Thailand

       Passing from Tachilek, Myanmar into Thailand, I had to remove my hat and my glasses so that I looked like my passport picture. These border people were serious.  I even held my hair up off my neck since I hadn’t had a haircut in months and got a “thank you” from the border guard, since we Americans all look alike.  Just a few meters from the border, now in Maesai, Thailand everything looked more prosperous—ATMs, better quality of goods, chocolate, and yet I adore Myanmar with its slow pace, delicious fish, good coffee, liquid sugar served with lemonade and ice tea, its multiple stupas and pagodas in even the smallest villages and mountain communities. 

    Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with the present-day dynasty founded in 1782.  King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) is highly revered.  At 81 he’s reigned since 1946—the longest reigning king in Thai history and currently the longest ruling monarch in the world.  Thais show great love and deep respect for him; there is a painting or photograph of him in every house we visited and giant billboard pictures of him in various stages of life everywhere (loved the ones of him as a geeky little boy with glasses).  Thailand has 63 million people, is a little smaller than Texas.  The king, western educated, a musician, a scientist, a resourceful, clever Renaissance man, concerned about the welfare of his people and country, created the Royal Project Foundation 40 years ago, after visiting rural mountain tribes in Northern Thailand and seeing the hill tribes cultivating opium, which, not only illegal, destroyed forests.  Educating the villagers about alternative crops that are just as easy to grow as opium and provide a sustainable source of income, has grown into a project that includes growing organic and toxic-free fruits and vegetables, breeding red-claw crayfish, trout and sturgeon, and tourism.  Thai Airways supports the project by serving the project’s organic produce on its flights.  Thai Air encouraged the villagers to grow edible flowers which are now regularly served in salads—I ate my share.   The crown prince of Japan brought tilapia to the Thai king 40 years ago and now tilapia is a main source of protein—it multiples and grows quickly.  We ate ruby fish, a hybrid tilapia—the king experiments copiously.

The Royal Project is an important component of the Thai economy.  Tourism flourishes—I did it all.  The requisite tourist Elephant ride at the Mae Taeng River was great fun.  My elephant’s name was Wadee; his mahout picked flowers and hummed Christmas carols along the way and I bought bananas and sugar cane from tree top kiosks for Wadee.  Elephants eat 200-250 kilos, love sugar cane and bananas, and drink 60 gallons of fluid each day and these elephants have to retire at age 61. There’s even several elephant hospitals.  Female elephants have 22 months of gestation; the new born is 100 kilos and 2 feet tall.  When the mother is in the throes of birth, the mid-wife elephant helps by breaking the embryonic sac and takes care of the baby until the mother recovers and junior can balance, then the “auntie” gives the baby to the mother to nurse for 4 or 5 years (where the La Leche League was seduced?).  If the elephant is white, he is given to the king.  When the baby elephant is separated and given to a mahout to train, both the mother and baby cry.  The 19 year old male, Orachai plays soccer and has a mean side kick (and apparently gets meaner when he oozes musk during his testosterone frenzy and is fed only potatoes and water in an attempt to control his behavior).  4 year old Suda painted a tee shirt, which I bought.  Elephants are color blind, but the mahout puts the paint brush in her trunk (Asian elephants have only 1 trunk finger, the African has two), gives a hand signals and Suda makes a stroke and paints a picture of flowers or other elephants.  It takes two months to train an elephant how to paint pictures. 

The Mae Taeng River raft was made from bamboo and had little chairs and matching sun hats for the tourists. Alas, no rapids, but our Tom Sawyer guy entertained us with sights and sounds—mama and baby elephants spraying each other with water.  He wore royal blue velour baggy pants with the crotch around his knees—guess where the gangstas got their wardrobe inspiration?

The Karen (Padaung) hill tribe, the long-neck tribe where young women encircle their necks with copper coils and weave scarves and embroider garment have a tourist village, Mae Chan, where all wear native costumes.  The young women even conveniently sold pictures of themselves to save you the trouble of taking a picture!  Everyone happily posed.  I bought a scarf from every vendor; how could I just patronize one, when they were all beautiful young women who had to make a living?  The copper coils the women put around their necks as a beauty enhancement, aren’t actually making their necks longer; it’s just the appearance and is rather attractive.  However, the coils actually push down on the collarbone and ribs making the neck appear elongated and their necks become weak and flexible so the coils are seldom removed.  They start applying the coils as young as 5 or 6 years.  I’ll stick to ear piercing and possibly getting my eye brows tattooed.

