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The Art Of Escapism

  • Written by Ben Tzu
  • September 26th, 2003
  • 9 min read




I’m a laid-back guy. I really am. I kind of have to be but we’ll get to that. I’m the kind of guy that can party with the fun loving sexpats or discuss the finer points of Theravada versus Mahayana Buddhist thought. Whatever is going on, I’m down with it. I like to experience it all. We can drink all night and harass local woman, or meditate into the wee hours of the morn. Just please, not both in the same evening.

I bought into the whole ‘traveler versus tourist’ thing in the early 90’s from LP and a book called “Asia Through The Back Door”. No, it was not a sodomy guide.

I was young and not terribly bright. I thought if I went out into the world with an open heart and an open mind, somehow things were going to go my way. I wanted to escape from the predictability and continuity of life, as I knew it. If you haven’t hit the “back” button yet on your Internet browser, let me assure you this is not another tale of “Farang falls for BG, gets screwed, and wants to bitch about it.” I may be one of the few that have never fallen for a BG. In fact, I find most of them about as attractive as I would any immature, selfish, screaming 8 year old, and I am not a pedophile. Get the picture?

Yeah I bought into that crap, because it was what I wanted to see. I wanted to travel in a world where things were exotic, yet familiar. Where experiences were safe, yet exciting. Where my days were new and different, yet predictable. I was a pretty fucked up kid.

I considered moving to Thailand in the mid 90’s, but somehow my feelings of “responsibility” or “duty” or “blinding fear” made me stay home and earn my (useless) degree. So, I got a job (to travel), saved my money (to travel), and tried to find that place in the world that felt like home. Somewhere where I was loved and accepted and…someone else.

“Escapism” is a term employed by the psychology profession to denote an act of the intentional or unintentional removal of one’s psyche / self image from its current reality in order to create an alternate image, frequently (but not necessarily) more pleasant than the original. Ok, I admit it: I made that up. Pretty good though, huh?

Escapism in its healthiest form is a necessary component of travel. By its very definition we remove ourselves from our immediate and known surroundings to exchange it (usually along with a lot of cash) for a different, hopefully pleasing, one. We want to be someone else. “I am no longer (for the next 2 weeks) Joe Schmo the College Student. I am Joe Schmo the World Traveler.” Cool. Now, where can I get some banana pancakes and see an American movie? Ah, of course. Thailand!

Escapism at its worst is Khao San Road. Why? Because it’s one big lie, and everyone there feeds into it and allows it’s trendy, anti-conformist conformity to consume them like a colony of parasites on a host. Which is the parasite and which the host, the ‘travelers’ or the Thais catering to their ‘needs’? Doesn’t matter. Escapism here means trading your self-image for the locally popularized mass-produced version underlined by the philosophy that “Weirder is Better.” No thanks. I’ll have to pass. It’s not even my own image creation; someone else manufactured and distributed it for me. I could almost pick it up from the stewardess on the flight over along with my immigration form.

Escapism at its ugliest is a balding, slimy, fat sex tourist who’s smiling smugly across the bar at me because he has the nicest piece of ass in the place and knows it, but thinks that says something about him. Well, it surely does. Too bad he doesn’t realize what it is.

I chose not to ‘escape’ to Thailand permanently. If I thought I really could have made a go at it, I may have. For some reason, somehow, I just knew such an endeavor would be fraught with peril, although to my knowledge none of the info available on “fine, upstanding” websites, like Stick’s, was available then. It just seemed to me that the world I lived in had enough variables, and how could one possibly ‘succeed’ in life (earn money) by the addition of more?

I still ‘escaped’ every year or so. For a while always going someplace new for a month or two each year, then later predictably reverting to old habits and sticking to SEA. For me, traveling was an exposure to slices of life in the world that I would never experience in America. I am not talking about “poverty” and “oppression”. If I need to be reminded of that (and I think at some point everyone does), there’s a ghetto in my city like every other. Sometimes I drive through there, just to be reminded that my life could have been very different. I feel the same way when I see a Thai bathe her baby in the Chao Phraya. ‘Mother water’, my arse.

