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2004-05-04 Beauty of complex Thailand

I have always loved everything Thai - the serenely spiritual and friendly people with their healing smile, and of course Thailand's culinary delights and renewing massages. On a recent gig-trip to the Far East, I was lucky enough to delay my return flight home, using the time to fulfil a lifetime ambition to visit the alluring Kingdom of Thailand.

 

However, this "Land of Smiles" is a complex world of opposites and contradictions. The urban and rural lifestyles could hardly be more different, from the bustling and somewhat seedy capital of Bangkok which offers a nightlife catering for every taste from the healthy to the very sick, to the simple country life and tranquil Buddhist monasteries. There are many Natural Marine Reserves, parks, monkey rehabilitation centres and elephant sanctuaries on the one hand, and on the other, cockfighting and buffalo fights are extremely popular, while scrawny mangy stray cats roam the city streets. Thai boxing, where absolutely anything seems to go, is a national sport. These people with real inner peace and a devotion to their monarchy and religion have shrines in their homes and workplaces, but by way of stark contrast, there is the harsh and sad reality of the commercial sex industry and rampant prostitution. I think that is the most negative thing I took away from my trip of a lifetime to one of the most beautiful countries on our planet, the fact that a sizeable percentage of this attractive and serene race are forced to sell their precious bodies.

 

 

Most of my time was spent in Phuket, Thailand's largest, most populous and visited island where tourism is the main source of revenue. Using the sun-worshipper's paradise of Patong beach as a base, we visited the city of Phuket, browsed in the street markets of Th Ranong, chilled at the Chinese Shrine of the Serene Light and at the Buddhist temple of Wat Chalong, rode elephants at the Elephant Sanctuary, and dined overlooking the city from Khao Rang hill.


 

Everyone in Thailand seemed to sell trips, and without fail got a real buzz from bargaining and offering good price. In a Patong artist studio, I admired an original painting on an artist's easel and enquired as to the price. 5000 baht, came the answer - about ¬100. As I took my wallet out to pay, I was stopped - OK, too much, so how much you pay me? Bewildered but bemused, and in serious need of a bargaining masterclass, I coyly suggested 2000 maybe? 2000?! You joke friend, too small. 2500! OK, I said and paid him half the original asking price, to his delight, and mine.

 

The country of Thailand resembles the shape of an elephant's head, with it's trunk snaking it's way down to Malaysia. As you move further south, the people, religion, scenery and food all change. Northern Thais are quite different to Southern Thais, and the age-old way of life of some of the Northern hill-tribes is dramatically different to the rest of the Kingdom. With a population made up of Thais, Chinese, Malays and some Farng (foreigners), there are around seventy different languages and dialects in Thailand. 95% of the population is Buddhist - arguably the most tolerant religion in the world - and maybe this goes some way to explaining the serene and friendly nature of the Thai people.

There is something very calming and comforting about a nation who greet each other with a palms together greeting. The other 5% of the population is predominantly Muslim. There seemed to be a serious lack of respect on the part of many European lady tourists who insisted on wandering these Muslim beaches topless. The Thai people are generous and unassuming, and ought to be treated with the respect they deserve, by people who are after all visitors to their country.

 

Place-names in Thailand sometimes belie beauty : one only has to mention Pee-Pee, Krabi and Phuket to prove that point. With a thriving tourist industry, there is sadly a risk of over-development by greedy entrepreneurs, and too much pressure being put on a relatively fragile eco-system. A crackdown on jungle food and the sale of coral and shells in souvenir shops has helped. Hopefully it will all level out before long.

 

Thailand is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever had the privilege to visit, but seems to have a few contradictions upsetting it' Inner Peace.