Saturday, November 28, 2009

SAVE THE WORLD - USE BAMBOO UMBRELLA: Sorting out This Year's Trip to Thailand

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Two decades ago, in preparation for my first trip to Asia, my mentors at the Asia Society advised that the jumble of impressions I was about to experience would best be understood by pondering how Asians embraced the new, preserved the old, and balanced the two. I think this approach stood me in good stead yet again on my recent 2 week bus tour of Thailand (my 6th Asian trip). Now, as the intense jetlag of my 30+ hour trip home gradually wears off, the challenge of really understanding what I saw, did, tasted, and experienced looms large. Fortunately, sorting through and organizing the hundreds of photos I took helps immensely. Suffice it to say that the slideshow I’ve come up with here is just one of many possible distillations of this complex string of experiences.

By the way, this trip was the latest of the yearly voyages of world and personal discovery I take with my brother, Abbey. A family tradition we started 11 years ago when our mom died.

One has to put a little effort into understanding Thailand. Chore #1 is to be vigilant not to impose preconceived ideas on what you are actually looking at, especially when confronted with things presented by Thais who hope to give tourists what they want to see. True, you are sure to encounter some of the expected clichés, scads and scads of orange clad monks, for instance. These are very much for real, a true part of the daily life of the country. Others things, though, like the hill tribe women garbed in traditional costume who hawk cheap T-shirts and purses in packed marketplaces are far more problematic. Like many Thais who understandably just want to earn a living selling chachkas, they offer up a little contrived, local color in the form of their dazzling outfits in order to attract the attention of prospective purchasers. Or are the ladies you happen to come across in the night bazaar some of the few transplanted hill tribers who actually still dress this way? Without background and context it’s impossible to figure out what’s going on, especially with the busy commerce and party atmosphere unfolding all around you. Somewhere between their innocent eagerness to please, and our fervor to see things that square with old Discovery Channel documentaries stored in the recesses of the brain, there forms a gap. But then again, perhaps that gap IS the real contemporary Thailand. Who’s to say?

What tastes! At the Ban Chiang restaurant in Bangkok, Abbey and I started dinner with those other worldly salads the Thais prepare with local fruits. Ours had ripe pomelo sections and julienned strips of green papaya and mango. Next came curries made with rich, rich coconut milk, prawns, raw ginger, and generous applications of hot red pepper. Delicious! I jumped in and devoured what Thailand had to offer. And thankfully, deep drafts of Chang beer worked as well to cool the tongue afterward as they did to make the heat and humidity of the evening pleasant. A few days later on the bus though, I was not so eager for traditional Thai comestibles. Our tour guide, Jeff (his anglicized name), walked the aisle offering us the traditional snacks of roasted cockroaches, bamboo worms, and crickets. A native of a northern farming village, Jeff popped these into his mouth with pleasure. We, however, all passed. Jeff was great at adding these little touches to the tour. Those insect snacks, by the way, were in fact authentic and sold to locals for pennies in great quantities up and down the highway. The more substantial grilled paddy rat, too, was in season and offered at countless roadside stands we passed as we drove many miles through the countryside.

One of the stops on our meandering road trip was Kanchanaburi. Here we walked across the bridge on the River Kwai before checking in to the 4 star Pung-waan riverside resort. The air was thick with perfume emitted by a jasmine-like flowering tree that grew absolutely everywhere...mmmmmmm! We also visited, Ayuttaya (Thailand’s first capitol and site of important temple ruins), Sukhothai (more ruins, these in the Khmer style of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat), and the towns of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. Side trips included a border crossing into Burma to see a lifestyle that our guide explained was much the way Thailand's was 75 years ago. Also, we spent a day at the Maesa Elephant camp where we rode elephants through the jungle… how cool was that?

Somewhere outside of Chiang Mai, our final destination, we stopped to shop at a large factory that makes traditional umbrellas. These are fashioned from bamboo wood, bamboo strands, and bamboo paper. All these components and the finished product are handmade the traditional, green, low-tech way. Outside, a large sign exhorted “SAVE THE WORLD – USE BAMBOO UMBRELLA.” This, for me, summed up much about Thailand, a country that eagerly welcomes the outside world and what it has to offer, but that also values, preserves, and celebrates its past and traditions.

The umbrella factory is but one example of preserved technology that fully expresses the living nature of classic Thai art, craft, and reverence for nature. Furthermore, it shows how Thais fully understand their place in the world and its current state. Not only were they offering unique, quality products, utilitarian and artful at the same time, but they understood and advertised their vast ecological superiority to the crappy, nylon and plastic versions sold throughout the West that pollute the environment and make everything a little bit cheaper and tackier. These umbrella entrepreneurs are no eco-trendoids, though. They are sophisticated business people who will accept your credit card for a purchase in a heartbeat. Down the road you’ll find KFC, Burger King, and more that the Thais have picked and chosen from the west as they continue in their wonderful way of crafting today’s Thailand as a blend of the old with the new.

What results is a confident, self assured nation of people who, if not the world's richest, are by no means poor. The good manners, joie de vivre, and purposefulness that they pursue their lives with I found to be both humbling and inspiring.