by Myrna James
April 10-30, 1998
Sawasdee-ka (Hello in Thai)! Thailand is truly an amazing place. Not since
Melbourne have I been tempted to stay and stay somewhere, like I am here.
"Mai pen rai" is the first phrase people learn in Thailand. As the Australians
have their expression that typifies the casual attitude, "no worries," so
the Thai's say "mai pen rai," which essentially means the same thing, "never
mind." It is the most well-known phrase in Thailand.
My friend Tom Quintero from San Francisco joined me for a few days in
Bangkok and a week on the island. We were lucky enough to be in Bangkok for
Songkran, Thai New Year! April 13 is the first day of the traditional Thai
solar calendar. Songkran means "New Year" in Sanskrit, and the phrase for
"Happy New Year" is "Won be mai" sounding strangely similar to the phrase
from Star Wars, "Obi wan kenobi" as Tom pointed out! It was one of the best
nights of the year! Traditionally, everyone throws water on everyone else,
in the street, in stores, everywhere. It was steaming hot out, so the cold
splash was actually welcome. On this holiday, Thai's usually return to their
home villages, like Christmas for Christians, but not everyone. As Tom and
I were walking around town, after taking a high-speed water taxi, we were
approached by a young, darling Thai boy named Chan, who was about 22. He
grinned constantly, asked what we had seen and recommended some sites. He
stopped a tuk-tuk, a little open carriage like a rickshaw, to negotiate a
good rate for us, and as we climbed in, we begged him to come with us. He
began acting as our "guide" and Tom and I do not know to this day if he was
a "tout" paid by the shops he took us to, such as Tommy Fashions in the Pomprab
District. But he was such fun that we decided it doesn't matter. We enjoyed
spending the day and evening with him. That evening we had a wonderful Thai
meal overlooking the river with Holly from Chicago, whom we met at the hotel,
and Chan. He kept saying, "Lice for everyone!" meaning rice, of course, in
his Thai accent.
After dinner we joined the party in the street at Khao San Road, the famous
place for travelers. There was some sort of pageant going on, with gorgeous
dark local women in bright ornate flowing gowns gathering roses one by one.
I cannot tell you who won or what her title was, but it was a lovely sight.
All around the stage and until the wee hours of the morning, we danced and
sang, drank Singha beer and got soaked, absolutely totally wringing wet.
Most people had squirt guns or water bottles of all shapes and sizes. Prepared,
I had on a swimsuit and wore one guy's underwater face mask for awhile! One
strange thing happened with Chan. He proudly told us numerous times that
his father is a cop in the Khao San Road area, and it's almost as if he was
looking for trouble. He pointed aggressively at every guy I spoke with, accusing
"You got problem?" Tom and I don't know if he was being unrealistically
possessive with me or what. But check out this photo of the four of us! It
is one of my favorites of the year! The holiday officially is Monday-Wednesday,
April 13-15 but they begin celebrating the weekend before, and then for three
more days. No wonder they were all so happy on Sunday evening!
In Bangkok, we stayed at the Royal Hotel, royalty for which it was not
designed. It is, however, a good value as a budget hotel for about $25/night,
and it has a swimming pool, which was such a luxury in that heat! (The number
is (662) 222-9111-26. The address is Rajdamnern Avenue, Bangkok.) It was
also nice to avoid the hostels on Khao San Road, yet be near that area, for
easy money exchange, cheap food with surprisingly recent movies on TV in
the little restaurants. (This movie showing is the latest marketing gimmick
restaurants use to entice backpackers in for a meal.)
The economic situation in Thailand is interesting, of course, these days.
The US dollar is now worth 39 baht. About 6 months ago, it was 50 baht, so
things have improved in Thailand. However, in 1995 it was worth 25 baht,
when things were not as volatile. It seems to me that things are not as cheap
as people say. The economy is improving little by little.
Throughout Asia it is difficult to deal with the current financial situation.
