Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Farang (aka Fugly White Man)

My problem is I’m too ready to speak my mind. Sometimes I should learn to just zip it. I know it’s improper or impolite to interfere in other people’s business, however having succumbed to silence on one too many occasions, and bearing witness to his intimidation again, the voice of my social justice gene is screaming pick me, pick me. Clearly, it's not time to zip it!

Farang (a Thai word meaning ‘foreigner’ but sometimes used as an insult) or fugly white man (FWM) as I prefer to call him, lives with his Thai girlfriend Lily in her massage studio in Pattaya, together with 5 other women who all practise healing arts. FWM pays the rent on the shop. Naturally, this entitles him to absolute power! Noi, get me coffee! Rose, give me 100 baht! Parn, fuck off! He interrupts their work by sidling up behind them and massaging their backs. He believes showering with his harem is his birthright. He believes respect is a western construct and doesn’t apply here. Beware the certainty of a closed mind.

The drawback to the free accommodation I’ve foolishly accepted in ‘his’ home, is I’ve become his scribe. Two days ago it was novel, excuse the pun, today it’s grave.

This morning FWM has invited a 78 year old woman to the house to massage him, as if he doesn’t get enough, because he wants me to meet her. ‘She’s amazing (everything’s ‘fucking amazing’). He tells me she gets up at 3 a.m., has a cigarette and coffee, gambles every day, and is as young and healthy as a 16 year old’. I’m suspicious. I’ve been instructed to sit in his bedroom during the experience, write my impressions, and photograph it so he can then send my views and images to his accomplices overseas. If I didn’t know better, I’ve already begun hatching my departure plan. In the past 48 hours I’ve heard little else but how many people he’s saved from despair, his meetings with remarkable men, and how lucky the women under his roof are. I’m utterly befuddled by his narcissism.

In the process of setting up, I chance upon a discussion between FWM and Lily. It appears she doesn’t want me to photograph in the room, their bedroom. Fair enough. I wouldn’t want a stranger taking happy snaps in my bedroom either. Clearly, she feels strongly about this, and I’d hazard a guess that there’s some custom or tradition that informs her choices here, but the hostility she is met with concludes he’s made up his mind. I see red. Lily, I won’t photograph the walls in your room, or any of your things, just the bed, I say, gesticulating around. Her English is very limited! Like a projectile vomit, FMW explodes. You will do exactly as I say! I want everything photographed. What about respect for Lily’s wishes I suggest. Get out of my house! Go! Now! he roars.

This departure is bitter sweet. My motherly instinct wants to protect these smiling, subservient, emasculated women; on the other hand, I’m damned if I’ll accommodate his abuse any longer. With pleasure, I want to say.

‘I will see you hanged, like clotpoles, ere I come any more to your tents’ Shakespeare

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Art or Science?

Have a look for yourself? Elephant Art: I challenge you to voice your certainty that art is a human construct!

An elephant in the room

What is it about elephants that speaks so ardently to my soul, that triggers some curious latent memory of support and friendship, that makes me want to sit endlessly and savour their presence? Is it their lumbering grace, that heavy sure-footed gait which, seemingly against all odds, guides their bulk in such a dignified way. I’m reminded of a comfortable, dark-chocolate coloured, dilapidated old leather couch I once had years ago. I see myself collapsing into an elephants folds, warm in her embrace, like a mother protecting me from harm. Is it their immense girth, a girth that appears to defy nature’s ability to sustain them, given their impressive appetite for 300 kgs of vegetable matter a day. Holy cow, that’s equal to the produce on the shelves at the greengrocers, surely. Is it the footage I’ve seen of displays of their wrath, that stampeding, trumpeting fury channelled from the bowels of their being, a knowing fury, a fury that says I told you so but you didn’t listen. Is it my recollection at seeing elephants displaying what scientists believe is a state of grief, the way they surround the remains of the bones of their kind, brushing their trunks up against them, picking them up, fondling, respectful. Or is it all these things.

Recently I attended the National Elephant Day celebrations outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. This was no ordinary worldly celebration of the kind us humans engage in, the kind that sees us gorge greedily on nature’s harvest, often without a moments thought for its origins. This instead was a heavenly feast for the elephants - sugar cane, watermelon, bananas, pineapple, sugar melons and acres upon acres of grass, tied into convenient great clumps, arranged high on trestle tables snaking the length and breadth of the showgrounds at the camp. This was a celebration to honour and give thanks and blessings to a revered national symbol, an animal who once aided kings in battle, and one who is noted for his hard work, intelligence, memory, and power. Thai legend has it that a marriage is like an elephant - the husband is the front legs, the direction, and the wife the back legs, providing the power! I’ll buy that!

But it seemed the best was yet to come. I’d heard about elephant art but ignorantly thought it was some quaint experiment/exercise, probably with the mahout (trainer) leading the elephant through the motions, that eventually yielded a canvas something akin to a 5 year-olds expression. Mmmm.

