Thursday, December 6, 2007

Music Videos and Elephants, Thailand

By Joe

I have been given the task of filling in the large gap that was left by our lack of blogging over the past month. The Thai gap. First off, I would like to state that after I was thrown from the bamboo raft mentioned in the previous blog, I did not spend the WHOLE rest of the trip curled in a ball shivering and sad, but only about an hour or so of it. I then took over steering the same water-going vessel along the river that had almost claimed my life only sixty minutes before. I also sang some Thai karaoke at lunch with Mia as my backup dancer and ate a frog's arm that was the same size and shape as a human infants arm, only greener, wartier and with longer fingers.

We left Chiang Mai on an overnight bus which seemed like a good way to get there quickly and get some decent sleep. Little did we know that in Thailand karaoke is popular not only in restaurants, but in buses. Every Thai bus we took put on music videos at full blast with the words scrolling across the bottom of the screen. This makes for a really nice ambiance unless you are interested in any activities like trying to read, trying to talk to the person next to you, trying to think, or in the case of our overnight bus, trying to sleep. From what we observed the Thai music videos industry uses 3 story lines, three melodies, and three different singers and simply interchanges them. There is the story where the boy loves the girl but she is dying of cancer, head injury, car accident, drowning accident, spinal cord injury etc. There is the plot where a hard working lower-class man is flirting with a lower-class woman via text message, which if you were to get all your info about Thai culture from these videos, has completely replaced talking. Whole videos are based upon, say, a man on a fishing boat repeatedly texting with his cell phone and getting no response, looking sad, looking out at the water, working a little bit, texting, looking sad, texting, then finally at the end you see a girl get home and realise she has left her cell phone there and texts him back. His phone lights up, he runs to it, looks at it, smiles, fade to black. Next video. One video zoomed in on the girl's cell phone that she couldn't hear because she was listening to a mixed tape the boy had made her and you could see that she had 49 new texts. This is considered romantic in Thailand. The boy had texted her 49 times in the time it takes to listen to a mixed tape. The final video scenario involves a couple running away from the girl's parents, getting low paying jobs, working really hard and then returning after a period of a few years to show your parents that you now have a baby. Fade to black.

We arrived in Surin early in the morning after a sleepless night on the bus. I stepped into the silence of the morning twilight, rubbed my ear holes, and for the first time in three months, missed my cell phone. I wished I could check it for texts right then. And constantly from then on. Surin is where a white elephant ran to after it escaped from the king's elephant stable in central Thailand. A man named Surin caught it and returned it, so the legend goes. The town is now home to a yearly elephant festival to which thousands flock to see a show involving over 300 trained elephants playing tug of war, playing soccer, throwing darts, balancing on chairs and the like. The grand finale comes when the elephants are dressed in traditional battle armor and thousands of men dressed as Thai warriors storm into the stadium with the beasts to reenact a historic battle. Much to our surprise there were massive explosives hidden under the ground and as this marching is taking place these bombs start going off to simulate artillery fire (I'm not really sure what time period this was to have taken place in). Just as surprised as us were a number of the elephants, which panicked and took off running wildly, scattering screaming "warriors" as they charged out of the arena and out of sight. It was all very exciting. We also visited a silk weaving town there.

Everyone in Thailand loves the current king. Every household, business and temple proudly display photos, calendars and shrines in his honor. There are pictures of him to match any decor, from very serious ones of him in his late 70's waving pope-style from a balcony to photos of him when he is younger wearing a white fur blazer in a swanky lounge with the young queen draped across his lap as he plays a guitar and wears his sunglasses indoors. No matter what you admire, he has done it. Water skied, prayed, ridden a Harley, sat in a throne. Because of this, the Thai people LOOOOVE to dress like him, and the queen has designed her own clothing line to facilitate this. Any time the king is seen in public the people rush out to get a polo shirt that matches whatever color he was wearing at the time. When we first arrived in Thailand at least 50% of people were wearing yellow polo shirts. Some of them are very stylish, with the kings emblem sewn on the breast or a rapper style portrait of the king starting on the stomach and wrapping around to the back under one arm. The problem arises when he comes out in a new color. While we were there he stepped out in an all pink track suit one day and the next day there were riots at the major department stores for pink polos. People were killed! Killed by trampling and crushing. It made front page news. The clothing industry struggled to keep up and was just starting to get things under control when 2 weeks later he stepped out in green! A quote in the newspaper revealed that a major clothing factory had just switched all of its machines and employees over to making pink polos and now there were going to be huge problems with selling these pink shirts and creating green ones in time to meet the masses who would be swarming the stores the next day, killing again while trying to support this king sooner that their neighbor.

Back to the trip. Next it was back on the buses for more karaoke and a few stops in tiny little towns along the highway before a one week stop in Phi Mai. The countryside of Northeastern Thailand is littered with ruins built by the mighty Khmer empire and we visited a number of them. They look very similar to Mayan temples plus they have the distinct smell of death emanating from their inner chambers.