No, I am talking about being stranded at a bus station with no power in a town in North Africa that isn’t on any map at three a.m. in a thunderstorm (in the desert?!) and realizing someone at home was wondering where I was, which made me think fondly of them because I was doing the same, and didn’t have a clue either.

Of watching a dozen small, old, wrinkled Chinese float ghostly through a light mist in Tianjin at 5 a.m. with below freezing winds whipping their white hair and beards as they proceeded patiently, timelessly, through 100 or so Tai Chi movements. Not rushing, not shivering, not really even there. Now that’s an escape.

I’m speaking of being pulled from the mountains roads north of Mai La Na by the Thai Army after stupidly trying to drive a rented Suzuki Carribian from there to Tham Lot during the rainy season. Not for any good reason. Just to do it. Just to see what happened. Turns out it’s not an especially well thought out plan, but you meet the most interesting people…

I could go to China town in New York in January and see Tai Chi in the cold. I could get lost in West Virginia, or be rescued by my native authorities for engaging in some equally mindless activity as the one described above. What is it about doing these things in another country that makes them special? Memorable? Worth the admission price?

I submit that it is the quality of escapism; the feeling that this experience is special and unique because no one else (that you know) has done it. It is different then anything you could do at home because someone back there will look at you in complete awe and exclaim (You’re a complete wanker!) “And then what happened?” And knowing this makes you feel special, different; and therefore, you have achieved a new self-image, one separate and distinct from the old. I further submit that this need for redefinition is precisely the reason Westerners “lose the plot” in their dealings with BGs. If you are searching for paradise and believe to have found it, how does one just walk away? How can the poor punter return to his former self (loathing)-image, now that ‘true happiness’ is only a krapow nguun (wallet ­ Stick) full of baht away? If it were really just economics, that sex is cheap in LOS, and the average farang spends US$2-3000 per trip (including air), how many hookers could he bang at home for that same investment? Certainly a week’s worth.

So why Thailand? Is the sex that much better / cheaper / easier? Maybe, but the truth is it’s because it’s different, its exotic and far, far removed from home. You can have the ‘girlfriend experience’ in LOS (escapism). You can role-play millionaire by ‘living the good life’, not working or cooking for yourself (escapism). You can hang out in a bar all day bullshitting and being bullshitted (escapism). You can shag a different woman every night and know you won’t accidentally run into your Pastor at Swenson’s (pragmatics). But, have you considered, Bob, that after shagging the local tart, you’re still just Bob?

I said before that I’m a laid-back guy. I’m a laid-back guy because I AM an escapist. I have to be. It’s how I deal with the idiots that test my patience daily. It’s how I keep from choking the living shit out of the whiny client on the other side of my desk. Back when I had a boss, it’s how I refrained from hanging him upside down from a flagpole by his nuts. At some point, I know I can leave this reality, and go be something else. My life is not, nor will it ever be, limited by my immediate surroundings. I’m the guy that gets on an airplane and leaves the States without his destination being Europe, Canada, Mexico, or Jamaica. Do you have any idea how few of us there are here? That number compared to that of other nations is so low that quite frankly, it’s pathetic. It’s really no wonder the world hates us. It’s like the neighbors down the street that never come out of their house unless it’s to scream at someone. But I digress.

So what’s wrong with a little escapism? Not a damned thing. And tell anyone that says otherwise to kiss your arse. No one says you have to spend your vacation being an archaeologist at Angkor Wat, a political historian of Southeast Asian society, or a student of Buddhist thought. No one is forcing you to be a cultural anthropologist in your dealings with the Thais. You want to be a sex tourist? Knock yourself out. Want to test the limits of your endurance? Try a walking tour of Bangers in April at high noon (bring water and your insurance card). Want to find out after knocking back a half dozen Changs if that motorbike will fit between two songtaews while doing 70 kph down Chaweng Road? Better you than me. It’s YOUR vacation. It’s your self-time. It’s your escape. Make the most of it, but realize that’s all it is. Sooner or later, you ARE going back home. You have to, your old self is waiting.

Stickman says:

Very nicely written indeed and throws up a whole host of further thoughts.