I am caught between feeling guilty for paying so little for most things,
and feeling like I'm being ripped off, because usually you can get better
prices, just by shopping around or negotiating further. As Alex Garland notes
in his novel set in Thailand, The Beach, "I don't like dealing with money
transactions in poor countries. I get confused between feeling that I shouldn't
haggle with poverty and hating getting ripped off."
THE ISLAND: KOH SAMUI
The Thai islands are gorgeous, with the most beautiful sand beaches and
water I have ever seen, including Australia and Bali. The weather is perfect,
warm with low humidity. We stayed in beach bungalows, very nice ones right
on the water in Chewang Beach. It was interesting and lively, and it has
a tropical paradise feel. I was pleasantly surprised to find even the main
beach, Chaweng Beach, to be peaceful and fairly uncommercialized. Each "resort"
along the beach has its own quaint restaurant (a few also have small bars)
with special lighting for the dusk dinner crowd, who may watch the moon rise
and settle in its spot, projecting its power onto the sea, almost as an
invitation to swim out to it.
Koh Samui is not known as the "in" island at the moment, according to
the backpackers. They prefer more remote islands, such as Koh Phangan and
Koh Tau. Samui island is more touristy, with bars and clubs and lots of shopping
stalls along one unpaved pot-hole-ridden crowded street just behind the row
of bungalows and restaurants on the beach. It is not easy to find the balance
between over-priced resort and dirty dump in this area, but walking along
the beach to find accommodation, where many bungalows are hidden, works better
than looking on the main street behind. The beach side is where it's far
more beautiful and natural.
Tom found us a spot at OP Bungalows, at the northern edge of Chaweng Beach.
Our bungalow was really cute, with a small red fridge and air-conditioning
and hot water. (It's at 111 Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui, Suratthani, 84320,
Thailand, and the phone is (66-77) 422-424.) It was 1500 baht per night ($38).
After almost a week, he left and I decided to downgrade to a fan and hot
water for 600 baht/$15. No fridge and no air-conditioning! It's really hot
but I'm hardly in the room anyway, right? Keep in mind that they have only
had electricity here for about 6 years, and phones for 4 years, according
to Pen and Dah, who've worked here for 13 years.
Being here is like being in a short time-warp, as most third world countries
seem. They all have the old-fashioned Coke bottles, and everyone drinks Fanta,
an orange cola also manufactured by Coca-Cola. There are very few nice cars,
only jeeps and motorbikes, always dusty. It feels like the 70's and no wonder
with Donna Summer and the Bee Gee's blaring in the bars. As in the 70's,
popular culture was obsessed with the 50's, now in the 90's we are obsessed
with the 70's.
The Thai people have truly lived up to all I'd heard about their friendliness.
I had to walk in the sweltering heat about 2 miles to the post office, and
local Thai's offered me rides almost immediately. I jumped into the back
of a small pick-up truck with four local women who all smiled and wanted
to test their English, saying "You my friend." After they dropped me at the
corner, I jumped onto a motorbike with a skinny little guy whose barely
comprehending grin was almost bigger than his face. I just showed him my
letters and off we went.
Some situations are a bit more complicated. Thai's smile sometimes when
there are problems. Smiling at problems is hard to understand and frustrating
because it feels like they don't understand that a problem even exists. Their
cultural tradition does not allow them to become aggressive or angry. Often,
they will not admit that they don't know the answer to a question. I knew
there was a problem when they wanted me to put postcard stamps on heavy letters
with many photos, all going to the US. But I trusted them, and my letters
went off. I learned later that they were going by sea and would arrive in
3 months if I was lucky! It is interesting to deal with; the most important
thing for them is to "save face" and not ever get upset. They will answer
your question with the response you want, to keep you happy, whether they
know the answer or not. It's a lesson in patience for most westerners.