The town of Phi Mai was deceptively peaceful looking on arrival. It was only about 6 blocks by six blocks and was surrounded by rice paddies that stretched as far a the eye could see. In the day it was just any small farm town with a few 7-11's and a temple. Hardly any tourists at all. At night the place came alive. We would follow the throbbing bass to the little town square which hosted events almost every night. A night market lined the square and everything from whole kernel sweet corn mixed with sugar and butter to pumpkins stuffed with pumpkin custard could be found there. I got to know the pumpkin custard ladies pretty well, because I ate one every night. As we strolled the marked taking in scents of fresh curry and hot dogs filled with rice and hot dog meat we could cast glances at the stages to see such sites as a pre-Asian Olympics concert with pop singers and dancers reenacting the songs we had heard on the bus, a man in a cat mascot suit playing basketball or a heated political debate.

Then, one night, the M-150 concert came to town. Why it came to tiny Phi-Mai I have no idea but they had to set up for it outside of town because the concert was HUGE. Thai MTV had been running bad ass commercials for this thing for weeks so I was already excited for it. Sample commercial... a hip young modern man in the center of an old Greek-style arena stands facing a 10 story tall ancient wooden door which strains under the weight of whatever is on the other side of it. He kneels down and draws the face of a terrifying daemon in the sand. He squints at the sand drawing, then punches it, hard, stands up and starts running TOWARD the door which smashes open. Slam! M-150 Concert hits the screen! How can anyone not want to see that? The night of the concert I headed down to it with one of the women who worked at our hotel, her friend, a travelling french woman and a german guy. When we arrived at the grounds the scooters and bikes were parked along the roads out into infinity and thousands and thousands of people were packing into the walled in stage area. Each ticket came with a free M-150 beverage which I think was just cough syrup minus the medicine. I got my ticket, chugged my drink, and then asked the other people if they were ready to Par-TAY!. "Oh no." was the reply. "We aren't going IN THERE! People get PUNCHED in THERE!'' The Thai woman we were with demonstrated what punching looked like for me in case I didn't understand her. Nobody wanted to risk getting punched and had instead just come to see crowds of people parking motorbikes outside a wall. Luckily Mia showed up just then after a brief nap and we went in together. The event was off the hook! It was so fun to see all these Thai people trying to imitate what they had doubtlessly seen on american television of how to dress and how to act at a concert. They tried so hard so I have to give them credit even though they really couldn't pull it off. (It reminded me of what maybe a Metallica concert would be like if it somehow ended up in a rural town in Iowa. While the kids in their snug Wranglers and cowboy hats might love the music, they just can't quite pull off that well-practiced, aloof, half-disinterested-but-still-rocking look of their urban peers. -Mia)

Next we hit up Ayuthaya, an island city formed by multiple converging rivers in the center of Thailand. It turned into a sick week for Mia so on the days she was feeling better we explored the town together on bikes and on the days she wasn't I would head out myself to visit the surrounding temples. On one such bike ride I rounded a corner onto a Boulevard with a median in the center and noticed the median had been entirely filled with statues of roosters. The sidewalks were also lined with them as far as the eye could see. As I proceeded down the road on my beach cruiser I passed median after median of roosters and then arrived at a monument which, although seemingly built originally to be a serious spot to remember some famous man, had been covered in rooster statues. Some of these were 12 feet tall and gold or silver while others were covered in pastel colored mirrors or made of painted ceramic. Among this vast army of roosters there was also one small donkey statue that somebody put in among a group of about 10,000 roosters. Thanks for not paying attention someone! I was unable to get any explanation for the birds but I took some pictures. After I left there I saw a white pony under a rainbow in a lush meadow and then I saw a man wearing only tighty-whiteys and a long sleeve shirt in thigh deep mud water beating the surface with a large stick. Two fairy tales come to life.

I should also quickly go over the Lori Katong festival which was created to celebrate the life bringing qualities of the river as well as to remember the Buddha's footprint on the riverbank. It has now become and excuse to put on loud karaoke on stages and fast track the collapse of the ecosystem of the very river which is being celebrated. At night everyone in town places a floating lantern into the river and sends it off. This sounds very romantic until you head down to the river banks. Piers are set up to facilitate peoples' release of their lanterns and men in uniform stand beside them with megaphones yelling at the lantern holders constantly. It is possible that they are yelling for people to move it along and not take too much time on their muttering of prayers or it is possible they are asking for a date and found this to be the best way to advertise themselves. The lanterns themselves, once made of banana leaves and flowers, have been replaced with mass-produced lanterns made of styrofoam, plastic flowers and candles, as well as incense sticks. Thanks for everything mother earth, here are 80,000 chunks of styrofoam to digest.


Marla said...

So, I had the grand and wonderful treasure of nearly 2 hours online chatting and emailing with you last night, and now this delightful arm-chair vacation through the wilds, culture, and landscape along your road. SO worth the wait for a new blog. Thank you! Joe - nothing like Kareoke and a giant frog leg to help bounce back - way to go. I need to erase the baby arm image however. Love you both!

Ryan said...

If it makes you feel better, in the time it'd take to play an average music video I'd text a woman I loved at least 70x. At least that's my average so far.

Also, I looked up what that Rooster statue festival is. Apparently it's to commemorate a battle where a flock of roosters banded together and defended the town against the forces of an evil donkey and his minions. This also apparently has been made into a bedtime story to teach the townchildren a valuable moral lesson about teamwork as well.

Glad you're having fun, it was good to hear from you the other night!