Asian Swan Song: Stir-fried, Sweet and Sour, part II
…continued from previous Sub-title: Leaving Bangkok in the Broad Daylight (leaving the trash leaving the filth leaving the skyscrapers leaving the street-scrapers leaving the leaf-blowers leaving the elevators leaving the percolators leaving the bar-girls leaving the traffic snarls leaving the uncertainties leaving the eccentricities catching the wind catching the morning sun catching a second wind catching a train…
The landscape is alternately hilly and swampy, populated and rural. There are rubber trees and palm, pineapples and mango—cash crops all. Rice is seen less down here in the south of Thailand. That’s mostly up north. That symbol of life and tradition is also a symbol of poverty. Nowadays cash is king; without it you’re resigned to a peasant’s life and existence.
When you do see it, though, wow! That’s the most ethereal green you can imagine. Catch it at the right phase, just high enough to obscure the brown mud below it, and it’s almost hard to look at, it shimmers so ungodly. It must be similar in frequency to the chroma-key ‘green screen’ that video-makers use as a base upon which to superimpose other frequencies and images, because you can almost do the same with your mind’s eye on rice paddies as you pass by.
I wish my life were as neatly ordered as the rubber trees, arranged in rows and neatly trimmed, glorifying existence, God’s green earth beautiful, fertile and lush, though threatened by climate and pollution. It’s never too late for change, once the psychological changes have been made internally. That’s the hard part: getting people out of their comfort zones and back into the survival mode that got us here in the first place.
People come and go like scenes passing by in a dream: my camera, paper, and travel all coming together on cue in symmetry and by synchronicity to record it all. But unlike the famous song, I’m looking for humanity, not America, or even Thailand; but it’s there if you take the time to look. Food vendors come by selling everything from fried chicken and sticky rice to fried eggs and boiled peanuts and, of course, cold drinks by the dozen.
In India the main item on the same train would be hot tea, sweetened and with milk. It’s funny how different cultures are like that, but that’s what cultures are, aren’t they, humans going their separate ways, going forth and dividing? That’s cultural evolution, likely the precursor to species evolution. Smaller units are favored here, too, just like transportation, which now favors vans and mini-buses zipping around from point to point, door to door even. Even the bigger buses are threatened, though not as much as the trains.
But I choose trains for comfort and price, also, not just nostalgia and tradition. You can actually sleep on an overnight train, with beds and sheets and room service. Ha! Good luck with that on a bus. And short trips can be dirt cheap on daytime runs in third-class. How cheap? How about $1 for today’s four-hour run? That’s cheap; and the entertainment is free—a constant stream of humanity, in all their glorious imperfection.
Things aren’t as cheap as they used to be in Thailand, though, not like the good old days—ten years ago, when you could eat all day for three dollars… eating out, that is, all the Thai food you can eat. That’s the price of progress, I guess. And less than $200 monthly rent for a two-story house? That’s unbelievable. You’d pay full price for anything Western, though, the same as Western prices, sometimes more, like good coffee, or anything high-tech, like broad-band Internet in your home.
This trip is going low-tech after six months of an Internet maintenance program, scrounging WiFi like a dog scrounging for bones. I’m going off the WiFi grid now for the first time in months, no guarantees at least—no reservations, no intravenous drip, no steady trickle of information designed to keep me on my toes every minute of every day. Sometimes I don’t want to be on my toes. I’d rather be on my back, watching a sunrise or reading a good book. Books? Remember them?
It seems like the old world is being lost within the space of one generation—my generation. The old world consisted of truth, beauty, goodness, and… and… things, stuff, physicality, solidity. The new world—of intellectual property—is more visceral, more cerebral, more virtual—if not virtuous. I like both of them—both worlds, that is.
World travel is not as hard as most people think, and there are quite a few misconceptions of world travel that should be dispelled. One is the false paradigm of round-the-world travel, that somehow circumnavigating the globe around its bulging waistline is the only proper way to accomplish that special trip. That’s silly. A good trip can come in any shape and size.
Another is about quitting your job, and “leaving your old life behind.” That’s silly, too. You can easily take your life with you these days, especially if your work is online. Another is about needing a partner, that somehow solo travel is something lesser. Almost all my travel—over almost forty years—has been solo. Then there’s the idea that only constant travel is real travel. That’s silly, too. Sometimes the places where you stop to rest are the best of all.
But that’s travel in general. This is Thailand in particular. The names go by on signs and billboards like faces in a dream. I’d like to visit all the towns and villages, but I know that’s impossible. Still I resolve to visit as many as I can, traveling only a few hours at a time each day by the local train in the few weeks I have. There’s only one problem (cue clickbait):
The whole country is under martial law, because of the military coup d’etat of a few days ago. That might make things problematic. They’ve taken over the TV channels, though, so I guess it’s a good time to travel. Phet(cha)buri (two pronunciations possible) is the first town at which I stop. I’ll stay two nights. It’s maybe Thailand’s best-kept secret, a temple city that few tourists have ever hear of. Stay tuned.