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Thailand: Land of Smiles


© St. Petersburg Times

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Somewhere in my third-story hotel room, a gray gecko is contemplating its chances at survival. My advice: Stay here, watch for room service crumbs, enjoy breathing air you don't have to wade through.

The gecko and I are holed up in an airport hotel, but I will soon leave on a 24-hour, 1-minute trip back to Tampa International. The gecko's appearance in my bathroom this morning will be yet another memory of this exotic place, so lovely everywhere but in its out-of-control capital.

I have never encountered a more gracious people than the Thais, who uniformly personify one of the national mottos, "Land of smiles."

As the people shop and work in their open-air markets and eat at their ubiquitous roadside cooking carts, a Westerner taking photographs is a cause for self-conscious giggles, not irritation. In distant mountain villages and teeming Bangkok streets, Thais delight in returning a visitor's demonstration of thanks and respect, the small bow, with palms together and brought close to the chin. The national philosophy is that every undertaking should have a measure of enjoyment, or sanouk (sah-NOOK).

However, this is not one nation but two: There is Bangkok, and then there is all the rest of Thailand.

The countryside boasts mist-shrouded, forested mountains and beaches framed by breathtaking scenery, but the capital is filthy. It is thronged by more than 8-million people whose lungs cannot begin to filter the smog for which "pollution" seems a euphemism.

American expatriate Joe Cummings, who has lived in and written about Southeast Asia for more than 20 years, says that half the traffic cops in the city suffer from respiratory problems, though most wear surgical-style masks over their noses and mouths.

There are an estimated 3-million motor vehicles in the capital, with annual increases of 11 percent since 1991, or about 904 more vehicles every day this year. Emissions controls are seldom enforced.

The haze starts to cook shortly after dawn; throats turn raw and eyes ache after an hour's walkabout. Even tropical downpours cannot erase the gray from the sky.

The broad Chao Praya, or River of Kings, that separates old and new Bangkok is speckled with paper, Styrofoam, water hyacinth and the occasional dead mammal. When an American visitor slipped from a river ferry and was briefly submerged in the brown water last month, she was taken to a hospital and pumped full of antibiotics.

The city is a hodgepodge of architectural styles. Numerous Buddhist temples, or wats, glisten beneath tile roofs edged by gilded accents. Eclectic, modern office and hotel buildings tower over corrugated-tin hovels and apartments whose once-white stucco walls are now coated with grime and mildew.

A forest of TV antennas, reminiscent of 1950s America, sprouts above apartment balconies that are caged in by wire fencing or burglar bars. Drying laundry, much of it washed in the filthy Chao Praya, hangs from many buildings in the fetid air.

Still, no one has forced these people to live in this real-life set from Blade Runner. Many have come here, as they do the world over, to make a living in the Big City.

Like most other capitals, Bangkok is a financial and transportation center. Consequently, it boasts some of the world's finest hotels, where the ratio of staff to guest rooms is often more than 3-1. Chambermaids descend on rooms in pairs; lobby and waitress staffs are dressed in handsome silk costumes; fresh orchids, cut or growing, adorn guest rooms.

And the smiles are quick to everyone's lips. Collision of cultures

For the typical tourist, Thailand is hard to figure out. The Thai language and alphabet do not resemble those of the Western Hemisphere. English-only speakers would find too few street and commercial signs with translations, except in some areas of the largest cities.

All motorists drive on the left side of the road, a hazard for those used to looking in the other direction before stepping off the curb.

In the finest hotels, Westerners should not drink the water or even brush their teeth with it; aware of this bacterial threat, management stocks each room with bottled water. Similarly, though Thais regularly stop for meals from the pushcarts and sidewalk food stalls that tempt with intriguing aromas, it is risky for a visitor to eat any of these items not served steaming hot.

These problems exist in the biggest cities as well as distant towns, though tourism is an important enough aspect of the economy that even residents of dirt-street, thatched-roof villages know enough English to quote prices -- and to bargain.

