Thailand, The Land of Smiles

IMG 0491 225x300 Thailand, The Land of SmilesIMG 0538 251x300 Thailand, The Land of SmilesThailand is a beautiful place. Thai culture is so inextricably intertwined with beauty that one cannot mention the word Thai without thinking of lush exotic places and colors, ornate golden architecture, and richly satisfying cuisine. All of what means to be Thai is wrapped in a bejeweled package, where layers upon layers  delve into greater beauty and intricacy.

Walking around Bangkok’s, The Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, -where foreigners go to awe at the beauty and natives go to make requests of the tiny golden Buddha- one can see the visual manifestation of the root of Thai culture. The palace, like the culture itself, is a smorgasbord of design, color, texture, and detail. Pairing both clean and curvilinear lines with myriad finials and finishes, there is so much to see that if you returned repeatedly for years you’d never see it all -a reality true of Thailand in general.

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Thai culture, like their rich food and ornate architecture, is indulgent, in a way. Yet it feels not like the bloated opulence of Western palaces, cuisines, and cultures. Thai culture is bejeweled and grandiose, yet has a grounded feeling that is one with the earth, a dirtiness, perhaps, that epitomizes its realness -as if it were built of mud rather than stone, or were a clean, beautiful girl walking through wet, dirty streets in a priceless gown that, with each step, colors and tatters the dress at its base, connecting the girl to the street and yet leaving the crown of her beauty unscathed, even providing tender contrast. Thai beauty is rooted in the culture of the earth and stands out against its surroundings, not as a starkly alien object, but as simply the earth’s manifested beauty.

IMG 0502 300x225 Thailand, The Land of SmilesLike a good Pad Thai -served garnished on top with a fresh cut lime, clean white bean sprouts, spritely green onions, red pepper, sugar, and vinegar, all the ingredients become mixed into what was the substance of the underneath noodled mass such that the lime is used up, the sprouts and onions darken and wilt, the red pepper stains all with its color, and the others simply dissolve with no visible trace. What you get from the amalgamation you taste in intricacy of flavor. Yes, the appearance changes and becomes something different, but the true gem is in the pleasure of the taste. Indeed, the recognition and appreciation of pleasure is what drives this creative indulgence, whether it be architecture or food. Thais, I believe at their core, truly appreciate sensory pleasure and happiness, whether it be visual, gustatory, or otherwise. Thailand is not called “the land of smiles” for nothing.

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Girls I Met Randomly in a Bathroom

Furthermore, in contrast to more westernized places where you feel from people a real sense of singularity -an independence of going about rooted in one’s own mind and experience- it seems Thais are always with one another, moving and experiencing things as a group -or you could say as a family. Friends are, indeed, regarded more like family, a family that spends all their free time together. Extrapolating this, one could say it’s proof of love and happiness for one another. People here go about not alone in the world, but with a myriad of caring others. There is this friendly humanism about Thai people that is as if everyone is either friend or acquaintance.

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Guy Helping Explain Things at a Market

Now I’m not saying that everyone is friendly or treats me like a family. Often, if not always, I’m charged more for things simply because of the color of my skin. And though everywhere I go people tell my I’m beautiful, perhaps they could also be speaking badly of me behind my back; but still, for me, Thai people seem generally nice and good natured -like they would rather help me than hurt me, even though they’d like also something in return. I just don’t so much see here the pissed-off, spiteful, lonely individuals who feel affronted by any small encounter that I’m so used to seeing in Western places -and particularly in America. And from this vein of closeness, it seems Thais believe in no such thing as personal space. Like a family, food, money, housing, and transportation are shared, and it is common for playful and pragmatic touching of one another.

In a platonic yet caring way, the sanctity of my physical isolation has been breached more times in two weeks than in the previous two years. Western people don’t generally touch each other unless prescribed by appropriate situations, such as greeting, parting, or special occasions of grief or gratitude. Yet touching ones hand or arm to lead in a direction or as an emphatic gesture feels thoughtful, genuine, and connected, like you’d be with family and friends. And touching strangers on the back of a motorbike or on a subway, is absolutely normal here as well; and perhaps it should be, being simply people moving about in unison with one another.