We visited a number of farms—coffee, tea, orchids, rice.  Thailand is the largest exporter of rice.  I had no idea of how many kinds of rice there were—long, short, round, flat, sticky, varying stages of not sticky and everyone has his preferred kind.  Other than sticky rice cooked in bamboo which I really liked, it all looked white and tasted the same to me, but then, I’ve developed a plebeian palate, even now wine is only red or white, sweet or dry.  There was a disgusting rice liqueur bottled with your choice of cobras, nasty snakes, scorpions, or centipedes, which makes the tequila worm rather benign, but I also declined these. 

The king’s sister, who died recently, was well thought of and called the “Royal Mother of the Sky,” as she helped many of hill tribes, particularly the Hu, by delivering doctors and dentists with helicopters.  A villa was built for her in Chiang Rai when people learned how much she liked living in Lausanne.  Chiang Rai is much cooler than Bangkok, where the royal family is headquartered. 

    Everyone knows King Rama IV, whether it be Yul Brenner or Chow Yun Fat, who learned to speak English as a monk (he was a monk for 27 years) from the Presbyterians before Mrs. Anna Leonowens showed up (her son, Lewis’s company, which started in teak exporting and has diversified, is still in existence).  Although Rama 4 died in 1910 of malaria when he went off into the jungle to observe a solar eclipse he had predicted with this knowledge of astronomy), he had sent his numerous sons to different European countries to be educated.  In 1910 it became mandatory to have a “family” last name and compulsory education was instituted—remember Chulalongkorn (who went on the solar eclipse excursion with his dad, got malaria, but survived and became king at age 15), his son from the play and movie, he is called the “father of modernization.”  In 1949 Thailand (Siam) became the official name, which means “land of the free.”

    From the border we had a long, but beautiful bus ride to Chiang Mai (where in the Park Hotel I watched a CSI marathon until I fell asleep while the other travelers went to dinner).  This bus trip was our detour since the Bangkok airports were closed.  Our charming, capacious Thai bus had a bilious purple and pink décor with frilly ruffled pink chintz balloon shades.  We made several photo stops and snack stops, notably, Cabbages and Condoms, a rest stop and hotel, which had beautiful grounds, yummy cookies and silly items, you guessed it, made from condoms.  No longer teaching junior high, condoms have lost their amusing appeal.

    Bangkok, city of 6 million plus 4 million commuting into the city each day, looks very different from when I first visited in 1967—freeways with LA/Chicago traffic, high rises, skyways, subways, roads where klongs, canals used to be.  Where I rented a motorcycle and nearly killed myself, there are now jelly-bean taxis in bubble gum pink, lilac purple, neon green, sky blue and mandarin orange with Buddhist tchotchke hanging from the mirrors, leaping through traffic making New York drivers look like Miss Daisy on Demerol.  I came prepared to sing “One Night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster; the bars are temples, but the pearls ain’t free,” from the musical “Chess,” only to discover the song is banned in Thailand.  The Grand Palace is still grand (40 acres) and glittering only with tons more tourists and souvenir shops.  It still dazzles and sparkles with glass and gilding, one stupa/chedi/pagoda more exotic and colorful than the next.  Chulalongkorn liked Versailles when he visited France, so his new palace built in the early 1900’s, has beautiful gardens.  The Royal Way, like the Champs Elysée connects the royal palace with the Grand Palace with 150 acres of gardens including the requisite statue to Chula on a horse, Napoleon style.

    Bangkok continues to modernize and transvestites are becoming more accepted and are referred to as the third gender.  Annually there is the Miss Tiffany contest.  Gays and lesbians aren’t as accepted as transvestites, yet.   Bangkok is a city that needs several days to visit.  I slipped off to the old Jim Thompson house to see (and buy) some of his beautiful silks.  I asked many places about buying some star rubies and sapphires.  Apparently, they are no more.  In 1967 there were many to choose from.  Who knew?

    Tourist Tip: Ordering coffee in Thailand will get you hot water and instant Nescafe; ordering “fresh coffee” will get you the good stuff.


© Leslie Ann Williams, 2009


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© Leslie Ann Williams, 2009

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