March 11, 2013
I still have the flu and wake up shaky and with a horrible headache. Yesterday’s tour was entirely too much for me, but there’s no time to malinger since we’ve got two flights to catch. At 11:00 Ou takes us to see the White Temple owned and redone by the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, using his own private funds. Since there was no money to rebuild the original temple, Wat Rong Khun, which was falling apart and going to wrack and ruin, he took it on upon himself to renovate it for use as a center for Buddhist meditation and as an offering to Buddha, which he believes will grant him eternal life.
The playful white structure is covered with bits of mirrors that catch and reflect the sunlight, blinding and dazzling the viewer. White, Ou explains, symbolizes purity. To get to the temple, however, the visitor first has to traverse a filthy body of putrid water emitting thousands of creepy looking outstretched hands, which represent the hell a person enters by following the call of desire. Crossing a highly ornamental Chinese style bridge – and symbolically leaving the realm of greed, temptation and desire behind – the visitor crosses a body of crystal-clear water filled with brightly colored fish and arrives at the ‘Gate of Heaven’ guarded by Death and Rahu, who decides the fate of the dead, before entering the pure white zone of eternity. In contrast to the white ornamental purity, the murals inside the temple are wild psychedelic swirls of orange and red portraying disturbing images of demons, terrorist attacks, nuclear war, Michael Jackson, Harry Potter, Superman and a host of modern icons all dripping down its walls as though the artist had taken LSD for inspiration.
Stopping at the market for a quick lunch of coconut pancakes, purchased from a tiny woman sitting cross-legged on a table, that are so good we quickly inhale them and go back for more. Ou refuses to let us treat him for lunch because he has a basket of rice in the car.
Next he takes us to see the Black House, the estate set up by Thawan Duchanee, a prominent avant-guard Thai artist. Born in Chang Rai in 1939, Thawan Duchanee studied Art in Bangkok under the Italian sculptor Corrado Feroci (Silpa Bhilasri) – who lived in Thailand for years and is credited with modernizing Thai art. To deepen his work and understanding of Western Art, Thawan Duchanee spent a decade in Amsterdam. retuning to Thailand in the early 70’s with a PhD. He shocked and upset the public with his early exhibitions of radical red/black paintings portraying Buddhism. Offended opponents felt his work was blasphemous and broke into the exhibitions to rip open and damage his paintings. He said that his ideas had been misunderstood, and pacified his opponents by destroying the rest of the offensive paintings himself. Over time Thawan Duchanee became the modern voice of Buddhism, gaining followers amongst both intellectuals and monks and gradually rising to prominence. He was called to decorate many commercial and industrial spaces with murals both in Thailand and abroad.
– Artists clazy, Ou repeatedly says as we stroll through a large park in which a group of dark, wooden Thai buildings filled with the wildest collections a person could possibly think up have been set up for the public by Thawan: bones and animal skins, furniture made out of antlers, huge teak tables made from one single branch, canoes, shells, branches and baskets. Each individually decorated building on the estate, which harbors both Thawan Duchanee’s private residence and his studio, is open to the public. What odd ‘installations’ this artist makes! And yet he has generously used his wealth, earned through his success as an artist, to create a landscape anyone can visit for free. Every time we enter a new building Ou sings his mantra:
– Clazy, artists clazy. Not clazy, not artist.
And then quite unexpectedly Christof is included in his song,
– Clis really clazy, he artist not lawyer!
What ever gave him this idea?
Ou studied law in Bangkok, making a career in the construction business after graduation before something went wrong and he lost everything.
– I tink, tink, tink, he tells us speaking about his crisis during this difficult time. I not do anything just sit and tink till I clazy. A friend take me along to help him do job and then I ok again because I finally do someting.
Now at the small Chang Rai airport, where he waits like a friend for our flight to be called for boarding, we sit together at a table having a birthday coffee. Today is his 43rd birthday, the perfect moment to impart his hard-won wisdom and understanding of Buddhism:
– Eet’s middle way, not too much not to leddle just middle way. People greedy want to make big money in Bangkok but forget that eet’s expensive there. You spend money to make money. Here in Chaing Rai eet’s enough to make leddle leddle bit every day. Not too much, just enough. Enough.
We ask him what he thinks about Thai women ‘going’ with foreigners and he says that Thais and foreigners have very different tastes. Thai men don’t like dark women, preferring the light-skinned Chinese women from the north, and for this reason don’t feel that the foreigners are ‘stealing’ their women. On the contrary, they celebrate the good luck of an entire family whenever a marriage with a foreigner takes place. Often the women already have children which they leave in Thailand with the grandparents, sending money home to their families from abroad and occasionally coming back for visits.
