Writing in Thailand: The perfect confluence

Reading Time: 3 minutes

How does that saying go? Something like: You never forget your first love. In the case of Thailand, the first country I visited in Asia, this maxim seems to hold truth.

After a nearly seven-year sojourn in the Far East, where I have been working as a freelance writer, Thailand still appears the most in my passport.

by Justin Calderon

This obsession is not lust. Nor is it an overworked portrayal of wistful understanding that shifts and sways the mind like an uncontented dreamer; some plot of a hackneyed novelette stitched around sultry go-go bars or the monastery life of nirvana-seeking expats that appears over and again at Asia Books, Thailand’s English-language bookstore.

No, to me Thailand has to balance. Bangkok, the love-me or hate-me capital, is the perfect confluence of chaos and serenity, a place in the world where bawdy ladyboys and saffron-cloaked monks walk side by side.

In this sense, Thailand embodies the spirit of yin and yang, the Chinese concept of natural dualities. It is a balance that syncs up every corner of the country, from the often wantonly crazed yet palpably peaceful southern islands, to the mountain hideaways and Golden Triangle gateway of the north.

But in this warring symphony of characters and castes, there is a precarious undertone that runs throughout the veins of modern-day Siam.

Like the roof of a wat, a temple, if you were to plot out Thailand’s developmental course it would take the shape of a zigzagging line. Two steps forward, one step back.

Thailand’ economic and political history has not been one of an inexorable drive that promotes growth, as the China model seems to denote. Instead political instability and ever-present, yet not widely spoken questions of a precarious future permeate discussions about the longevity of Thailand’s prosperity.

Beyond political peril, Thailand faces an increasingly competitive and globalizing world having hid behind the shield of its Siamese anti-colonial past, which has put Thai workers at a disadvantage due to their poor English-language proficiency.

A writer in Thailand must learn to adapt to these uncertainties, these unspoken unknowns, while striking the creative balance that musters the wherewithal to continue dancing between the fire and ice.

Life of Pai

There is the observation. For what is a writer if not a person who has grasped the ability to detail and define his/her surroundings to others.

These days I have found myself in Pai, a northern mountain town a three-hour drive outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city. Once a favorite retreat of Thai artists in the late 1990s, the town slowly began attracting backpackers and grew into a sort of hippie hideaway.

As I rattle out this story on my keyboard, I am sitting on a bamboo bench in front of my bamboo hut. The smell of agricultural burning lingers, yet remains unseen. Sunlight pours down on the brown-freckled mountains during this season without being impeded by clouds.

At my five-hut guesthouse, Ni, the cleaning lady who now runs the place during the owner’s absence, indulges me in conversation and feeds me papaya or ripe bananas picked straight from the tree. Her russet-coloured, sun-kissed face seems to always blush.

Ni has worked at the guesthouse in Pai for two years now, where she lives in a small hut with her 8-year-old son. Her 23-year-old daughter and 6-month-old granddaughter are just up the dusty country path.

The small mountainside hamlet from which she hails is so close to the porous Myanmar-Thai border that her identity is muddled. Outside of Na Poo Pom just south of the mighty Mekong River, Ni, a member of the Shan ethnic group from western Myanmar, was brought up within the Thai borders speaking and reading Shan, a language that uses Burmese script, which she understands better than Thai. She speaks no English, and all conversations between us are carried out in heavily accented Thai.

Her village has no TVs or washing machines, let alone electricity to power them with.

Yet at the guesthouse she has found herself at a crossroad of outsiders, who bring with them technology and stories of far-away cities that she has only seen in picture books and TV. While here I have taught her how to shoot a digital camera and showed her a video on a mobile phone for the first time.

Although it seems to meet at an extreme in Pai, you don’t have to search hard in Thailand to find the point where modernity begins to seep into an Asiatic way of long before.

And just like Ni, I, too, must find the balance to live here, observe here – the pace of a people between yesterday and tomorrow, bucolic complacency and raucous temptations of city life.

So I sit somewhere in between, munching through a ripe banana, writing, waiting for the next story, the next place.

