January 19th -Meandering for Meaning

As often is the case here in Thailand, I woke up feeling restored and optimistic again. I guess your mind gets into some sort of state during deep sleep that shuts down the mechanism for worrying about things like mosquitoes, cockroaches, and lizards (the lizard I saw in the bathroom the day before thankfully never reappeared). I left my ground floor room to get some water from the family mart store nearby (there was only 1 floor anyway) and passed the guest house owner who greeted me politely. Every time I left the room he would ask me if I wanted a lift on the motorbike to town, but I always declined when it was light (and in this case it unnecessary). There was a coffee shop that had some words in English advertised, so I stopped there on my way back from the shop.

I had a reply from the yoga place I had e-mailed, with a quote for 11, 900 baht for a 3 night 4 day ‘yoga and healing’ retreat, taking place the following Monday. Today was Thursday and I only had 2 nights booked where I was, so If I was to go to the retreat then I had to work some stuff out. As mentioned in an older post, coffee in Thailand can often be pretty vile and more like a caffeinated gravy, but here it was quite good. It was called ‘good coffee’, so I suppose anything below mildly pleasant would be false advertising. I drank as I worked out finances and plans in my previously unwritten-in note book and the sun came in through the gaps of the outside shaded area. Mornings in Thailand feel very optimistic to me. I tend to prefer mornings to any other time at home too – they are full of unrealised potential for things to happen with the only concrete certainty being that in a few hours the day will end (I suppose the same perspective can be applied to life in general, and if adopted might ease a lot of anxiety). In Thailand that possibility of anything happening is more novel. Mornings feel good.

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Mildly pleasant coffee and pretend plants

With the help of the caffeine I figured out a rough itinerary for the time I would be spending in Krabi. If I where to go to the Yoga retreat then I would leave on Thursday for the 20:05 flight to Chiang Mai, a region in Northern Thailand that I’m particularly fond of. If I didn’t go, then I would leave on Sunday, which was the most immediate cheapest option. I realised that my desire for being OK with uncertainty was a worthy one to have, but also planning to the level that I was was just good practice. Spontaneity is often romanticised in books and films, but nobody ever talks about how much money they could be wasting by paying for premium last minute transport options, or having to resort to paying the cost of 3 nights in a 3* hotel for 1 night in a family room in a 1* hostel because it was 11pm and there where no other options when turning up late at night, ultimately cutting the trip shorter. There’s a balance to get right I learned. I still wasn’t doing it, but I acknowledged that often depictions of the ‘free-spirited backpacker’ are often tainted with a little bit of bullshit.

I finished my drink, feeling a sense of accomplishment after finding some form of what I now considered ‘reasonable resolution’ with my itinerary. After doing some exercise and showering, I headed out towards the beach – again declining the polite offer of a lift. Although the beach which was around 10 minutes away from where I was did seem nicer than the beach that was more central, it did appear to offer less to do. I wanted to be in nature, so this was a good location, but I also wanted to eat and this wasn’t as easy in the area that I was. I learned the night prior that I’d start to see some action in another 25 minutes or so.

As you get into the centre of Ao Nang, it becomes clear that there has been a significant influence of tourism on how the town has developed. There are multiple similarities to typical European holiday destinations such as Majorca or Benidorm, in that signs of advertise ‘Pizza, Burgers, Chips, Chicken Nuggets’ typically more than they do Thai food. Stalls and shops that sell t-shirts and vests with the same slogans and designs, and also double up as guesthouses, travel agents, or both. There is a significantly larger Muslim population in Krabi than I had seen in any other area of Thailand, and so street food vendors often wear head scarves and serve ‘roti’ – a pancake-like bread snack, with sweet toppings like banana or Nutella. They smell delicious, but unfortunately their sweet recipe contains egg (the savoury ones served with Indian curry are different it seems). When you get to the most central part of town the beach is taken over by hotels. Anywhere with water attracts money, and so international chains like ‘Holiday Inn’ and “IBIS’ can be found dotted around the most premium areas, while the prices of the less luxurious guest houses are inflated around 50 percent of what they would normally be. Southern Thailand in general is more expensive than the north, but in Krabi (particularly Ao Nang) it’s very noticeable.

The day in general was pretty uneventful but relaxed. I found a place to get a tofu massaman curry (my favourite curry; massaman translates as ‘Muslim’ as the spices used are typically from the more western regions of Asia) which I assumed would be a good place to have it considering the religion of the area. It was around £2 cheaper than what you would expect to pay in the UK, so not really cheap, but certainly better quality.

