Readers who follow world news may know that Thailand recently saw a military coup which ousted elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. And those well read in history might know that at the year zero, the former capital of Ayutayah dwarfed London and Paris in both size and sophistication. I recently spent six months in the Thai province of Phetchaburi, somewhere around 100 miles south of Bangkok. Today, I'd like to share some of what I saw and learned in this land, an ocean away from my hometown of Klamath Falls.
Phetchaburi is rightly known as the palm tree province. There's even a prestigious academic institute which teaches monkeys to fetch coconuts from the tops of palms, which grow to thirty feet and on. As a sort of showcase, the university where I taught is landscaped with many, many kinds of palms. Some would fit in on a California beach; others are stout and rugged, children of the fierce Thai jungle.
My first two weeks in Thailand came with many challenges. To start with, the heat was brutal; Excluding the northern regions, the whole nation is scorching all year long. And it was plain to see that the people had carved their little civilization out of swampy jungle. In every direction, for as far as one could drive on a tank of gas, the most common sight is a flooded rice field with a couple of dark-skinned men working in rolled-up pants and basket hats. Those tourists who accuse Thais of constitutional laziness must not look around much as they're transported from attraction to attraction¦ in air-conditioned buses.
Only very few Thais knew more than very basic, broken English. Phetchaburi is a farming and fishing region and sees only the occasional, wandering tourist. So I, as a young blonde American, attracted far more attention than I would have liked. Every day as I walked from my hotel to the office, I was enthusiastically greeted by most everyone I passed. As any young American would have been(Thais hold the USA in high regard,) I was a walking sensation. Young children, perhaps never having seen a Caucasian, regarded me with particular amazement. I enjoyed juggling for these, and giving them presents; Occasionally, despite my smile¦ a little boy or girl would burst out in tears at the sight of my bleached, monstrous face.
Moving on, the roads in Thailand are every bit as good as those of the USA. However, they're used by ten motorcycles for every car and most everybody drives at mind-numbing speeds. Furthermore, although the cars are equipped with seat-belts, only the rare Thai uses them. There's a real need for an education campaign on this subject. Also, hilariously, Thai girls ride on the back of motorcycles side-saddle. However, Thais ride and drive with incredible prowess and seem to make it all work.
For the most part: I hadn't been teaching a week when a female student of mine, 19 years old, died in a motorcycle wreck. Her Buddhist funeral went on all day. Along with her other teachers, I arrived for the last couple hours. There were about a hundred people there, including her English major class of 30 students, this figure not counting twenty lean monks in bright orange suits. The head monk read Buddhist scripture from scrolls and when these long readings paused, the other monks would chant musically and people would start playing their distinctive Thai instruments. The music they played was cheery¦ if a little weird. Shockingly, there were xylophone-like instruments adorned with flashing Christmas lights. Through all of this, most everybody sipped coconut milk.
My remaining students were a pleasure to teach, despite their perhaps universal desire to talk and laugh in class. Almost all of the students were the offspring of local farmers and fisher-folk. A senior American teacher, (a fat and jolly old Alaskan of keen intelligence,) suggested that music was a good technique for teaching Thais. So I designed lessons based around rock 'n roll artists such as: James Taylor, Jonny Lang, REM, Cat Stephens, and others. All the students would enthusiastically join me in singing along, something which might not happen in just any American classroom.
When Christmas-time came, the English department held a big festival. The students sang carols with perhaps poor pronunciation but in such a spirit of merriness and good will¦ that I can only hope to hear again. Honestly, I was depressed setting off for my Thailand sojourn and this kind of cultural optimism, (along with an exotic and challenging environment,) helped me to overcome.
The wild-life of the region, and of Thailand, is remarkable. One can't take a stroll without seeing dozens of butterflies ranging from baby blue to lime green and ranging in length from one to six inches; Colorful dragon-flies are also common. Ceiling walking geckos are everywhere.
Another creature I encountered, on the wild-grown border of the university, was a monitor lizard, a cousin of the famous Komodo dragon of the Galapagos Islands. It was five-feet long counting its tail and of a very faint shade of green. Already heading away from me, it eyed me with only passing interest, and continued on its way without any noticeable change of pace. As I later learned, this creature is more poisonous than a rattle-snake and as wily as a coyote.
After I had settled into my teaching job, I decided to take a weekend trip to fulfill a certain ambition of mine. In a beach city a couple hours drive away, there was a resort especially for my desire. Of all the animals of the world, the Asian Elephant is among the most fascinating. Tameable and even amiable, they grow as tall as 20 feet. And their intelligence, to the extent the word applies to non-humans, is remarkable. Since before recorded history, they've served humans similarly to horses, only with far more power. Also, until the advent of fire-arms, they were a key-part of South Asian warfare. I spent some happy hours and money feeding bananas to these, toddlers and mammoths alike.
In Northern Thailand, as I later saw, elephants are more plentiful and one can take a jungle ride and look up at the amazing combinations of palm trees, pine trees, and brilliant lilacs; The peoples here have darker skin, because the summers are ruthless, though the "winters are as temperate as a Hawaiian isle.
Thailand is for the most part a nation that has opened its doors to western civilization as well as modern technology. As a result, swarms of American and especially European tourists have been visiting for decades and decades; They mostly stay on the coast and at tourist centres, but some of their money trickles around and staves off truly crushing poverty.
Nonetheless, most regions are like Phetchaburi in that they have nothing resembling an American lifestyle. An office or grocery clerk typically has one day off every other week. Toilets are one-inch off the ground. A bed, as opposed to a pad on the floor, is only for the wealthy. And there are wealthy Thais, men with fat golden rings and 3 inch long thumb-nails to show that they never work, and women who spend their lives strolling through private gardens, apparently never thinking of the plight of the common people.
During my adventure, I came to know many Thais in many walks of life. There was the eight year old boy who accompanied me on a jungle hike, bravely walking ahead and clearing the spider webs with his bamboo staff. There was the young army cadet who loved to play the guitar and sing cheery folk songs over beer by the campfire. There was the lively old cook, (a woman whose Laotian ancestors were brought to Thailand as POWs,) who went out of her way to learn how to make me a spinach omelet, and who always greeted me with a smile.
In closing, I should tell the reader that I somehow took in too much Arsenic in Thailand, apparently a problem in the southern regions, and still suffer now five months after my departure. I don't know enough to have a position on the recent coup. What I do know is that their society, imperfect before, has in recent decades been unnaturally flooded with foreign influences and technologies. However, Thailand is full of beautiful and resourceful people, and I have faith that things will work out for them.