I became friends with Pen, a lady who has worked on the beach near OP
Bungalows for 11 years. She gives massages and manicures and does hair. She
cornrowed my hair into 54 braids. It took 1 ½ hours to braid, and two
hours to take out! I paid what I think was way too much, 800 baht/$20; my
massages were 200 baht/$5. I left the braids in for almost two weeks. It
was much cooler during the day, and easy to wash, but you really give yourself
away as a tourist with those braids. I actually looked like a dork, I think.
Not quite Bo Derek, though I do have one heck of a tan.
Tom and I went scuba diving with a small company, Dive Point near Koh
Tau, a nearby island. It was nice with lots of coral but few interesting
fish. Unlike Australians, people in Thailand are not educated about how long
it takes for coral to grow, and the importance of not touching coral. Most
Thai's don't swim, so they walk on the coral in shallow water, damaging it.
This was very noticeable on the dive. On the speedboat back, we passed the
infamous genitalia rocks, penis and vagina. I kid you not, they look remarkably
realistic, and are huge! I had heard about them, but had completely forgotten
that they exist until they were there on a hillside staring me in the face.
Such a strange place, Thailand, when it comes to sex. See next section, "The
Strange Sex Industry" for more on that issue.
Tom and I went out with the divers that evening and I subsequently met
most of the staff from Dive Point. The owners, Farid and Dany are very nice
and Thorsten and Marc are lots of fun. (Dive Point's website is
www.divepoint.com. The phone number on the island is 01-677-6133. They offer
the full range of scuba diving options, instruction and certification.)
Tom and I also took in a night of Thai Kick Boxing. I loved the ceremony
of it, with the beginning actually a slow choreographed dance to their native
music, with about five old Thai men playing live below one corner of the
ring. We saw "Green from England" box with "Chokedee from Thailand," and
there were 7 additional fights that night. Many of them were very young boys,
about eight or nine years old. Preparing for the matches, the competitors
purposefully break their shins over and over to toughen them up. I also saw
some of the older boys walking along the beach giving demonstrations promoting
their fight night.
Here is a bit from my journal after my friend had left:
I am now sitting at a quiet restaurant on the beach, literally with my
chair, table and bare feet in the sand. The white plastic table and chairs
are stuck down in the sand, the tables are covered with floral pastel cloth,
the corners of which float a bit in the breeze. Tiny white lights are
strategically placed in green glowing plants. The barefoot waiters wear white
smocks and black pants, though some have on jeans too. I think one may recognize
me; I've eaten here a few times in the last week or so. I am alone for dinner
tonight, enjoying the ocean breeze, fruity red wine, and solitude. My hair
is in cornrows, and when other girls in cornrows saunter by, we smile knowingly
at each other; we couldn't resist the Thai women's high-pitched voices all
along the beach calling out one of the few phrases they know: "You want hai'
beads? Bery nice for you." I am wearing a sarong as a skirt, fitting in,
if not with the locals, at least with other tourists. I haven't seen many
people in jean-shorts here. My meal here at Baan Thai includes all-you-want
tomato-and-cucumber salad to start, asparagus cream soup, then their attempt
at filet mignon complete with the bacon wrap. It's good but not quite Kansas
corn-fed beef. With my glass of local wine, my meal is less than $4.
THE STRANGE SEX
The common belief is that the sex industry here began because American
G.I.'s arriving by the shipload on leave from Vietnam created the demand
for sex bars and prostitutes. This situation undoubtedly increased demand,
exacerbating a situation that already existed.
Now, still, everywhere are mixed couples, mostly older western men with
Thai girls who usually work in the strip bars, or sex shows. This has expanded
beyond Bangkok's Patpong area to the islands. The girls are prostitutes who
add the usually nonexistent element of emotion, and the men often want to
be their savior. They go home, then send letters, money, and promises to
help. At am internet cafe on Koh Samui, I overheard two Thai girls reading
a letter aloud from one of their men. "I miss you very much. I want to cry
when I hear Elton John songs. I wish I could be there with you." The Thai
girl was proud of this letter, but was laughing and making fun of it. The
other Thai girl said, "It's too much" with disgust. These girls did not care
about their "client."
