Alex Wright


Siam Diary: Part I

May 10, 2004

Two Thailands

And who can so describe a city as to give a significant picture of it? It is a different place to everyone who lives in it. No one can tell what it is.

Somerset Maugham, on Bangkok
Any
farang who travels in Thailand faces a choice between two countries. There's the post-beatnik paradise of $5 bungalows, full moon parties and 50 cent beers; then there's the Capital culture of men in suits, fine hotels and air-conditioned Mercedes weaving among the tuk-tuks.



S J Perelman described the juxtapositions of Bangkok as "complex and inconsistent. It seems at once to combine the Hannibal, Missouri of Mark Twain's boyhood with Beverly Hills, the Low Countries and Chinatown."

It should be noted that these divergent cultures do not necessarily split along generational fault lines. You are just as likely to spot a well-heeled 25 year-old chatting up a "bargirl" in Patong as you are to see a 50 year-old Bobo hobbling under the weight of a backpack through the Chiang Mai airport en route to the jungle.

From a literary vantage, you could approach Thailand through the white suit prism of a Somerset Maugham � a Man Abroad - or through the Day Glo kaleidoscope of an Alex Garland � a neo-hippie searching for sensory bliss somewhere up the river.

The Thais themselves consider their country divided in two distinct social orbits: the khon muang (sophisticated, well-mannered urbanites) and khon ban nok (roughly, rednecks).





And there is another Thailand as well, underlying the others: the Buddhist kingdom, seat of the Theravadins, sought by the likes of Thomas Merton (who died in Bangkok on his final trip, pursuing a deepening interest in Buddhism after meeting the Dalai Lama), Jack Kornfeld and numerous other would-be adepts.



It's a country of kings, a country of tribes, a country of monks. Since it was our first trip to any of these Thailands, we wanted to see them all.

We divided our trip roughly in two parts. For the first 5 days, we did it up in high style: staying at the posh Oriental hotel, and at a Western-style beach resort on the island of Phuket. We dutifully toured the Wats, had our feet massaged and our fortunes told.

For the second week, we said goodbye to the good life and hung our mosquito net from a Teak bungalow in Ko Samui, neglected to shave, rode a motorcycle, took the night boat to the full moon party on Ko Phrag Nan and - completing our plunge from highest to lowest end of the lodging sprectrum - shacked up with a hill tribe family in a straw hut up in the mountains.





Over the next few days I'm planning to write about some of what we saw.

Next: Bangkok


File under: Travels

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« ooo | Siam Diary: Part II »

 

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