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Tofu Massaman, Roti, and Jasmine Rice

After I finished, paid, and continued walking, I noticed that there where so many people who looked distinguishable and strikingly attractive of both genders. I also noticed that very few people really paid me any attention – not as in approached me, but looked at me for any reason other than not to bump into. As I had mentioned in a previous post, in the past I would have found some level of devastation in my lack of noticeability, but I noticed that I was quite happy to not have anybody find me interesting. During my youth I had made it difficult to not be noticed with excessive tattoos and piercings and weird haircuts. Around 8 or 9 months ago I shaved my dreadlocks and ever since have just had hair – no style, no products, just hair. My body is average, verging on athletic but not impressively so. My face is maybe 6/10 at best, and I have a beard and have done for years, but now they are out of fashion. I was wearing clothes based on what was most accessible from my partially zipped-up backpack – it was an outfit chosen by chance. When I had been on trend image wise and had an on purpose haircut, I would get attention. There was something quite liberating about going from justifying my worth by the attention of others, to genuinely only being bothered enough to notice that I no longer was receiving any attention. Sometimes fading into the background is just what you need.

I made my way back along the beach, and sat down to read for a period. I lasted about 7 or 8 minutes in the direct sun, and when the beam of sweat fell down onto my page from the side of my forehead, I figured out it was probably time to leave. It was uncomfortable, and I questioned how people where willing to sacrifice their comfort to sit on a beach reading until they tanned, then I remembered that I very often really dislike working out but do it everyday, operating on the same level as the tanners. It got to around 4 o’clock, which Is when the feeling of uneasiness that I commented on previously is most prevalent. I think it’s because it’s the least certain part of the day in may ways. It isn’t day, and it feels too late to count as afternoon, but it not’s quite evening either. Possible targets you had set for the day are now under more scrutiny, by what feels like a manual vice grasping possibility, being slowly turned minute by minute by the militant hands of time. The grip was getting tight. I went back to my room.

While in there I wrote a little, and e-mailed the yoga place explaining my potential itinerary to leave for Chiang Mai on Thursday. It took them a little while to reply I learned, which I kind of regarded as a good thing as you don’t want to think of your yoga as teacher as somebody who in symbiosis with their phone, but it was also a little frustration for my answer-requiring monkey mind. I was also keen to book my flights to Chiang Mai, and the later you leave it the higher the prices tend to get, so that was playing an effect also. After spending some time in my hotel room during that period of the day where I feel most uneasy, I was keen to head back out to get some food and see more of the area. My hotel room wasn’t terrible but it was certainly not luxurious either, so the prospect of spending so much of my time there was daunting.

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Ao Nang Beach, around 3pm.

It has occurred to me since this point that even if I was to have spent the night inside, that’s ok, as I had no schedule. When you’re on holiday you want to see and do as much as you can as you only have maybe 7 days and you’ve been saving for it for ages and looking forward to it to get you through the misery of the 9-5. When you travel (which I only have really learned retrospectively) you are sort of just sampling an alternative lifestyle that you could have if you lived in the area (especially if you’re doing some kind of work along the way). You aren’t so bothered if one night of the week you just stay in and write, as you’re going to be in the area for some time, or until you get bored.  That’s how it works when you are ‘living’ somewhere, it’s not all just explosively exciting recreational activity, it’s just life with all its contrasts taking place further away from the place you had been used to living in (if only very temporarily). I hadn’t thought of It this way at this point, so I headed back out.

The walk from my hotel to where any activity was taking place was quite scary, but in a good way. Thailand doesn’t really feel threatening for the most part, as in you aren’t concerned that people will mug you or be violent, but a dimly lit quiet road has some semiotic associations that you can struggle to shake off regardless. The novelty of the of the sounds at night doesn’t wear off, but rather matures so that it’s not necessarily as surprising anymore, but met with different waves of appreciation. The sound of animals, insects and electricity wires creates a really wild soundtrack to your walk, and you feel like you’re walking along the centre point, step by step of where ying meets yang, and at any moment you could fall into the wild chaos of nature and get bitten by a dengue fever infested mosquito or rabid dog, or you could walk far enough to get to a 7 eleven and buy everything you need for a comfortable existence. Regions where the city meets nature really remind you of the importance of maintaining balance – don’t fall into either pit! It isn’t easy to get out.

