Thursday, December 12, 2013

Angels in the Village of the Wild Plum

I was asked as part of a creative writing workshop to describe a travel destination. I am a frequent visitor to Bangkok so I chose this most unique of cities. ‘Bang’ meaning village, ‘Makok’ meaning wild plum, put them together and what do you get? South East Asia’s most vibrant capital – Bangkok. King Rama 1 went one better, he gave it a title consisting of 12 words and 166 letters. Locals shortened it to Krung Thep which translates into ‘City of Angels’. Wild plums and Angels are not names normally associated with Bangkok. Those expecting orchards bursting with fruit, lovingly tended by celestial pickers, will be cruelly disappointed. It is a city and a fast expanding one at that. It is a city of huge contrasts – extreme wealth and grinding poverty. It is a city that runs on cash – it is corrupt. But it is a city that works – it is super-efficient. The people work to eat – they have no option. There is not a need they cannot satisfy! But don’t let that fool you.
Thai people are, in the main, gentle and respectful people. Their smiles have a soothing effect. They are genuinely respectful of authority and their elders. Guided by the principles of virtuous existence they are normally slow to anger. You can test this by getting into a taxi. They drive like maniacs. They switch in and out of crowded lanes every few yards. You assume their horns must have burnt out and there is chronic shortage of spare parts. But you’d be wrong – road rage is not part of their psyche. We interpret this as weakness.
We misunderstand their culture code big time. We make big mistakes when we apply our Western values. We observe their massage spa’s with suspicion. We slide into them discreetly. We spread rumour on our return. But Thai massage is a 2,500 year old healing arts system. It is ingrained within Thai Buddhism and is practiced by Buddhist monks. It is a health care system. We have been too quick to judge. We’ve labelled Bangkok a sin city because we can’t get our minds round this cultural tradition. Western tourists end up in classy hotels along a road called Sukumvit in down town Bangkok.
It is well served by mass rapid transport systems. There you push and side-step your way past stalls selling cheap tourist tat, road-side food vendors and ‘Flash Harry’s’ trying to get you to buy a suit, meal or girl/boy. Expats congregate at Cheapy Charlie’s iconic sidewalk bar. All designed to reinforce a misconception. You don’t have a need they can’t satisfy on Sukumvit – but what or who came first? Sukumvit doesn’t exist anywhere else in Bangkok. Western tourists are a reducing fraction of the 22 million visitors to the country. We are turning our backs partly because, in our shaded minds, it is a damaged brand. But who did the damage? Americanisation is also corroding their cultural programming – fast food outlets grow at 15% each year, 60% of Thai women use whitening creams and alcohol consumption is growing. Sadly, we are turning our fellow travellers off Bangkok because we seem to prefer the misconception to the reality. These days the Thais don’t care. India and China are sending 5 million tourists each year who come with a very different and accommodating mind set.

No comments:

Post a Comment