In one hour we’re back in Bangkok, where we have a two hour lay-over before taking an extremely turbulent hour-long flight to Phuket. Christof purchases two seats in a mini-van for the ride to Patong Beach but, oddly, nothing happens. We wait and wait but no van appears. When it becomes apparent that unless we do something nothing will happen, we ask the dark skinny teenage employee what the hold up is, and he screams:
– Too few people! Wait for five before drive.
There are five of us waiting already, two French men and a Russian woman in addition to both
Chris and myself. Everyone that was on our plane has already left and we realize we’ll be sitting here until another plane lands if we don’t take some initiative. When the Frenchmen, who hardly speak any English and can’t follow the exchange, realize that we might be waiting for at least another hour, they start yelling and screaming at the teenage employee who is unbelievably eruptive and has no qualms about screaming back. It’s like being caught in the crossfire of some bizarre film where all the actors are temperamental and there’s very little good will or sense of humor. Since the teenage employee is not helpful, we search for a higher-up and are offered a solution: a shared taxi that will leave immediately if we each agree to pay an additional 20 Baht. The Russian woman, who has a different destination, is on her own and will have to wait in front of the dark, deserted airport for the next plane to land.
The rest of us pile into a taxi driven by a scowling, dark man in his fifties, who is missing all his front teeth and looks mean. He barks at us to get into the car, but won’t allow us to put our backpacks into the trunk. When I try to give Christof my backpack – there’s no place for me to put it since I’m squeezed into the backseat between the two Frenchmen – he screams at me to take it back, which I do without comment. A few minutes later Christof, who is sitting in the front, tells us – in German – that the taxi driver is falling asleep. I say it’s his responsibility as the co-pilot to keep us alive by not letting him doze off. Christof gets a conversation rolling and at times even has the driver laughing. The two strong and adventurous Frenchmen, not at all timid, anxious types, repeatedly cross themselves during the ride, and none of us feel comfortable when, without explanation, the driver stops the car in a dark street in front of a run-down shack and disappears inside.
We all breathe a sigh of relief when we finally arrive on the corner of a busy street in Patong Beach. The minute we step out of the taxi we realize that we made a mistake in coming here. The odd reception at the airport was the first sign that something was off, and now we belatedly discover that we’ve just arrived in one of Asia’s hottest party cities. Great!
It’s hardly 10:00 p.m. but already the atmosphere is hyped and hysterical as groups of drunken men cruise the streets on foot or by motorcycle – revving their loud engines every few seconds for effect – looking for action.
I’m the one responsible for our coming here. Envisioning one of Thailand’s idyllic islands, I neglected to do my homework and only now, belatedly, do I find the following description on Wikitravel:
Patong is a party capital of Asia, with a world famous night life and a great beach. Mostly made up of hotels, world class restaurants, nightclubs and various tourist attractions, this is a hedonists’ heaven of night life, with numerous entertainment complexes and countless bars clustered together in and around Bangla Road and the beach road. The town has a very obvious female, transgender and male sex industry to cater to every taste, however to only view it as this is a mistake, it offers so much more, for families and couples too. Massage parlours of the erotic as well the therapeutic (Nuad Thai) genre provide less alcohol/drug infested venues for punters and wellness seekers. One can even find masseuses practising this medical art atop bamboo mats on the beach sands (100 baht and up).
Bagla Road is closed off to traffic by plastic barriers and a group of locals blocks our entry to the club section by rudely jamming signs for a ‘ping pong show’ into our faces. Side- stepping them we continue on and feel like we’ve arrived in Babylon. Each club is lit with a number of gaudy flashing neon signs, and loud music pours through the open doors onto the street where it mixes with the jumble of noise coming from the other bars. Inside the dance joints young girls with bored expressions are hanging onto poles and luridly wiggling their tiny hips. Surprisingly there are a number of young families on the street taking evening strolls with their children. A small round-faced girl fascinated by a red-lit window, where Thai girls in bikini tops, tiny shorts and go go boots are gyrating on poles – like a dog catching hold of an interesting scent – repeatedly resists her mother’s attempts to pull her away from the window by firmly planting her feet on the ground. The mother wins the tug-of-war and drags the daughter, whose head is cranked backwards to avoid loosing sight of the pretty dancing girls, skidding down the street behind her.