IMG 1843 300x237 Thailand, The Land of SmilesIn this place, where people are more naturally human, it’s only normal the Thai fascination and regard for beauty and pleasure. What is further natural, Thais do not create order out of chaos. They leave the disorder, uncleanliness and realities of the environment to build something, at their timely discretion, on top of it. If one can relax into patiently abiding the lackadaisical flow of progress, then one can rise above things seeming haphazard and thwarted, to see beautiful patterns and infinite nuance of the system. Like the thousands of crowded little streets, alleyways, inlets and corners of Bangkok’s sprawling city, Thailand and Thai culture is permutation after permutation billowing and folding unto itself with a grandiosity ever grounded in the muck of real existence. Thais know and accept what it means to be a human with bare feet on the ground, ever sweating, smiling, and surrounding oneself good food and camaraderie. Just like the architecture, it creates something beautiful out of the earth.

Harajuku & the Material Mind

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On my second day in Tokyo I visited Harajuku. I was told that Sunday is a good day to go there because the young people who dress up in crazy outfits and cosplay gear come and and stand around for people to watch, take photos, etc. So I headed out, intent to see the spectacle.

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What I didn’t expect was to go there, spend several long hours, and not even see it. When I arrived at the station I moved, piecemeal and gradual, with the crowd’s procession pinning me on all sides. If you want to see group mind at its finest unison, then you must come no further than here. Where bodies sway with the movements of the mob, where from above we’d appear as one organism, writhing and swaying as if kelp in the ocean, you cannot help but feel a distinct sense of mindless oneness.

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From out of the station I looked around, was unsure of exactly where to go, and so, I did the thing on which I’ve come to rely, and let the mob move me. I joined in the direction of the mass and moved with them. It took me down what must have been the main shopping street of Harajuku. Tons of people were there, young and old, tourists, locals, nearly everyone carrying a shopping bag, people pulling little, hard-sided suitcases that must have housed their shopping.

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Everyone seemed to be there for some acquisition. The tourists hungrily witnessed the New Orleans, Atlantic City, Venice Beach, type kitschy-ness, where wares and neon lights, cheap clothes and sunglasses, souvenir shirts, greasy street foods and good times seemed to abound. As the throng pushed rhythmically down the little street like a gesticulating colon, all eyes are accosted with so much light, color, and variety that, like binging on food, makes your head feel dense and foggy, beckoning the odd urge to steal away in an alley and vomit, purging this encumbrance supplanted on your mind.

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But this is a hard view of it. It was not all bad. In fact, the farther along, the more I enjoyed my mindless journey along the river of sights. At all times, and now looking back on it, it was like drifting through a valley of temptation, where at every corner something yells out to be bought or consumed.

What had started as a simple journey to see novel things had turned out, inevitably as it does, to be a test of my will to hold under external pressure. And let me be the first to say that I am not perfect. As I so often do, I indulged myself a little too much, and awarded myself more than I probably deserved, all in the name of living experience, or “yolo,” as the kids say, I suppose.

So, yes, I did break down and purchase a few things and eat some indulgent treats. But still, as much as I want to feel guilty or chastise myself for not having an iron will. I think, rather, that my will speaks more clearly to me; and it is a good thing that I listen. Maybe, as has repeatedly been the case in my journeys, that by listening to my will and voice, I am continually led to places I want to be and to people I care to meet. And because I trust my inner guiding voice, rather than the voice from without, I believe I’ll be lead to somewhere great, even if it means buying unnecessary jewelry and eating too many sweets along the way!

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Red Bean Paste Ball

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Pork Bun

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Cat Rings

Tokyo Days 1-2

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My first day in Tokyo was challenging. I spent all day basically walking around aimlessly, frustrated, hot, and a little bitter at the fact that I had underestimated the communication issue of absolutely no one speaking English. Yes, I was, indeed, lost in translation. I suppose it was naive of me to think that everyone took English as children in school like they do in Europe. I had no desire even to speak to the native English people in my hostel. I imagine they thought me rather antisocial, if not rude, because as they were hanging out and being friendly, I simply came in the side gate of the

Ryokan and went to sleep early the two nights I was there. And then when they were all having breakfast together the second morning, talking, laughing, and close as a family, I felt rather like an outcast intruding on their personal space. But I had to leave early that morning anyway because I wanted to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market and Harajuku. And my reservation was up there anyway, requiring me to move on to my next accommodation.

It is very awkward, by the way, walking around with a huge backpack in subways and on the streets when regular people pull around rolling suitcases in crowded areas such as Harajuku (a major shopping area) or Tsukiji Fish Market (market with infinite different foods and cooking accessories) simply to house their shopping. They do a ton of shopping here! So much so that it puts my shopping habit to shame and makes me feel a little better, yet also worse in that everyone at all times of day and all areas of town are dressed up immaculately. Not to mention, everyone here is so very thin, like sickly model thin, both males and females! I imagine they thought me an insane, disheveled, chunky white person.

