Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The 4 noble truths of Thailand: Part 2

Samui Island BeachDon't be too attached to your comfort level.
Thailand is a land of dichotomies. Great beauty and wrenching poverty. Ancient religions and rampant prostitution. Expect to be dazzled and confused.

The beaches are one of the most frustrating contradictions. For instance, take Koh Samui, an island off the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand. I stayed there in a bungalow on Chaweng Beach, and while I loved the foot-caressing sand and the wondrous scenery, I expected a secluded paradise, mainly because Thailand has mastered the art of the seductive website.

Instead I found a Mexican beach town with twice the number of cheesy hawkers. An endless parade of vendors interrupted my "serenity" to hawk soccer balls, sarongs, bracelets, ice cream, wooden flutes, henna tattoos, doughnuts, carpets and sunglasses. (They also sold delicious roasted corn.) The town itself was a postmodern madhouse, with hundreds of Germans who looked like Mike-Myers-as- Dieter, all shuffling down nearly nonexistent sidewalks or wedging themselves into knockoff stores. (Fake watches, Armani suits, DVDs.)

Shoehorned between the knockoff stores are massage parlors. Most aren't fronts for prostitution (no need for fronts in prostitution-friendly Thailand) but places to drop in for, say, an after-dinner, one-hour foot massage, which goes for about 50 cents a toe. Luxury is a national obsession in Thailand, and the foot massages are well worth a try, as are the traditional spine-bending Thai massage. Aaah - right there - that's the spot!

One of the more interesting contradictions in Thailand is how people interact with Buddha, whose likeness is everywhere. Everyone gives offerings to monks who pass on the streets, and yet everyone also tolerates behavior that seems straight out of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Even the prostitutes are pious. When you see a go-go girl leaving a hotel in the morning, you'll also see her stop to bow three times to the Buddha. If you're not familiar with Buddhism, be sure to read some basic texts before visiting Asia. The more you know, the more you'll appreciate the way religion is woven into everyday life.

A word or two more about prostitution. It is as ubiquitous as the Buddha. It's a way, perhaps the only way, for females to escape the rice paddies of the countryside and earn money for their families. (At least this is how Thai people I spoke with rationalized it.) There seems to be absolutely no stigma attached to it.

Consequently, every lurid story you've heard about wild bars filled to overflowing with girls-for-hire is true. In some bars, the dancers wear numbers the size of plastic coat-check receipts as a way of expediting selection. Guidebooks that claim families can vacation in Thailand and remain unaware of this seedier facet of life are off the mark. Prostitutes even come and go in the very best hotels.

source: The Denver Post

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