Hordes of tourists visit the so-called Hill Tribes who live in the rural, much cleaner northern highlands. A variety of indigenous peoples distinguished by the differences in their colorful clothing, the Hill Tribes live off agriculture and tourism: Some of the more easily reached villages get three or four visits a week.

During four days on a guided tour, I found the interaction between Western tourists and the tribes to be repetitious, almost choreographed: Visitors arrive in buses or minivans and are quickly approached by tribeswomen selling handicrafts and children who have come to expect gifts: bottles of fruit juice, pens and pencils, cheap toys.

Men in these villages were seldom present and were said to be working in the fields. Opium is still a popular crop in the northern valleys near Laos and Burma, the infamous Golden Triangle.

Visitors can arrange small-group excursions into the poppy fields near Chiang Mai. An illuminated billboard in the matchbox airport at Mae Hong Son had a lovely photo of a field of red and white poppies, with the note that the billboard was available for commercial messages.

Despite similarities in my tour's several village encounters, a remote Hmong tribe we visited seemed much less touristed and therefore far more authentic in their behavior. Our guide coaxed one older woman into singing for the 44 of us, and the longer she crooned, the less self-conscious she became. In turn, we serenaded her and the children and other women who surrounded us with You Are My Sunshine. This brief group exchange brought smiles all around.

The opposite was true at a village of Lisu people. Though it still had dirt streets, it also had a new school, metal roofs on many homes, lots of shiny motor scooters, a satellite dish, electric meters and a mailbox.

It also had the worst-behaved children of the six villages we entered -- not waiting for the standard tourist gifts but aggressively following and asking, in Thai, for the trinkets and food. They would not take no, in English or Thai, for an answer. I credited the satellite dish and tourist buses for this attitude.

But the afternoon of that day, we entered the most remarkable of the several dozen villages scattered about the low-rise, forested mountains. A small group of Burmese natives has settled on a river bluff about 400 miles northwest of Bangkok; they are of interest because of a custom whose continued practice is a matter of dispute.

These are the Long-Neck people, so named because many women in the tribe wear inch-wide brass rings around their necks. Starting about age 5 or 6, rings are placed on a girl's neck, with one added each year, usually to age 21. The neck is stretched, the spine and shoulder muscles badly damaged. One of the women told our group: "It hurts all the time."

Yet these women were the politest of all the tribespeople, had the quickest (and most becoming) smiles, invited the tourists to pose with them for photos and displayed handicrafts for sale but did not even hold them out for inspection.

Controversy simmers over the practice of putting on the neck rings, at one time placed to make the women unattractive to rival tribes, then considered a sign of beauty, but now perhaps a tradition continued solely because it brings tourism revenue to the small tribe. The not-so-almighty baht

Rural village or Bangkok, the country is torn by economic difficulties. Thailand is in its worst recession in 10 years, with its currency, the baht, devalued by more than 55 percent since July. The upper middle class is having its luxury cars repossessed and hundreds of its children forced home from university studies in England by shrunken savings accounts. Hotel wedding receptions are smaller.

A glut of excellent hotels has reduced overall occupancy in Bangkok to 60 percent to 65 percent. Consequently, a guest at even the top hotels can get a room, a Mercedes ride to and from the distant airport and a large buffet breakfast, all for $111 a night.

Such bargains make Thailand less expensive for foreign visitors -- flights from the United States often stop in Seoul to board swarms of Korean honeymooners headed to Thailand for four or five days -- even while the residents struggle to make ends meet.

Though this year's fiscal problems have made the country even more affordable for the typical traveler, Thailand has a decades-old reputation for tawdry "sex tourism." Although Thailand probably ranks behind the Philippines and Taiwan in the number of people employed in the sex trade, there are perhaps 200,000 prostitutes -- female, male and children -- working throughout this nation.

Having mistresses and multiple wives was an ancient Thai tradition, and prostitution became a business only in the 19th century. Polygamy was outlawed in 1934, prostitution in the 1950s, but the stationing of troops in Thailand for rest and relaxation during the Vietnam War created a prostitution demand -- and a supply -- that continues.