On the beach, I met a "bar girl" who works in the sex shows in Bangkok.
She was getting her hair cornrowed by Pen, and she was also on my flight
back to Bangkok. Sopha was about 18 and was so sweet. I had read a few books
on the situation of these women and status of women in general in Thailand,
so was really happy to have the opportunity to speak with her. She told me
that she had gone to the island with a boyfriend, who was from Germany and
was undoubtedly a customer from Bangkok. She said he found another woman
on Koh Samui. She said in halting English, "Girl must never let man in here
(touching her heart), but this man I cry for." She is typical of the young
girls who work in Patpong; she is basically naive, from a village and her
family needs money. She supports many people at home and is treated like
a celebrity when she goes home. She did not say so, but it seems that she
is not happy doing this work. I did not ask her if she did it by choice,
or if her family sold her to a brothel, as many do to 11- and 12-year-olds.
In Bangkok, I had the pleasure of meeting a missionary couple from America
(their niece lives in my hometown, Hoxie, Kansas) who are working with young
Thai girls, former prostitutes. They are teaching English, counseling and
sharing God's word with them. One of their students is 11 years old and her
parents sold her into a brothel, which is actually selling her into slavery
and condoning rape. Children like her are the victims. They are the reasons
for the concern and lack of understanding by outside cultures. The economic
power of this industry should not take away the young girls' individual right
to choose how to live, no matter how many family members she is supporting
in her home village.
This situation is partly because women truly do not have the rights that
men do in Thailand. According to the 1805 Law of the Three Seals, a man is
entitled to three wives, his Major, Minor and Slave wives. When Thai women
marry, they become servants to the husband's family. This double standard
is played out in many ways: Women cannot divorce on the grounds of adultry;
men can. Women cannot leave the country or set up a business without the
husband's consent. These people believe that sex with a virgin gives the
man long life, but it "spoils" the girl. And it's not just an issue of an
unfair double standard. It's a complicated historical situation involving
classism, sexism and dominance: sexual issues, but as importantly, economical
and social issues for these women. Religion plays a part as well. Men are
required as Buddhists to become monks at some point in their lives. Some
boys do so at about 20 years of age, but some get married and wait. When
they become monks later in life, it puts even more pressure on the woman
to support the family economically.
These factors contribute to the decisions of many women to become prostitutes.
They will do whatever they can to have economic independence and thereby
social freedom to not be dependent on men. Working in the Patpong area of
Bangkok, or any other area where there is market sex, is a symbol of privilege
to them. Many feminists condone prostitution, arguing that women have the
right to be prostitutes if it's by choice, and the importance of these women
having their independence outweighs any moral question.
On the other hand, if they have been forced into this life, or chosen
it at about 15, lured by a sort of glamour they saw in older girls who returned
to their home villages with nice clothes, like Sopha may have been, they
may be miserable. Many may not want this life. They may find it difficult
to have normal lives later, especially in this society of double standards.
This is the first difficult issue I have encountered while travelling,
where I must not judge the people. Cultures and values that are different
from my own are hard to understand, but my culture's values may not apply
there. This is the most difficult thing for a traveller to do - learn about
other cultures, but not judge them, or try to "correct" them. I do not know
what it would be like to grow up as a small girl in a remote jungle village
in Thailand. And I will never know.
Myrna left the professional world of national magazine ad sales in Chicago to travel around the world! She sought eternal truths and true beauty, and found them. She left in January 1998, going to Australia, New Zealand, around Asia (Japan, China) then to Thailand and Nepal. The rest of the year was in Europe, mostly Turkey. She returned in December, then left again for five more months to do Habitat for Humanity Global Village in New Zealand and Alaska in 1999. She now resides in Denver, Colorado, near her hometown of Hoxie, Kansas.
You can visit Myrna's web site at www.GoGlobalGirl.com, and email Myrna at firstname.lastname@example.org