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So, on the second day, I put in my earphones, donned all-black attire, stifled my insecurity about being the fattest and worst dressed human around and made a better plan. Yes, a plan is almost necessary in Tokyo, if you speak no Japanese and can’t just ask directions or you have no cellular capacity and can’t just look at google maps. Much of the time the street signs are not even in English, so you can’t even navigate by them if you wanted. Whereas my first day I simply walked around going whichever way suited my fancy, my plan the second day was to ride the subway to stops of notable name and simply move in the direction of the crowd, gravitating with them towards bright lights, like moths to a flame. (This plan worked out pretty well.)

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Perhaps I should have befriended the British, Lebanese, or Australians from my hostel and either asked their advice or went around with them. But something about them was not a feeling of freedom and independent open-mindedness that enabled them to venture around the world seeing exotic places, what I felt from them was a slight sense of desperation. It’s as if there was something wrong about each of them. Either they were a little old or single, a little young or awkward, or possessed some over flaw that rendered them abnormal and thus outcasted in their own society. As if they were here not by choice, necessarily, but because they couldn’t stay where they were and just had to go somewhere. Now, even if this is the case, I commend them for venturing out in the world. And, normally, these are my kinds of people. But, I don’t know, here it had the opposite effect on me. I could feel their longing for connection. It was something in this neediness, I suppose, that kept me from connecting with them, as if they wanted something from me that I couldn’t give. And me, being here only a few days, and purposefully unhinging from connectedness in life right now anyway, simply stayed distant with them and remained alone.

A lighter bag, a nice shower, and listening to music helped me to get around on Day 2 without feeling too overwhelmed. There’s something bolstering about being alone, a free radical, unnerved or swayed by anyone. There’s something dangerous and powerful about it, about being able to go anywhere and do anything without help from others. There is something about having confidence in oneself, even if that confidence is wholly or partially unfounded. Simply having the courage to go at things alone, possessing assurance inside you, and wanting for nothing external is liberating. You are what you think you are. And when you lose yourself and your sense of confidence and direction to do things alone, with only your own mind, then you’ve lost all. Having a firm grasp on one’s own visage, desires, and direction is the goal and purpose of a meaningful life. Anything other than that is simply to live a life with no home or soul.

Portland

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Something seems to be trying to keep me in Portland, or at least give me strong incentive to return. Everyone I speak to, the photographer at Mississippi Studios, the cab driver that sped me to the airport, the hotel clerk at Jupiter, and the girl at the ice cream shop, all said to me that I’ll be back. They said it matter-of-factly, as if they knew me and truly knew that I would. And honestly I think I will be.

IMG 10271 1024x806 PortlandThe people here are really friendly, like southern hospitality with a young, indie, family vibe. In fact, it felt very oddly like I already knew all the people I met in my brief, one day, visit. Portland is already well known as a city for hip young people and hip people in general, not just in clothes but in demeanor and in mind. It is composed in large part of people who seem to buck authority, while maintaining a sense of polite respectfulness about it. They seemed to care more about one another than what you’d find in other cities. And, honestly, I thought it’d be kind of pretentious and make me feel self-conscious of my own coolness, and though I’m sure you could find this feeling somewhere in the city if you looked hard enough, but I didn’t feel that way at all, even as I spent all of my time in the Eastern areas of Hawthorne and Burnside, and the Northern area around Mississippi Avenue, which are trendy areas.

IMG 10291 1024x1024 Portland Something I find funny, is that the cab driver (from New York), the New Zealander (housing the Jacco Gardner band), and the ice cream girl (from Florida originally, going to a private art school in NW Portland, a more upscale area to which I did not have the time to see), all mentioned the meekness of people here, as if it were their self-depreciating duty to mention it in passing. Like a city of people hesitant to intrude on the existence of others, like saying: “oh, did you want these, or, uh, were you just looking or, well, ok, well are you sure? I mean, I don’t want to force you or anything, just saying that like, ok, yeah, then you’re sure? ok, cool, well here you go, enjoy the apples! This years harvest was just great! I think you’ll really enjoy them. There’s a real strawberry, dragon fruit kind of note to the the sweetness. Yeah, I think the rain and the soil this year has just been great! Ok, cool, well I sure hope you enjoy them! See you later” -said with a smile. (and this person could be anyone, male or female, young or old, in a store or open air market. And it may well be accompanied by a conversation of where you’re from or what you’ll be doing on the weekend, or various other things that you’d talk about with a more personal acquaintance. (there are elaborations to this facet of the culture in the tv show Portlandia, which is actually quite a good representation of the city).