I walked with my guard up for some time, until I reached a café that I only ever recognised at night. It was mainly the music that made it recognisable to me – very downbeat acoustic music – Damien Rice and Daughter etc. Nowhere else in Thailand seemed to play that sort of stuff. The restaurant was outside and had a very wooden feel to it – all the chairs and benches where covered in cushions and surrounded by plants. There was a large table with an American family seated next to me and talking as if they had drunk just enough alcohol to no longer realise their volume, but not loud enough to be offensive. Through my compulsory eavesdropping of their conversation, I realised that I had started to become aware of American stereotypes more accurately from my few days being around them, the same way that I do British stereotypes.  I became aware of my positive prejudice towards American people, feeling that their lives where just ‘better’ in some way or another. When you hear an American person say something that implies ordinary intelligence it somehow comes across as intellectual. Maybe it’s annunciation. In Sunderland, where I’m from, everybody slurs words into each other like they are drunk (and quite often they are), so the reverse effect happens – intelligent sentences sound forced and not authentic. I realised that when the American guy used the word ‘significantly’ that he wasn’t speaking in a particularly high-brow way, he was just talking as normal.

The family seemed to follow the rhetoric of the mam and dad being fairly conservative but not to the point where it was dangerous, and this was their first time in Thailand. It made sense that they would opt for a more tourist orientated are given the way they spoke about how they lived back home with jobs in offices and buying new cars etc. They where with their son and daughter who seemed a similar age to each other – somewhere in their early twenties maybe as they discussed ‘graduating college’, friends they all knew, and gave each other a hard time for their love lives. Not many American people tend to come to the north of the UK (understandably so) so my only prolonged exposure had been through films or podcasts, but through my various forms of eavesdropping in airports, restaurants, busses and cafes, I realised that I was learning as much about American culture as I was about Thai. I felt that the cultural difference between British and Americans was in it’s own way as significant as that of the difference between the Thai and the British, it just appeared less so because of the shared language. I’m not sure if the conclusion that could be drawn is that we’re all pretty much the same (on a cultural level – I certainly believe that on a spiritual level we are the same), or if despite sharing a language, we’re very different. I didn’t bother pondering this thought for too long.

I ordered some stir-fried tofu with holy basil and some rice, and a soda water. I recently thought I’d allow myself a diet coke despite its toxicity, and was reminded that it actually tastes horrible, it’s just nice to have something cold and fizzy. Soda water is just that and nothing else. Every other soft drink in Thailand is really laced with sugar, so your options are pretty limited to start with. The familiar slightly moody music continued, and I recognised songs playing that in the past had made me feel weird. Although I enjoyed some of them, I had grown to associate particular tracks with a time period in my life when I was listening to them and wasn’t particularly happy. An example is ‘Daughter’ – I can’t remember the song name, but I liked it but found that I couldn’t listen to it as it just took me back to a post-breakup headspace where I felt really, really, lost. Listening to it now did give me a sense of emptiness, but not in the same way. I appreciated the music but it felt like now that I had got over what I previously associated with the track, it lacked authenticity. It was like the restaurant had selected music to try portray a particular mood and ambience, but to me it just felt forced. I liked it though – I didn’t have to avoid those tracks any longer, even if they did no longer seem real.

I ate my food, which was enjoyable, however my standards of food have shot right up with all the high quality competition so it sort of felt average. In Asia in general you don’t feel pressure to leave a restaurant once you’ve finished eating – if anything you have a hard job trying to get a bill or pay. You don’t tend to ask for it, but rather go up to a counter and pay, and you could be waiting some time before you are acknowledged. I don’t think it’s rudeness or anything of such a nature, I think they just tend to be more laid back than we are in the West when it comes to certain areas. I began my journey home, using my phone torch to guide the way, looking over my shoulder in ingrained paranoia that was likely especially unnecessary in the area I was it seemed.

I felt sad when I got back. I was noticing my surroundings and seeing what information they reflected back at me, and it was upsetting to think that even though on paper I had a nice day I still didn’t feel good. I was on a beautiful beach with a tropical climate and eating my favourite food, and I didn’t feel quite right. I really missed Magda and I was tired. I think that was the significant driver of the negative state – I had fallen back into searching for meaning in something outside of myself in a matter of days of acknowledging it is an impossible methodology for the results I wanted. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you do feel better in the morning, most of the time.

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