Elephant art was the brainchild of two provocative Russians artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who saw it as a way for the elephants and their trainers to raise awareness and funds for conservation following the ban on logging. The artists set about teaching the elephants to paint, with surprising results. Seeing it I was shocked. Shocked not at the concept nor the movement of the brush on canvas which is held so deftly by the elephant in its trunk, but at the clear pleasure the elephant seemed to gain, the obvious mindfulness when the brush needed re-dipping, the way it moved excitedly when it handed it back, the way it swayed its trunk in eager anticipation of its return, the way it stood back after each stroke or splash of colour, observed it, and moved in closer for another go. The method of this apparent madness beggars belief. I think I want to be an elephant when I come back!

“The beast which passeth all others in wit and mind” Aristotle

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Blind Faith

Afternoon Tea: Mango spiced with chilli & fish sauce.

Such is my need to belong, during my first week in Chiang Mai, I called into the English Language School and the Dog Shelter in the hope of engaging in some useful service. Despite my best efforts, it appeared too difficult for the staff to conjure productive ways and means in their day for an Aussie at loose ends. For the subsequent couple of days, I fell into a kind of malaise, with an inner dialogue running something like ‘bugger them’, ‘what the hell am I going to do with myself’, ‘I hate being a tourist’, ‘I’ve tried’ and ‘surely there’s something I can do’.

At National Elephant Day in Mae Rim province on the weekend, I spoke with a couple of ex-pats from America who’ve retired here and who, despite the government’s insistence they engage in no work including voluntary work, spend time helping out in the kitchen at the The Northern School for the Blind Under the Patronage of the Queen. An aha moment! Interestingly, while out walking on my first day I passed the blind school and my intuition said ‘go in’. As is sometimes the case, I ignored it.

So I’ve taken to spending a few hours there every day, in the massage school. The students range in age from 13 to 16, and all have nicknames, thank the lordy, because their real names are incredibly long and very difficult to get your mouth around. There’s Jip, Pop, Noi, Toy, Moo and Sa. And Irene! Often given by friends or an older family member, nicknames are typically one syllable, often humorous and/or nonsense words and translate into English as fatty, pig, little one, frog, banana, green, or girl/boy.

Every morning the children learn practical life skills and in the afternoon, under the tutelage of dedicated massage teachers, practise their hands-on massage technique on each other. Today I was massaged by Pop, a chubby 16-year old with a very persuasive nature. Because I’m twice as gangly as anybody else in the room, barely fitting on the mat, she threw my limbs around irreverently, giggling endlessly at my good-humoured gruffness and my ‘very goods’ and ‘mmmms’ and ‘aaaaahs’.

It seems however that my primary purpose is for the teachers to practise their English. I’m more than happy to be their guinea pig. With word getting out daily there’s a new girl on the block, teachers in the other campuses at the Institute are constantly walking through the door with grins as big as christmas.

I love them all and am beginning to feel quite attached!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Khun Khao

In my foray away from home, and to carry on a tradition bestowed upon me by my late mother, I like to keep abreast of current affairs. So it is with interest that I’ve followed the media coverage of the new elephant calf born to Porntip at Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney. When it was reported that the calf had died in utero, I felt great empathy for its mother. With over 2000 stillbirths a year in Australia, I expect there were thousands out there who felt the same.

When the calf was born alive a couple of days ago, I was reduced to goosebumps.

This morning I woke with elephants on my mind. What to do? I shared the story with Moo, the manager at the guesthouse here, and commented that the zoo were inviting submissions to name the little blighter. ‘Resilient’ I suggested to him; did he know the word? No. When I showed him the translation on my English/Thai dictionary on my laptop it was clear I was way off track - ‘oh, no … not right name for baby'.

Not one to be discouraged however, I repeated the story to SaSaKorm, the delightful Thai woman out the front who takes bookings for tours. In broken English, I asked whether there were Thai rituals associated with naming people or animals and she told me that it is often custom to seek naming advice from a monk. So off I headed to Wat Suan Dok, a temple on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. It was there I was fortunate enough to speak with the Venerable Dech, one of the resident English-speaking monks. For the third time this morning, I repeated the story. He rubbed his head and thought for a moment. ‘Khun Khao. Khun Khao good name (pronounced Koon, as in cook … Cow) it mean ‘like a mountain’. ‘Mountain strong. Calm. Nature kind, elephant happy, sound of bird and wind, have peace’ he explained. I smiled, placed by hands together in prayerfulness and respect, and thanked the Honourable Dech for his time.

Naturally, I’ve transmitted the auspicious guidance, by email, to Taronga Park Zoo.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Thai Tooth Tales

Like it or not, teeth are tied up with identity. If your teeth are bad, as mine are, it goes without saying your identity will be a bit wobbly and loss, shame and despair all chisel into the roots of your individuality. Despite the mantra “I am not my teeth” which I fashioned during my last tooth casualty, and which I’ve repeated ad nauseum, ego continues to mock me. The nerve! It occurs to me that my life-long obsession with mascara has had a purpose. It’s taken the focus off my mouth. In spite of all the fault lines occurring in my cavity and a genetically-enhanced intense disposition, I’m basically happy, and happy people smile, right? Sadly, a cracked, broken and decaying smile is more like a frown, or worse, verbal abuse. You just can’t win.

