Friday, 24 May 2013

What am I doing in England?

I'm back in the mothership, sorry I mean mother country. Crikey imagine if England was a spaceship. Or perhaps the UK, a collection of 4 spaceships that fit together like a Transformer. Hmm.

People keep asking me "So what are you going to do while you're back?" I have a bit of déja vu when I hear it - people were asking me the same about my last 6 months in New Zealand without a job. (Which was totally awesome, by the way.)

It's a fair question. Most people either have jobs or are looking for jobs. And I would be too, if it weren't for circumstances: the UK is (still) not a good place for jobs right now, and I'm only back for a few months. So I'm gladly sidestepping the stress of jobhunting, for now!

Thankfully I'm someone who has plenty of Shit To Be Getting On With - not having a job doesn't fill me with despair, it fills me with awesome. So here's what I will (hopefully) be doing over the next 5 months in Angleterre:

  • T-shirt designing - going well, but long way to go
  • Volunteering - A prime opportunity and long overdue
  • Crafting - I like my clothes individual!
  • Music - The gigging & recording must continue
  • Writing/Editing - Maybe I'll finally do those edits for No Up?
  • Exercise - 3 weeks in Bangkok eating and not running is NOT good for you
  • Learn to drive? Thinking about finally getting my licence, if I can afford it
  • See Europe - Couple of visits to friends on the continent are definitely on the cards
  • Spending time with friends and family. More than just 2-3 weeks this time. Finally!

Friday, 17 May 2013

"Exotic" Thailand Part 1: Stop telling me to get drunk on some island

Bangkok, net exporter
of sunsets

To "exoticise" means to treat something as exotic, when it really isn't.

I have seen so many examples of people exoticising Thailand in the last 3 weeks. Many people seem to have difficulty thinking of Thailand and Bangkok as a real place, and no-one realises they are doing it.

"Sex in the blood"

An example: On my first visit to Thailand in 2003, I wound up on Koh Phangan (where the Full Moon Parties happen) with an American guy who told me: "Thai girls have sex in the blood".

Part of me wanted to selfishly believe it, but in the back of my mind, I knew I couldn't. Growing up, I understood that the reality is Thai people are no more sexual than European, African, Japanese, Australian, whatever.

Like many Westerners, this guy just wanted to believe it, to justify his version of the small amount he had seen of Thailand - and to justify his attitude towards Thai girls.

Spin forward 10 years. My previous blog post mentioned how angry people got when I said I was just staying in Bangkok, not visiting Chiang Mai or getting drunk on some island. Even when I said that I had already done those things in 2003, people were still actually upset.

The Chao Phraya River,
not that ugly really
"Bangkok's so ugly"

I think many people found it difficult because it didn't fit with their idea of Thailand, from what they knew from their friends and their own visits. Thailand is a holiday destination. You go there on holiday. Holidays mean beautiful beaches and snorkelling and riding elephants, not hanging out in an "ugly" city.

"Bangkok's so big and dirty."

Bangkok - not too dirty for squirrels
Actually Bangkok is much cleaner and more modern than even 10 years ago. The Skytrain system (BTS) has 2 lines now, and there is a brand new shiny underground line (MRT) - which every single person I've met has described as "so clean".

Mostly backpackers just see Khao San Road and the backpacker ghetto, which is pretty dirty and smelly, but doesn't give a fair image of the rest of the city.

"It's too hot to wear trousers!"

How do you tell an ex-pat from a backpacker? Ex-pats wear trousers.

Typical Thai desert in a mall.
I have no idea what it is, but it was good
Backpackers often travel through Thailand wearing ragged clothes that don't cover very much, treating the whole of Thailand like a cross between their bedroom and one giant beach.

I hear travellers say "but it's too hot to wear trousers!" Well sure it's 35-38 degrees (C) in the daytime, which is pretty warm. Maybe it's more comfortable wearing shorts.

But the ex-pats and the Thais wear trousers most of the time. Why? Because they're not on holiday. You wear trousers when you go to work or a bar. You wear shorts when you're on holiday.

Go to the islands because they're pretty

I got this Facebook comment from a friend visiting Thailand: "I can't believe you're staying in Bangkok! Come to Koh Lipe, it's paradise!"

I would love to visit Koh Lipe some time, it looks lovely. But it's "paradise" if you want to lie around on a beach, drink cocktails, go snorkelling (probably best not in that order) - and not much else.