IMG 10151 768x1024 PortlandIMG 1563 828x1024 PortlandAnd though I do get that vibe here a bit, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. At least the people are nice! I mean, everyone with which I spoke was just super nice and interesting. They were, in most part, people with which I could have a conversation and perhaps be friends. And I don’t say this lightly because I’m constantly told that I have an unreasonably high bar for which to make a determination of interestingness or coolness.

But that’s the thing about the people in Portland, they seem to foster a culture where people build up the coolness inside themselves to display to others. For me, they seem like people who were alone or dispossessed in some way, and then all came here, open and hoping to make friends with other loners and outcasts. Perhaps it’s been said and cliche to characterize it this way, but it is true. And maybe that’s why I liked the place so much. The people seem rather sensitive at heart, and instead of closing off, they smile and bring you in, respecting your personhood -a reality that you don’t much see here in the states.

For me, Portlanders made me feel welcome and appreciated, like visiting extended family or old friends, saying a big, “Hey, I’m glad you’re finally here! Hope you’re staying a while, aren’t you?” It reminded me of a large bohemian family, were there’s adopted and natural kids, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends always around, coming and going, always bringing in new people in passing, bringing an eclectic mix of random ideas and acquaintances all held together, without pressure, by strings of openness.

IMG 10501 1024x768 PortlandIMG 1056 1024x893 PortlandI’m not sure if it’s been researched, but I feel that if Portlanders took the Big Five Personality Test (one of the more commonly used personality criteria tests used in the field of personality psychology research), that the people here would score well above average on ‘Openness to Experience,’ which is one of the 5 constructs. I score very highly on this construct as well, so perhaps that’s why like the people here so much.

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Their openness and appreciation of people, cultures, and things was evident all around in the many quirky shops, organic markets, holistic doctors and wellness centers, intercultural restaurants and cafes, antique and ‘junk’ shops, and small, specialty wares and services of all kinds. It could be called a smorgasbord of representational and expressionistic uniqueness. And not the kind that is exhibitionist, needy and fame-mongering, like I expect to see more of in LA, but simply spoken, to no one in particular, just made as if a statement of confirmation to their selves and to the universe. Perhaps this is the best way for truth and art to be spoken, and is why this city speaks to me.

However, I’m moving on today, on my way to LA, which should be a change -one that I’m not sure I’ll care for, really. But that’s why I changed my travel plans in order to spend two days in LA rather than one. I’ve seen enough of Portland to know that I’d like to come back again. LA, on the other hand, I suspect that two days will be sufficient for some time, but we will just have to see.

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Random Thoughts While Traveling

Moving
Flying in the air, over little houses set in trees and rivers, tall buildings stacked together in clumps, bridges sitting on still, silver water, with ripples creating visible orbular patterns, it’s easy to ponder the prospect of an intelligent design. We are curious and intriguing little specks moving around and molding the earth so greatly. We are beautiful from above, coming and going, making shapes and patterns out of the rough plain earth. We are like diamonds shimmering, bejeweling the monotonous land. We are the manifestation of the riches of this world.

Proximity
There is something about the proximity of people on planes that makes you keenly aware of the fact that we are organic creatures, if not simply animals. Something in the way you smell others’ flesh; how you smell various real smells; smells we as humans are taught to find unsavory and suppress or sense with disdain; these smells bring one back to the reality that as much as the mind tries to mold and control the world, we cannot even control our own physical bodies.  And, moreover, the thought of our bodily masses speeding together through time and space makes us one and yet dispersed. Does this flow of energy effect our bodies and minds, or is our accumulated matter so absolute that it is entirely unaffected?

Helping Others
Do you ever get the extreme impetus to help others but something stops you, whether it be the will to do something for yourself or the simple reasoning that doing so would run contrary to your own personal needs? People are made to feel guilty for not helping others, and yet we are also accustomed to ignoring the plight of others and diffusing responsibility.

Helping others can be constructive, because the functioning of the world relies on it.  However, it can be harmful as well because it teaches people to subordinate their needs in the face of some vague sense of a greater good or an appearance of goodness; when, in fact, it is actually the conscience of the individual that is the true judge and condemner.  It is not the stranger, who might notice the slight of kindness, grumble, and move on, thinking not another thought of it, or either they’d not notice at all, at this point expecting the cold treatment of others, having become accustomed to it in the present age.