Buttermilk’s OK on your walls, it has a calming effect, but as far as a tooth colour, it would seem there’s a universal conspiracy out there that renders it somewhat hip or cool to have perfectly formed nice white teeth. Bollocks! We don’t all have blue eyes, straight noses and
curly hair so what’s with this obsession with canine conformity. As Helen Garner once said, in another time and place the lines on a woman’s face would be prized as her life map. So it is with tooth colour. Mine were never white, nor were my mother’s, or her mother’s.

But the question of self-esteem remains. Sepia teeth or not, mine are peri-poly-diabolically-done-in! Thanks to a few modest dollars left to me by my mum following her death last year, and after an outrageous quote of $13,000 to improve my confidence, I’ve succumbed to the great tooth rot, sorry trot, to Asia. So enamelled, ah, enamoured was I with the website promoting the dentist that had been recommended to me by three separate friends, complete with colourful state-of-the-art looking equipment, comprehensive listings of treatments and cost, and perfect Queen’s English, the choice was locked in.

So here I am in Thailand where a colossal amount of crown work is under way. I’ve sat, or rather laid in the high-tech dental chair for 8 hours. That’s a lot of anaesthetic but much more scraping, drilling, hacking, chipping, sawing, picking and prodding. I feel like a working mine! Thank Christ for the Arnica. The positive effects are I’ve become intimate with the ears, and porcelain-like skin of my pre-pubescent looking dental experts. How did I get so old? Despite having to constantly and consciously remind myself to relax, their touch is positively Zen. It’s a real pity muscles have a memory of their own that say contract each time an instrument comes within a foot of my face.

But virtually half the way through my dental work I’m now facing what can only be described as reverse identity shock. I want my old mouth back. Several of the teeth that have been drilled back are now wearing, ah, plastic jackets that are more or less the shape of teeth but immeasurably whiter, acutely more prominent and astonishingly unattractive. I feel like Mr Ed! Needless to say, I’m spending an inordinate amount of time, between visits, in my guesthouse. I’m an oh-so-vain freak show!

I loved my buttermilk teeth and should I come out of this experience with white teeth, I’ll, I’ll … sue.

To be continued ….

Friday, March 5, 2010


It’s taken a couple of beers and a lie down (not necessarily in that order) for me to feel remotely like blogging. I’m not sure whether it’s jetlag from virtually 24 hours travelling, 2 hours of root canal treatment last night, the visceral effects of my moral objection to being a ‘tourist’, or the fact that it’s the anniversary of my mum’s death, but I’ve been feeling, well, like shit! Beer helps!

My dig here in Chiang Mai’s eastern district, just beyond the moat that defines the ‘old city’ is well placed (especially in relation to fang specialists), quiet and worth $13 a night because the internet is free and if all else fails and my dental work is too painful or a too excruciating symbolic reminder of the circumstances that precipitate my need to be here in the first place, then I can always stay in my room, direct the fan onto my face, trust my creative imagination, and surf the net for hours!

This morning I walked. Down the spine of the city, and around the western/southern perimeter, following the moat and ancient dilapidated brick walls that once bordered the city. The moat looks clean, and has been gentrified with western-style fountainesque installations since my last visit 30 years ago. The snaking canals on the other hand are not. Much as those gaudy-coloured fruit drinks look enticingly cool and refreshing, I think not when I consider from where that ice originates. Better beer! Typical and atypical signs of life proliferate … rickety bamboo scaffolding heralding progress, McDonalds, the slow, dark, prolific and insistent creep of rot, the Irish Pub! In the food market I marvel at skewered frogs and unidentifiable masses of small grey things that are probably innards, swimming in brownish oily matter. Mmm! Perhaps I’ll be brave and try some later!

Back at Chiangmai Thai House I drink expensive espresso, ruminate, and have a frustratingly fractured skype chat with Sal in Bali. In an attempt to find some nourishment I type ‘socially and environmentally-conscious elephant tours, Chiang Mai’, ‘underside Chiang Mai’ and ‘subversion Chiang Mai' into google. Despite the obvious propaganda, I’m partially pleased with the result as I locate the Writer’s Cafe, which happenstance is just down the road, the local independent rag published in English, and a splattering of consciousness-raising eco organizations. Things are looking up!

Back out onto the street, I head off to walk the eastern/northern section. Discombobulated, I turn right instead of left and wander, aimlessly content. Wat upon Wat I trampse, holy, holy, holy. Gold inlay upon gold inlay. Belonging to a distant past … reflections of reverence, of veneration, of memory.

Ambling past a street food vendor I stop momentarily to salivate at what looks like sweet pork, dripping with goodness. It must be lunchtime. Pointing to the man who’s dish I've just seen served, I awkwardly order the same. Soup … wanton, noodles, sweet pork, greens – delicious. Really delicious. 80 cents.

Night has come. I’ve walked miles today, my first day, but I must get to the Night Bazaar.