Saturday, 13 February 2010

An Adman, Buddhism and Birthdays


Revered monks are made immortal at the cave temple.


The mouth of the cave is festooned with the roots of a fig tree.


Monks sit outside the shrine in the shade of the trees.


Cat and Yut chat to the head monk inside the cave.


The Buddha images gaze eternally out of the cave.


The monk poses for a photo he will never see.


Like so many older monks, his face is strong and serene.




Once at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok I heard someone say that international reporters in Bangkok soon find they have to give up writing seriously about Thailand. It’s simply impossible to achieve more than a superficial understanding of Thailand unless you’re a Thai. When you think at last that you’ve begun to grasp the tear stained onion of Thai politics, in truth there’s always more slippery layers hidden beneath.

So it takes an American adman called Peter Arnell to stay just a few weeks in Thailand and to announce to the world that he knows all the answers. According to the Bangkok press, he’s promised to deal with Thailand’s image problem and he’s going to do an instant re-branding of this, the very amazing Land of Smiles.

“I think I can make this place famous for what it’s famous for, instead of what we think it’s famous for,” he vacuously said. So was that a real mirage or did I just imagine it?

Having lived a long time in Thailand, a small scrap of wisdom that accrues to me is that really I know almost nothing of the place. I like the Buddhist philosophy though, that all is illusory, changeable and unsatisfactory, and I find it a welcome contrast to the material self-confidence and assertiveness of the West. In that respect, the American adman has said it all, yet all has become confusion here too as the Thais are now so readily embracing his militant materialism.

Staying for several years in the rural wilds of Surin in the poor North East of Thailand, I thought there were no more unchanging corners here for me to learn about, but I was wrong about that too.

We’ve just visited a fascinating temple in Bua Chet an hour away from home that I’d never heard of before and it was fascinating. Bearing our yellow bucket full of supplies for the monks we drove up a long track through the rubber trees to this pretty forest temple set in a cave under huge, craggy rocks.

The cave is a wide fissure running deep underground, not even high enough to stand up in, whose mouth is covered with a cascade of roots from a strangling fig tree that clings to the rock face. Inside it’s dry and cool, with an elaborate display of Buddha figures and revered monks and behind them a substantial reclining Buddha. It’s tidy and clean but everywhere is suffused with the pungent odour of bats.

Cat and her sister, Yut, sit before the head monk and chat and make merit with him. He then chants at length and with a switch flicks sanctified water over us as he intones loudly. It’s easy and relaxed with none of the stiff religiosity sometimes present in Christian ritual.

Then we climb a ladder to the top of the rock above the temple and wander through the dry jungle, wondering at the strange shapes that countless ages of water flow has carved into the stone.

And then we leave this timeless and ascetic world, free of electricity, televisions and the baubles of modern living. The head monk looked to be at peace with himself and I doubt that he cares much whether or not a passing American succeeds in rebranding Thailand.

What the American does not of course understand is that Thailand is not a brand, is not Coca Cola or McDonalds, but is a rich culture that can never be defined by one as shallow as his.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, today it’s my birthday and I am for a third time passing the milestone of twenty one years.

Yesterday I also became a grandfather for the first time. I welcome Bethany Dawn to a world that will be very different to the one I grew up in, and I congratulate Anna and Will. Her Uncle Tony is only four years her senior and he’s looking forward to meeting her. (See two blog articles down.)

Tomorrow is both Valentine’s Day and Chinese NewYear and Cat and I fly to Kunming in Southern China where Jack Reynolds, the famous Bangkok author, much discussed on this blog, landed in a DC3 on 10 October 1945.

On my desk as I write, I have his diary and journal from 1957 that his son, David, has just lent me. Most of it is written in spidery pencil and takes some deciphering but when I get back I’m going to go through it all in detail.

I can hardly believe this is happening. I should of course stop striving and go with the flow but Jack’s life is such a remarkable story that I feel another book coming on.

It’s a story that just has to be told.

Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog February 2010

1 comment:

Stefan said...

Congratulations on the granddaughter - and best wishes to her parent's, too. I hope she'll afford them a little sleep in the next few weeks. :-)

I'm looking forward to the story of Jack Reynolds, too. I think you'll handle it well.