Amalthea (amaltheae) wrote,

Monkeys and Tigers and Elephants, Oh my!

The Thai people have some sort of cultural compulsion toward straw use. Every time I buy a drink of any kind, with any sort of top to it, I get handed straws. I’m not just talking about the Coke bottles and such. It is so pervasive a trend that every time I have purchased a 2 liter bottle of anything or even a gallon jug of water, I have been handed several for the road. It is such a strong obsession that the 7-Eleven has made space in every store for packages of straws in all different colors. There are often more straw choices than sanitary napkin choices or shampoo choices. And these are not your normal US 7-Eleven stores. These are about a quarter of the size of one in the US, but they have made space at all cost for variety in their plastic straws. I must admit that I just do not get it. Okay, a can lid could be dirty since many things are if they sit for long enough in this sort of climate accumulating the abundance of dust and hydrocarbon particulate in the air. Makes sense in a bottle of Coke, maybe, or at least it’s trendy, and I will give you that one. But 2 liter bottles and gallons of water? Do they imagine we will go home and huddle around the mouth of the bottle, bumping heads as we all inhale water as fast as possible? Or is it that they assume that when we get to that 6th glass and we find ourselves without adequate straws we will waste away in a cloud of dehydration for lack of the creativity to come up with other means of consumption?

And what exactly is with the obsession with reusing Coke bottles? Joel tried to walk out of a store with a bottle of Coke and a giggling sales clerk (laughter is often a cultural behavior related to saving face by laughing about something embarrassing) followed us down the block, unable to communicate well enough to tell us what she wanted, but motioning us back toward the store where she poured the Coke into a plastic bag of all things and added ice to it and a straw and sent us on our way. They were quite sure they needed to keep the bottles. After that little moment of surreality I saw a variety of people also drinking their afternoon refreshments from similar bags as they wandered down the street. Is someone hiding diamonds in the coke bottle glass and I am just the last to know?

Pattaya has been a much easier city to communicate in overall as there is a much stronger tourist trade here. Though we are lucky in that English is our first language. There are many people here visiting who are using English as a second or third language trying to communicate with people from Thailand for whom English is a second language and this has lead to more than a few interesting exchanges, some of which I’ve been able to help clarify because I can carefully annunciate between people, eliminating the huge problem of very heavy accents on the part of both people trying to communicate.

The prevalence of English usage can be a good thing overall or a bad thing in certain cases. Pattaya was originally attractive to tourists as early as the 50’s and became a shore leave capitol of the world during the Vietnam war. With our lovely service men came the desire for much sex, which started the sex trade in Pattaya going strong. Prostitution is technically illegal, but it is such a long standing and large portion of the local economy that it is mostly ignored, with people preferring not to think about the fact that it exists.

As hostilities in Asia died down some or we just pulled out early, the throngs of GIs went with us. Some of the beauty began to fade, leaving the prostitutes to look to aging white ex-military men as a source of their financial security. Many such men took their military retirement and settled into the local culture to live like relative kings since prices are so low here compared to most of the United States. Some prostitutes (female ones, anyway) married dramatically older GIs they met, some quietly returned home and married, leaving their previous career behind. But always there are young men and women willing to make some fast cash in places like Pattaya. There are hundreds of white men over fifty with very young girls on their arms, some in relationships, some sharing only an evening.

But many aren’t too selective about their trade. In Thailand bisexuality and homosexuality are just accepted as part of every day life and not thought much about. There is no gay and lesbian movement because there is not really anything for them to move against, it is so widely accepted. This means though, that on a slow night at a bar, it doesn’t matter what gender you are to the bar babes, they are doing cat calls and telling you how sexy you are to lure you in for an evening of drinks and then maybe something more.

This is so common a trend that many major hotels have large signs by the elevators saying you must register your guests at the front desk with valid ID for security reasons within the hotels. And based on the sounds coming from the next room much of the night in the first hotel we were in here, they know their clientele pretty well.

Many of the hotels have been here for long enough that they existed before non-smoking rooms were much of a reality at all, so the room that we were in gave Deb and I allergy problems galore until we found another hotel. Once that was accomplished we decided that we had too much luggage to easily deal with any other way, and thus we rented a car here for a week, thus solving my dilemma about whether to rent a car or a motorcycle.

Any American who has ever been to Thailand before may be looking on in disbelief at the idea that I was willing to drive anywhere in the country at all, since all of the European traffic laws normally apply, but Thai people pretty much ignore them entirely and even if you wanted to follow them as a foreigner, most of the non highway road markings are only in Thai script, rendering it impossible to do more than guess based on context. But I am actually having a blast at it. I think I dramatically prefer this system to our own in many ways, probably for the same reason that many people in the US would be totally terrified.

Traffic here is so prone to people parking at random, lane sharing at random, borrowing space from traffic lanes running in the same or opposite direction, motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic, people stepping out at random, people parked as much as three deep on the street that has no parking lane outside the bounds of traffic lanes and horn tapping and light flashing and just taking whatever space you want to be in, not to mention the random elephant here or there, that you have no choice but to pay attention to your driving rather than your fax machine in the passenger seat, your cell phone, your coffee, and the toddler in the back seat. In many ways it seems to have made many of the natives much better drivers overall even if they do appear to westerners to put themselves and others at dramatically more risk by some of the things they do. But they are a visible and relatively predictable hazard instead of a mysterious one hiding in one in 10 SUVs with tinted glass.

