reach of most backpacking travelers. With their increased size (which I don't attributed to bad health—see this research) has come an obsession with thinness—an insane amount of advertising space devoted to food and exercise products to help people lose weight (see this ad). It's rather sad.
  6. Smiles. K. said it to me early on: it certainly doesn't seem to be the Land of Smiles, which is what Thailand used to call itself. I protested angrily, but then I noticed he was right. People don't laugh and smile and hide their faces the way they used to. Although now I practice meeting people's eyes and smiling first, and they smile back. Much more frequently than the farangs, who refuse to make eye contact at all. It is hysterical to me: as if they refuse to acknowledge the presence of other westerners in their own personal Thai paradise.
  7. Waiing. The traditional Thai gesture of greeting where hands are brought together as if in prayer. I have this feeling that people used to do it a lot more. But now when they do it, it seems to carry more meaning. People do it formally, bringing their hands together carefully and with deliberation, and do it in a context when they want to express true respect. I've taken to using the wai to honor those Thais that don't overcharge me.

Things that are the same:
  1. Dogs. I had forgotten about the packs of mangy stray dogs roaming the streets at night. The dog fights you overhear, the way the dogs live and die naturally in a way that's disturbing to American sensibilities. We used to call them udder-belly dogs because of their distorted teats and that is exactly the same.
  2. Quantity of motorbikes. The bikes may be different, but there still the primary method of transportation.
  3. Plants and love for plants. Something I had completely forgotten. Every place we've stayed, no matter how decrepit, has had an extended and well-maintained garden of potted plants. It's amazing how familiar this feels now, and how completely I'd forgotten about it.
  4. Outdoor life. Thais spend almost all of their time outside. Houses have their entire fronts open to the street. Restaurants don't discriminate between tables set up inside and those on the sidewalk. Thai old men sit out on the sidewalks in front of their business and shoot the breeze. This habit is one I had not forgotten about—in fact it's one I have longed for and will continue to long for while in the States.
  5. Sanuk—the Thai word for enjoyment, fun, pleasure, happiness. It's more than that, though. It's an entire attitude towards life, that it exists to bring us joy. Eating food is something Thais do for fun, as is almost everything else they do. Maybe farangs are held apart from this joy a little bit more than they used to be, but it's just as present. It's what all of us are here for, hoping it rubs off a little bit.
  6. Food, and food prices. The food, thank God, is exactly the same, and just as delicious as ever. Everything I've ordered, that I've longed for these many years, has tasted perfectly as it should. And food prices, for noodles and rice from sidewalk restaurants or street vendors, are exactly the same, if not lower compared to everything else.
  7. Individualized businesses. Walmart has yet to invade Thailand. Everyone still has a business that is specifically designed for one thing, whatever that one thing may be: welding, pharmaceuticals, bicycle parts, plants, crazy clay pots, fish, priestly garments, flowers for spirit houses, etc. I'm still nervous about big box stores finding a foothold here, but K. thinks Thais couldn't accept it culturally, and I hope he's right. You go to the shoe store for shoes, the fish lady for fish, the curry vendor for curry. It also seems like a much healthier economic model: you figure out what you can sell and then you sell it and you and everyone in your family has a job and an income. We've relinquished this independence to Walmart.
  8. Landscape. My sister said, when she got back from Thailand last year: “Thailand's been here, waiting for us.” I held onto that promise as I prepared for this trip, and I believed her, but still doubted. The beautiful attention to tiny detail covered in grime and surrounded by a sea of plastic trash. Casuarinas and banana trees and mangoes covered in fruit. Temples in the distance. The streets look the same. Thailand has been here, waiting. It's changed, but not so much as to be unrecognizable. In fact, more's the same than is different.

Maybe not what you wanted today, a list. But I've been wanting to encapsulate my experience in this way. Tomorrow, at one AM, we head to Butterworth, Malaysia, by train to extend our visas. We can apply for sixty days from Georgetown, in Penang, so we're going to try. Then we can relax for K's last two months here, go to Eesan or find a good bungalow and settle in, instead of worrying about visas all the time. I'm nervous, though, too—finally I'm going to experience a culture and food and language that are as alien to me as they are to him.