Koh Lipe, like many of the "beautiful" islands in Thailand, is the kind of place you can only go to on holiday. If you're not on holiday, I think an island that you can walk round in 1 hour could be kind of boring after you finish taking photos.

You can't eat a burger in Thailand

One friend I met was surprised when I said I had a great burger last night.

Thailand has an awesome collection
of chip (crisp) flavours
The fact is, Escapade Burgers and Shakes is a funky little bar that makes really damn good food - which Thais enjoy. In fact I only saw 1 group of Westerners there at all.

I absolutely agree with trying all kinds of food in a foreign country that you'd never try back home. Thailand is rightly famous for amazing food and I love it.

But Bangkok is a big city with lots of different places, and Thais like to eat different food. Going to an upmarket burger bar (just 5mins from Khao San Road, by the way) is actually a totally normal thing for those Thais who can afford it. And like eating burgers.

City breaks are for Europe, not Asia

Jazz Happens! bar.
Where jazz actually happens
Everyone gets the idea of a city break - it's very common in Europe to go to another European city for a holiday. Okay, mostly these are just for a weekend, not 3 weeks. But Asia is tropical and exotic. Why would you stay in a city?

Maybe it's a matter of distance. Asia might be cheaper to get to now, and more people are coming - but it's still a long way. Why would you go all that way just to stay in a city?

Maybe it's also a matter of marketing. As Asian cities develop and become "nicer" to Western tastes, they'll be able to market themselves as actual destinations - places you enjoy - rather than somewhere to stop between your rainforest trek and Full Moon Party.

You need exoticism when you go on holiday

Dragons in the park
In fairness, you need to exoticise when you go on holiday. Your holiday time and money is precious - you've spent 48-50 weeks working in a job you hate so you can go away and get drunk somewhere hot and sunny. It's not healthy but that's what we're taught to aspire to.

You certainly don't want to think about how Thailand's year is currently 2556, or that people go jogging in Lumpini Park when it's 30 degrees (past monitor lizards), or that in public spaces across the country people stand still for the Thai national anthem at 8am and 6pm every day.

These are things which don't fit the story of Thailand as a place for you to enjoy yourself.

Let's try not to take it personally

Maybe I took people's reactions and attitudes towards Bangkok personally, just like they took my staying here personally. It has felt a bit like people telling me what to do, which I really don't like. I'm simply not on holiday. Maybe I should be.

Thai television talent contest
between the malls
But I really do think there is an exoticism attached to Thailand (and Asia, and other "exotic" travel destinations). People struggle to think about it as a real place where ordinary people do ordinary things, because all they hear and see and know is stereotypes of old men buying ladyboys and pre-uni kids on their gap yah.

I certainly don't have a problem with going on holiday, or getting drunk (I've been out partying in Bangkok several times). If it's your first time in Thailand, of course you want to see everything and do everything - especially if you're 19 on your gap year like I was. If it's the only time you'll ever visit Thailand, sure, you want to squeeze in as many experiences as you can.

But don't think that it's the only time you ever could visit Thailand. Unless World War 3 breaks out, or fossil fuels run out tomorrow, it's safe to assume you could probably save up and come back to Thailand any time you like. Global travel is not "once-in-a-lifetime" like it used to be.

I wouldn't expect wide-eyed 18-year-olds sharing tequila buckets to know any better. I'm more frustrated when I hear people 25, 30, even way up to middle age - people who frankly should know a bit about the world - reinforcing and regurgitating these ideas: Thailand is a holiday destinaton; Thailand is not a real place; Bangkok has nothing to offer; Thai people are fundamentally different.

No. None of these things are true.
Thailand is a normal place where normal people live and do normal people things.

Part 2 of 2 will be some examples of how Bangkok is a real place, and actually not unpleasant to stay in.

Friday, 10 May 2013

New Zealand as a real country, in a nutshell

Say "New Zealand" and people will think Lord Of The Rings, beautiful scenery, sheep or bungee jumping, or maybe all of them at once. Elves bungee jumping with sheep off Mount Cook? Yes, happens all the time.

So I wanted to show how NZ is actually a real country with real things going on. But I know you don't have a lot of time, so here's a very simplistic table summing up things NZ does well, and things it doesn't do so well / problems it faces.