 

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

How does that saying go? Something like: You never forget your first love. In the case of Thailand, the first country I visited in Asia, this maxim seems to hold truth.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

How does that saying go? Something like: You never forget your first love. In the case of Thailand, the first country I visited in Asia, this maxim seems to hold truth.

After a nearly seven-year sojourn in the Far East, where I have been working as a freelance writer, Thailand still appears the most in my passport.

by Justin Calderon

This obsession is not lust. Nor is it an overworked portrayal of wistful understanding that shifts and sways the mind like an uncontented dreamer; some plot of a hackneyed novelette stitched around sultry go-go bars or the monastery life of nirvana-seeking expats that appears over and again at Asia Books, Thailand’s English-language bookstore.

No, to me Thailand has to balance. Bangkok, the love-me or hate-me capital, is the perfect confluence of chaos and serenity, a place in the world where bawdy ladyboys and saffron-cloaked monks walk side by side.

In this sense, Thailand embodies the spirit of yin and yang, the Chinese concept of natural dualities. It is a balance that syncs up every corner of the country, from the often wantonly crazed yet palpably peaceful southern islands, to the mountain hideaways and Golden Triangle gateway of the north.

But in this warring symphony of characters and castes, there is a precarious undertone that runs throughout the veins of modern-day Siam.

Like the roof of a wat, a temple, if you were to plot out Thailand’s developmental course it would take the shape of a zigzagging line. Two steps forward, one step back.

Thailand’ economic and political history has not been one of an inexorable drive that promotes growth, as the China model seems to denote. Instead political instability and ever-present, yet not widely spoken questions of a precarious future permeate discussions about the longevity of Thailand’s prosperity.

Beyond political peril, Thailand faces an increasingly competitive and globalizing world having hid behind the shield of its Siamese anti-colonial past, which has put Thai workers at a disadvantage due to their poor English-language proficiency.

A writer in Thailand must learn to adapt to these uncertainties, these unspoken unknowns, while striking the creative balance that musters the wherewithal to continue dancing between the fire and ice.

Life of Pai

There is the observation. For what is a writer if not a person who has grasped the ability to detail and define his/her surroundings to others.

These days I have found myself in Pai, a northern mountain town a three-hour drive outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city. Once a favorite retreat of Thai artists in the late 1990s, the town slowly began attracting backpackers and grew into a sort of hippie hideaway.

As I rattle out this story on my keyboard, I am sitting on a bamboo bench in front of my bamboo hut. The smell of agricultural burning lingers, yet remains unseen. Sunlight pours down on the brown-freckled mountains during this season without being impeded by clouds.

At my five-hut guesthouse, Ni, the cleaning lady who now runs the place during the owner’s absence, indulges me in conversation and feeds me papaya or ripe bananas picked straight from the tree. Her russet-coloured, sun-kissed face seems to always blush.

Ni has worked at the guesthouse in Pai for two years now, where she lives in a small hut with her 8-year-old son. Her 23-year-old daughter and 6-month-old granddaughter are just up the dusty country path.

The small mountainside hamlet from which she hails is so close to the porous Myanmar-Thai border that her identity is muddled. Outside of Na Poo Pom just south of the mighty Mekong River, Ni, a member of the Shan ethnic group from western Myanmar, was brought up within the Thai borders speaking and reading Shan, a language that uses Burmese script, which she understands better than Thai. She speaks no English, and all conversations between us are carried out in heavily accented Thai.

Her village has no TVs or washing machines, let alone electricity to power them with.

Yet at the guesthouse she has found herself at a crossroad of outsiders, who bring with them technology and stories of far-away cities that she has only seen in picture books and TV. While here I have taught her how to shoot a digital camera and showed her a video on a mobile phone for the first time.

Although it seems to meet at an extreme in Pai, you don’t have to search hard in Thailand to find the point where modernity begins to seep into an Asiatic way of long before.

And just like Ni, I, too, must find the balance to live here, observe here – the pace of a people between yesterday and tomorrow, bucolic complacency and raucous temptations of city life.

So I sit somewhere in between, munching through a ripe banana, writing, waiting for the next story, the next place.

 

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