Either way, I cannot determine whether it is better to suit an altruistic, guilty conscience or shrug the weight of guilt and live a purely self-centric, egoistic existence where the own will is valued supremely.  If we all lived lives by our will, would the world be better because all would be reaching out and grabbing what he needs, fulfilling himself so that he can potentially give excess to others? Or would such an existence make the world a cold place, where one is confronted with only blank or grimacing faces, where everyone’s needs, desires, and worries are shared with no one, where, essentially everyone is, in fact, alone? Do we merely fool ourselves or repress this truth by attempting to believe in another reality? Or are we truly connected to one another at a psychic, cerebral, or even cellular level such that we are perpetually intertwined and affect the sum of the whole with even our small parts?

I understand the skeptic look of distrust from one who has been hurt by freely giving trust, or the the quick, cold diversion of eyes in passing from one who has been used by giving; but when a kindness is freely given to me, or I see one’s appreciative surprise when I give kindness freely to another, then those are the moments when I know that we are all connected and that one cannot love or shun another without doing the same to one’s own soul.

Yet curiously and on the other hand, when I was in the crowded, touristy Pike Place Market today in Seattle, with the menagerie of people, dirty streets, fish and cheese smells, and cacophony of raucous noises, it made me anything but want to be nice to others. After a while it was overbearing. I started to feel dirty, annoyed, and nauseous. It made me want to either start pushing people or just simply get away and be alone.  So I supposed I am as lost and often miserable as everyone else.

Traveling by Hope and Will

As I’ve spent several long weeks trying to figure out my exact travel plans in Thailand and beyond (determining where I’ll be at every moment, where I’ll stay, when I’ll come and go, what I’ll see and do). And though I have a vague sense of things, I’ve finally come to realize that this tedious planning is not for the best, if not futile entirely. I’m worse off with having a plan now than I was when first started planning. All the tedious planning left me feeling only frustrated, like the prospect of actually starting my journey is fading away into the distance. Therefore, I’ve now decided to simply go and trust where it leads me.

Now don’t get me wrong, planning can be very beneficial at times. There have been places I’ve traveled where planning allowed me to see many more and obscure things that I might not have seen otherwise. But the planning I did then, just as the planning I’m doing now, left me feeling stressed and frustrated. Furthermore, much of my experience on those trips involved me rushing around in cites to make sure I checked off all the boxes, spending 75% of my time looking down at maps or guidebooks, and feeling an overbearing pressure to fulfill all that I set out to fulfill.

Although those journeys were rewarding in that I saw many things, I can fairly say, looking back, that I could have easily done without checking off many if not all of those boxes. Perhaps my time would have been better served if I had simply wandered around aimlessly, spoken to locals, and sat back to watch the ebb and flow of the city, feeling its palpable energy.

So I have to ask myself, what is the purpose of my current journey? Moreover, what should be the purpose of all my future journeys? If the only purpose is to see as many cultural attractions of a city as time allows, then yes, planning is absolutely necessary. However, it inevitably comes with the price of worry, stress, and frustration.

On the other hand, if I desire to simply experience different cities and cultures, understand the movements and nuance of  the place and its people, get caught up, for a moment, in the flow of life there, and absorb what material I can in the folds of my consciousness, then there is no need for exact planning. There is only a need for a relaxed attitude that is accepting and grateful for all that comes my way.

I understand that in a limited amount of time we all want to see as much of a city as we can, but as it goes in life as well, quality is always superior to quantity when it comes to human experience. Would you rather have a string of lackluster experiences that you soon forget, or a mere few that deeply impact the fabric of your life?

Perhaps my journey will be filled with hiccups and moments when I wish I’d planned things better, or moments of fear and loneliness when I wish I were back in my home where things are easy, safe, and known. But the thing I’ve lately realized is that you cannot always rely on the stabily of other people and circumstances. Sometimes you just have to embrace the unknown and know that your subconscious self will guide you to where you need to go.

By having faithful confidence in your capabilities to deal with whatever issues, pragmatic, existential, or otherwise, that come your way,  you can see more clearly the purpose of your existence and the sense of meaning behind your actions.  And ironically, in sacrificing this firm sense of control over your every move, you feel what can be perhaps the closest thing to a true sense of freedom and understanding of your self.

Like with all things in life, you just have to trust that imbedded in your subconscious mind you know what it is that you truly want in life, and by relinquishing the reins you’ll be led there. And even if there is bad along the way, those times can teach the most. Thus, I am grateful for where I’ve been, and look forward to where the road will lead me on this journey.

About Me

I'm a recreational artist and writer who is moving from the US to work and travel in Southeast Asia starting in the Fall of 2013. I'm keeping this blog to share my thoughts and adventures. Thanks for being here. Feel free to follow my progress, post comments, and share in my adventure.

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