Awesome Problems/concern
  • Race relations
  • Lifestyle
  • Crime & safety
  • Progressive & liberal
  • Clean government
  • Good welfare state
  • Fair electoral system
  • Great coffee, wine, beer
  • Internationally-reknowned
  • Sustainable energy
  • Environment
  • Native flora & fauna
  • Music & culture
  • Child abuse & deaths
  • Domestic violence
  • Racism
  • Alcohol & drink-driving
  • Road deaths & injuries
  • Inequality (both money & health)
  • Bad housing
  • High cost of living
  • Poor transport
  • Health & safety
  • Environment
  • Native flora & fauna
  • Kiwicentric music & culture

To put it another way:
  • It's Western country but with huge Maori and Pacific ingredients
  • It's developed but is definitely not rich
  • It's a progressive country with a well-established welfare state, but still has huge inequalities and big gaps in health of poor and rich
  • It has an excellent lifestyle but terrible health & safety and housing, which both hit poor people harder
  • It's a green country with lots of native bush (forest), with rivers poisoned by agricultural run-off and native plants and animals under threat
  • It has a rich wealth of exciting culture and music, both modern and traditional, Western and Maori (and Pasifika), but most of it is Kiwi-centric and fails to translate outside of the country.

That's the nutshell! Hopefully I'll find some time to do another blog post going over these in some more detail.

Kiwis, what have I missed?

Thursday, 9 May 2013

You know you're in Bangkok when...

  • The warm, loving burning of DEET.

  • The cold, dead expressions of white people on Khao San Road like they're shopping at Ikea. Trying to make eye contact is like getting blood out of a stone, never mind a smile. Why so serious?

  • Fish eating dirt off your feet is entirely reasonable.

  • Everything dries really quickly - but never gets truly dry. Water on your shirt is gone in 15mins. The dry piece of paper in your pocket, soggy in 5.

  • Water heaters in the showers ... and people are actually using them. It's 35 degrees in the daytime, 30 degrees at night, and travellers every day are in the shower screaming "It's not enough!!!"

  • All the animals still have their testicles. Well okay, the ones that were born with some...

  • Toothpaste comes in a choice of lemon whitening or herbal whitening.

  • You double your water intake. And it's still not enough. It's never enough.

  • The heat makes you lose your appetite. But the lure of delicious Thai food will ensure you go home fat.

  • You lose grip of what anything costs. Newcomers constantly stare up at the sky thinking, "Okay, so if it's 45 Baht to the Pound, that means..." After 2 weeks, the Thai costs finally come naturally, and backpackers haggle angrily over the difference of 20p.

  • Signs in the hostel toilets not to put toilet paper in the toilet. Toilet paper blocks up pipes in Asia - there is a bin to put your used tissue. Sounds gross, but would you prefer a blocked up toilet?

  • Signs in the hostel toilets not to stand on the sit-down toilet. Every couple of days you see dirty footprints on the toilet seat, usually from other Asians who are used to squat toilets and think it's disgusting to put your naked bum where other people put theirs too.

  • You're grateful for mild diahorrea. I caught a bug travelling in Asia that utterly destroyed me for 60hrs. So, last week's mild case of feeling crappy for 2 days could have been much, much worse. Also I was still able to see friends and go places thanks to travel drugs - huzzah for drugs!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Imagining family-friendly ping pong shows in Bangkok

"Oh my god, you have to go! It's amazing!" Little do most backpackers realise, I have actually seen a ping pong show, on my first visit to Bangkok in 2003. It really wasn't my thing, and still isn't.

Sure, nobody put a gun to my head, and it was not the most awful 20mins of my life. But it's simply not something I either a) get a kick out of, or b) feel 100% comfortable with. Ping pong shows are part of the sex industry, which by definition crosses some kind of line.

Or are they? Let's back it up and consider some things:
  • Most backpackers and travellers do not go because they have a boner in their pocket. They talk about how "crazy" and "amazing" it is, women shooting ping pong balls and smoking out of their vaginas.
  • Girls want to go too. It was an Australian girl who dragged me into that club called "Super Pussy" in May 2003. (Not kicking and screaming, but after several hours of persuasion.) While guys may be doing a lot of wink-wink nudge-nudge with each other, young women - rather than being horrified - are often very interested in seeing ping pong shows, as part of the "crazy" experience of "exotic", holiday-destination Thailand.

So, it's a gimmick. That's what connects the above points. Remember that, I'll come back to it in a moment.