We booked a second night at the Queen Hotel, in Phun Phin, on the outskirts of Surat Thani, even though we won't get to sleep here. This is the sleaziest joint that we've stayed at yet. Bloodstains on the wall, boogers on the mirror, smeared dust from the headboard on the sheets. And meticulous flowers outside. I don't understand. I'm sure, too, that the floors and sheets are bleached after every visitor, that certain parts of the room are habitually cleaned (because they're clean) but it never occurs to anyone to, say, clean the mirror, or scrub the blackened pipes in the bathroom.

The rose in front of our hotel (from behind the motorcycles in the previous photograph)
We take almost masochistic pride in the level of flea trap we're able to stay in (although we always check for actual fleas). The sleazier a place is, the more likely we are to book a second night. Maybe we should take more pride in finding a good place at a low price! But I think we also like the towns where the grotty hotels are located. Yesterday we walked up a hill and down a soi. We saw real people, hanging out together in front of their houses, chickens, dogs. One woman asked where we were going.

“Duan du,” I said—walking and looking.

“Ah!” she said. “Duan len.” Walking and playing.

Then we found a wat and walked in on priests wrapped in their orange evening garments, chests bare. Another woman said we couldn't go down another soi—I wasn't sure if it was because it didn't go anywhere or something more ominous. I had this feeling that even though we were a block from where the backpackers make their run from the bus to the train, farangs rarely made it up here. We walked back down the hill and didn't go back today. It's really not hard at all to get off the tourist track. It's just not where most tourists want to be. Including us, in many ways. I'd rather be at a beach. But if I had to sacrifice a beach to be in real Thailand, where I can learn new words from the girl at the Seven (Eleven), where we can try new street food every day (today: barbecued whole squid stuffed with its own eggs), and still get a room for $7.50—I guess I'd give up the beach.

The view towards the train station of Phun Phin, with the ubiquitous Seven


Peter said...

Another great post! The thing about the potted plants and spending time outdoors are absolutely true...Thai people also seem to have much lower levels of stress than their Western counterparts, something which I attribute to the psychologically healthier collectivism of Asian more generally, combined with the general Thai laid-backness. I had an extensive conversation with the immigration officer at the airport when I was leaving, and two or three other guards were standing around too --- I had them all cracking up, with a whole line behind me. That would never ever happen in the I have to differ with you about the smiles, as I still find it an incredibly friendly place.

As for the big box stores...have you seen any Tesco Lotus? Those are the British Walmarts and they are arguably shutting down or at least taking business from a lot of the traditional fresh markets, at least in the bigger cities. Also, I would argue that Seven has taken quite a bit of business from the average mom-and-pop corner store --- the prices at 7-11 are often cheaper, sometimes by just a few baht (e.g. 7B bottles of water), but it's probably enough to have an impact.

Ed said...

A very well thought out and insightful post. I love your list and though I have never been to Thailand, I find that it applies to a couple countries I have been too.

I think Thais would not be immune to the influence of big box stores like Walmart if that company chose to put up a store there with the government's blessing. I say that because most asian ethnic groups that I see over here in the U.S. quickly adapt and love the conveniences of Walmart to the point that they prefer shopping there if given a choice of going to smaller stores. It has the name of the Walmart Effect and there are books written on the subject. It is definitely sad but I think inevitable. The only hope is that the governments refuse to let such companies come in and set up shop as several countries have done.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should take more pride in finding a good place at a low price!

Yes. Sounds like a better plan.

Melissa Jenks said...

I do think you're right about Thai laid-backness, and Thais are always willing to smile and joke if you give them a chance--but I do feel like there's been a hardening in those serving the tourist infrastructure. You have to find a crack in the shell, but I still think people are willing to smile back if I smile first. The "Seven" as it's called here does seem to be the biggest threat to small Thai business. We do as much of our shopping as possible away from the Seven, although we also go there frequently, especially to break big bills.