There is generally no posted speed anywhere that I have been able to establish. If they exist they are written in Thai. People weave in and out of all lanes of traffic, borrowing space from cars next to them when something is blocking part or all of their lane of traffic, which is a very common occurrence. They toot their horns or flash their lights to tell you they are coming around you if you’re not entirely inside your lane markings so that you will be aware of them the whole time. It is common to see three people parallel each other in two lanes of traffic, and that usually isn’t including the various motorcyclists off on the shoulder of the highways where their mopeds and weight laden side car rigs prevent them from keeping up with the 100km+/hour car drivers on the highways.

We’ve had a blast driving around to the religious facilities. Some allow photos and some do not. One that we saw today had the most amazing amber statue of the Buddha in a room done completely in real gold filigree, decorative mosaic mirrors and elaborate intricate patterns. It was a national treasure and photos were not allowed.

It is clear how much the local appreciate any attempt to respect their customs in their religious facilities. They believe that the head is the holiest part of the body and the feet the least holy, so there is an unwritten rule that you should not point your feet at shrines and images of the Buddha. Walking through a temple, respecting the posted rules, but also small rules like that, garners much warmth from the natives who otherwise might watch you like a hawk in that situation to be sure that you are at least adhering to the posted rules. Keeping your feet in mind and your hands off earns you many smiles and friendly greetings and much less scrutiny while you enjoy these phenomenal facilities.

Along with images of the Buddha, there is great reverence, love and respect for the ruling family in Thailand. Openly criticizing the king can be an arrest worthy offence and even if not arrested for it, you will DEEPLY offend the Thai people who hear this sort of mistreatment of the king they really do seem to love. Think of Princess Di and her following for many years, only cranked up a notch. They are intensely respected and images of them appear in nearly every building you enter, as well as the gateway to any town. Even the money reflects the face of the king on nearly every instance of it, and thus should be handled respectfully. If a store is showing off frames, paintings, photo finishing or nearly anything else of the sort, you can almost be guaranteed that at least one of the visual displays will reflect the face of the king and often his queen as well. The King’s birthday happened a few days ago and most of the banks closed for the day and most business came to a halt during a fireworks celebration of his birthday. I asked one of the people nearby at the time that the fireworks started how old the King was today and she knew off the top of her head that he is 73.

Being from the United States with a president who is ignoring most of the needs of the people and who is met with frequent hate and resentment for his abandonment of the people he rules (no, I didn’t mean “represents”), makes this all the more stark a comparison. Given his whole lifetime, Dubaya would never be able to win the sort of love and respect paid to the Thai king on a daily basis here. I do not think I know anyone who could tell me Dubaya’s birthday or age. These people truly believe their leader is working for their interests and trust in his leadership. They follow the Thai ruling family’s every move like we follow Ben and J-Lo, wanting to know every change. Only for the Thai people, they follow out of respect and love for their leader rather than our skeptical awe of Hollywood’s least realistic couple, waiting for the train wreck that will inevitable sever their happy beauty contest of love. It is evident in every part of the country we’ve visited so far. We went to the Tiger Zoo yesterday and the tiger education center has giant back lit pictures of the princess from the last time she visited the zoo and held one of the tiger cubs.

The zoo itself was doing a very good job on very limited funds as far as I could tell. They picked animals that they could deal with pretty well without having millions to spend on habitats. The tigers had more time to roam and interact with each other and play, in far more space per cat than the cats at the Denver Zoo, for example. The tigers are handled so extensively from the time they are born that they are very used to human touch and very used to other tigers. Tigers, like our more common domesticated house cat, are usually solitary creatures who hunt and live alone for the most part, but like house cats this seems to largely be a feature of competition for resources rather than an inability to live together, play together, cuddle, etc. Because most of their tigers were born and raised in captivity with their siblings and with no shortage of available resources, they tumble over each other, roll about on each other, groom each other and such, just like their much smaller cousins. They have had such a rare opportunity in terms of large cats in that they have probably 100 of them in captivity at this point, that they have been able to disprove the long held belief that the large cats cannot purr. They do not do it often but they do so in response to human touch at the zoo.

They also had an extensive collection of crocodiles, some various monkeys, Many elephants and a few other miscellaneous things that do well at this climate on relatively little expensive resources. My only complaint was that it appeared that they probably use electric implements to train the cats to perform the circus stunts, since several seemed more alarmed than seemed otherwise explainable when the trainer came at them. On the other hand, they did pet them, nuzzle faces with them, etc during the show too, which the tigers clearly enjoyed. And at least one of the cats didn’t want to leave the stage and the trainers and the treats behind. She kept rolling over even after the stunt was over, playing cute with the trainer in the hopes that she would get more goodies or loves, so it’s hard to say that the cats seemed largely unhappy with the whole arrangement or anything, and the trainers response to the misbehavior was to ignore the cat rather than threaten her. They seemed mostly like very large, much more dangerous house cats with their people, so perhaps they do minimize negative reinforcement as much as possible in training them, and it does seem to help that they are handled constantly from birth, raised nursing from pigs sometimes, grow up with pigs and Labradors, etc, in terms of their overall docility and thus elimination of much of the need to go to extremes very often.

In the education center, Deb got to play with, maul and hold a tiger cub much the way she does her house cats, and he clearly loved the attention and responded much the same way that housecats do, desperately trying to get away while being held in place, only to flick his tail, take two steps away and them come right back after her toes for another round of play. His favorite toy was plastic bottles he could chew up and make a racket with and he was quite the adorable kitten when he went and hid under a baby stroller while he was still nervous of his surroundings.

Anyway, that’s enough for now. This is an amazing country to visit, and we’re having a blast.

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