Consider this as well: these girls are not forced or sold into these shows.
Okay there's a lot of disclaimers and considerations here:
  • Yes, people trafficking and sex trafficking happens in Thailand (and throughout Southeast Asia, and the rest of the world). It's disgusting and criminal. In the case of girls sold by hill tribes and rural areas, because they're so goddamn dirt poor, it's heart-breakingly awful.
  • Yes, most of the girls in these shows would probably prefer to be doing something else for a job, and end up doing it longer than they would like.
  • Yes, you could say economic and gender factors "force" girls into these shows. Poor boys become monks; poor girls become strippers and prostitutes.
  • Yes, you could argue that stripping is demeaning simply by definition.

But read around, ask around, and you'll see a more complicated picture. For example:
  • Like strippers in Western countries, most of these girls are saving for an education, or to look after their family, or for medical treatment for a relative.
  • The money can be good, or even very very good. The sex industry in Thailand has realised foreigners can be willing to pay Western prices for shows and prostitutes here in Thailand. Some women come to Bangkok from rural Thailand (voluntarily) and manage to support their entire family.
  • The industry has become so large and mainstream, girls are now more picky about which bars they perform at. Bad bars who used to rely on the dependence of girls now struggle to retain them.
  • Like strippers in Western countries, some of these girls have fun doing it. Yes, they all put on an act for the job, and the hours are late and long, and the work can be tough. But to automatically see all of these girls in this large industry as demoralised, depressed slaves would say more about the observer than the actual situation.

So, what about this "gimmick"? And what do I mean by "family-friendly"?

One female traveller who went to a ping pong show told me this:
"I found it really interesting, I really enjoyed it. The only creepy thing was the seedy old white guys in the corners. If you got rid of them it would be a great night out."
Here's another traveller, a male this time:
"I was just amazed at the skill. Imagine being able to blow darts out of your vagina! That's an athletic ability right there." (Both quotes roughly word-for-word.)
Ping pong shows are part of the sex industry, yet it's quite obvious that for most young travellers, it's not about sex. Sure, it's part of the "exoticisation" of Thailand - the idea that it's a crazy holiday destination, rather than a normal boring country in its own right, and the deliberate choice to see it that way. But these shows are more "naughty titillation" than something disgusting and perverse.

The fact that women are going (presumably straight ones) is one step in the de-sexualisation of these shows.

Another is seeing the performances less as live sex-doll demonstrations and more as vaginal athletics - similar to pole-dancing in the West being taken up as a fitness hobby (although that is a whole other topic).

So here's my "imagine this" proposition:

What if we dropped taboos over our private parts, and taught kids that they are just another part of your body?

What if we said that being able to pop a ping pong ball out of your vagina is no less rude or dirty than swallowing a sword, rolling your tongue, or making silly noises with your armpits?

I have a feeling that nothing would clear out those "seedy old white guys" faster than having parents and mums taking their young children like it's a café or a crèche.

This is all hypothetical - I'm not really saying "hey let's do this now". It's not even something I'm sure I would want to see. Nor am I suggesting that foreign travellers' gimmicky tourism tastes justify the darker, disturbing and frankly criminal parts of the sex industry.

But I think it is interesting to look at the sex industry, both in "exotic" Thailand and back in the West, and look at where it is going, and what we might see in 50 years' time. The future is postmodern - anything is possible and crazy things are probable.

It should be noted that the ping pong shows and the girly bars / "short-term hotels" are not necessarily the same thing. These are different aspects of the well-established and big Bangkok sex industry.

Also, my "research" is hardly official - here's where the above comes from.
  • Discussions with my Thai friend, who has spent time with "pretties" (i.e. glamour models who often move on to the clubs and brothels) for an academic project.
  • Discussing with backpackers
  • My own experience in 2003 - I did a quick Google for "Super Pussy" and found this page, and his account is quite similar to what I saw. Obviously we were in there barely 20mins and didn't pay anything, but the sense of "hustling" was distinctly similar. I wonder if bars would make more custom and/or retain customers by having fixed, up front costs rather than constant hustling.
  • Reading posts by Stickman Bangkok. Stickman is a Westerner (Kiwi, by coincidence) who moved to Bangkok in the late 90s and has kept a blog and website on the city ever since. At some point his emphasis seems to have moved (sadly, in my view) from living and working in BKK, to focusing on the girly bars (who provide most of the advertising revenue for his site). However it is still very informative and honestly written.