Thus, in a country renowned for its artistry in woodworking, paper, ceramic and silk handicrafts, and for the exotic detail in its thousands of temples, in a nation that absolutely reveres its royalty and sends its teenage sons into monasteries, untold numbers of tourists and citizens alike utilize prostitutes.

Thousands more, primarily tourists, patronize Bangkok's notorious Patpong.

This is a pedestrian street, just a few blocks long, whose Night Market is a vast fleet of carts and stalls selling tacky trinkets and knock-offs of watches ("Rolexes" cost $18) and name-brand clothing. In the doorways wedged close behind the souvenir vendors are dozens of bars featuring skimpily clad or nude go-go dancers undulating to rock music.

When not dancing, these young women have two chores: Using their broken English, they try to get customers to buy them drinks, or the women return to the dance stage to perform a variety of lurid acts. Some bars still offer live, simulated sex shows, between either men and women or men and men.

Patpong is very busy, indoors and out. Calmer tourism

Tourism soared from 628,671 in 1970, while the United States was still engaged in the Vietnam War, to more than 11 times that, 7.19-million, in 1996. Many tourists would never venture into Patpong. They come instead to marvel at the magnificent temple complexes displaying Chinese, Cambodian and Indian influences, to sample centuries-old massage techniques, to taste authentic versions of the cuisine that now seems ubiquitous in the United States, to shop for artistic handicrafts, to take home some of the famed Thai silk, to have clothing custom-made (see related stories, ).

If they try any of this in Bangkok, it will require a trip through the sprawl and grime that has made it an urban nightmare. Ironically, one of Thailand's trademarks, the whimsical, three-wheeled cabs called tuk-tuk (took-took), heavily contributes to the thick smog.

As many as three passengers can crowd onto the single rear seat of a tuk-tuk while the driver steers via motor scooter-style handlebars. There is a fabric roof but no sides or windows. At first, riding in a tuk-tuk seems a merry adventure, enhanced by the passing breeze that cools the passengers. But after stopping at a traffic light -- in the crush of traffic, the lights can last several minutes -- the passengers see that every other tuk-tuk, open-sided taxi-van and larger bus is spewing blue fumes as it shifts into gear.

Traffic is so bad in Bangkok that a new breed of transport is in style: the motorcycle taxi. These are popular with business types who cannot wait for even the golf-cart-sized tuk-tuk to weave through traffic.

There is some escape from the heat and fumes of motor traffic: The Chao Praya is alive with a variety of boats hauling people along the river, where some of the most famous sites are located.

For the equivalent of 20 cents, you can try Bangkok's version of a Western subway, the express boats. These are long passenger ferries that are usually standing-room only. The driver sits up front, a mate with a police whistle stands at the stern: Blasts on the whistle somehow tell the driver how much he needs to back up, go forward or swing to one side to get the stern against the dock.

People on dock and boat jostle one another as they trade places, and another whistle-blast signals departure, usually in no more than a minute.

Much more popular with tourists is another of the nation's symbols, the long-tail boat. Essentially an extra-long, two-person-wide canoe, this gaily painted vessel gets its name from its propulsion system. An eight-cylinder car or truck engine mounted inboard, near the stern, is connected via an extremely long drive shaft -- the long tail -- to the propeller.

Long-tails are taxis rented for specific trips, rather than running set routes, and offer a pleasant way to see life on the klongs, or canals, that still flow off the Chao Praya.

On these canals, especially in "old" Bangkok, or Thonburi, people live in structures ranging from modern stucco to dilapidated wood stilt-houses. Pineapple fields and coconut-palm farms edge to the canal bank in some places, dugout canoes bring fresh produce door to door, children leap off the front porch to swim in the canals, women sit on their front steps to wash their laundry, even the ambulance service is by boat.

And slowly a visitor realizes the charms that made exotic Bangkok a favorite -- and calm -- retreat little more than half a century ago.

Originally published December 7, 1997

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